Lovers and Other Strangers

 In the TV world, McCall was attacked and nearly raped in her own home for the second time in three years. She decided to lure the rapist back and execute him, but ultimately could not go through with it.  When the rapist’s wife murdered him instead, everyone decided to suppress what had happened to McCall (and what she had nearly done) and the show continued on as usual.  This story is about what the aftermath of the case might have looked like in reality. Rated R.


Chapter One

Hunter shuffled some paper across his desk and tried to pretend he wasn't watching his partner. By the studious way she was also shuffling paper and refusing to glance his way, he knew he was not terribly successful in hiding his worried gaze. McCall kept her head bent, but he imagined he could still see the faint bruising on her neck. Or maybe he was just remembering from before, when the angry purple fingerprints took more than a month to fade away, and longer even, to finally lose their grip.


His phone rang, startling them both, and he quickly grabbed it off the hook. "Hunter."


"I need to see you a minute." Captain Devane sounded tired and grim. Hunter turned around in his chair and craned his head to look into the Captain's office. Charlie had already put down the phone and was waving him over.


Hunter replaced the phone and glanced at his partner, who was watching him now with a questioning look. "Problem?" she asked.


He shrugged and let out a short breath. Whatever the trouble was, it could hardly be worse than what they had been through already this week. "Save my seat," he said as he stood, trying for casual, but he could feel her gaze following him as he went to the Captain's office. Not that he could blame her. She already knew they had been up half the night talking about her, so she was probably bracing for another round. Hunter steeled himself for the same. "Captain?" he said as he entered.


Charlie gestured behind Hunter with his chin. "Close the door."


"What's up?" Hunter asked as he did as requested. "Is this about McCall? Because she seemed to think everything is settled." He sat down, his long legs creaking. Late nights and early mornings were harder than they used to be.


"Her job is safe, like we discussed. Fredericks is dead and I see no point in detailing what happened prior to his arrest at McCall's place. It's a risk. We could all potentially lose our jobs if the story got out." Charlie rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "But it was the department's idea to make her a sitting duck, and when that went bad, I think the department gets to cut her some slack. We all bear some responsibility here, so we all get to live with the consequences."


"Yeah." He thought of his partner last night, crumpled and sobbing against him. "So what's next? You have something new for us?"


Charlie snorted. "As if. Like I am sending you two back into the field right now. You've got bags under your eyes that would make Hefty proud, and a stiff breeze would take out McCall." He shook his head. "No, it's the opposite. I don't want to see either of you for a week. Take your things and go home."


"Captain, listen..."


"No. No arguments. I had to pull some serious strings to make this happen. It's paid leave so it doesn't get deducted out of your vacations. Think of it as a thank you from L.A.'s grateful citizens for a job well done."


"I'd really just prefer to keep doing my job. So would McCall."


"Yes, I realize that," Charlie said slowly and patiently, as if speaking to a cranky toddler. "But she hasn't exactly been using her best judgment lately, and so I am substituting my own."


Hunter sat back, defeated. He glanced out the office window but couldn't see McCall through the partially opened blinds. His partner had two broken ribs, a concussion and a psychic injury that was no doubt still hemorrhaging. It had taken her nearly two months to return the last time. She'd clawed her way back out of the hole, and now here they were again.


"She'll need to pass a psych evaluation," Charlie said quietly, as if reading his thoughts.


Hunter returned his attention to the Captain. "I don't see why. We've agreed that...that the incident with Fredericks never happened."


"Doesn't matter. The call is out of my hands this time. She opted out after she was shot last year, and I backed her on that. Now she confronted a homicidal rapist in her home, and then he was gunned down in front of her, right here in the station. We're lucky the department doesn't want all of you shrinked up for having witnessed it."


"It's because of her history, isn't it?" Hunter knew he sounded a little hot, but he didn't care. "Because of what happened before."


"I don't know. Maybe."


"That's not fair."


"Of course it's not," Charlie said, angry now too. "I'm pretty sure if you looked up 'rape' in the dictionary, you wouldn't find one word about 'fair'. Look, I hate that this happened. I hate that it happened on my watch, and now I am just trying to do my damnedest to get us all out the other side."


"It just seems like punishing the victim. If she didn't have a history, there's no way the department would be mandating a psych eval, given what's on record about this case."


"Maybe not," Charlie said evenly. "But you and I both know that the official record only has part of the story. It's not the worst thing in the world for her to take some time off, Hunter."


He shook his head. "You send her away now and she might not come back."


"Then that's all the more reason she needs to go." Charlie's voice was kind. "Take the week, both of you. Get some rest. Turn off the news and try not to think about Unger or Fredericks or any of it."


Hunter sighed. "It doesn't seem like I have a choice."


"Nope." Charlie picked up a pen and signed a form on his desk. Then he signed a second one. "Here's the paperwork," he said, ripping the bottom copies off and handing them to Hunter. "If you send McCall in, I will break the news to her about the psych evaluation."


Hunter shook his head and hoisted himself out of the chair. "I'll do it. She'll take it better from me."


Charlie didn't even try to hide his relief. "Okay, thanks. I'll see you both back here in a week, then."


Hunter looked down at the leave papers. "I hope so," he said softly.


###


Her head hurt, her ribs felt like knives, and the knot of dread in her middle tensed up again as she saw Hunter leaving the Captain's office. She tried to read his face for some clue to the outcome, but mostly she saw lines of fatigue. He forced a smile as he reached their desks. "What was that about?" she asked.


"Get out of jail free cards," he said, waving some papers at her.


"What?"


He scooped his suit jacket from the back of the chair. "Come on, I'll buy you lunch and explain."


"I'm not very hungry. Can't you just tell me here?"


He frowned and appeared to be thinking a moment. Then he came around and crouched down beside her, putting them nearly eye-to-eye. "When was the last time you ate?" he asked gently.


"I had a bagel this morning."


"That bagel?" He nodded at the edge of her desk, where a wheat bagel sat on a thin, departmental paper plate. It was missing just two bites. She said nothing, and he squeezed her knee. "Lunch," he repeated firmly. "My treat."


She still did not move, nor did she look at him. "Did the Captain change his mind?" she asked, closing her eyes against his answer.


"No, nothing like that. We just have a little vacation coming to us." He stood up. "Effective now."


She opened her eyes and shook her head. She had declined vacation once already, but she didn't have the strength to argue it further at the moment. Hunter was still standing over her, waiting, and she could feel other eyes on them as well. Anyone who looked closely would see a bullet hole in the file cabinet against the far wall, and the room still smelled of bleach from where the industrial cleaners had mopped up after Fredericks's murder. Her office was a crime scene. Her home was a crime scene. Suddenly lunch sounded like a pretty good idea. "Okay," she said, "I'm coming."


She braced herself on the desk and stood up slowly. Pain lanced through her, but she almost welcomed the distraction. Hunter caught her wincing. "You all right?"


"Fine," she said automatically. "Let's go."


Hunter automatically slowed his gait to match hers, a habit he had perfected over their years together and she was grateful for now, given her slower pace. He punched the elevator button and she leaned against the wall. She caught him looking past her, back toward the bullpen, with a troubled expression. "What?" she asked, turning around to see what had caught his attention.


"Nothing," he replied as the elevator dinged its arrival.


But she saw it then, a line of high-velocity splatter, dead red on the institutionally white wall. She hurried into the elevator and pushed the button for the lobby several times. There would be no removing the blood from the walls now that it had dried. Sure, painters could cover up the evidence, but on some level, Lloyd Fredericks would always be with them.


Outside, the LA sun was at high noon, making her squint against the light. It was cool for November, following an unusually early rainstorm. The wind had blown the smog off to the mountains, leaving behind a pale blue sky. It was generally true that nobody walks in LA, but the exception was lunchtime in the city, when people emerged from the concrete jungle in search of whatever fast-food eatery would get them back to their desks in under half an hour. Hunter eyed the foot traffic over the rim of his sunglasses. "What do you feel like? Anything in particular?"


Normally he brought his lunch; something like an orange and a bowl of kale, at least that is what it looked like to her from across the desk. But she guessed he'd had little time for lunch preparations that morning, having been up with the Captain most of the night. She shrugged and immediately regretted it. "Whatever you want is fine."


"Hot dog?" he asked, indicating the nearby cart. It had a line that was already ten people long.


"I must look about half dead," she said, "if you're offering to buy hot dogs."


She meant it as a joke, but Hunter didn't smile. "Get us one of those benches, will you?" he said. "I'll get the food."


She did as he asked, happy for the opportunity to sit in the sun and not think about anything for a few minutes. She leaned gingerly against the back of the hard bench and put her hands in her coat pockets to keep them warm. Across the way, Hunter turned around to look at her, and she ducked her head, dodging his concern. It had been exhausting and painful, lying to him, but the truth was hardly better. He was waiting for her to fall apart again, and she was determined not to let that happen. It had taken months to get their equilibrium back as professional partners the last time. Crying in his arms helped her feel better in the short-term, but the long-term costs were high.


"Here you are, my dear," he said, handing her a hot dog and a soda. She noticed he had taken up with his old love, the chili dog. She also noticed he sat as far away as he could from her, at the opposite end of the bench. Clearly, she was not the only one with ambivalent feelings about their situation.


She looked at her hot dog but did not eat it. "So I understand why Charlie wants me gone for a while," she said. "But why you?"


He chewed for a minute before answering. "Stress of the overall situation, I guess. The thing with Stacie Tyler, Fredericks…"


"Uh-huh. I got the boot because I'm a liability, and you got it so that I have a baby sitter." He opened his mouth in protest. "Oh, don't even try to deny it. That's exactly what happened. I don't know what they're afraid of – that I might go down to the morgue and shoot Fredericks again?"


"I'd give you a ride," he said, and she actually smiled. "We could even use the siren."


"Some baby sitter."


"Eat your food."


"See? Now that's much more authoritative." She took a bite and swallowed, but the food just seemed to lodge in her chest. She opened the soda instead. "So what do you plan to do with your tax-payer supported vacation?"


"I dunno. I thought I might have a house guest," he said, squinting into the distance.


"Oh? Who?"


"You."


She froze with the soda can in mid-air. This was an invitation she longed for and dreaded in equal measure. Her heartbeat picked up as she tried to formulate a proper response.


"Just for a few days," he said. "Until you get the new security system installed."


The company was coming in two days to install a state-of-the art alarm system, no expenses spared. It was the only way she could see that she might ever be able to sleep there again. As it was, she had spent the past two nights in a motel. She had deliberately not shared this information with Hunter for fear he might make the offer he was making now. "I don't know if that's a good idea," she said so quietly he bent over to try to hear her.


"Well, I think," he started to say, and then shut his mouth. A second later, he tried again. "Why do you say that?"


And just like that, hot tears pricked her eyes. This was why she wanted to say yes. Her friend, her partner, the man who had been so committed to helping her last time that he'd visited the rape counselor with her and read all the literature. She could practically see him dredging up the old training as he fought back his natural instinct of asserting his own opinion and instead let her take back some power in the conversation. That he already knew the right things to say and cared enough to do them made her want to grab hold of him and not let go.


She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. "I don't want to go backwards," she said finally. From the way he stiffened, she knew he felt at least somewhat the same. Just because he'd picked up her broken pieces last time did not mean he welcomed the chance to do it again.


"It's not backwards," he said. "It's more like southwest."


She forced a smile at his poor humor, but shook her head. She could hold it together in his presence at work, with something outside herself to focus on, but alone with him and nothing but the hours between them, he was bound to see all the cracks.


As usual, though, he was already in her head. "We can order Chinese and watch bad television. We don't have to talk at all if you don't want to."


This was the problem. She wanted to. She just had to hang in there for two more days, when her home would be fixed, and Anita, her counselor, would be back from vacation. Exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her reasoning. "Maybe if it's just for a couple of days…" she said faintly, and Hunter leapt to his feet.


"Great, it's settled. Why don't we go get some of your things and head over now?"


She nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat, wondering already whether she was making a mistake. "Yes, okay." She finished the soda and waited until his back was turned to toss the hotdog in the nearest trashcan.


He slung an arm around her shoulders. "It'll be all right," he said. "You'll see."


As he pulled away again, she nodded, mute. She wondered whom he was trying to convince: her or himself.


###


He waited behind her on the front stoop while she fiddled with the key. It was so new she didn't have the motion down smoothly yet, and she'd initially tried to insert it upside down. The new locks had been no deterrent at all to Fredericks; he'd simply smashed the back window and lain in wait for her. Hunter had higher hopes for the security system, but seventeen years on the job had taught him that no one was ever perfectly safe. If you really care about her, said the little voice in his head, you'd encourage her to quit.


Hunter ignored the voice and followed McCall inside. Her gaze went immediately to the bullet hole in her wall. "Your suitcase is in the hall closet, right?" Hunter said a bit too loudly.


She nodded, and he moved to retrieve the bag. "I can carry that," she said as he started up the stairs to her bedroom. He was relieved to hear a tinge of annoyance in her voice.


"I've already got it." Upstairs, McCall packed a few personal items while he wandered around. He'd been in her bedroom several times before, but it wasn't as familiar to him as the downstairs territory. He didn't snoop intentionally; it was a hazard of the job. He smiled at a few of her pictures and picked up some sort of miniature ceramic monkey from her dresser. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a prescription pill bottle on the bathroom counter.


"I'm almost ready," she said, brushing past him into the bathroom. She returned a minute later without the bottle.


Curiosity got the better of him and he ambled over to check it out: Vicodin. He'd been prescribed it enough himself to recognize the generic name. The label indicated the prescription had been written by Dr. Beth Paxton five days earlier, but the bottle seemed to be unopened since then.


"All set," McCall said from behind him.


He turned and shook the pills at her. "What about these?"


"I don't need them."


He had endured broken ribs before, and in his recollection, the pain killers were the only way he got any sleep for about three weeks. McCall had turned her attention elsewhere, so he slipped the pills into his jacket pocket, just in case. Without a word, he took the suitcase from her again and headed back downstairs. He paused partway down when he realized she wasn't following. He glanced back and saw her stopped at the very top of the stairs, her hand on the wall. "This is where he was hiding," she murmured. "I could smell him from where you're standing."


Hunter suppressed a shudder. "Let's get out of here, okay?"


She was quiet on the drive to his house, and he didn't mind this because he had no idea what to say. He relaxed as his modest beach home came into sight; its familiar shingles and sandy walkway seemed especially comforting after a tense couple of days away. He had not actually made it home at all last night; a couple of hours of sleep at the station were all he'd been able to manage.


It was only once they had stopped to get out and McCall was staring at his place as though she had never seen it before that he remembered why she was here: her home was no longer welcoming. "Mi casa, su casa," he said lightly as he led the way inside. When they reached the threshold, it was his turn to freeze. "Uh, I might have to do a little straightening up," he said.


She peered around him. "You're lucky the guys from the robbery division aren't here. They'd think your place had been tossed."


"I haven't been home much to clean," he replied as he walked around, retrieving shirts from the furniture as we went. "But make yourself at home."


"I'll tackle the kitchen, then," she said, rolling up her sleeves.


He stopped. "No, I didn't mean..."


She waved him off. "Please. I need something to do."


So she tidied his dishes while he cleaned up the living room and put new sheets on the bed. When he went to find her again, she was stopped in front of the big kitchen window with a dishrag in her hand, watching the sun slowly sink into the Pacific Ocean. "The days are getting shorter," he remarked as he joined her.


She gave a gentle smile. "Sometimes I get why you choose to live down here amid the crabs and the sea gulls. It can be beautiful."


He gathered her against him and kissed the top of her head. "I'm glad you agreed to come," he said as she carefully returned his hug. "The place looks great."


She laughed and winced. "I see your true motives for the invitation are exposed."


When she didn't pull away, he rested his cheek on her warm hair and stroked her back. You're safe here, he tried to tell her without words. She relaxed under his touch and was quiet for a long time. Then he heard her stomach rumble.


"Aha! I knew it," he said. "Police sergeants do not live on coffee alone."


"Okay, okay," she said, swatting at him. "I'll eat. But not tofu." She paused. "Or whatever that is growing in your refrigerator."


So they ordered a half-dozen different kinds of Chinese food, and he stuck Casablanca in the VCR. This part felt normal and familiar, and McCall, having changed from work clothes into jeans and a sweater, seemed more at ease. She ate at least half the food on her plate.


He waved a piece of Szechuan tofu at her with some chopsticks. "There is still time to get in on this action," he said. "Unless you are too full with deep-fried pig parts in orange sauce, or whatever it is you call that dish."


She made a face. "No, thank you. How you got so big eating rabbit food, I'll never know."


"You can't question these results." He gestured at himself. "My body is a temple."


"My body is a temple too," she replied. "I just choose to worship at In-n-Out."


They watched the movie in silence for a while, and Hunter found himself repressing a yawn. Fatigue had also turned him into a lightweight. Two beers and he was already nodding off. He tried to remember the last time he'd gotten more than four hours of sleep, and he guessed it was probably more than a week ago. He decided to switch to water and glanced toward McCall to see if she might like some too. She had curled up with one of his big cushions and gone to sleep. It didn't look like the most comfortable position for someone with cracked ribs, but she seemed peaceful enough. He rose quietly and covered her with a blanket. After fetching his water, he stretched out on the other end of the sofa, legs on the coffee table, and closed his eyes as well. Just for five minutes, he promised himself, while Ingrid Bergman threatened Humphrey Bogart with a gun.


The next thing he knew, he startled awake to a darkened room. McCall was gone and the food had been cleared away. The blanket he had covered her with was now draped over his middle, and he smiled as he removed it. In the back of the house, he could hear the shower running. He bit his lip. This part, he remembered too well. She had showered three times a day and still not felt clean. He sat and listened to the water running, debating his next move. The clock on the VCR read half past midnight. It was too late to start coffee. Truth be told, he mostly just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for about a week.


The water stopped and Hunter went back to the bedroom. It was dark except for a shaft of light coming from under the bathroom door. He quickly changed into sweatpants and a T-shirt as he considered possible sleeping arrangements. There was no way he was going to let her stay on the couch. Just then, she emerged with a cloud of steam. She was dressed in pajamas and a robe. "Oh," she said in mild surprise, "I hope it's okay…"


"Fine," he cut her off. "Of course it's fine." She seemed embarrassed to be caught mid-ritual, so he did not press. "The bedroom is all yours."


"Oh, I couldn't."


"McCall, I insist. I'm not the one with two broken ribs. The couch will be fine, okay?" He moved to grab some extra pillows.


She hesitated. "We could share it."


"You're okay with that?"


"It wouldn't be the first time."


"There is that." He chose the side of the bed opposite from where she was standing. "Consider me convinced."


"I'm just going to dry my hair."


He dozed off again to the sound of the blow dryer, only to wake when she joined him under the covers. He could just make out her form in the inky darkness. Outside, the ocean wind battered the house, but inside, there were warm, clean sheets and the scent of her shampoo.


"Thank you," she said, "for letting me stay."


He groped around until her found her hand, which he squeezed. "Don't mention it." He rolled over onto his back and blinked at the ceiling, suddenly more awake. "I should have been there." The pillow rustled as he turned to look at her. "I shouldn't have just trusted the surveillance." This was somehow easier to confess under cover of darkness. He had been there, sleeping at night on her couch, and then he'd gone home. That was the opening Fredericks had needed.


"I thought about that," she answered quietly. "Whether it would have made any difference."


"Of course it would've."


"For one night, maybe. But not forever." She reached over and ran her hand down his arm. "It's not your fault. We didn't know he'd made the tail."


"We knew how dangerous he was. That should have been enough."


She let out a tired sigh. "We stopped him. That will have to be enough."


"We didn't stop him. You did."


"I believe that honor actually goes to Clare Fredericks." She was quiet for a minute. "She did what I couldn't do; she pulled the trigger."


"And destroyed her life in the process," Hunter reminded her.


"Yes. And maybe saved mine." The bed shifted as she rolled over. "Good night, Hunter."


The next time he awoke the bedroom clock read three-thirteen. He could tell immediately that he was alone in the room. The bathroom door was open and the light was off, so McCall was elsewhere in the house. He sat up to listen but didn't hear anything. Nothing like the nights he'd awoken to her screaming from the other room. The silence piqued his interest, and he found her on the couch with a mug of tea. She had turned on one small lamp and appeared to be lost in thought. He was trying to decide if he should say anything, when she turned to look at him. "I hope I didn't wake you."


He shook his head. "The wind," he lied as he lowered himself next to her on the couch.


"I'd think you'd be used to it by now."


"What's got you up?" She seemed calm and collected, not like someone battling nightmares, but the lines on her face indicated exhaustion. "Anything I can do?"


"Not unless you have some magical power to heal broken bones." She stretched out carefully to set down her empty mug.


"That's what the pain killers are for," he said. "I brought them over." He stood to get them, but she grabbed his hand.


"No," she said. "I don't want them."


"Why not?" He was now totally confused. He knew she'd had plenty of medication last year when recovering from surgery. It wasn't a matter of an allergy. He sat back down again and searched her face. "I don't understand."


She wouldn't look at him. He tried to think: was this some sort of self-punishment? "Dee Dee? Explain it to me. Why won't you take the pills?" She shook her head again, and he took her hands. "Tell me. It can't be that bad."


"I'm afraid," she managed at last.


He squeezed her hands. "Afraid of what?"


"That if I take something that makes the pain go away, I won't know when to stop taking it." She raised her head and he saw the tears in her eyes. His own eyes welled up in return. "I know it sounds crazy," she continued. "But right now the fact that I hurt is the only thing keeping me sane. It gives me something to push back against, to keep fighting… if it just disappeared…I might disappear too." She pulled free to cover her mouth against a sob, and then doubled over with a painful gasp.


"Okay," he said, gathering her up. "You're okay."


She shook slightly as she tried to contain her tears. "Crying, though, that's a bit much," she said against him. "Ow."


He rubbed the tears from his face with one hand as he held her with the other. His t-shirt was damp from her cheeks. "I'm so sorry," he said.


"I wanted to call you after it happened. So much. But I just couldn't. I couldn't tell you." She wasn't making a whole lot of sense any more. "I couldn't tell you."


"You can now."


She sniffed and burrowed a little closer. "You already know."


"No, not…not everything." It occurred to him that possibly she was the only one who knew the details at this point. Fredericks was dead. The LAPD had decided to pretend the attack had never happened. There was no official report, nothing written down, no trial or hearing of any kind. "You can tell me," he said again. He would be her secret sharer, no matter how reluctant.


She pulled away slightly. "It's not the same this time, you know."


"What do you mean?"


"Mariano, he shot you. We were victims together in a way. This time it's just me."


He had no answer to this but felt the truth of it immediately. There was a separateness to this experience that hadn't been there before.


"I see it when I look at you," she continued. "You're expecting I'm going to lose it again. Hell, I'm expecting it too." She leaned back against the couch and closed her eyes. "Maybe… maybe you even resent me a little for it."


"No," he said a little too quickly. God, this weirdly brutal honesty was nothing like the last time. He found himself wishing for nightmares and crying jags.


"If you had a male partner, this wouldn't keep happening."


"I don't want a different partner." On this point, he was sure.


McCall still had her eyes closed. "I'd just hung up the phone with you," she said, "and I was going up to my bedroom. I got partway up the stairs and smelled his cologne - it was just like the first time he was there, only much stronger. I knew immediately that he was in my house. I started down to get my gun, but suddenly, there he was."


She drew a shaky breath and opened her eyes. She looked at him, almost through him, and continued: "He had a stocking mask on. The house was mostly dark. I couldn't see his face." Her hand fluttered to her neck. "He...he started choking me."


Hunter forced himself to sit still and not react.


"We fell backwards down the stairs," she said, her voice little more than a whisper now. "That's when I broke my ribs. The pain was instant, and I couldn't scream or even breathe. My head was swimming but I knew if I passed out, it would be over. He kept trying to force my legs apart." She swallowed with difficulty. "My pants were ripped. I couldn't get free. I could feel I was losing the fight. He was just so big and there was no way to get out from under him. I just kept thinking, God, how could this be happening to me again? Then there was a siren outside, maybe a block or two away. He thought he'd been made, so he ran right out the front door. I…I couldn't follow at that point. I could barely move. I just lay there with my door hanging open for I don't know how long, until finally I could get back off the floor..."


"I am so sorry," he said.


She wasn't tearful or angry, just sad. "You work so hard to build a fragile peace after it happens. Everything starts to seem okay again. And then here it is, the rerun from hell. I think…I think that's why I keep focusing on the physical pain. At least that is knowable. I can't tell what will happen when I try to process the rest of it - will it be easier this time? Harder? What if I never get that peace again?"


He gently hugged her to him, and she came willingly, all the fight gone out of her. "You will," he said.


"You don't know that."


"I know you."


They sat huddled together for a long time. When he spoke, his voice was scratchy from a lack of sleep. "We should get some rest," he said, shifting away from her a bit.


From the way she was blinking, he could see she had already been dozing, and he kicked himself mentally for waking her. "You go ahead," she said.


"No, come on." He took her hand and led her back to the bedroom. "You need sleep. Probably about three days of it." He fished the Vicodin from his jacket pocket and got her a glass of water. "Try half a dose. Just enough to take the edge off so you can rest."


He saw her hesitation in the half-light from the bathroom, but apparently she couldn't argue anymore. She swallowed the pill and got into bed with him. This time, he held out an arm for her, and she cuddled in next to him with a small shudder. He stroked her back. "See?" he said lightly. "Can't do this with a male partner."


He felt her smile against him. "Good night, Hunter," she murmured, and he closed his eyes and slept.


###


She awoke as if being pulled slowly from the underworld, blinking in the gray fuzzy light. The blinds were drawn but the bedside clock read nearly noon. She shifted carefully and found Hunter had already arisen, but he hadn't been gone long: his side of the bed was still warm. She put her palm on the spot and allowed herself a few last moments of quiet before braving what was left of the morning. Getting up and lying down were still the most difficult movements to manage, and she hissed as the sharp pain lanced through her again. Once she was upright, the ache was manageable, and she went to the bathroom to change.


She found Hunter in the kitchen, burning something on the stove. He was already dressed in a blue faded button-down shirt and jeans, but his feet were bare. "Morning," he said when he saw her, and checked his watch. "For at least four more minutes. Come have a seat - I'm making pancakes."


She eyed the blackened, misshapen lumps he had created so far. "Are you sure? I think the victims may be beyond identification here."


"That was my test batch," he said, licking his thumb. "I've got it down now."


"Why don't I take it from here?" She grabbed the spatula from him and peered into the bowl to see if there was a way to rescue the batter. "You handle the coffee."


Ten minutes later, they had fluffy brown pancakes and hot coffee. "This here is the irony," he said between bites. "You can cook real food. You just choose not to."


"It's no fun cooking for one."


"So where did you learn how to do it?" he asked. "My grandmother tried to teach me a few times, but needless to say, the lessons didn't stick."


"Steve taught me."


He raised his eyebrows at her. "Steve?"


"Oh, yeah. I never told you this before? When we got married, he was the one picking out all the kitchen stuff to put on the registry. I think he looked at four hundred different types of knives, or maybe it just seemed that way. He was very particular about his knives." She picked up her coffee mug with both hands and took a sip. "But he was right about the quality. I still have them. And his cereal bowl."


"His cereal bowl?"


"We had a longstanding argument about this bowl. It was huge and orange and not very attractive, but he loved it because it would an enormous amount cereal. The man could eat half a box at a time, I swear to you. But then he would not wash it. It would sit in the sink for days until I got tired of looking at it and cleaned it, or until he wanted more cereal. Then he would wash it, eat a bowl, and it would be sitting in the sink again." She paused. "After he died, it sat there for a good few months. My mom finally cleaned it and put it away when I wasn't looking. Now when I see it, I remember him crunching away on the sofa, trying to tell me some story around a mouth full of Apple Jacks."


"I guess the bowl is like a reminder, huh? Don't sweat the little things."


"Oh, no. If he'd lived, that bowl was coming to a bad end. I don't believe in the idea of ignoring 'little things' in a marriage, or at least I don't think that way now. Sure, I could have just washed his bowl to make him happy, but he could have just as easily not left it there to make me happy, you know? There are only a few 'big things' in a marriage. It's mostly all about the little things."


"Yeah, I suppose that's true." He looked thoughtful. "I'm glad Brad and Kathy are back together."


"You and me both. I was not looking forward to participating in that divorce. I hope they make it."


"Think you and Steve could have gone the distance?"


She considered. Steve had been gone seven years now, more than twice the length of their short marriage. Sometimes he seemed abstract and far away, like a character from a novel; other times, she swore she heard his footsteps in the house. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I'd like to think so. It's hard to imagine it now with all the intervening years. The person who married Steve, she's long since disappeared. His death forced me to grow up, but that was going to have to happen sometime, right? Whether we would have grown together or apart, I guess I'll never know."


She tried to conjure a vision of her life if Steve had lived: kids, certainly. Probably she wouldn't be on the force, and she certainly wouldn't have made Detective. No commendations, no bullet wounds. No Raul Mariano or Lloyd Fredericks. But also no Hunter. Her relationship with Rick was at least as defining as her brief marriage, a singular friendship she knew instinctively she would never have with anyone else.


"I've got the dishes," he said. "Do you want any more coffee?"


"No, I think I'm going to take a walk." She rose stiffly and stretched her sore muscles.


"You want some company?"


"No, thanks. I just need some time to myself for a while."


He paused with plates in each hand to give her a real smile, one that crinkled the edges of his eyes. "Take all the time you need. I'll be here when you get back."


###


Later, when looking back on it, Hunter would realize that things started to go wrong at the movies. Dinner was fine; friendly conversation and bar food. McCall had slept most of the afternoon away, and the rest had been good for her. The color was back in her face and she actually seemed to have an appetite. The movie itself was also harmless; some mildly amusing romantic comedy he'd agreed to because it seemed very unlikely to contain any references to rape or murder. It had been running for a while, so the theater was mostly empty.


Maybe it was the fact that he'd never been with her to the movies. They'd watched television and sports programs, sure, and that was fine, but there was no preset script for "Hunter and McCall go to the movies together." He was forced to ad lib, and therein lay the problem. Or maybe he should have ordered snacks. That would have at least occupied his hands.


Instead, they sat with their legs touching and watched the movie. At least McCall watched it, or seemed to. Maybe she was doing the same thing he did, which was to stare at the screen but spend most of the time lost in his own head.


He was having a hard time shaking what she'd said the night before, about him resenting her for the assault. Her words shoved forward some uncomfortable feelings that he didn't know what to do with. Of course he was angry about what happened to her. He would have gladly shot the SOB himself – hell, he'd proved that before. But there was something else, too. McCall wasn't wrong that he wanted this tidied up as quickly as possible. Patch 'er up and get her back out there before anyone had time to think too much.


He chewed the inside of his lip and glanced sideways at her. She felt him looking and turned to smile. He forced himself to smile back so she couldn't tell what he was thinking. For added measure, he took her hand and squeezed it. She returned the squeeze and looked away again.


God, could he really be that low? Could he be angry with her for being a victim again? He searched his memory to see if he'd felt anything like this the last time and came up empty. He had wanted her well, of course, and would have given anything to take away her pain. That much was still true.


He stroked the papery skin of her hand with his callused thumb, choked with a sudden surge of affection. No, he couldn't be angry with her. He was afraid, maybe, that she would walk away this time. That would make sense, right? He was definitely too old to be starting over with a new partner. Satisfied that he had identified his odd feelings, he relaxed back into the seat, determined to ignore any lingering doubts.


He'd watched ten or fifteen minutes of the movie before he realized they were still holding hands. This was a bit unusual but not out of bounds for them. He had been joking with her the night before about the benefits of a female partner, but the truth was, they had a fairly physical friendship. The contact wasn't romantic, but it was sensual, and he enjoyed it more than he liked to think about. Still, they'd been able to negotiate the boundaries without any explicit conversation, waxing and waning the number of hugs, shoulder rubs and chaste kisses, depending on where they were in relationships with others.


So they had held hands in the past, albeit briefly and usually in private. Anyone looking at them now would assume they were out on a date.


His ears warmed and he jerked his hand back, but McCall didn't seem to register any distress on his part. Thankfully, the film was ending, and he dismissed his strange emotional blip as a remnant of their stressful week.


"Well?" she asked as he held the door for her. "Did you like it?"


He shrugged. "It was no Hepburn-Tracy picture."


McCall rolled her eyes. "You know, Hunter, for someone who likes his modern conveniences, you sure spend a lot of time romanticizing black and white movies."


"Hey now, those are certified classics." They walked out together into the chilly night air and took the central sidewalk across the parking lot.


"I'm not saying they're bad movies. I just find it interesting that your taste is so fixated on a bygone era."


He considered. "Maybe I prefer it when the bad guys and good guys are easier to spot," he conceded as they reached the car. "You know - everyone wears the proper colored hat." He stepped down onto the asphalt to open her door, which took about six inches off their height differential. Add in McCall's boots and, it gave the odd effect that they were nearly eye-to-eye. She looked somber.


"I don't think it was ever that easy," she said, "not even back then."


"I suppose not," he said, leaning on the car door. "But allow me my fantasy, would you?"


She gave him a tender smile and touched his face. "I think you would look quite fetching in a white hat, actually. Maybe something in a fedora, or perhaps a..."


He did not get to find out what other fashion advice she had for him, because suddenly, he was kissing her. It was almost nothing at first, just the barest touch of his lips on hers. He felt the surprise in her sharp intake of breath, but it melted into a sigh as he kissed her again. And again. She opened her mouth under his, and he was lost. He cupped the side of her face and her hands bunched folds in the front of his coat. Dimly, he was aware of alarm bells buzzing at the back of his brain, thanks to years of conditioning that she was strictly Off Limits. But at that moment, she was warm and soft and amazing, and so he ignored the warning in favor of more kissing.


"Hey, get a room, would ya?" A car full of laughing teenagers roared past in the parking lot, honking at them, and the spell was instantly broken.


"Oh my God," he said with a ragged breath, backing up as far as the car would let him. "I am so sorry."


She was staring at him with huge, round eyes, one hand clamped over her mouth. He thought he saw her tremble. Or maybe that was him.


"Really," he said again. "I - I don't know what happened. I'm sorry." He tried to figure out where exactly he'd gone wrong, but the throbbing in his pants made it difficult to think.


She cleared her throat. "We should get out of here."


"McCall, I…"


She pushed past him and got into the car, so he shut the door behind her. He leaned against the roof in agony for a few more minutes. The idea that he would make a move on her, and after she had been assaulted less than a week prior... well, his actions were baffling, even to himself. He couldn't imagine what she was thinking.


He rounded the car and forced himself to get in, although he could not bear to look at her. He could tell she was shaking, and his self-loathing swelled again. Then he heard a giggle.


"Oh, ow," she said, as the laughter escaped her. She hugged her middle to brace her ribs but kept right on snickering.


"What? This is funny?" He was so confused.


"I don't think I've been honked at by teenagers for making out in a parking lot since I was fifteen myself," she said, wiping her eyes.


"Well, glad I could take you back," he muttered.


She coughed and winced, then leaned against the door so she was slightly facing him. "And your face," she said. "I've seen you look less horrified at the scene of a triple homicide."


"What I did was wholly inappropriate," he said, and that set her off again. He was starting to feel pretty alone in his shock and dismay.


"I'm sorry," she managed at last. "Clearly this is troubling to you."


"But apparently not to you."


She sighed. "I guess I don't have the emotional energy left right now to overanalyze it. It's been kind of a long week."


"I know, and that's why I'm trying to apologize."


"Hunter, if you say you're sorry one more time, I might start to get a complex here. Was it really so terrible?"


He gaped at her. "Terrible? No, I mean… I just…"


"What?" she asked, not unkindly. "Given the amount of time we spend together in emotionally charged situations, it's kind of surprising it hasn't happened before, don't you think?"


"Well, I was surprised," he said as he turned on the car. "Never in a million years did I expect that to happen."


"There you go with the flattery again."


Okay, he had to admit: her determination to find this amusing was starting to make him feel slightly less awful. He put the car in reverse and started home. It was a short, quiet drive back to his place, and he glided the car to a stop in the darkened driveway. "Look," he said, turning toward her, "I'm not blind, you know. It has not escaped my notice all these years that I have the most attractive cop on the force as my partner."


She closed her eyes and shook her head.


"Dee Dee. You've been undercover as a model – twice."


"You'll forgive me if I'm not feeling especially modelesque right now." She was refusing to look at him again, and his heart broke a little.


"I know, and that's a big part of why I'm sorry." Tentatively, he reached over and took her hand. She gripped him with surprising strength. "I have watched for years as guys at the station make ham-fisted passes at you, with their sleazy little remarks."


"It's mostly just talk," she said. "I've learned to ignore it."


"You shouldn't have to ignore it. And I vowed pretty much immediately that I was never going to be that guy."


She looked up then. "Hunter, you would never…"


"That was a long time ago," he continued. "Before I even really knew you. Once I realized I not only had the most attractive cop, but also the best partner, well, then there was just too much at stake. I would never want to risk it...risk losing you."


She nodded and took a long, shuddering breath. "No, I get it. I do. I say we chalk it up to a weird moment and we just put it behind us."


"Agreed." It sounded so easy when she said it. He extended his hand to shake hers, and she accepted it.


They got out of the car and headed up the windy walkway. "You really think I'm attractive?" she asked as they walked.


He glanced back to see if she was kidding around again, but she seemed to be searching his face for the truth. "I'm a trained detective," he said. "I can pick up the clues." He opened the door and flicked on the lights, allowing her into the house first. "And yes, the evidence assures me that you are indeed attractive."


"But I'm hardly your type."


"I don't have a type."


She shot him a look. "Blonde, twenty-five, legs that go all the way to the floor," she said, and he opened his mouth in silent protest. "I'm a detective too, you know."


She left him standing there as she went to make the coffee. They drank it together like always, and spoke no more of their kiss, but that night, Hunter made up the couch for himself and she made no argument in return.

 

Chapter Two


"I passed the shrink test," McCall told her therapist as she curled her legs up on the office couch. It was her third visit in less than two weeks and she was already used to the place again. "I'm officially cleared for active duty again."


Anita handed her a mug of tea and sat on the other end of the couch. "I didn't expect any different," she replied. "All things considered, I'd say you're coping remarkably well. How are you sleeping?"


"Most nights it's fine," she said. "The security system does help." She'd been back at her place for ten days now, and each day was a bit easier than the last. She was starting to believe she might actually be able to stay.


"What about the other nights?" Anita asked.


"I wake up thinking I can smell him sometimes," McCall answered. "Then I have to check every room in the house. I'm not sure why. I mean, I saw him shot to death right in front of me. I know he's not coming back."


"Reliving the trauma is pretty common, as you know."


McCall nodded and sipped her tea. "I know, but it still makes me angry to have him taking up space in my head, that even dead he has the power to make me feel things I don't want. At least I know this time that those feelings get better over time. There's some comfort in that."


"How did Rick take the news that you are cleared for duty again?"


"I think he was happy."


"You think?"


"No, he was. He argued forcefully for me to keep my job. Of course he wanted me back."


"But?" Anita prompted, and McCall sighed.


"Things are still a bit strange right now with me and Hunter. We had a...a moment a couple of weeks ago, and I guess we're not quite back to equilibrium." Anita waited in silence for her to say more, and finally, McCall gave in. "We kissed."


"Oh, and you had never done that before?"


"No. Did I say something that made you think we had?"


"Call it a vibe," Anita said, setting aside her own mug. "Sometimes vibes can be wrong, clearly. Tell me about this kiss."


McCall gave her a short sketch of the details, complete with the honking teenagers. Anita laughed, and McCall felt vindicated. "See? I told Hunter it was funny."


"So how did you feel about it? The kissing."


"Hot," she blurted, and then felt herself blush. She studied her tea. "I'd wondered sometimes what it would be like, and it was kind of like I expected – but more. Like the volume was turned way up, you know?"


"And what did Hunter think?"


"He acted like he had molested some Victorian-era school teacher. Horrified, I think would be the word. He was afraid he was taking advantage, given what had happened to me."


"Did you feel he was?"


"No," she said, somewhat wistfully. "The truth is that the kiss may have been the best thing he could have done for me. I wouldn't have drawn it up that way, but the shock of it kind reset my axis. It's given me something to think about that's pleasant, not terrifying. Plus, it just felt really good, in a…" She swallowed. "In a sexual way. It was a reminder that I can still feel that, and that maybe life will be able to return to normal again someday."


Anita sat back and peered over the rim of her large glasses. "I'm impressed again at your processing."


McCall gave a wry smile. "Long nights give you time to think about these things. Besides, I've had so much therapy now that sometimes I think I've earned a clinical degree by association." She took a deep breath. "But the thing with Hunter was just a once-off. There will be no repeat of the kissing. We agreed."


"Why not?"


She waved her hand vaguely. "It's designed to end badly. I want a husband and kids one day. Hunter wants the freedom to chase down any woman he pleases. Plus, we work together. It's a little awkward now, but I'm sure that one day, it will just be a pleasant distant memory. As distractions go, it's one of the nicer ones we've had."


"And Hunter feels the same?"


"He kisses a hundred women a year. I can't imagine he's wasted a second thought on me. He's probably out there somewhere now, looking for a new conquest."


###


He celebrated her return by getting drunk at a bar downtown. It hadn't been his intention to get drunk when he set out, but the first scotch tasted so good that he ordered a second. And then a third. He ordered the fourth one when a chatty businessman in an expensive suit took up the stool next to him. "Gary Maxwell," he said. "I'm just down from Seattle for the week. You know what's good here?"


"The privacy," Hunter said.


"Ha, good one! Have you tried their pale ale? That looks pretty tasty."


Hunter gestured at the scotch in front of him and did not comment. Unfortunately, Gary was more than happy to do both sides of the talking.


"I'm in software development. We're looking to expand down into this area. What line of work are you in?"


Wordlessly, Hunter showed off his shield.


Gary let out a low whistle. "LAPD, huh? What division?"


"Homicide," Hunter answered pointedly.


"Wow, that's interesting. With the body count around here, I bet you have some stories to tell. Did you happen to work that Hillside Strangler case? I saw a movie about it last year."


"Nope."


"What about the Zodiac?"


"That was twenty years ago," Hunter said. "In San Francisco."


"Oh yeah." Gary laughed and took long swallow of beer. "Guess that one would have passed you by, huh? Did they ever catch the guy? I don't remember."


"No, he's still on the loose as far as I know," Hunter said.


"Hey, maybe he's shifted his targets, you know? To stay ahead of you guys? I've read that sometimes serial killers will even start over in a new territory. Maybe he's even working down here now."


"One can only hope," Hunter muttered.


"What's that?"


"Or maybe he's working… where did you say you were from again?"


"Seattle."


"Yeah, Seattle. Maybe he's up in your neck of the woods, Gary."


"I guess you never know. There are crazies everywhere. We had Ted Bundy up our way a while back – everyone was scared shitless. Thank God my wife and kids weren't around at the time. It would kill me if anything happened to them. You have any kids?"


Hunter shook his head, but that did not stop Gary. "I've got a boy and girl, Michael and Tracey. You want to see a picture?"


Hunter didn't bother to answer because he knew there was no point. He cast his bleary gaze on the Sears-style family portrait that Gary had dug out of his wallet. Attractive wife, two cute kids. The creases along the edges told him that Gary showed off the picture every chance he got. "Nice family," Hunter said so that Gary would put it away.


Hunter considered his own wallet, which was totally picture-free. He had no attachments to carry around. He could do anything, go anywhere. Speaking of… He looked around and spied a couple of young women on the other side of the room. One was definitely checking him out. Blonde, around twenty-five, legs that went all the way to the floor. McCall would be rolling her eyes.


"Excuse me a minute." He was talking to Gary, but his eyes were on the blonde.


"Sure, man. Go get 'em."


Hunter walked across the room to the two women, who giggled and exchanged looks as they saw him coming. "All these curves," he said, "and me with no brakes." They giggled again, and he introduced himself. "Rick Hunter."


"I'm Allison," said the blonde, "and this is my friend Tina." Tina gave a little wave. "We were just wondering if you're a cop."


"Why, yes I am." He feigned surprise. "How did you know? Don't tell me you two are fellow detectives."


They laughed. "No, we saw your gun," Tina explained. "It looks pretty big."


"Oh, it's enormous," he replied, deadpan. "And my gun and I would like to buy you two lovely ladies a drink."


"Okay!"


They accompanied him back to the bar, and he led them to seats on either side of him – and far away from Gary. Gary noticed and gave him the 'thumbs up' sign from across the room, which Hunter of course ignored. He ordered cocktails for the women and another scotch for himself. The room seemed warm and airless, so he loosened his tie. "So if you're not cops," he said to them, "what do you do?"


"We work at Macy's," Allison answered. "I'm in cosmetics and Tina is in the men's department."


I'll just bet she is, Hunter thought. Now that he had caught both the women, he wasn't sure he actually wanted either of them.


The drinks arrived, and Hunter raised his glass to the blonde. "Here's looking at you, kid." She gave him a blank stare. "It's from Casablanca," he said, and they girls exchanged a confused look. "It's a movie."


"Oh! Well that explains it," Allison said. "I don't really watch movies."


"You read books?"


"No, I watch videos, mostly. MTV rocks."


Hunter felt every one of his thirty-nine years, and suddenly he had a headache. "If you ladies will please excuse me," he said, "I need to make a phone call." He found the pay phone at the back and considered what number to dial. At length, he dropped in some coins and dialed.


"Hello?" came a familiar female voice on the other end of the line.


"Kitty, it's Rick. I'm sorry to bother you at this hour, but if you're not busy, I could really use a lift."


"It's your lucky night," she said. "I'm washing my cat. Where are you?"


"At a bar."


"Yes, I had rather guessed that much. Which one?"


He wasn't actually sure. He stretched the phone line as far as it could go so that he could read the name printed on the bar napkins. "Sullivan's," he said. "Off LeBrea."


"I'll be there in half an hour, okay? Sit tight."


He cast a look back into the bar, where Gary had moved in on the young women. "I'll be waiting outside," he said, and hung up the phone.


Nearly half an hour later on the dot, Kitty O'Hearn rolled up in her pink convertible. "Howdy, stranger," she called. "Going my way?"


"Thanks for this," he said as he climbed in. The booze was wearing off already, but he knew better than to drive. He scrubbed his face with both hands and leaned back in the seat.


"Drinking alone?" she asked lightly. "It must be bad."


"I just overdid it a little."


"I heard McCall was back today," she said, and he made a non-committal noise in return. She glanced his way. "Everything okay?"


"Sure, fine. Why wouldn't it be?"


"Look, I don't want to pry because it's clearly not public knowledge, but it's pretty obvious that something heavy went down with McCall and Lloyd Fredericks."


This made him sit up and pay attention. "What do you mean? What have you heard?"


"I didn't have to hear. I worked the case, too, remember? They didn't send me to detective school for my good looks." When he didn't say anything, she continued with a sigh. "I also heard she needed to be cleared with the shrinks for active duty. They don't send you to the fifth floor for a simple arrest."


"I really can't talk about it."


"Say no more then."


They drove in silence for a few minutes. "McCall thinks I have a type," he said finally. "Do you think I have a type?"


"Yes. Female and available."


Hunter actually chuckled at this. "No, McCall was more specific. She thinks I like them around twenty-five and blonde."


"Well, I believe I was twenty-eight when we had our thing," she said, checking her lips in the mirror. "But I have to confess it now: I'm not a real blonde."


"I think you look great," he said gamely, and she gave him a kind, if pitying, glance.


"Please," she said. "We're long past that now. Besides, I'm seeing someone. His name is Mark and he's a pediatrician in the Valley."


"Well, good for you," Hunter said, sinking into the seat again. His head was still killing him. "He treats you right?"


"Like a queen."


A thought occurred to him. "I didn't pull you away from anything, did I?"


"No, he's with his kids tonight. Divorced. I really was home washing my cat, and Princess Pussyboots thanks you for the reprieve." She seemed to hesitate. "I guess McCall was busy elsewhere…?"


"Don't know."


"It's just I thought you might be together, you know, celebrating her return."


"It's not clear to me it should be celebrated." There at last was the ugly truth he'd been hiding, even from himself. He had what he ostensibly wanted: his partner was back on the job, but he definitely wasn't throwing any sort of party.


"Is Dee Dee okay?" Kitty asked cautiously. She was quiet for a moment and he did not say anything. "She told me what happened before, when she was raped. I was surprised she agreed to act as bait this time around."


"She'd do it again, too." This was the rub. He had told himself the Mariano attack was a random fluke and there was no way it could ever happen again. Fredericks abolished that fantasy and now he had no good story left to cling to. "There was a rape-homicide that came in today," he said. "Charlie kept it well clear of me and McCall, but there'll be another one soon enough. And I can't pretend anymore that I don't see it coming."


They arrived at his house and Kitty cut the engine. All was silent except for the heavy surf pounding the rocks. His head lolled back as he looked at Kitty through heavy-lidded eyes. "I guess I've got…what do the lawyers call it? Oh, yeah. Guilty knowledge."


"We all do," she said, sounding grim. "It's the nature of the job. We have front-row seats to the worst of human behavior, and if you spend enough time watching it, it starts to see almost normal. You forget most teenagers are hanging out at the mall, not working the streets. Mark treats these sweet little six year olds with the chicken pox. You know the last six year-old I saw? A little boy who'd been hospitalized for anal rape, courtesy of his stepfather."


"God."


"Yeah, some days you come home and just want to stick your head in the oven, am I right? But someone had to be there to take that boy's statement, and that someone turned out to be me." She patted his leg. "Let me walk you in and make you some coffee."


"No, no. I'm okay." He sat up and pinched the bridge of his nose.


"You sure? It's not like the cat is eagerly awaiting my return."


"Go home. Call your pediatrician. And leave the poor cat alone."


"I happen to think the regular trips to the tub help reestablish who's in charge of our relationship. Brad says she's spoiled enough as it is."


"Hey, how is Brad doing? He and Kathy all right?"


Her brow furrowed. "I don't know that they're out of the woods, but he's going home at the end of the day instead of to the nearest watering hole. I think that's a good sign. And I'm sure as hell glad that Kathy dropped the lawsuit."


"Not as happy as the Chief. I think he's personally paying for the Navaros' counseling sessions." He eyed her. "There wasn't any truth to it, right?"


"That I somehow caused Brad to develop an unusual appetite for sex?" She snorted. "No, he gets to own that one all by himself."


"So you and he never...?"


"He's married! And he's been married the whole time I've known him. Please, what kind of girl do you think I am?"


"What if he hadn't been married?"


She braced her hands on the steering wheel and blew the hair back out of her eyes. "Gosh, Hunter, I don't know. I can honestly say I never really thought about it: he's married, case closed. Why the sudden interest?" Her eyes widened. "Did you and McCall...?"


"No! No, nothing like that. I was just curious because of the lawsuit."


"Uh-huh." She did not look all that convinced, and he decided to get out before she could ask any more questions.


"Listen, thanks for the lift. I really appreciate it."


"Anytime."


He stood in the bracing wind and watched her drive away, the taillights of her convertible winking out in the distance. Stone cold sober now, he unlocked his door and grabbed the mail: bill, fast food advertisement, and another bill. He tossed it on the end table along with his wallet and keys. He moved to unholster his weapon but found himself drawn to the wallet again. It was a totally nondescript black leather billfold that was showing its age around the edges.


He opened it up, and rooted around to find the cheap plastic casings where pictures would go. It has been shoved inside a side pocket and neglected for years. He pulled it out and was surprised to find there was a picture, or at least a reproduction of one, which must have come with the wallet. It showed a smiling young woman leaning against a tree, and his lips twisted into an ironic grin. The prefabricated 'everywoman' was blonde, leggy, and about twenty-five.


He crumpled it with one hand and tossed it into the nearest garbage can.


###


With McCall's return to work, routine took over and they settled into their usual daily pattern of homicide and bad coffee. He knew from her standing long lunch on Tuesdays that she was still seeing Anita, but she didn't offer up any details of how things were going. In fact, she didn't really speak of anything personal at all. He'd become used to her chattering in the car about her mother, a bad date, or the strange-shaped boxes her neighbor often carried into his house; but now they typically rode in silence. It was like they were back at the beginning of their partnership: polite professionalism ruled the day.


If he asked how she was doing, she responded with some commentary on the cafeteria lunch special, as though her wellbeing was intimately tied to a dry turkey sandwich.


Mostly, he was relieved. One thing he had always liked about McCall was that her signals were easy to read. She wanted emotional distance, and he was happy to provide it. Once, he'd caught her staring past him, lost in thought with her fingertips on her lips, and he had wondered if she was recalling their session in the cinema parking lot. But the moment passed, and she'd bent over her work again as though nothing were amiss.


For his part, Hunter had devoted a great deal of energy to NOT thinking about it - with some success. He was at least fairly confident that he had not destroyed their partnership, and he figured the personal side would warm up again with time.


"Hunter? McCall?" Charlie waved at them from his doorway. "My office, please."


She raised her eyebrows. "A summons," she remarked dryly.


"It always feels like getting called to the principal's office, doesn't it?" he replied as they walked.


Charlie indicated the empty chairs in front of his desk. "Please have a seat. This won't take long." He waved dark blue card at them, but Hunter could not make out the flowing writing. "The Mayor is having a New Year's Eve party at the new building downtown - you know, the one with the glass top? Black tie, lots of VIPs, looks to be a very chi-chi affair."


"Are you asking one of us to be your date?" Hunter asked.


"Funny," Charlie answered darkly. "No, actually, you are both invited…on account of your role in the Big Foot case."


Hunter felt McCall freeze.


"I did some checking," Charlie continued, "and there is not meant to be any ceremony or discussion of the case itself. It's just a thank-you. As you know, the story generated a lot of unpleasant headlines, and Hiz Honor is very grateful for your help."


"He should invite the victims," McCall said. "We wouldn't have known where to start if it weren't for their statements."


Hunter and Charlie exchanged a look, and Hunter shook his head almost imperceptibly. He certainly wasn't going to be the one to point out she was one of Fredericks's victims.


Charlie took a breath. "Yes, well, it's up to you if you want to go. There will be around six hundred guests, so I don't think he'd miss you. Here are the details." He handed them each a glittery card. "I will be there, of course, but you two are under no obligation whatsoever. I just wanted to alert you to the opportunity."


McCall was staring at the card, silent. Hunter waited another beat for any sort of cue from her, but none was forthcoming. "Okay, Captain, thanks." He nudged her, and they both got up to return to their desks.


"You think Clare Fredericks got an invitation?" she asked.


"That would be something. Do they make prison outfits in black tie?"


"She's not in prison. She's out on bail pending trial."


"You've been following the case?"


"I would not be surprised to be subpoenaed," she said as she studied the card in her hand. She tapped it lightly on the desk. "What do you think about this party?"


He thought it sounded like a dreadful bore, but they were talking about something more interesting than the lunch menu, so he was happy to keep the conversation going. "Sounds expensive," he said, wondering how the city would be paying the tab.


"Yeah. I bet the food would be good, though, huh?"


He grinned. This was the partner he knew: the one who planned her day around meals. "I don't imagine you would be hungry afterward," he replied. "Are you thinking of going?"


She gave a half-shrug. "I don't have any other plans. Wish it was tied to a different case, though."


"It won't, uh, bring up bad memories?"


"Those memories have hardly had time to be buried yet." It was the most honest thing she'd said to him in a month, and he hesitated in trying to respond. He didn't want her to slam the door closed again.


"Maybe...maybe it's too soon?"


"It's a party, not a line-up." And with that, the door shut once more. She sighed. "I do like parties."


Every so often, McCall's upper-middle-class upbringing shone through; she had been raised to appreciate both fine art and the art of a fine party. "Then we should go," he said, resigning himself to a night spent a rented tux, but it was worth it to see her smile.


And so it came to pass that New Year's Eve 1987 found them both changing into appropriate attire in the precinct restrooms. The punishment for a week of paid leave was having less flexibility about working holiday shifts, but Charlie had at least gotten them out of a graveyard stint. Hunter rolled his shoulders inside the jacket that did not fit quite right and looked at his face in the mirror. "It's just for a few hours," he promised his forlorn expression.


The station was virtually deserted, so there were few people around to witness his display. Unfortunately, Melendez at dispatch was still here. "Someone call animal control!" he hollered. "There's a giant penguin loose in the station."


"Least I'm getting out of here before next year," Hunter called back. Of course he wasn't actually so sure about the timing. He checked the clock and determined McCall had been in the bathroom more than half an hour. He'd given her a head start and still he was finished first. He was pretty sure it had never taken him more than ten minutes to get dressed for anything, ever. With a sigh, he sat at his desk to wait. He used the front page of the morning paper to block out the stares of any other curious passersby.


Eventually, he heard her voice on the other side of the paper. "Well? Are you ready?"


He lowered it to find her standing over him, taller by one pair of spiked heels. She wore some sort of velvet sheath colored such a dark red that it almost appeared black. Her hair was swept up and her ears sparkled with the small diamonds Steve had bought her years ago.


Lust hit him like a thunderbolt from the sky, and was almost just as painful. "I, uh..." When the hell had he developed this problem?


She smoothed the dress at her hips. "Do I look okay?"


He was pretty sure every male in the place was ogling right along with him, but McCall was looking only to him for an answer. "Stunning," he managed to get out, and she smiled.


"You clean up pretty well yourself. Shall we go?"


She linked her arm through his, like the old days, and he tried not to notice the tempting arch of her bare neck. Melendez's mouth was hanging open as they walked past. "Enjoy your evening, Howard," McCall said gaily.


"You're killing him, you know," Hunter whispered to her.


She gave the dispatch sergeant a little wave. "Oh, I know," she said, and he didn't think it was possible to love her more.


###


The party was as big and brash as advertized, with a live band, free-flowing champagne and a twinkling view of the city twenty-five stories below. A dazzling round chandelier, reminiscent of the Times Square ball, lit the room as bright as day. McCall met a state senator, a member of the LA Lakers, and Kitty O'Hearn's boyfriend, Mark Evans. "Isn't he great?" Kitty yelled at her over the noise as Mark went to fetch them more champagne.


"He seems very nice." In truth, Mark hadn't said more than two words all evening, but he clearly had eyes only for Kitty. That made him okay in McCall's estimation.


"Where is your date?" Kitty asked.


"I don't have one. I came with Hunter, and he's…" She craned her neck around to try to find him, but she'd lost him in the crowd. "I don't know where he went. The last time I saw him, he was chatting up the trumpet player during the set change."


"We need to find you a man," Kitty said. "There's got to be a suitable one here someplace."


McCall wrinkled her nose. "I'm not looking, thanks."


"Honey, never stop looking." Mark returned with their champagne flutes and then resumed nuzzling Kitty. McCall watched the lovebirds for about ten seconds before deciding she had important business elsewhere.


"I'll catch you later," she said, touching Kitty's arm.


She threaded her way through the crowd to the back, where she found a shadowed nook that was much quieter. The floor-to-ceiling windows were as impressive as she'd imagined, spanning nearly twice her height. She rested her forehead on the thick cool glass and watched the scenery below. Lines of congested traffic twisted through the city like snakes as people hurried to be somewhere, anywhere, by midnight. "You found the best view in the house," said a voice behind her.


She turned to find a dark-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses watching her. His tie was already off and hung loose around his neck.


"Sorry, I don't mean to disturb you," he said. "I'm just fond of this spot myself." He held out his hand. "Keith Holt."


"Dee Dee McCall." She shook his hand and studied his face. "Do I know you? Your name sounds familiar."


"No, I don't think so. I just have one of those faces, I guess." His cheeks crinkled with his smile. "Do you mind if I hide out with you for a few minutes? I confess I rather hate these sorts of affairs. There's actually a bench right over...here." He sank down with a sigh and put aside his champagne glass. "In the daytime you can see for a hundred miles, assuming the smog levels are cooperating."


McCall took a careful seat at the other end of the bench. "You come here often, Mr. Holt?"


"I used to. These days I spend more time in the Valley."


It clicked then, where she knew him. "You're the architect. This is your building."


"Oh, no, it's hardly mine," he said with a grin. "I own the idea but little else."


"Spare me the routine about how you are a poor starving artist. There was a spread about you on the front page of the Times when this place opened a few months ago."


"Lies, all of it, lies," he said, and she smiled in spite of herself. "So we've covered me: what do you do?"


"I'm a homicide detective."


"And I ride unicycles in the circus." She reached for her clutch and pulled out her ID. 

"Well, that certainly didn't come from the bottom of a cereal box," he admitted. "You must spend a great deal of time at City Hall, then. You know you can get a lovely view of it from right over here."


She followed him to the very back of the alcove, behind some potted ferns, to check out an entirely new view. Sure enough, the familiar pointed white peak of City Hall shone from a few miles away.


"It was completed in 1928," he said, "and for several decades ordinances protected its role as the tallest building in the city. Did you know it contains sand from all of California's fifty-eight counties?"


"No," she said, amused by his enthusiasm. "Did you know the door to the ladies room on the sixteenth floor tends to get stuck?"


"Your knowledge is perhaps more practical than mine. Please forgive me if I ramble on about the buildings. I spend so much time with them that I forget not everyone is as fascinated as I am by steel beams and cement."


"Okay, even I can see there is more to them than that. Did you always want to design sky scrapers?"


"Since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, as my grandmother would say. I took Lincoln Logs to whole new level when I was a kid. Then, after many, many years of school, I decided to leave the relative stability of New York City for the challenge of the LA terrain, where buildings get regularly tossed like ships on the sea."


"Really?"


"No, there was just nowhere else in New York City left to build. Turns out the island is pretty populated. If I'd just left the library more often, I might have noticed earlier."


"No, about the ground shaking. I can imagine it's difficult to account for earthquakes."


"Actually, it's not so bad when you're talking about a building of this height. The lateral force from the winds is probably worse than anything the ground will dish out."


"So how do you solve the problem?"


"With movement. Here, I'll show you." McCall followed him to the window, and he took her hand and placed it against the glass. "Hold still, and you'll feel it."


Behind them, the crowd had started the countdown to midnight. "Ten...nine…eight…"


The building swayed against their joined hands, and Keith's eyes lit up. "There, you see? It's like dancing."


"Three…two…one! Happy new year!"


Keith's eyes met hers, and he slowly ran his thumb over the back of her hand. "Looks like 1988 has arrived," he said softly. He took a step closer without letting her go. "And I'd say it's off to a pretty great start."


"Mr. Holt..."


"Keith, please." He was close enough that she could feel his breath on her cheek.


"Keith, I..."


"There you are!" Hunter's voice caused her to jerk away from Keith and the window. "I've been looking all over for you."


"Sorry," she said, clearing her throat. "I was just talking with the architect, Keith Holt. Keith, this is my partner, Rick Hunter."


Keith stuck out his hand in greeting. "Always pleased to meet another one of LA's finest."


Hunter looked up at the ceiling. "This is some building you've got here."


"It's a living," he replied with what McCall was coming to realize was his customary self-deprecation.


Hunter looked to her. "Are you ready to get out of here? Kitty and Mark are leaving too."


"I, uh… sure."


"If you'd like to stay," Keith cut in smoothly, "I'd be happy to have my driver take you home later."


This earned him a frown from Hunter, and she shook her head. "That's kind of you, but no thanks. I really should be going."


"It was a pleasure, then. Good night, and happy new year." He kissed her hand warmly and drifted away.


"Winning friends and influencing people as usual, I take it?" Hunter asked as they went to retrieve their coats.


"Stop it. He was perfectly nice."


"He's perfectly something, all right. Did he ask for your number?"


"As a matter of fact, he didn't," she realized with a stab of disappointment.


"Won't matter," Hunter decreed as he held her coat for her. "You'll be hearing from that man."


She shook her head. "It was just a nice conversation."


"He's going to call. I'll bet you five bucks."


"You're on."


Six days later, she owed Hunter five bucks.

 

Chapter Three

 

After the third day, she had decided she wouldn't be hearing from Keith Holt again, and truthfully, she was a little relieved. Two nights out of seven, she was up either from insomnia or nightmares. Just yesterday morning, she had cried for twenty minutes in the shower. She was reasonably sure she had no business entering the dating scene right now. By Friday, she was positive he had forgotten all about her.


Hunter stretched at his desk and checked his watch. "Almost halfway through the day, and then it's Friday night. You have any big weekend plans?"


"No plans at all," she replied breezily, and held out her hand. "I think you owe me five dollars."


"Tell you what," he said. "I'll use it to buy you a beer after work."


She waggled her fingers. "The cash, thank you very much." He grudgingly got out his wallet and handed her a crisp five. She snapped it and smiled. "I'll buy the beers."


At that moment, the desk sergeant wandered over with a plain brown package. "Courier just dropped this off for you, McCall," she said, and McCall accepted the offering with some puzzlement.


"It's not ticking, is it?" Hunter asked.


"Huh. It's from Keith Holt. I wonder what it could be." She tore off the wrapper and found a pretty wooden box underneath. "Curiouser and curiouser," she said. She opened the box to discover a red silk scarf wrapped around something that felt a little like a candlestick. "Oh," she exclaimed when she unwrapped it. "Wow."


It was a scale model of City Hall, complete with the art deco peak and the rounded windows at the bottom. She turned it over and found the initials "KH" carved at the bottom.


"I think I get my five bucks back and then some," Hunter said.


McCall barely heard him. "There's a card," she said, opening the envelope.


The handwritten note read: "I can't promise the ladies' room is any more functional in this version, but I hope you like it anyway. I'd love to show you some of the other buildings in the city. Please call me any time. Warm regards, Keith." His number was enclosed.


She read it to herself several times but did not share the contents with Hunter. "Well?" he asked finally, forcing her back to reality.


She cleared her throat. "He, uh, he wants me to call him."


"Yeah, no kidding. Pay up."


She touched her fingertip to the top of the model building. "The level of detail here is remarkable."


"He definitely gets credit for extra style points, I'll give him that. Most guys would just send flowers." Hunter folded his arms across his chest and looked at her. "So are you going to call him?"


"I have to at least say thank-you," she said, and bit her lip.


"No, you don't owe him anything, you know." He leaned across his desk. "Some guys use a grand gesture like this to create a sense of obligation where there is none."


"I was a psych major in college," she reminded him. "Plus, I'm over thirty - I think I can handle a simple phone call without getting in over my head."


"It's your decision, obviously. This whole thing just strikes me as...well, maybe a bit pushy."


She narrowed her eyes at him. "Pushy would be showing up here himself, or God forbid following me home. This is just sweet. You don't even know the guy, Hunter. What's your problem with him?"


"That's just it. I don't know him. And you had, what, a half-hour conversation with the guy? You don't really know him either."


"Well, maybe I'd like to change that. I don't know. But I'm not going to second guess his every motive, nor am I going to sit here and let you do it for me." She stood up to leave.


"Dee Dee…"


"What?"


"I just don't want to see you get hurt. Especially...especially not now."


The words made her fold into herself, crossing her arms to protect ribs that had just barely healed. She was the one who was supposed to be looking at every man with fear, not him. But this was the price of letting him see her tears; now he couldn't unsee them. However, she would be damned if she was going to let him define her by her trauma. "Life goes on," she said with forced lightness. "And I can take care of myself."

 

###


She did eventually call Keith, and they arranged to meet downtown for a walking tour of some of the architectural landmarks. He had offered to pick her up - "Just me in my Acura, this time, no driver" -but she declined. She didn't share Hunter's suspicion of the man, but she also didn't want him at her house just yet.


They met in the Bunker Hill area, at the base of the Angels Flight funicular railway. He was dressed casually this time, in jeans and black sweater, and might have passed for an architectural student, if not for the seven hundred dollar sunglasses that sat on his nose. He peered over the top of the rims at her as she approached. "You made it!" he exclaimed happily, and reached to take both her hands in his. "I'm glad. I wasn't sure you would show."


"I wasn't either," McCall said, surprised by her honesty.


"Let's hope I can make it worth your while. I figured we could walk around here for a bit, if that's okay with you. Bunker Hill has served as a backdrop to some pretty great 1950s noir films – Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly. I thought it seemed like an appropriate place to take a cop."


"You like old films?" she asked as they walked.


"Sure, some of them. But I'm not a complete sentimentalist, if that's what you're thinking. Just because something is old doesn't necessarily make it good."


"Thank you," she said, "I've tried that argument with my partner but somehow it doesn't register for him."


"Well, show him this monstrosity," Keith said, pointing out a square concrete block that housed several storefronts. "This was probably built in the 1930s, and it was made well enough that it's still here, but that's the best thing you can say about it. Someone apparently thought it was worth keeping when the redevelopment project began in the 1950s, but I mean really - drab color, no profile, nothing remotely interesting to recommend it. You might as well be working in a prison."


"Ah, trust me, no," she said. "I've been to prisons, and this is definitely a step up."


"Did you always want to be a police officer?" he asked as they walked onward.


"I considered other avenues - social work, medicine. My grandfather was a cop – here in LA, actually. He wanted an easier life for my father, though, so he worked extra shifts to send Dad to private school, and then later Harvard for an MBA. Neither of them was particularly pleased when I enrolled in the Academy."


"They probably worried for your safety."


Yes, and this was why she kept most of her troubles away from her family. They knew about Mariano because it was in the papers, and they knew she had arrested Lloyd Fredericks. But they had only the public version of the story, and she intended to keep it that way. "I think they've made their peace with it," she said. "What about you? Does your family live around here?"


"My folks are still in Michigan, and I have two sisters, one who's a teacher in Florida and one living the cowgirl's life in Montana. I don't see any of them as much as I'd like. Let's turn here – there's a couple of great renovated Victorians down this way, the only ones that survived the mass razing in 1955."


They covered at least four miles through the city, but McCall didn't mind the walk. She was enjoying playing tourist in her hometown, and Keith seemed to know some little story about nearly every street corner. "Where we're walking now is actually about one hundred feet lower than the original roads," he said. "They've shaved away the past one layer at a time, and in doing so, rather reduced the 'hill' part of Bunker Hill. This here is one of the more interesting new additions."


He indicated a long winding set of carved stone steps that stretched about six stories up. "We're not climbing up those, are we?" she asked.


"I was actually going to suggest we break here for food. There's a great gyro place around the corner, as well as a really excellent gelato store."


"Then I say we start with the gelato," she said, and he grinned.


"I knew I liked you."


They each selected a dish – raspberry for him, tiramisu flavored for her – and returned to sit at the base of the steps. He had removed his sunglasses, and the faint breeze stirred his dark hair. "So I know why I'm still single," he said. "I'm a geeky workaholic who's more comfortable at a drafting table than at a bar. But what's your story?"


She laughed. "Just put all the cards right on the table, huh?"


"I should have added that I'm not good at subtlety either."


"Somehow I doubt you lack for female company," she said as she took a bite of gelato. "'Check out the size of my building over there' is a heck of an opening line." She waved her spoon in the general direction of his skyscraper.


He ducked his head, as if acknowledging the conceit. "It is a pretty big building," he admitted with a mischievous grin. "But it also has the effect of creating some equally large expectations, if you know what I mean."


She felt herself blush. "Yes, well, you would be surprised at how many of my dates want to see my handcuffs."


He pretended to look crushed. "So that's not on the menu today?"


"Today, tomorrow...next year... I get enough of 'cops and robbers' on the job. I'm not looking to turn it into a hobby."


He was squinting at the sky and looking thoughtful. "I'm trying to figure out if there would be an architectural equivalent, but blueprints just aren't sexy no matter how you spin them. Maybe if a beautiful woman decided to greet me at the door wearing them and nothing else. Of course then I'd have to figure out a way to get them off of her without damaging the sketches." She looked at him, bemused, and he shrugged. "I did mention that I'm a workaholic."


"My job makes dating a bit of a challenge too," she said. "The hours can be unpredictable, and the subject matter does not exactly provide sparkling dinner table conversation."


"Yes, I can imagine." He studied her a long moment. "I'm guessing it might be hard to keep your faith in humanity when you spend your time tracking killers."


Keith's face was kind and open, but she didn't really feel like discussing the particulars of homicide with him. Killers, as it turned out, were depressingly mundane. The first time you found the grandmother stabbed for twenty bucks and left to die in her apartment, it was a heartbreaking tragedy. Twenty murders later, the same grandmother was just business, an ordinary Tuesday. Pimps, bangers, husbands or wives: anyone could be a victim; anyone could be a killer. Trying to explain this to a person who didn't live the cycle daily, however, only made you sound as heartless as those you arrested. There was a reason cops liked to socialize with their own kind.


"And then there are the killers that don't get caught," he continued. "I mean, you'd never guess from watching TV that only sixty percent of homicides in the US are solved each year."


"It's not always as easy as it looks on TV," she answered mildly. "Sometimes it takes years to build a case, even if you know who is responsible."


"Do you work cold cases?"


"Occasionally. I'm sorry to say the current murder rate keeps us fairly busy in the present."


"But you do take a look sometimes? Just to see if there was anything you missed?"


She was starting to feel a little strange about this turn in the conversation. "You don't have a body buried in one of those buildings of yours, do you?"


He looked aghast and then shook his head. "I'm sorry. You must think I am a nutjob with all these questions. The truth is…the truth is my fiancée was murdered in college, and they never found out who did it. I keep hoping one day the phone will ring and some detective on the other end will say they've made an arrest. But after twenty years, it seems like Jenna's death will probably remain a mystery."


"I'm so sorry to hear that."


"She was in my freshman English class at Yale. I sat behind her and was mesmerized by her hair – it was this gorgeous honey-brown color and fell all the way to her waist. It took me almost the whole semester to work up the nerve to ask her out, but once I did, we were inseparable. We were looking at graduate schools – me for architecture and her for law – trying to find the best place for us both. I took the train down to New York City for an interview, and I stayed over just one night with some friends. We drank cheap beer and saw an off-Broadway play. When I got back the next day, Jenna was dead."


She reached over and took his hand. "They had no suspects?"


"Not really. She was stabbed to death right on the sidewalk, if you can believe it. It was around nine at night, and she was walking in the nicer part of town. I don't know what she was doing there because our apartment was closer to the university itself. Someone heard a scream but there were no actual witnesses." He took a deep breath. "I don't blame the police. I mean, they tried to figure it out. New Haven gets its share of murders, but they aren't usually pretty young Yale undergraduates. When I had an alibi, I think the cops were stumped. Everyone loved Jenna. She was one of the kindest people I've ever known. That's what the last detective told me: they thought it must have been a stranger because no one who knew Jenna had a bad word to say about her."


"I could make a couple of calls if you want, just to see where the case is now. But I warn you it probably won't produce any concrete results. As you say, twenty years is a long time."


He gave a sad smile. "And yet somehow no time at all. Dee Dee, I'm sorry to dump all this on you; I promise this is not my usual first-date highlight reel. You tell me that you're not looking to make homicide part of your social life, and I respond by grilling you about cold cases. I swear this wasn't my intent when I asked you out today. It's just I almost never get to talk about Jenna anymore. We weren't married, so pretty much everyone expected me to buck up and go on after six months or so. I was young…I'd find someone else. Sometimes I feel like I have to say her name out loud just to remind myself she existed."


"It's not that different if you were married," she said, and he gave her an inquisitive look. "My husband was killed – murdered – seven years ago. We just arrested his killer last year. So it can happen…don't give up hope completely."


"No," he squeezed her hand. "I'm more hopeful than I've been in years."


They held hands as he walked her back to her car, and McCall began anticipating the kiss. At the start of the afternoon, she wasn't sure if she was interested in even this small physical exchange, but now she found she wanted it very much. Keith didn't disappoint. His kiss was warm and lingering, not pushy, but leaving no doubt that he was eager for more. "Thank you for a truly lovely afternoon," he murmured against her cheek. "I'll call you."


"Please see that you do."


She bid him good-bye and drove home on autopilot, replaying the events of her day. Anita was going to want a full accounting at their session on Tuesday, but McCall couldn't see anyplace she'd miss stepped with Keith. She'd been honest but not overly revealing, and the kiss had gone fine. No panic or even mild anxiety. Maybe she was psychologically healthy enough for the dating pool after all. She went to bed that night and slept dreamlessly on until morning.


But on Tuesday, Anita started with the hard questions. "So the kiss was nice?" she said, using the same descriptor McCall had offered. "Nothing more?"


"Well, the first kiss is often totally awkward, right? So by that measure, this was a home run." Anita, McCall knew, had been married for two decades. She probably forgot what it was like to be out in the wild.


"I seem to recall you had a very different reaction to your kiss with Hunter."


McCall flushed hot at the memory. "It's not fair to compare the two. Hunter and I have had five years of history together and we already care for one another...Keith is a practical stranger by comparison. But it hardly matters if Hunter melted my knees. We won't be having a relationship, so I'm not sure what you want me to consider here. If I were to measure all of my potential dates against Hunter, they'd lose every time."


"Yes, exactly." said Anita with a gentle smile. "That's what I want you to consider."


McCall rolled her eyes. "I already explained that any sort of romantic relationship with Hunter is dead on arrival."


"You've been quite clear on that point, yes. It's also very apparent that Hunter takes up a big emotional space in your life as your partner and your friend. And then recently, you've at least cracked open the door on a physical connection as well."


No, she had slammed that door shut and shoved a chair under the knob. Before she could explain this again, Anita continued.


"I'm not suggesting you pursue a romantic relationship with Rick. I believe you when you say it wouldn't work out. But if you really want a relationship and eventual marriage with someone else – Keith or any other man – you may have to reduce psychic space currently being used by Hunter. Otherwise these men will always seem like distant runners-up."


"I...I've dated plenty of other guys over the years I've known Hunter. It's never been a problem."


"I wonder if these other guys would say the same thing."


McCall felt her chest tighten and she clenched her mug. Typically, she kept her boyfriends away from Hunter, but not to hide any sort of emotional connection. Hunter was big and his usual greeting was something between a grunt and a scowl. If you didn't know him very well, the package could be intimidating. "You're married," she said to Anita. "You're saying this means you can't have any male friends?"


"I have several men that I am honored to call my friends. But we don't socialize alone after work. We don't share pieces of ourselves with one another that we keep from everyone else. We don't list each other as emergency contacts, and we certainly don't grope each other in the parking lot."


"One time! It was one kiss!"


"Fine, then leave the kiss out of it. My point still stands. You asked me last time about dating and we talked about feeling emotionally ready following an assault, about getting comfortable with yourself again before trying to introduce another person. Well, this is a somewhat similar concept. I think it's great that you went out with Keith and had a good time. I just think you need to be honest with yourself about what you are prepared to give him."


McCall closed her eyes, suddenly exhausted. She had entered the room feeling optimistic and light, and now here Anita was suggesting that she needed to ditch Hunter if she ever wanted to be happy. She tried to imagine what disconnecting from Hunter might be like. She would need a new partner, maybe even a transfer to another department. A hundred cases stretched between them - ridiculous, terrifying, sublime - all of them solved with their own peculiar chemistry. The details that mattered never ended up in the official reports. Some reports, like their harrowing trip to Curaguay, never got filed at all. The only reason the experience felt real was because it had happened to both of them.


"Dee Dee? Are you okay? You're awfully quiet."


"I don't know what to say. I didn't expect to come here expecting to discuss Hunter. I don't know how I would even begin to do what you're suggesting… how to…how to not be friends." Just the thought of it made a lump spring up in her throat. Anita seemed to think that her future would be bright and happy without Hunter, but instead it felt huge and scary. Maybe that was the point.


"I'm not saying that at all," Anita said, moving closer to touch McCall's arm. "I would never suggest you have to end your friendship with Rick. I know how important he is to you, and you to him. I can't imagine that would ever change."


A hot tear slipped down McCall's cheek, and she swiped it away. "Then I don't understand."


"You have said it yourself on occasion: he is the most important person in your life. As long as he occupies that number one slot, then no one else can. How you go about shifting him down a spot – and whether you really want to – well, that's up to you."


####


Her architectural tour date with Keith snowballed into a casual mid-week dinner at a family-owned Italian restaurant and then a Saturday night trip to the symphony. The orchestra and chorale performed a stirring rendition of Beethoven's ninth symphony, the music swelling the room to near bursting. The Ode to Joy never failed to move her with its gorgeous cello opening and the glorious, frenzied conclusion. A hundred voices joined together in hope and joy; there was nothing in the world more beautiful than this.


She was still humming as they left, hand in hand, and Keith gave her an amused look. "Was it my imagination or were you nearly singing along back there? In the original German, I might add."


"I, uh, I performed this one with my college chorale once," she admitted. "It's the kind of music that stays with you."


"I didn't know you could sing."


"There's a lot you don't know about me," she answered lightly, and he nuzzled her cheek in a playful gesture.


"True, but I aim to find out."


He took her home and parked in her driveway, but they didn't get out of the car. Instead, he leaned across the seat and kissed her, gently at first, and then with more feeling. She grew warm and light-headed as the weight of him pressed her back into the leather seats. Her blouse came undone and then his hand was at her breast. She gasped softly and gripped the side of the car. "You are intoxicating," he breathed against her face.


Her heart was racing, partly from arousal and partly from something else. "Keith, wait."


"Hmm?" He went to kiss her again, but she moved her head. He took the signal and sat back with a sigh. "What? Did I do something wrong?"


"No, no." She squeezed his leg. "It's not you, it's me. This is just a bit much right now. I'm sorry." Normally sex by the third date wouldn't be an issue for her, especially not with a brainy and attractive millionaire, but she knew she did not want to sleep with him yet and she wasn't sure how to draw that line if things went any further.


"No, I'm sorry," he said, cupping the side of her face. "It's been a while, and I'm afraid I might be over eager."


"No, I promise, you are more than fine," she said as she pulled his hand down to hold it between both of hers. Back in the days when she was singing the Ode to Joy, it was pure, sensuous fun to strip down with a hot guy and explore each other's nooks and crannies. Now she had a scar by her clavicle, courtesy of Mariano, a bullet wound in her back from last year, and a pair of ribs that still ached if she pressed them just right. "I'm just a member of the walking wounded right now."


A tender look crossed his face. "Do you want to talk about it?"


She shook her head. "It's been a lovely evening, and I don't want to spoil it."


"That bad, huh?" Now he sounded concerned.


She knew it was a risk to let him invent various scenarios in his head, but she was tired and raw and not interested in sharing her scars just yet. Otherwise, they'd be in bed already. "Walk me to the door?" she asked, and he nodded.


At the stoop, he took her in his arms again. "If there is ever anything I can do for you..."


She stopped him with a gentle kiss. "You can let me take you to dinner next week," she answered, and felt the relief go through him. He'd figured he was getting the brush-off.


"I have to go to New York," he said, "but I'll be back by Friday."


"Friday it is then."


But the following Friday night found her sitting in a different parked car with a different man, this time watching a dreary alleyway in the hopes that their murdering drug dealer would show up to make a score. Hunter had a bag of baby carrots that he was crunching his way through at top volume. "I'm sorry about your date," he said, but his face was inscrutable in the darkness. He did not sound all that sorry.


"These things happen," she said with a sigh. She had not talked to Hunter much about Keith, especially after Anita's lecture over her emotional priorities. She couldn't figure out if her reluctance to share details with Hunter was a sign that she was getting some proper emotional distance from her partner, or whether she just didn't want to hear a bunch of criticism about Keith's fancy job or relative wealth. But they had been sitting in the same position for going on three hours, and boredom made her a bit reckless. "Hunter? Out of curiosity, what would you do if I got married and left the force?"


He looked over at her and was quiet for a moment. Then he shrugged. "I guess I'd be sitting here with someone else."


She blinked, a bit stung. "That's it?"


"I'd buy you a gravy boat or something first. But yeah, that's about it." He twisted in his seat. "Why? Don't tell me your little architect friend is picking out churches already."


"No, nothing like that."


"Or maybe he'd just build you one," Hunter continued as if she hadn't spoken. "He could mail little copies to all of the guests as invitations."


"You're still on about that? So he sent me a model of City Hall. What is the problem?"


"No problem. Just seems like he might be...overcompensating." She glared at him, and he popped another carrot in his mouth. "Come one, you have to admit it," he said as he crunched. "The guy may as well have wrapped up and sent you a model of his penis. Ask any shrink in America, and they'll tell you it's true."


"Well, you would know," she replied evenly.


"What's that supposed to mean?"


"I've seen your operation before, Hunter. You just love showing the ladies your really big gun. I think Freud himself wrote an essay about what that means." He closed his mouth with a snap, and she knew she had him. "You should give Keith a chance, you know. He's a nice guy and I think you would like him."


Hunter picked up the binoculars and looked out at the distant alley. "I don't need to like him," he said. "My opinion does not matter."


"It does to me," she said softly, and he let the binoculars sag. She had not really considered how much she wanted his approval until she'd said the words. Hunter was an excellent judge of character, and if he felt there was something off about Keith, then she would have doubts too.


"Look, like you said, I don't know him. I think he came on strong and I don't love his approach – but he's not courting me. Clearly his style works for you if you're already talking about heading down the aisle after, what…two dates?"


"Three. And I never said that!"


"Let's review the transcript, shall we? You said, 'Hunter what would you do if I left and got married'? The implication seems pretty clear cut to me."


"It's a theoretical marriage."


"Well then, theoretically, I hate the idea." He glowered at her and she backed against her car door. "But I can't pretend you've been hiding your intentions all these years, so I've had plenty of time to get used to the idea. Doesn't mean I have to like it." He took up the binoculars again.


No, she supposed it would be a hassle, breaking in a new partner. She tried to imagine if the opposite occurred, and Hunter left her alone in Homicide. The idea of trying to adapt to someone else's rhythms after all these years was exhausting even to contemplate. She pictured herself having some sudden insight, and looking across the desk only to find another cop sitting there. A wave of loneliness swept over her, so intense that she shivered.


"Cold?" he asked. "We can run the heat a minute."


"No, I'm fine."


He stared out the window at the darkness while she tried to think of words to make them friends again. "The seat over there is shaped like you," he said at last, although he was not looking at her. "I just noticed the other day."


"I beg your pardon?"


He turned his head. "The car seat. I've had this one long enough now that there is an imprint of my ass in the seat. Just like yours is over there," he said, nodding in her direction. "Too many nights spent parked here together like this." He squinted. "Nothing to be done about it now, though. It'll be like that forever. So on one level, you and I are quite literally never leaving this car."


"You're going to make me weep."


He gave a slow grin. "Profound, isn't it?


"Profoundly depressing, yes." She sat forward at the sight of a figure moving in the distance. "Hey, is that our boy?"


"Let me check." He used the binoculars to study the man walking down the alley for a moment. "Yeah, that's him. And he's just got company too. Let's go."


They exited the vehicle slowly and quietly. McCall paused just a moment with her door open, the nearby streetlight casting a white glow over the worn black leather. Sure enough, there was a slight impression in the seat where she had just been sitting. She shut the door carefully and followed her partner out into the night.


###


Wednesday morning, he awoke from an erotic dream in which he had been buried inside a beautiful woman he could not quite picture now that he was awake. His mouth was dry and his dick stood on end beneath the covers. With a roll, he got out of bed and headed for the shower. This was the third time in a week he'd had this little issue, and it was getting harder to ignore. You need some live action, he thought to himself as he stepped beneath the hot needle spray, and you need it like yesterday.


But the prospect of future sex-capades did nothing for the erection right in front of him. He got a palm full of shower gel and resigned himself to taking care of the problem. The woman from his dream still lacked a face, but he recognized the shape of her, knew the fit of her body to his.


No, no, no, he thought as his brain tried to suck him back in. Not her.


He never allowed himself to think of McCall during moments like this. She would be horrified. She was his partner, she was his friend…


She was moving under him, her body rising like the tide. He moved his hand a little faster, his eyes clenched shut. Maybe just this once. Maybe if he could just get it out of his system, then he could move past it. His heart started to pound as he committed himself to the fantasy. That it was wrong only made him need it more.


He felt her skin under his hands and the prick of her nails on his back. The kissing he summoned from memory, her tongue in his mouth as he drove himself deeper inside her. He braced himself one-armed against the shower stall, his forehead on the tiles. Faster, harder. In his head, McCall cried out in pleasure, and he convulsed with a shudder, her name a silent scream against his lips.


He shuddered in the aftermath, sweet clean droplets trickling into his open mouth. He forced himself to see again his steamy, ordinary bathroom, and the X-rated images swirled away like the water down the drain. It was a long time before he finally felt clean.


He ate a quick breakfast of wheat toast and black coffee, which he downed without really tasting, and then drove to work on auto-pilot. When he arrived at the station, he thought he had beaten her to work because her car was not in its usual spot. As he parked, however, he noticed her standing about five rows over, and she wasn't alone. Keith Holt was chatting her up against the side of an expensive-looking black sedan. Hunter memorized the license plate out of habit.


McCall laughed at something Keith said and did not appear to notice Hunter staring. So that's it, then, he told himself. They're sleeping together. Maybe that will finally get your head back on straight.


He could not see another explanation for them to be together at 7:45 in the morning, except that it was a continuation of the night before. He slammed his car door with a bit more force than necessary and avoided looking at her as he walked to the precinct. At his desk, he picked up a bunch of messages and then tossed them back down, unread. He glanced toward the door but there was still no sign of McCall.


He went to the computer room and pulled out the plastic chair in front of the machine. The room always smelled faintly of burnt plastic. "Hey, I was using that." Annie Lee appeared in the doorway with a mug of coffee in her hand.


"I'll just be a second," he said, waving her off. She was a uniform; he was a detective. She made an annoyed huff but went away without further complaint.


Hunter ran the plate from Keith's car but it came back clean. Then he ran Keith himself through the computer. It beeped as it returned two hits. "Would you look at that," he murmured, and typed in the instructions to pull up the details. These, he printed out, waiting impatiently as the machine slowly inched out the document, line by line.


"It's all yours," he told Annie Lee, who was lingering in the hallway with her coffee. His eyes were on the bullpen, where McCall now sat working at her desk. He took the seat opposite her.


"Morning," she greeted him with a cheery smile.


"You're awfully chipper today."


"The sun is shining, my breakfast included a chocolate croissant, and I have here a message stating we may finally have found a witness in the Salinger case. I'm tempted to end the day now because I don't think it could get better from here."


"I saw you got a lift in with Keith."


Her smile didn't fade. "We had breakfast, yes. He's going out of town again for a couple of days."


"You know, you might want to be careful about riding with him."


"What are you talking about?" she asked with a furrowed brow.


"Take a look at this." He handed her the printout he'd made and sat back while she read it. "He's got two DUIs."


"You ran him through the system?" Surprise colored her features.


"I can't believe you didn't."


"Of course I didn't. He's my friend, not my suspect, and he isn't your suspect either. I can't believe you did this." She let the paper drop onto her desk. "This was totally out of line, Hunter."


"It's my job to watch your back."


"This," she said, fisting the pages again, "is not watching my back. This is interfering in my personal life and I don't find it amusing. You trust my judgment so little that you have to run my dates through NCIC?"


It sounded kind of bad when she put it like that. "I just thought I would check him out to be sure." And hey, he wasn't wrong: the guy did have a record.


"God." She put her head in her hands. "How many times have you done this before?"


"Never."


She narrowed her eyes at him.


"I swear."


She sat back and folded her arms across her chest. "That had better be the truth, Hunter, or so help me…" She shook her head. "I need you to get that this is not okay. I need to be sure you understand how truly violating this is, because if it ever happens again…"


"It won't." She didn't seem to believe him. "I promise."


Slowly, she unfolded her defensive posture and rolled her chair back into place. "Did you bother to check the dates on the DUIs?" she asked without looking at him.


"I saw it was a long time ago."


"He was twenty-two. It was a lifetime ago." Her tone was clipped, angry.


You drive drunk twice, Hunter thought, you'd do it again. But he knew better than to plead his case at that moment.


"You know what else happened when Keith was twenty-two?" she asked. "His fiancée was murdered, stabbed to death in the street. They never caught the guy."


Hunter let out a long breath. There had been nothing in the computer about this.


"And before you go off half-cocked on some witch-hunt," she continued, "Keith was not a suspect. He was out of town with friends at the time."


"You looked into the case?" he asked, surprised.


"I made some casual inquiries to the New Haven police. The case is cold. I don't think it's likely that the killer will ever be caught at this stage. As you know, sometimes they just get away with it." She handed him back the printout. "Never do this again."


"I won't." Her disappointment was like a knife. "I'm sorry."


She gave a tight nod and bent her head over her work to avoid him. Hunter did the same, although he was acutely aware of her sitting there, still furious. She was eight feet away but they'd never been farther apart.


Chapter Four


After two days of tense silence at the station, Hunter was desperate to try anything. He cast a wary look up at City Hall before heading inside. The irony that he was seeking help for his little problem in embodiment of Keith Holt's affections for his partner was not lost on Hunter. He spent the elevator ride hoping like hell he did not run into anyone he knew, lest he have to explain what he was doing on the premises. When the elevator dinged its arrival, he poked his head out first and was relieved to see an empty hallway. The offices of the Employee Assistance Program were at the far end.


He walked quickly down the hall and slipped inside. "Rick Hunter," he told the receptionist. "I'm… I'm here to see Dr. Gallagher."


"Please have a seat and fill out this form," the young woman said, handing him a clipboard. "Dr. Gallagher will be with you in just a few minutes."


He breezed through the list of possible physical complaints – no headaches, fainting, dizziness, etc. – but the psychological ones gave him more pause. Anxiety? No, that wasn't quite it. Trouble sleeping? Only sometimes. He got to one that said, "Do you ever feel like you are being watched?", and his head jerked up to look around. There was no one else in the waiting area.


"If you weren't paranoid before, you will be by the time they're done with you," he muttered, and returned to the form. Eventually, he checked yes to "intrusive thoughts" because that seemed as close as anything. Then he took the form back to the redhead at the desk, who received it with a smile. He waited to see if she would check it out and judge him, but she simply put it in a folder and went back to chewing her gum.


"Rick?" said a pleasant female voice behind him.


"Uh, yeah," he replied as he turned around. There stood an impossibly petite middle-aged woman. She had a slight southern twang and ice-blue eyes.


"I'm Genie Gallagher. It's nice to meet you." For a small person, she had a strong handshake. "Why don't you come back this way to my office?"


She led him to a large, sunny room that smelled faintly of citrus perfume. It had a desk at one end, a leather couch at the other, and a few scattered arm chairs that looked a little worn. There was some sort of cactus garden growing by the window, and she had photos of Southwest mesa landscapes hanging on the walls. "Sit wherever you'd like," she said, selecting an arm chair for herself. He eyed the options and wondered if this were part of some psychological test. Reluctantly, he took a careful seat on the sofa.


His mouth was dry and he was rethinking this whole plan, or at least the part where he had selected a female psychologist. She regarded him with keen interest. "So what brings you here today?" she asked.


His leg started to bounce of its own volition. "I, uh, I need some advice on how to reorganize my thinking – to change my thought patterns. Is that something you can do?"


"It's something I might be able to help you do. What sort of thought pattern do you want to change?"


"It's about my partner, my police partner." Now that the time had come to say the words aloud, his voice was failing him.


"Would you like some water?"


"Please."


She fetched him a cup from the cooler near her desk and then returned to her seat. He drained the water in two gulps. "So there's an issue with your partner," she said. "Tell me what's bothering you."


He took a deep breath. "She and I have been together for almost five years, and it's been a tremendously successful partnership. We actually had the highest solve rate in the department last year – second highest the year before. So we get maybe some extra latitude that other detectives don't have."


"Like what?"


"We don't get assigned to other people, for one. Also…" How to put this? "Some of our methods are a bit unorthodox, but because of our results, the brass often looks the other way. I didn't used to have that luxury until McCall. She's good with people in a way that I'm not. She's smart, and she's... well, she's very pretty. You never quite realize what a beautiful woman can get away with until you have one on your team."


"So you're saying she uses her looks to her advantage?"


"Sure, sometimes, I guess. But what I'm saying is that I benefited too, because we're partners. If they let her off, I got off too. And that's really about the only consideration I ever gave to it until recently."


"What's changed?"


"If I knew that, I wouldn't be here." He blew out a frustrated breath and sat back on the sofa. "We have been partners and friends for years, and I have never wanted anything more. The fact that she's attractive, well, I figured I'd registered that at our first meeting and then not really thought about it since. But now…now suddenly I can't seem to stop thinking about it, and it's becoming a problem. I don't know where these feelings came from, but I would like them to go back there." He looked over at her. "Can you make that happen, Doctor?"


"It's not quite that simple, I'm afraid. We're not issued handy memory wipers or magic words that can erase unwanted feelings."


He felt crushed. "I thought maybe hypnosis or something…"


"Sorry," she said kindly. "I can't offer any shortcuts. But I am interested in hearing more about your feelings and why you say they are a problem."


"Well, it's distracting as hell, for one thing. It's useless, for another, because we will never have that sort of relationship. It's frustrating because I don't want to want her in that way; I want to go back to seeing her only as a partner and friend. And for whatever reason, I can't make that happen." He picked at a stray thread that had come loose from the stitching on the arm of the couch. "And I'm afraid I'm starting to take that frustration out on her, which I recognize is totally unfair."


"Taking it out on her in what way?"


"She has a new boyfriend," Hunter said darkly. "And I don't think I've been very nice about it."


"I see."


"It has never been a problem in the past," he said with some vehemence. "I haven't liked all the guys she's dated, but I've never cared about not liking them, if you know what I mean. It wasn't my business. Hell, it's still not my business." Maybe saying the words out loud to another person could make him believe it. "So you see, Doc, I need to find a way to get a lid on this before I say something I really regret."


"I think I am beginning to get an idea of the picture. You say you don't know where these feelings for her came from, but do you know when they started? Sometimes pinpointing the timing can give you more insight."


He scrubbed his face with both hands. "Well, yes, the 'when' is not a question. It started a few months ago when I kissed her."


Dr. Gallagher smiled and shook her head. "You might have included that tidbit of information in your earlier narrative, Sergeant. That's what you might call 'a clue' in your line of work. So what happened when you kissed her?"


He closed his eyes and was right back in the parking lot, feeling her mouth on his, the tickle of her eyelashes against his cheek. It almost seemed like he could reach out and touch her. "Nothing," he said finally. "It was one kiss that happened under really uncomfortable circumstances, and then it was over. The end."


"Except it's clearly not 'the end' for you," she pointed out. "Did she kiss you back?"


He was quiet a moment. "Yes," he admitted at last. "But that doesn't mean anything."


"Maybe not. But it could mean you're not the only one wrestling with these feelings."


"No, believe me, she's past it. And I can't read anything at all into her behavior that night because of the extenuating circumstances involved. She...she wasn't herself."


"How do you mean?"


He shifted uncomfortably. It was one thing spilling his guts in here, but he treaded lightly with McCall's privacy. "We had been working a very tough case which ended badly, at least in some respects. Emotions were running high, and I had a moment of weakness. She was hurting and I guess wanted to make it better somehow." He shrugged. "I figured I'd be able to move on with no problem when things settled down again, but instead, here I am."


"How was she hurting?"


"Does it matter?"


"You would know better than I would. So far, we've determined that this kiss is perhaps what sparked a shift in your feelings, and thus it might seem like a good idea to explore the context."


He shook his head. "It's a long story."


"We have another half an hour," she said, checking the delicate gold watch at her wrist.


"I'm not sure that's long enough," he answered with a heavy sigh. He tried to think of the clearest way to begin. "A few years ago, McCall and I were assigned to work a case at the Curguaian consulate. A young woman had been raped, beaten and strangled on the property – it was a brutal, personal attack, and it was clear the guy would do it again if we didn't catch him. So we were trying to get a feel for the place by interviewing everyone on the premises. McCall talked to this one guy, an attaché by the name of Raul Mariano. He was cooperative and nothing really jumped out about him at the time. To make a long story very short, he showed up at McCall's house a few days later to ask her out, and when she turned him down, he attacked her and raped her."


"Oh, that's awful," Dr. Gallagher murmured.


He left out the part where Mariano had choked his partner to the point of unconsciousness and left her there for dead. It already felt weird to be telling this story outside of McCall's presence, like he was violating her in some way. He swallowed with difficulty and continued the part of the story that belonged to him. "The worst part was that we couldn't arrest the dirt bag. He had diplomatic immunity, so the best we could do was try to get Curaguay to take him back and prosecute him there. I…well, I lost control somewhat. I threatened him and made clear that I'd gladly see him dead. So he showed up outside my home and he shot me."


"Oh my God."


"Right here," Hunter said, touching the scar on his shoulder through his shirt. He could still smell the gunpowder all these years later. "Lucky for me, he was a terrible marksman."


"Surely that should have been enough to convince the consulate to prosecute."


"In a way. They hustled him back home, but it was clear nothing was going to be done to him once he was there. In his version of the story, McCall was a liar and I was a homicidal maniac. So there we were, the two of us, both out on short-term disability to lick our various wounds."


"So he got away with it?"


Hunter hesitated. He had never told anyone but McCall all the details of what had happened to Raul Mariano. "No," he said at length. "While on leave, I went down to Curaguy. I bought a gun and I started following Mariano. I figured I would learn his habits, find the best time, and execute him."


Dr. Gallagher seemed speechless. She was as tense as he was, and his words hung in the air between them.


"This is strictly confidential, right?" He should have asked this before shooting off his big mouth.


She nodded carefully. "Generally, yes. I only have to report issues in which you could be a danger to yourself or others. Danger that has passed…" He could see her trying to figure out if confessing to a previous murder fell outside the bounds of privilege.


"Don't worry," he said. "I won't get you in any legal trouble." He paused. "I don't think. Maybe I should just stop the story."


"No, no," she answered with determination. "I think you need to continue."


He nodded slowly. "I was going to kill him. I was. But McCall figured out what I was up to, and she showed up before anything happened. I was doing a good job of avoiding the palace surveillance, but of course she found me in about two seconds. She wanted to try the legal channels, to see if maybe they would be forced to deal with Mariano with one of his victims standing before them, explaining what a monster he was. But of course it didn't work."


"So what happened then?" She seemed half afraid of his answer, and he couldn't blame her.


"I took my gun and I went to get him." Even now, he could summon up the cold fury. "I wasn't going to stop until he had a bullet through his head."


"You know what? Maybe…maybe you shouldn't say anymore."


"I didn't do it," he broke in. "I couldn't pull the trigger. I was turning to leave when Mariano pulled out a gun and shot at me – thankfully, he still had lousy aim. He missed me entirely this time, but I wasn't about to give him a second opportunity. I took him down with one bullet."


He looked over at her to see her reaction. She still seemed shocked, maybe a little afraid of him or what he might say next. He could understand because this was how he had felt at the time: shaken by the violence that was in him. "McCall and I had to flee the country," he said. "It was then I realized how dangerous the whole thing really was. We could have both been killed." He took a breath. "But we made it out, and the officials in Curaguay weren't about to come back here and make a fuss. It was over."


"Was it?"


"It felt that way at the time. We kept it quiet between us. After a while, it faded into the background, we didn't really talk about it."


"That's quite a secret to share," she said soberly.


"Yeah, I guess. And if I'm being totally honest, I've been mostly okay with it. He was going to keep raping and killing until someone stopped it, and it seemed like no one was going to. I've been telling myself I did the world a favor, that I helped McCall put an end to her nightmares… and it was all self-defense. It's only just recently I kind of see a different side."


"What side is that?"


He wasn't sure how to explain. "Are you familiar with the term 'mens rea'?" She shook her head. "It's a legal term that means 'guilty mind'. I wanted Mariano dead and I did in fact kill him. It was self-defense only because I created the situation in which he could attack me again. Maybe I even wanted it that way. And maybe I shouldn't have made it look that easy."


"I don't follow you."


No, she didn't, but McCall had. If he didn't go all Dirty Harry in the South American jungle country, does McCall end up luring Fredericks home to kill him? He was a long-distance accomplice, and given her anguish over what had nearly happened, it was a dirty feeling. Mens rea.


"The case I mentioned at the beginning," he said, "the one that went bad."


"The one that preceded your kiss."


He nodded. "It was another rape-homicide."


She sat back as realization dawned. "I see. So you had old memories brought up again."


"Yes, but there was more." He looked at her, trying to decide how much to say. "The rapist targeted McCall."


"What?"


"We let it happen. We thought we could use her to trap him. McCall went along with it, and we all thought we could keep her safe. We had him under round-the-clock surveillance; McCall changed her locks. Talking about it now, it's clear we were out of our heads. It was completely crazy and undeniably dangerous. But when she didn't object to the plan, I just ignored my own doubts. He'd raped nine women and killed one. We all wanted the guy caught so bad, and I guess we were willing to lie to ourselves to make that happen."


"What did happen?" Her question was almost a whisper.


"He made the tail and went out the back door." Emotion clogged his throat. "Can you believe we never thought of that? Jeez, we were a bunch of goddamn idiots – me especially. If anyone should have been able to speak up and say, no, not this time, not McCall, it should have been me."


"You didn't trust her to do it herself."


"Not with everyone looking to her to say yes, it was fine. There was no way." There was an electronic beeping sound from her desk, and he felt a sharp stab of reprieve. 


"Time's up?"


"Technically, yes, but this is my lunch hour. Please go on." She tried to smile. "I think we need to finish this story more than I need an egg salad sandwich."


"There's not much more that I can say." Even within the confidentiality of a doctor's office, he wasn't willing to risk putting McCall's future at risk. "Lloyd Fredericks showed up at her place, intending to rape her, and she arrested him." That was the official story, and the unofficial one wasn't his to tell.


"That must have been downright terrifying for McCall. Thank goodness she wasn't hurt."


"Yeah," he said grimly. "Thank goodness. But now maybe you can understand why I don't put much stock in her response to the kiss – or anything else she said or did that week. We were both pretty rattled, but especially her."


"Yes," she conceded. "I think you're right to refrain from judgment at the moment." She shifted to sit on the other end of the couch. "I'm also beginning to understand better why maintaining the balance of this relationship is so important to you."


"So you can help me, then?"


"I've still got no easy answer for you, but I'd like to keep talking. It couldn't hurt and it might help."


"I know you probably don't believe me when I tell you this was never a problem before. It's not like I've been pining away for her all these years. If that was true, I could sort of understand it. But this…" He spread his hands helplessly. "It's like a switch was flicked on inside me or something. I just need to know how to switch it back off, so that we can go back to the way things were."


"There is no back," she said. "There is only forward."


Great, he had picked Yoda for a shrink. "Meaning what?" he asked, rubbing the knot in his neck.


"Let's pick another date to meet," she said as she moved to get her calendar. "And in the meantime, I have some homework for you."


He stood up and put his coat back on. "I was never really good at homework."


"There's no essays or arithmetic involved, I promise. I want you to think of one piece of your emotional history that is not shared with McCall but that is shared with another person. I also want you to come up with one thing you don't like about your partner."


He frowned, immediately protective of her even in her absence. "That seems kind of unnecessary. I'm trying to dial back the lust factor here, not burn her in effigy."


"I'm sure she's a lovely person," Dr. Gallagher said, tilting her head at him. "But if you want those feelings of yours to go away, you can't keep nurturing them."


###


She was so rarely angry with Hunter that she didn't quite know what to do with the feeling. In the daily parade of psychotic pimps and philandering husbands, Hunter was supposed to be the fun part, the one who quirked an ironic eyebrow at her over a particularly ridiculous interrogation or who made her dissolve into giggles with a well-timed remark about Charlie's unnerving affection for his pet cat. But two days had passed without so much as a smile between them. They were yoked together by death, trudging from a gangland-style shooting to a body dump near what used to be the LA river. Everywhere she went, there he was, and after a while, the righteous indignation started to wear her down. By the time he brought her a roast beef sandwich and a bag of chips for lunch on Friday – part of his ongoing silent penance - she was ready to let go for her sake as much as his.


"I forgot to mention that I need to leave by three today," she said as they ate.


"Hot date?" he asked, and then grimaced. "Sorry, bad habit."


"No, I'm meeting Mike Snow at his office. Presumably he wants to talk about Clare Fredericks's trial." She paused. If they were ever going to get past this, she had to hold up her end of the routine. "After that, yes, I have a hot date."


Hunter seemed to ignore that part. "Mike Snow wants to talk to you? Just you?"


"Well, I didn't ask to see a guest list." She licked a bit of salt from her thumb, and Hunter put down his sandwich.


"I don't see why he needs you for this. If he wants someone to testify about what a monster Fredericks was, there are any number of cops who could do it. Kitty and Brad worked the case way longer than we did."


"I was the arresting officer," she said. "But for all I know, he'll want to put all of us on the stand. He's going for diminished capacity, and you know how difficult those cases are to win."


"If anyone can pull it off, it's Mike Snow." He looked her up and down with concern. "You okay with this? Going to talk to him about Fredericks?"


"I doubt it will be the highlight of my day, but I think I can handle it. Just stick to the facts on record, right?"


He frowned. "Just be careful. Mike is a great guy to have on your side when you're sitting in a jail cell, but out in the wild, he's just another snake-in-the-grass attorney."


"We're on the same side this time. I hope he wins his case. There is nothing further to be served by locking up Clare Fredericks."


"No, I agree with you there. I just wish he didn't have to go through you to accomplish his goal."


Through you, he said, and she froze at the words, which suggested that somehow that the experience would leave her, and come out the other side. It was the promise of this freedom more than anything else that propelled her up the steps to Mike Snow's office building at 3pm that day.


Michael Snow, esquire, occupied the top floor of a fifteen-story building, where he kept junior attorneys housed like livestock in tiny cubicles while he had a corner office with a conference table, a mahogany desk and a killer view of the city. McCall found the suite curiously empty. In her experience, Mike did not usually let his staff off early on a sunny Friday afternoon. He did not win more than ninety percent of his cases by quitting early, and the legal eagles under him took their cues from the top.


Mike's assistant, an elderly woman with a gray bun, gave her a smile. "Sergeant McCall," she said. "How are you? I was pleased to see your name on his calendar today."


"Hi, Jeanette. I'm fine. How are you? How's Danny doing?"


Jeanette turned around a picture on her desk to show off her grandson. "He's in second grade now. Can you believe it?"


The door behind her opened to reveal Mike Snow himself, with his thin black mustache and even thinner hair. He looked older than the last time she'd seen him. "McCall, thanks for coming." His eyes were kind but his smile seemed distant. "Jeannie, did you ask the good sergeant if she would like some coffee or a soda?"


"I'm fine, thanks." McCall tried to see around him into the office to determine if Clare Fredericks was on the premises. She had not said a word to the woman, ever, and she wasn't sure what she could say now. Thank you seemed perhaps inappropriate.


"Then please come inside and let's get started. Jeannie, feel free to head on home for the weekend."


Jeannette's face registered surprise and delight. "You're sure? Well, thank you."


McCall discovered that she and Mike would be alone in his expansive office. In fact, he seemed to be engineering it that way. "Let's sit over here, shall we?" He indicated a pair of leather high-backed chairs that flanked a small end table. There was a mug of coffee steaming there, indicating Mike hadn't sent his assistant away without having his needs tended to one last time. Outside, the city skyline was partially visible behind the thick white haze. Mike hitched up his pants as he sat. "You're sure I can't get you something?"


He was offering to fetch her food and drink? She cast a skeptical eyebrow at him. "You can get to the point," she said. "I assume this is about Clare Fredericks."


"You would be correct. The DA's office is offering manslaughter with a sentencing recommendation of five to seven years. I won't let her accept anything that involves jail time, so we are headed for trial. I plan to call you to testify."


Her heart picked up despite the fact that this is what she'd expected. "Testify to what, exactly?"


He rubbed a hand over his mouth and shook his head. "We've known each other a long time, Dee Dee. I hope that you know I have nothing but the utmost respect for you, and for Hunter. You're good cops, the both of you. But the system doesn't work unless we all do our jobs. I have to strive to keep people out of prison just as hard as you work to put them there."


"Spare me the defense attorney's credo," she said. "I happen to agree with you this time. Clare Fredericks does not belong in prison."


"I wish the DA shared your compassion. But he can't get past the fact that she shot up the inside of a police station. I think if Clare had just killed Fredericks at home, we might not even be sitting here."


He gave her a probing look, and the hairs on her neck stood up. "Just what is it you want me to say on the stand?" she asked.


"I need the jury to understand the horror of his crimes. I need them to believe that being confronted with a rapist could lead a woman to do desperate things, things she wouldn't ordinarily be capable of."


Maybe he means Mariano, she thought, the blood pounding in her ears. Either way, it was clear he was talking about putting her on the stand as a rape victim more than a police officer. "I…I don't know that I could provide the kind of perspective you're seeking," she said at length. "It seems like it would be more appropriate to have a psychologist testify to motivation."


"Oh, I intend to," he said, shifting in his seat. "I have a half dozen of them lined up." He sighed, his face pinched, and then he took up a notebook from the table that she had not noticed before. "Did you know that Lloyd Fredericks kept a journal?"


Her stomach lurched, as if she'd been punched.


"Clare found it last week when she was going through some of his things, and as near as I can tell, it's a record of all of the women he assaulted or even considered assaulting. It would have been enough to put him away for several lifetimes if he'd ever gone to trial. He was very…detailed."


Go, her body commanded her. Go now. Get out of here. But she was frozen again, trapped like an animal, just as she had been that night when Fredericks appeared on her stairs.


"I hate to have to raise this with you…"


"Then don't."


"He writes that you invited him to your house," Mike continued softly, and she squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head. "And I believe it's true. I checked the records and you did go to the jail to see Fredericks that afternoon, just as he wrote in his journal."


"He's not here to testify. It's…it's just words on a page." She was actively trembling now, and she folded her hands to try to stop it.


"You invited him there," Mike repeated, "and reading the journal, I have a very good idea about why. I think you intended to do the exact same thing Clare did."


"You can't prove that." Her voice was rough, thick. She had no idea what he could and couldn't prove. Mike Snow could get evidence entered or suppressed at trial seemingly at will.


"I believe that I could. But I also know I don't have to. I know you, and I know that all I would need to do is call you to the stand and ask you."


"Please," she said, letting him see her tears. "I am asking you please not to do that."


"I don't want to. It gives me no joy."


"Then for once in your life, let it go. If you make me testify, it's not just my job on the line, you know. You'll take Hunter and Charlie Devane down with me. Is that what you really want?"


"I wanted this pled out from the start, but the DA is determined to go to war. And if that is what he wants, then I will not leave any of my weapons behind." He leaned across towards her. "You know better than anyone on the planet what was going through Clare's head the night she shot her husband. And if you could share that fury, given your badge and your gun and the fact that you weren't married to that – that animal – then imagine what it was like for his wife."


She blinked at the ceiling, determined not to weep in front of him. Her whole life was slipping away again.


"I suggest you see an attorney," he said quietly.


"An attorney is about the last person I want to talk to right now," she shot back viciously.


He nodded, slowly, shifting away from her. "You can hate me. That's okay. Hell, I sometimes hate myself. But you should still seek counsel, Dee Dee. And when this is over, if the LAPD really has had the balls to fire you, I will gladly help you sue their pants off."


###


The sun was sinking into the sky as she drove home, casting a low-flying glare off the city skyscrapers. Traffic inched along as commuters poured out onto the streets. McCall kept pace automatically, hitting the brakes as the taillights flashed red in front of her. Every so often, she paused to swipe at the silent tears that were running down her face.


Her radio crackled to life. "L-57, I have a Keith Holt on the line for you. Do you wish to take the call?"


Keith. They were supposed to have dinner that night. She wiped her cheek with her sleeve and cleared her throat before picking up the radio. "Yes, I'll take it."


A second later, Keith was on the line. "Hey, beautiful. I've been counting the hours until tonight, but I'm afraid it's going to be just an extra hour or two more. My flight was delayed. We're just got off the plane now."


"I'm…I'm glad you called." Her throat seized up again. "I'm very sorry but I'm afraid I have to cancel tonight."


"Cancel? Is something wrong?"


"I'm just not feeling very well, is all. I must have caught some virus that's going around. All I want to do is crawl under the covers and sleep." This much was true.


"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that." His voice was rich with sympathy. "You need anything? Chicken soup? Hot water bottle?"


"No. No, thanks. I just need some rest. I'll call you." Mike Snow was right about one thing: she was a terrible liar. She disconnected the line before she could say anything more. If she had to testify, Keith would know the lurid details soon enough.


Back at her house, she punched the security code into her alarm system. What a fool she'd been to think there was any way to be safe again. She leaned her back against the wall and sank slowly to the floor, her head in her hands. The sobs she'd held back after the attack, when it had been too painful to cry, welled up inside her on a wail of anguish.


###


It was just after seven when his phone rang. He had the TV on and a scotch and soda in hand, his shoes off and his feet up. He almost let it go through to the machine but leaned over to snatch it off its hook at the last second. "Hello."


"Hunter?" There was an eerie pause on the end, one that shook loose a terrible memory. He sat bolt upright on the couch.


"McCall? What's wrong?"


"He knows," she said at last. She sounded very far away. "Mike Snow knows about me and Fredericks. It turns out Fredericks kept a journal."


"Where are you?" He was already putting his shoes back on. "Are you at home?"


"I'm totally screwed, that's where I am. And you're right there with me."


"I'm coming over."


The alarm started beeping at him the instant he opened the door. From the couch, McCall made no move to get up. He hit the code for the alarm and shut the door gently behind him. He could see she had a half-empty bottle of wine and a glass in her hands. She wore the same black pencil skirt and red blouse she'd had on at work, but all the life seemed drained out of her. "I'm sorry," she said, glancing at him, and he could hear now that she'd been crying.


"Hey, now, you know you don't have to apologize to me." He took a seat on the couch next to her. "Tell me what happened with Mike Snow."


She set the glass aside and gave him a short recap of the meeting. When she was done, Hunter wanted to find Snow and shake him until his teeth rattled. "What a God-damned bastard," he said. "Who the hell does he think he is?"


"He's not wrong," she answered dully, her head falling back against the couch. "I know what it's like to point a gun at Fredericks and want him dead. I wasn't thinking about anything else when I lured him back here. Not my job, not my family…" She risked a look at him. "Not even you. If Mike Snow wants to show the jury what diminished capacity looks like, he could do a lot worse."


"Nonsense. Come here." He took her in his arms and held her close. For a few moments, he pretended this could make a difference, that there was any way to protect her.


"Once I testify, it's all going to come out. And that's if Snow hasn't already entered the journal into evidence." She shuddered. "I can only imagine what it says."


He rested his cheek on the top of her head, his thoughts racing. "What about rape shield laws? If you can testify without your name getting out…"


"I would be on the stand as the arresting officer. And I wasn't raped. The laws would not apply to me." She gave a mirthless laugh. "The laws would not apply to me," she repeated ironically. "That's what got me into this mess in the first place, thinking I could circumvent a trial and then cover it up." She leaned back to look up at him. "In a way, maybe this needed to happen. I don't want to lose my job, but I don't want to live with the ghost of Lloyd Fredericks following me around for the rest of my days. If it was just me, I could tell the truth and face the consequences. But Hunter, if anything happens to you because of what I did…"


"Shh," he told her, kissing her forehead, her cheek. She tasted like salt. "Don't worry about me."


Her despair could not be assuaged. "They're going to fire me," she whispered, resting her forehead on his. "And likely they will fire you too."


"We'll figure something out. I promise." He smoothed her hair back, repeating the motion several times until she nodded. Her pain always found the tender places inside him, making him feel protective and vulnerable all at once. He was bereft when she pulled away.


She reached for her wine glass with a shaking hand and then settled back against the cushions, her legs tucked under her. "How much of that have you had?" he asked, assessing the bottle.


"Not enough," she replied, closing her eyes.


"How about I make us some coffee instead?"


"Suit yourself." She opened her eyes to look at him. "Mike wants to destroy my career and then help me sue the LAPD."


He halted with a hand on her knee. "What?"


"He thinks they could be held criminally responsible for placing me in a dangerous situation without the proper precautions."


"They…meaning who? The Chief? Devane?" He swallowed. "Me?"


"No," she said, her voice little more than a thin hum. Her eyes were closed again. "Never you. Doesn't matter anyway. I would never do it."


He considered for a moment. "You might have a case."


"No. It was my decision too. Let me own that much, at least."


He made himself at home in her kitchen, pulling down two mugs and pouring some beans into the coffee grinder. He gave them an automatic sniff. McCall went for cheap food, but she had good coffee. As he ran the water, he tried to think of a way to convince Mike Snow to drop her from the trial. He could not come up with a single time in which he'd ever been able to convince Mike Snow of anything. Maybe he could at least persuade him to use McCall as a last resort. If the trial seemed to be going well without her...


He poked around, looking for something to eat, but her cupboards were fairly bare. "Hey, what do you think about ordering a pizza?" he called out. The only noise he heard in reply was the percolating of the coffee maker. "McCall?"


He stuck his head back out and saw she was asleep on the sofa. With a sigh, he went over and nudged her gently. "Lie down," he whispered as she stirred. "Get some rest." He draped an afghan over her and kissed her head. Her eyes did not even open.


He returned to the kitchen to pour himself a coffee and order a pizza, figuring McCall might want some later if she woke up. Ten minutes later, the doorbell rang. "That was fast," he murmured to himself as he checked his watch.


But it was Keith Holt on the other side of the door, holding some sort of paper sack. He looked as surprised as Hunter felt. "Sergeant Hunter," he said. "I just stopped by to see Dee Dee. We talked earlier and she said she wasn't feeling well…"


"She's sleeping at the moment."


"Is she all right?"


"She'll be fine."


"I brought her this soup…"


Hunter cast one look at the couch behind him and then widened the door. He figured he might earn some points with McCall if he showed boyfriend at least some minimal hospitality. "Come in," he said, "but be quiet about it."


Keith put a finger to his lips to show he understood and stepped inside. Hunter watched as the other man looked around with naked curiosity at the framed sheet music, her inexplicable collection of white ceramic rabbits, and the upright piano. Keith had obviously never been inside McCall's house before, and Hunter kicked himself mentally for inviting him in. He also revised his earlier assessment that they were sleeping together. If she hadn't let him into her house, there was no way she'd let him into her body. His opinion on the architect softened just a bit more.


"Kitchen's this way," he said, jerking a nod for Keith to follow.


Keith paused a moment when he spotted McCall on the sofa, his gaze taking in the wine bottle and single glass. Hunter waved him on, and Keith finally followed him into the kitchen. He set his bag of soup down on the counter. "That doesn't look like the flu," he said.


"You want some coffee?" Hunter asked as he poured himself another cup.


Keith spread his hands in a 'why the hell not' gesture. "I'm surprised that she lied to me, but I guess I don't know why I'm surprised. When you get down to it, I don't really know her very well."


"No, you don't," Hunter replied not unkindly. "That takes time."


Keith nodded, only half listening. "Like, apparently she likes rabbits and plays the piano."


"Quite well, actually."


"And has a problem with alcohol?"


Hunter coughed and put down his mug. "Uh, not that I know of, and I'm pretty sure I would be aware."


Keith eyed him. "I guess you would. So what's this about, then?"


"Listen, Keith, the answers you want, I can't give you. It's not my place."


"She intimated that something bad had happened recently. I thought maybe it was a rough breakup." He checked Hunter's face to see if he was on the right track, but Rick kept his gaze neutral. "Look, if you won't tell me, and she won't tell me, what am I supposed to do?"


If Mike Snow had his way, Keith would soon be able to read about it in the papers. Hunter folded his arms across his chest. "I'll tell you three things," he said. "One, if she lied to you, then she had a good reason. Two, you can't push her or she'll push back – trust me on this one."


"And three?"


"Three: she's worth it." There. He considered his earlier sabotage thoroughly repaired now.


Keith seemed to consider his words, and then he nodded slowly. "Okay, then maybe you wouldn't mind taking off so I could talk to her."


"Oh, no. That's not going to happen."


"Why not?" Keith looked annoyed again.


"She didn't ask you here. She's exhausted. And I have a pizza coming. Come on, I'll show you out." He put his hand Keith's back and ushered him toward the front door. McCall had not shifted at all on the sofa.


"Tell her I stopped by, will you?"


"I will."


At the stoop, Keith turned around. "Look, in case it needs to be said: I care about Dee Dee. I wouldn't do anything to hurt her."


Hunter leaned against the door. "Oh, I'm sure of that much. You see, if you hurt her, I shoot you." Keith's eyes widened in disbelief. "It's true. I've shot maybe half her ex-boyfriends."


Keith decided to play along. "And the other half?"


"The other half… well, let's just say no one has found the bodies yet. Good night, Mr. Holt."


The pizza delivery boy arrived as Keith was leaving. Hunter paid him and opened the box at the front door for a deep sniff: veggies on his half, pepperoni and sausage for her. When he turned around again, she was sitting up on the couch. "Welcome back," he said. "How are you feeling?"


"Like my head has been caught in a vise. Is that pizza?"


"Yeah, you hungry?"


"Maybe after some aspirin." She refolded the afghan and followed him to the kitchen. He reached her the bottle of aspirin and a glass for water. "Thanks," she muttered, and downed a pair of pills. She frowned at the paper bag sitting on her counter. "What's that?"


"Oh, that. Keith dropped by with some chicken soup for you."


She closed her eyes in regret. "Yeah, I told him I wasn't feeling well. He came over here? And you talked to him?"


"Relax. I was nice. I assured him you did not have a drinking problem, all evidence to the contrary aside."


"Oh my God." She put hand over her eyes.


"Then I said I would shoot him if he ever hurt you. It was a productive chat."


"Hunter!"


"I was kidding! He knew it too." He rubbed the back of his neck. "At least I'm pretty sure."


She leaned against the counter and sighed. "As long as you didn't actually shoot him, I guess we'll call it a successful exchange."


He pulled out a fragrant slice of pizza that was heavy with cheese. "I gather you haven't told him anything about Fredericks," he said before taking a large bite.


"That's not exactly an easy conversation to start." She picked off a slice of pepperoni and ate it.


"No, I know. But he's wondering what's up. I didn't answer any of his questions, but you know he's just going to bring them to you." When she didn't say anything, he risked a look at her. "Dee Dee?"


She studied the floor. "I had just reached the stage where the rape wasn't a consideration any more. I didn't have to worry about disclosing it or having flashbacks…and then I came home to find Fredericks waiting in my bedroom. I guess I just wanted to spend time with Keith as me, you know? Not as a victim."


This anonymity, Hunter realized, was one thing he could not give her. He had seen the bruises up close and personal.


She pulled out a chair, its metal feet scraping across the floor, and lowered herself down. He took a seat opposite her. "But all of that is about to change," she said, "if Mike Snow goes ahead with his plan to put me on the stand. Everyone will see me as a victim all over again."


He took her hand. "No," he said. "Not everyone."


Chapter Five


Hunter went to see Mike Snow at night, after hours, because this visit was personal. But Mike was of course still at work because, for him, nothing was personal. The whole building was quiet and dark except for the top floor, which shone like a lighthouse. He found Mike Snow's driver/bodyguard sitting in the reception area and reading the day's newspaper, a half-eaten pastrami sandwich at his side. The man jerked upright at the sight of Hunter. "What are you doing here?"


"I came to talk to Mike."


"He has no appointments this evening."


"Check the calendar again," Hunter said, preparing to push past him.


Mike emerged from behind his heavy office door. "It's okay, Tom. I've been expecting him. Come on back, Sergeant."


Hunter stalked into Mike's inner sanctum and shut the door behind him. "You've pulled some pretty despicable stunts in the time I've known you, but this one is a new low, even for you."


"I see you've talked to McCall." He wandered over to a cart with several bottles on it and selected an amber-colored liquid. "Can I offer you a drink?"


"Did Fredericks really keep a journal?" He wouldn't put it past Mike Snow to lie about such a thing just to get McCall to testify to what he wanted.


"Mmm," he said, taking sip. "Yes, indeed. It makes for some seriously disturbing reading, but I doubt you are surprised by that. I've seen the files your task force put together – nine women brutally raped and you still couldn't make a case. But for the actions of my client, you'd probably have four or five new victims by now."


"Your client nearly killed two police officers."


"Further proof that she was not thinking clearly that night." He took his drink and sat down in a high-backed leather chair. "Please, have a seat."


"I don't want a seat." Hunter gripped the edge of the other chair. "I want you to leave McCall alone. If you've read the journal, then you damn well know why."


Mike swirled his drink thoughtfully. "Does she know you're here?"


"No, she does not."


Mike nodded as though he had assumed as much. "You cops always go for the cover-up, and that's what gets you every time. I've been thinking about Dee Dee a lot, actually, and it might surprise you but I have great sympathy for her position. So, I might add, does Clare Fredericks." He set his drink on one knee. "You sure you won't sit down? I'm getting a crick in my neck just looking at you."


"I'll sit anywhere you want if it will make you listen to me." He lowered himself into the chair across from Mike. "Back off McCall. She's been through enough, and you do not need her to make your case."


"I need the jury to see it's possible to have a moment of understandable madness and come out sane the other side."


"McCall didn't shoot him. Your client did."


"And if she hadn't?" he countered, swallowing the remainder of his drink. He coughed briefly. "Fredericks would be free and McCall might be the one in jail. He did not break into her home that night, nor did he assault her. The door was unlocked. At best, it's minor trespassing."


"What are you saying? That McCall owes your client for blowing away a rapist?"


"You never know, she might find testifying liberating in a way. The truth shall set her free."


Hunter sat back, disgusted. "God, you're an arrogant little bastard, aren't you? Not to mention a hypocrite. You spend your days defending these bottom feeders. If Clare Fredericks hadn't shot her husband, you'd probably be his attorney instead. You forget I've seen your work – you're the one who stands up there and asks the rape victims if they're really, really sure they didn't ask for it, if maybe they even enjoyed it. When we can't get a woman to press charges, it's because she's afraid of facing you and your buddies on the stand. So let's cut the bullshit about how wonderful and freeing it is to testify in a rape trial."


Mike pursed his thin lips. "I've represented you a time or two, Sergeant. Isn't it interesting that you never question my methods when you are the beneficiary?" He held up his hand to stop Hunter's automatic protest. "Don't bother. I think we both know I'm not the only hypocrite in this room."


"You hurt her, and I'll end you."


"Yes that does rather seem to be your MO." He got up and returned to the serving cart for another drink.


"What's that supposed to mean?"


Mike gave an expansive shrug with the bourbon bottle in one hand. "I followed the story last time, with the attaché from Curaguay. I don't believe for an instant that he was killed in a hunting accident. You were away on a fishing trip at the time, as I recall."


"I don't give a damn what you believe." He rubbed his hand over his eyes. It was easier to blow away Raul Mariano than it was to sit here in Mike Snow's ivory tower and ask him for a favor.


"No, but maybe McCall cares."


"What the hell are you talking about?"


Mike took a swallow and then swirled the liquid around in the tumbler. "Raul Mariano rapes her, and instead of any sort of trial, you go down there and summarily execute him – if the scuttlebutt is to be believed. Then three years later, Lloyd Fredericks nearly rapes her again, and my client shoots him dead. Thanks to your little conspiracy of silence, there's no record at all this time. You may not believe me, but there is something empowering about sitting on that witness stand, about saying, 'There he is. That's the guy that did it to me!'" He pointed one trembling finger at Hunter.


Hunter said nothing for a long moment. "You put her on the stand, and they will take her badge."


"They won't," Mike said as he took his seat again. "There is more power in her story than she knows. The LAPD put her squarely in the path of a violent predator and then – for lack of money and common sense – they failed to protect her. McCall might not have the law on her side but she would have something more precious: the power of public opinion. No, mark my words: the LAPD brass are the ones who should fear her testimony."


"It's still her story. You don't get to be the one who decides to tell it."


"Why not? You, Devane… whoever else dreamed up the current pickle you're in now… you all decided she wouldn't tell it." He flashed a yellowed grin in Hunter's direction. "You and I, Sergeant, maybe we're more alike than you want to admit."


###


McCall went outside for lunch, to the little park across the street that featured weathered picnic tables and gently wafting trees. Hunter wasn't around, and Keith couldn't call her if she wasn't there to answer the phone. She got an order of fish tacos from the taco truck and ate alone at the end of one table. From her vantage point, she could still see the front of precinct, with its concrete steps and plain brick profile. Keith would definitely not be impressed with the aesthetics, but after all these years, she found its familiarity comforting. She couldn't imagine not being allowed to come back to work there.


"Figured I'd find you here."


She squinted up to where her very tall partner was blocking out the sun. "That'll teach me to hide from a detective."


He sat on the bench opposite her and helped himself to one of her chips. "Is that what you're doing? Hiding?"


"Not really," she said with a sigh. "Just sitting here wondering what I would do if I wasn't a cop."


"Seal trainer," he said as if he'd already given the matter some thought, and she threw her napkin at him. He hunched over the table. "You know, I went to see Mike Snow the other night."


"Uh-oh. Do I even want to know how that went? I didn't see any reports of a body washing up on shore today."


He sat back, blinking at her. "Is that what you think I do?"


"What?" She frowned.


"Solve everything with a gun."


"No, of course not." He seemed genuinely puzzled, almost hurt. She took his hand and squeezed it. "It was just a bad joke. I'm sorry."


"Forget it." He took a deep breath. "It doesn't matter anyway. I couldn't get him to change his mind. He seems to think that telling the truth might be good for you...that maybe we were wrong to ask for your silence."


"It was the only way to keep my job."


"Maybe. Maybe not. We didn't really try to find another way." He withdrew his hands from hers and squinted into the distance. "He knows about Curaguay."


"What? How?"


"He followed the papers, I guess, and the rumor mill filled in the rest. There's nothing he can prove, but it was pretty shocking to hear the story come out of his mouth. Makes me feel like a naïve idiot to have believed we could ever keep a lid on the Fredericks thing to begin with – journal or no journal."


"It's my fault," she said tightly. "I was looking for an easy way out. I've finally realized there are none."


His beeper went off and he fished it out of his jacket pocket. Just as he did so, hers began beeping from inside her purse. "Looks like we're wanted back at the ranch," he said.


"No one's fired me yet," she replied. "Let's go."


He waited while she cleared the trash, and they returned to the station together. Charlie was pacing near his office door. "About time," he said, waving them in. "Let's chat."


She exchanged a look with Hunter to see if he knew what they'd done this time, but he looked as confused as she was. "You're sure your talk with Mike was all conversation?" she asked in a low voice.


"I did not harm one hair on his oily little head."


They took their usual seats in front of the Captain's desk, and he closed the door after them. His expression was grim. "With the closure of the Salinger case yesterday, your names are back in the hopper. I've done all that I can short of reassignments to keep these calls clear of you two, but I've run out of options this time." He handed them a thin folder. "We have a DB in Griffith Park; a young female, maybe a working girl according to the responding officers. Her underwear was down around her ankles and there was bruising on her thighs. It's a probable rape."


Charlie was avoiding looking at her. The word "rape" sent a prickle across her skin, but she forced herself to take the file from Hunter. "We're on it," she said lightly. Hunter said nothing but followed her out of the office.


In the car, she kept her eyes focused on the scant information contained in the folder. "A female jogger found her late this morning," she said. "There's no ID on the victim."


"If she's a working girl, her prints will be in the system." He had one eye on the road and one eye on her. She could feel him watching, and it made her ears warm.


"Stop it," she said, without meeting his gaze. "I'm fine. I've worked more than three dozen rape homicides, and this one is no more terrible than the rest. You do not need to be concerned about my tender sensibilities."


"Sure, of course not. It's just…"


"Hunter." She finally looked at him. "You wanted me back on the job. I wanted me back on the job. So let me do it, okay?"


They pulled in next to the pair of black-and-whites that guarded the entrance to the trail. A young black man straightened himself as they approached. "Officer Henderson," Hunter read off his name tag. "You the one who called it in?"


"I was first on the scene, sir. Monica Califf is the one who found the body. She was jogging her usual route when she noticed something flashing in the sun from just off the trail – it turned out to be the gold sequins from the vic's jacket."


"The body's up this way?" Hunter asked, nodding at the trail.


"Yes, sir. The ME is with her now."


"Thanks." He put a hand to McCall's back and they hiked into the park together. Around two hundred yards in, they found Barney standing amid some tall, dry grass that was the same white sandy color as the remaining hair on the ME's head. "Barney? Whatcha got for us?


"Female DB, early 20s, I'd say from the looks of her. She was beaten and then strangled with some sort of ligature about a half an inch wide. I would estimate she's been dead between twelve and twenty-four hours. I might be able to narrow it further once we get her back to the lab."


McCall made herself look at the woman in the grass. She had dirty blonde hair with brown roots and premature sunspots on her cheekbones, probably from walking the California streets at high noon. There was an ugly bruise across her neck, but the weapon was nowhere to be seen. Her denim miniskirt was hiked up and her black lace underwear was looped around one ankle. She still wore stiletto heels. "Looks like she fought him," McCall said. "She's got two broken nails."


"We'll be sure to check for skin samples," Barney replied.


"The area here is pretty trampled," Hunter said as he surveyed the surrounding grass. "And this branch has been snapped off. She was probably killed right here. Given the foot traffic and how close we are to the trail, I'm betting it happened at night."


McCall wandered off a bit to look around. The killer wasn't the only one who liked this particular spot. She found two beer cans of differing brands, bleached from the sun. Then something else under the brush caught her eye. She ducked to retrieve it. "Hunter? Take a look at this."


"What have you got?"


"It may be her purse." McCall opened the zipper carefully with her fingernails, taking care not to disturb any prints. Inside there was an expired driver's license, half a pack of chewing gum, drug-store make-up, and a can of pepper spray. "The ID says she's Lily Ann Thompson. Looks like this was probably her first license; she's about sixteen in the photo."


"It's the pepper spray that always gets me," he said with a sigh. "These girls get in strange cars to do God knows what with these creeps, and they think a condiment is somehow going to keep them safe."


McCall said nothing. She'd had her gun and a decade of police training, and it still hadn't been enough.


###


Back at the station, he held Lily's Modesto, California driver's license in his hand and studied her faded, cheerful face. "Lily Ann Thompson," he murmured. "Someone picked that name out with care. Someone loved this girl once."


McCall put her chin on her hand and regarded him thoughtfully. "You know, we might be able to use the license to trace her family, assuming they're still in the area."


"There are probably at least a hundred Thompsons in greater or lesser Modesto," he answered with a sigh. "I guess we could start with the high schools and work from there." Eventually, they would find the right ones, the people who had taken this smiling sixteen year old to get her first license, and then they would have to explain to them how they'd found in the park amid beer bottles and old newspapers.


"It's after six," McCall said, checking her watch. "We aren't going to find anyone tonight. Why don't we go grab some food?"


"You mean you and me?" He not failed to notice the three pink slips on her desk indicating that Keith Holt had called.


"Yeah, you and me. Unless you have other plans."


"No plans. I'm just surprised at my good fortune is all."


She gave a half-shrug. "Who knows how many more times we'll get to do this?"


"McCall…you don't know that."


"I don't want to talk about it," she said swiftly, thus answering his unspoken question about why she was dodging Keith's calls. "Are you in or out?"


"In," he said as he pushed away from his desk.


They took separate cars to Kelleher's, a downtown bar and restaurant that catered to off-duty cops. There were cramped wooden booths and low-hanging imitation Tiffany lamps. The walls displayed covers from the LA Times circa 1950. The owner Lou was actually named Barry Whittiker; he was called Lou because he'd been a Lieutenant in Hollenbeck up until he got shot in the leg ten years earlier.


Hunter held the door and let McCall walk through under his arm. The place smelled like burgers and cigarettes. "Hey look," she said, waving. "That's Kitty and Brad over there."


Hunter was just as glad for the extra company, which made it seem more like a gathering and less like a date. "Brad," he said as they approached the booth. "I thought you had sworn off booze and beautiful women who are not your wife."


"Kathy's with her sister this week in Atlanta. But not to worry: this one is keeping me on the straight and narrow. I'm on a strict two-beer limit. You guys want to join us?"


McCall slid in next to Kitty, who had a giant margarita in front of her. "I want whatever that is."


"Long day?" Kitty asked with sympathy.


"Working girl strangled in the park," Hunter answered, leaving out the part about the rape. He was getting used to the editing – don't say it out loud and it's like it never happened. Maybe Mike Snow was right to wonder about the price of silence.


"She was raped," McCall added, meeting his gaze across the table.


"Another scumball rises from the stinking sewers of the city," Brad said as he took a drink. "You get him, and there will be another soon enough to take his place. If you ask me, Clare Fredericks had the right idea."


"Her trial starts in two weeks," said Kitty. "Brad and I are on the guest list."


McCall helped herself to the chips and salsa. "Guess that leaves Hunter as the odd man out."


"Well, he's certainly odd," Kitty replied, and Hunter flicked a piece of tortilla chip at her.


"I think the city ought to give her a medal and be done with it," Brad said. "She performed a public service."


"I'll drink to that," Hunter said as the waitress arrived with their order.


McCall fingered the base of her margarita glass. "I think…" she said and trailed off.


"What, sweetie?" said Kitty.


"I think it's redundant to put her in prison," McCall finished finally. "I think she's already there."


Hunter thought about all the nights he dreamed his way back into the jungle, sweat and fear trickling down the back of his neck. Sometimes it was the Vietcong in the heavy, wet bushes; sometimes it was Mariano on a lonely country road. He awoke each time to the echo of gunfire, his trigger finger still twitching.


"Yes, well, I think it's time for a happier topic of conversation," Kitty said at length. "Mark is taking me to Bermuda next month. Six nights and seven days of pink sand and blue-green sea."


"If I have to hear one more word about this trip, I may eat my gun." Brad pulled the plate of nachos closer and helped himself to a cheesy bite.


"Ignore him. He's just jealous because his cruise money disappeared into the pockets of Dial-a-Divorce." She turned to McCall. "I want to hear about this architect you're seeing."


Hunter's gaze flickered to his partner, as he wondered what her face might reveal at the mention of Keith Holt. She colored and stammered a bit. "I...he's very nice."


"Nice?" Brad chortled for him. "That's the kiss of death right there."


"Is he cute?” Kitty asked.  "I need details here."


"Yeah, tell us, Dee Dee: is he totally dreamy? Did you pass him a note in study hall?" Brad was still grinning.


"Oh, the hell with you," Kitty said without rancor. "You might be happily married again, but the rest of us are still on the battlefield." She nudged McCall to get out of the booth. "Let's go freshen up, and you can give me the scoop without someone's juvenile commentary."


McCall went willingly, and Hunter watched her cross the room. She had worn that beige skirt in front of him a million times, but he had somehow never noticed the long slit up one side. Kitty must have said something funny because McCall laughed. She turned back to catch him staring, and her smile faltered a bit. Then she raised her eyebrows slightly, their secret code for 'what can you do?', and disappeared around the corner with Kitty.


"Are you liking the view?" Brad had the beer bottle to his lips as he eyed Hunter curiously.


"I don't know what you mean."


"Oh, come on, man. McCall – you were checking her out."


"If Kitty so much as crosses fifteen feet to get a cup of coffee, you stop to make notes."


"Maybe so, but you don't. What gives?"


"Too many hours behind a desk, I guess." Hunter took a long sip of beer and prayed for Navarro to change the subject.


"Yeah, with that sitting across from you," Brad sighed. "I've been there, my friend. But these days, I am all about keeping the home fires burning." He looked sideways at Hunter. "You ever been in love?"


"What are you, starting up a lonely hearts column?"


Brad shrugged. "Just making conversation."


Hunter considered telling him to stuff it, but when he opened his mouth, something else entirely came out. "I've never had much use for love." Off Brad's look, he explained: "All day long, it's stabbings, shootings, a black eye here, a shaken baby there – half of it done in the name of love."


"That's not love."


"It was once," Hunter replied, and he knew Brad couldn't argue this point. He'd seen the same ugly truth. It had kept him chasing a cocktail of alcohol and strange women until he was numb enough to go home. "The girl in the park today," Hunter continued. "She was loved once. Didn't save her."


"No, I suppose that's true." Brad twisted his beer bottle around in one hand. "I hear what you're saying," he said slowly, "and you're right. The hookers, the pimps, the rapists, the victims – love won't save them, and neither can we. It took me years to admit that, and when I did, that's when I started shutting down. I could lock up a hundred rapists, and even as the doors were swinging shut, there would be another one heading out on the prowl across town. Can't save 'em all, right? Hell, can't save any of them, half the time. There was no way I could take that knowledge home and look Kathy in the eye. She thought I was a fuckin' hero."


Out of the corner of his eye, Hunter could see the women approaching again, but he had to know: "What changed?"


"I realized there was really only one person in the world that I could save," Brad said. "I could save myself."


###


Alone in bed at night, her thoughts turned to sex. Anita had asked her that afternoon if she might want to sleep with Keith, rather in the same tone she asked her if she might like a second mug of tea. McCall performed a little internal assessment and discovered that she would like to entertain the idea of sex, at least, and she supposed this was a positive sign. It had been a while for her now, what with a dry spell last summer, followed by the triple homicide in Chinatown and then finally the Big Foot case. She shivered and burrowed under the covers.


Her ribs had fully healed but she still felt sharp and broken inside, as though anyone to touch her might pull away with a painful hiss. The rape had changed sex forever. Not that it couldn't be good again; she'd enjoyed herself thoroughly on more than one occasion. But there was a part of her that usually remained detached and alert, monitoring from outside the action. She'd realized pretty quickly last time that she faced a difficult dilemma on the dating scene: after a few dates, the men either wanted sex or an explanation as to why they weren't having any. Your body or your mind, she thought. Which one do you want to give?


Finally, it had been easier just to go through with it once, with a nice attorney named Robert Kincaid who knew nothing of her history. It was fine, almost enjoyable, and then she had stopped returning his phone calls. She flushed with guilt, remembering. This was the absolute worst part of rape: how it turned her into someone she did not want to be. Keith was cute and funny and tender, and already she was ducking his calls, even though they hadn't moved past second base.


She tried to imagine what it would be like to go to bed with him, conjuring up the feel of his warm hands on her skin, her fingers in his thick, curled hair. Her pulse picked up and she allowed the fantasy version of herself to go a little farther. They were naked, entwined in the covers, his mouth hot on her neck. She ran her hands over his broad shoulders and breathed in his spicy, familiar scent. His fingers trailed up the inside of her thigh. Hunter, she thought. Yes.


His name penetrated her sensuous haze, popping it like a soap bubble. Somehow her dream lovers had switched identities when she wasn't looking. She curled into a ball and hid her face in the pillow, trying to blot out the last of the steamy images.


She had stored enough physical memories of Rick Hunter over the years that it was easy to imagine them together. She knew the feel of his strong arms around her, heard his heartbeat beneath her ear. He had starred in her fantasies off and on since they'd met, but only once had she ever been tempted to act on them, in Curaguay. Running for their lives through the hot and dusty countryside, clothes stuck like a second skin. Their jeep threatened to roll over around every bend but Hunter just drove them faster, until they reached escape velocity. Mariano was dead and she was free. She had wanted to take Hunter into the trees and peel him like a sweet, ripe fruit.


The ache returned even now, she squeezed her legs together to block it. She understood why her body always turned to Hunter in times of crisis, but that didn't mean she had to play along. She had watched him long enough to know the pattern: Hunter wanted women just long enough to get them into bed, and once the chase was over, he lost interest.


All of this left her right back in the same place she had been a few years ago. She rolled over and blinked up at the ceiling. Hunter wasn't an option, and Keith Holt was waiting for an explanation. She had to commit in some way to moving forward with him or risk losing him forever. Your body or your mind, she thought. Which one will it be?


###


"Well, let's talk about how your homework went this week." Genie Gallagher removed her shoes and sat cross-legged at the other end of the couch.


As usual, he'd left it until the last minute. On the drive over, he tried to think of what she might want to hear. Of course he'd had plenty of emotional connections with people other than McCall. There was Trina Fayette, his high school girlfriend and first sexual relationship, but they'd ended their romance more than twenty years ago. There was Joe Modell, a cheery, loud-mouthed hick from Alabama who grew up quick with him the night they made their first kill in the humid Vietnamese jungle. But he wasn't sure he wanted to tell the Doc another story that featured him standing over a dead body.


"I was reasonably close to my Mom," he said at last, "until she died last spring." They had buried her on a chilly, cloudless March morning, surrounded by the scent of lilies from her grave. McCall had been with him then, too, pressed against his side in wordless support. Later, when everyone else had gone, she'd sat and held him the dark while he cried.


"I'm sorry to hear about your Mom," said Dr. Gallagher. "What was she like?"


"She was all Northern Italy," he said with a smile. "Tall, blonde and hot-tempered. She made a killer veal saltimbocca and cursed like a sailor. My dad was away a lot, so we used to pass the time on our back porch, drinking lemonade and playing gin rummy. I never could beat her."


"What about your Dad? Were you close with him too?"


"He died when I was fourteen." And with the life insurance, the Hunter family had finally earned a legal income.


"Tough age to lose your father," she said.


Hunter shrugged. "As I said, he wasn't around much even when he alive. There was always some business venture that needed his attention more than we did. When he did come home… well, he tried, I suppose. He'd take Mom out to a fancy dinner and he'd buy me a new bike or something like that. But we had our own routines and he didn't really fit in."


"Okay, so what about the other part of your homework? Something you don't like about McCall."


He shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know…"


"Oh, there must be something," she said with a smile. "I've been married to my husband Frank for twenty-six years now, and I adore the man. But I would pay a lot of money to get him to stop clipping his toenails in the living room."


He sighed, searching his memory. "She corrects my grammar sometimes," he said at last. "That is fairly irritating." A reminder that she went to college prior to the Academy and he didn't. Not that he thought she cared, certainly not at this point, but it irked him nonetheless. "She's actually backed off some, probably because I told her to quit it, but it's almost worse now because it's like I can hear her correcting me in her head."


"I can understand where that would be annoying, yes."


He folded his arms over his chest. "But if that's somehow supposed to make me want her less, it isn't working." Their shared unease over the Mike Snow situation had dampened his libido somewhat; these days when he looked at her, he mostly felt helpless.


"Tell me about your last three romantic relationships," Dr. Gallagher said, changing tactics.


"Do you mean long-term relationships?"


She made a sweeping gesture with her hand. "Whatever you feel is most relevant."


He scratched the back of his head and considered the question. They were here to talk about his feelings for McCall, and so none of his recent sexual partners seemed relevant: McCall was simply in a different category. Or at least she had been. This was the confusing part. "I date a fair amount," he said at last. "But it's usually casual. I'm not a traditional long-term relationship kind of guy."


"So…what then? You meet a woman that you're interested in and what happens?"


"I go and introduce myself. We talk, flirt. Maybe have a drink. The usual sort of thing. If I get the sense that she's interested in the same sort of connection that I am, then I'll pursue things further."


"Same sort of connection," she repeated. "Meaning sex?"


"Dinner. Sex. Getting together whenever we both want to, but with no sense of obligation." Hearing himself now, he sounded like a total cad: wham, bam, thank you ma'am. "Look, I don't ever misrepresent my intentions or lead them on. Everyone has a good time for as long as the good time lasts. The last thing I want is some woman showing up crying that I've ruined her life."


"Has that happened before?"


"Not to me."


She was quiet for a moment. "But maybe to your father?"


He looked at her, surprised. "Yeah. How did you know?"


"I've been doing this a long time, Sergeant."


"Yeah. Well. He had a string of outside interests while he was married to my Mom, and sometimes they'd show up at our house, looking for him. I guess after a while Mom was just numb to it. When I was young, they'd scream at each other in the bedroom at night. By the time he died, though, he'd just sleep in the guest room…when he bothered to come home at all. I knew even then that I was never going to live like that."


"Except you have emulated your father in one respect – your disinclination to commit to any one woman."


"I am not my father."


"No, of course not. I'm just pointing out one similarity. If they were so unhappy together, why do you think your mother stayed with him?"


He sat back wearily. "My father had very dangerous business partners, some of whom are now serving time at Folsom, if you catch my drift. At one point, Mom was helping them with record keeping. I don't know that she ever felt safe enough to leave."


"You never discussed it with her?" He shook his head. "Not even after your father died?"


"She did not like to talk about him, and frankly, neither did I."


"What did you talk about?"


"Work, extended family, her garden…that sort of thing. She, uh, she didn't approve of my love life." He studied his hands a moment. Maybe the Doc had a point about his similarity to his father. "She kept asking when I was going to find a nice girl and settle down."


"So even though her own marriage wasn't a happy one, she still wanted that for you."


"I think she wanted grandchildren more than anything else," he said, and she smiled.


"It took my own mother more than ten years to give up on that dream."


"I'm not sure my mother ever did. You want to know something funny? She spent a bunch of time nagging me about McCall. She was sure she could find a way to get us together. Boy, would she be having a good laugh at my expense right about now…"


"They knew each other?"


"Mom and Dee Dee? Oh yeah, Mom loved her. She was teaching her to knit at one point, and I got a bunch of truly ugly sweaters. I mean, we're talking terrible." He smiled a little at the memory. "But McCall was the only woman I ever brought home, so to speak, and I guess Mom had no choice but to fixate on her." He shifted as a thought hit him. "Maybe…you think maybe that's where my feelings come from? My mom dies and suddenly McCall starts looking really good to me?"


"It's interesting that you would say that. What do you think?"


He searched himself, looking for an answer. "I loved my mother a great deal, but I don't think I would be trying to throw away a successful partnership just to make her happy. If I'd wanted to go that route, I would have taken up with McCall when I found out Mom was sick."


"Well, I can offer a bit of one-size fits all shrink advice, and you can see whether it makes sense to you. We tend to derive our early identity from our parents, either by emulating them or rejecting them, or sometimes a mixture of both. Those patterns can strengthen or soften throughout life but they typically remain – except for one major point of reset. When the parent dies, the child is freed from whatever expectations the parent may have had. I've seen it trigger job changes, divorces, new hobbies… One man I knew broke up with his high school sweetheart in 1941 because his mother hated the girl, and he was heading off to war; he couldn't bear the thought of facing death with his mother angry at him. The man met a different woman after returning home, a caring lady whom he and his mother loved in equal measure. They raised three children together. But forty years later, his mother died and the man - long widowed - looked up his old love about a week afterward."


"What happened?"


"He proposed to her after two dates. They've been together ever since."


Hunter considered her words but then shook his head. "My Mom would have been over the moon if I pursued a romantic relationship with Dee Dee. She wouldn't have disapproved at all."


"Your father died when you were fourteen, and from the sound of things, you were the man of the house long before that. I imagine you felt very protective of your mother."


"Well, of course. What he put her through…"


"And you would never risk that for yourself."


"Risk what?"


"Trying to be faithful and failing. Being the man who had disappointed your mother. You said it before: you are not your father. I am guessing that you have spent a lot of years trying to prove that to people, and maybe your mother most of all."


He sat forward and put his head in his hands. She touched his shoulder gently.


"Now that she's gone," she said, "there's nothing left to prove."


Tears seeped out from behind his eyelids and he swiped them away with his fingers. "This shrink stuff is rough work," he said with a hard sniff as he sat up again. "Makes homicide seem like a walk in the park." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "So what you're saying is: maybe I have wanted McCall on some level for a while, but it's only now with my mother gone that I feel like I could reach for her."


"Actually, I'm not saying that at all." She smiled at him kindly. "You did."


"Great. Then maybe I should keep your fee this week." He drew a long, shaky breath. "It hardly makes a difference, though, what I want. Even if I did decide I could pursue a relationship with McCall, she would never agree."


"What makes you so sure?"


"Well, for one thing, she's still got this architect boyfriend, and for another, she doesn't date cops." He gave her a short history of McCall's marriage and her vow not to wed another police officer.


When he finished, Dr. Gallagher sighed. "Tragedy seems to follow the two of you around, doesn't it."


He realized it probably sounded that way, as though he and McCall were paper dolls with a string of corpses between them, but that's not how it felt from the inside. "It's not always like that."


It was mock fighting for the remote on his couch, her musical laughter rising in him like champagne bubbles. Breakfasts at 2AM. Monday Night Football. The way she winked at him across the desk when they shared a naughty thought. It was cheap beer but expensive conversation, how they talked in the shadows about things no one else should hear. Her perfume in his car and his shoes under her kitchen table. It was how, if she were to leave him now, he would be alone in a way he had never been before.


The timer beeped from Dr. Gallagher's desk, and she shifted to rise from the couch. "Homework time," she announced. She studied her calendar. "I can do the same time next week if that works for you."


"Sure, whatever."


"In the meantime, I'd like you to consider what your ideal outcome is from these sessions."


"I told you – to make the feelings go away."


She took off her glasses and shook her head at him. "I don't know your partner, Rick, and I can't pretend to know her heart. But I'm getting to know yours, and it's apparent that it's heavily engaged."


"You're saying it's hopeless," he replied, morose.


"I'm saying I'd like you live with the idea that perhaps your feelings are a bit more permanent than you'd hoped for. Imagine they aren't going away. What then is your idea of a happy ending?"


 

Chapter Six

 

She met him in her work clothes because this was the side she wanted him to see. The bar had a high ceiling that kept the smoke away but amplified the noise. Keith, beer already in hand, waved to her from across the crowded room. "I got us a small table," he yelled over the din as she reached him. "I had no idea this place would be so popular on a Tuesday night. It's quieter over here."


The location was her choice. She'd wanted someplace public for this discussion, and after six days with no contact, he had readily agreed to meet her anywhere. "So what can I get for you?" he asked, and it was only then that she remembered the little tableau he'd witnessed with the wine bottle at her place.


"Soda water with lime," she said, "and thank you."


While he was fetching her drink, she fiddled with the ketchup bottle, passing it gently from hand to hand. Anita had been pushing her to say something to Keith for a few weeks, and now even Hunter was on her case about it.


I don't know how much to say to him, she'd told Anita that afternoon.

However much you need him to know.

I don't know what words to use.

What words did you use to tell Rick?

I did not need to tell Rick. He lived it with me.


For all their hours of talking, Anita still did not grasp her relationship with Hunter. She kept trying to find the proper box or label, when McCall had given up all attempts to classify it years ago. He was a flirt, a joker, her bodyguard and her confidante; her comrade-in-arms and partner-in-crime. She could tell what he was thinking by the set of his shoulders or a flash of his dimple. His was the only face that reflected her experience back to her.


Keith wants to get to know you, Anita had said. To do that, he deserves the truth.


But that wasn't why McCall was here at the bar, preparing to tell him her story. I deserve the truth, she thought. The hell with everyone else.


"Here you are, my dear," Keith said as he returned with her drink. He sat down and gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. "It's good to see you."


"Yeah, I'm sorry that I've been out of touch lately. Work has been crazy." Not a lie, exactly, but also not the truth she was here to tell.


"Yeah?" A certain distance appeared in his brown eyes, as if he believed that she was getting ready to dodge him again.


She twisted the drink in her hands and watched the tiny bubbles pop at the surface. She'd been practicing in her head all day and still didn't have quite the right words. "Keith, you are a great guy," she began, and he sat back with a groan.


"Not the 'you're a nice guy but' speech. I knew something was off when you didn't call."


She touched his arm. "Will you please just listen to me a minute?"


"Fine," he replied somewhat petulantly. "Say whatever it is you need to say."


"I haven't been entirely fair to you," she said at length. "We met at a time when I probably shouldn't have been dating anyone, but you were charming and funny and took my mind off my problems. So I said yes." She gave him a small smile. "And I have not regretted it."


"That's something, at least," he said, softening.


"It's everything. Trust me." She touched his sleeve lightly and then pulled away. "There's no other way to explain except just to say it, so I hope you can bear with me." She took a deep breath. "Nearly three years ago, while working on a case, I was raped." The words had become easier with time and distance; she had the brief recitation down so well that it almost seemed like it had happened to someone else.


"R-raped?" For Keith, the information was new and brutal; he looked gob-smacked. "I don't understand. How?"


"He was a man we were interviewing in conjunction with a rape-homicide – a crime we later discovered that he had committed, but I didn't know it at the time I spoke with him initially. He was polite, charming. He sent me flowers." She swallowed with difficulty and reached for her drink. "Then he showed up at my house one day and he raped me."


"My God, Dee Dee. That's awful. I…I don't know what to say. You would think if anyone could be safe from that…"


"…it would be a police officer," she finished for him. "Yes, I am familiar with the refrain."


"I didn't mean it that way."


"Yes, you did." Her tone was matter-of-fact. She took a long sip of tonic water, and it tickled on the way down. "It's okay. I felt the same way. I still do sometimes."


"Did he have a gun?"


She eyed him. "Would it make you feel better if he did?"


He turned red and fumbled for his beer. "No, of course not. I'm just trying to understand. I've never known anyone who was…you know."


"Raped," she supplied. This was the truth, and she was not done telling it.


He forced out the word. "Raped, yes."


"I'm sure you have known someone," she said. "Probably several someones. We just don't talk about it much so it's easy for other people not to know. My story was in the papers, so I didn't get a choice in the matter." He gave her a questioning look, and she sighed. "The perpetrator had diplomatic immunity, so we could not prosecute him for his earlier murder, my rape, or his shooting of Hunter."


"He shot Hunter too? Jesus."


Funny, she thought, how no one ever seemed to question how Mariano got the better of Hunter. No one ever asked him where his gun was or why he hadn't been able to defend himself. "Curaguay took the guy back eventually," she said, "but they did not prosecute him for the crimes he committed in the US. He was later killed there in a hunting accident."


She would open herself up to possible criminal charges, but she was not going to hang Hunter with her.


"That is just an awful story, and I'm so sorry," he said, "for all of it." He reached for her hand and squeezed it.


She returned the squeeze before pulling away. "There's more, I'm afraid."


He visibly flinched. "Okay…"


She took another breath and launched into a short recap of the Big Foot case, complete with the aborted rape and her decision not to report it. Keith's hands were clenched around the beer bottle and he was not looking at her.


"I don't understand why you wouldn't report what he did to you," he said. "With the injuries you sustained, it's not like it would be your word against his."


"I didn't report it because I could add no more new information to the case. We still had no way to prove in court that he was the Big Foot rapist. The other reason I did not report it is because I was going to kill him."


His head snapped up, and she held his gaze so he could see she was serious. Around them, other couples laughed and flirted. Keith looked like he might throw up. "You… you what?"


"I made sure he would come back, and I waited with my gun to kill him." She ran her nail along the edge of the table. "But when he showed up, I found I couldn't go through with it."


"Thank God for that."


She wasn't sure what had stopped her, but it didn't feel like God. "His wife killed him a few hours after I arrested him," she continued. "She shot him right at the precinct in front of all of us." When she closed her eyes, she could still hear the gunshots, could see Fredericks falling to the floor. After that, there was only the sound of Clare Fredericks's anguished sobbing.


"Good riddance, I guess." Keith still looked pale and wan.


"So it's okay for her to shoot him but not for me?"


"No, I… I don't know what I mean." He slumped in the chair, and she felt a stab of pity for him.


You wanted answers, she thought, but I don't have them to give you. When she saw Fredericks on the ground, heard the death rattle in his last blood-choked breaths, she was not sorry, but neither was she free.


She rocked back in her chair, far enough to lift the front feet from the floor. "I could still be in a great deal of trouble if the whole story comes out," she said. "And it might. I am going to have to testify at Clare Fredericks's trial in two weeks."


He searched her face. "You'll tell the truth?"


"I think I owe her that much. And maybe… maybe I owe it to myself as well."


He nodded but didn't seem to be listening anymore. "When you asked to meet here tonight, I never dreamed this was what you wanted to talk about. The worst I figured was maybe you wanted to break up with me."


"Yes, well. I am sorry to blindside you, but there is no good way to bring this stuff up in everyday conversation. I thought it would be better coming from me than from the morning paper."


"I'm glad you told me," he said grimly, and she laughed, a real laugh.


"Oh yeah, I can tell it's a pleasure," she replied as she took his hand. "And I am sorry."


"For what?"


She gave a half-shrug and ducked his gaze. "For being less than you imagined."


"No," he said. "Never that. This is a lot of information to take in at once, but I appreciate that you were willing to share it. It can't be easy to talk about." He paused and shook his head ruefully. "I can see now why Sergeant Hunter was only too happy to show me the door the other night."


She smiled. "He doesn't actually shoot my dates, you know."


"Just threatens them mildly?"


"Let me put it this way: part of Hunter's job is to watch my back, and he takes his work seriously. He's like the really tall older brother I never had."


"I'm not so sure his feelings are familial."


She felt herself flush the way she always did when someone suggested she and Hunter had romantic feelings for one another. "We've been through a lot together," she said lightly.


"Yes, I gather that just from the story you told me. I can only imagine the parts you must have left out."


"Let's save something for another evening, shall we?"


"Please, let's." He looked relieved. "You want to order some food? Because I am starving."


"I could eat."


They each ordered the chicken parmesan special, which they devoured with a half bottle of wine. He talked about his trip to New York City and the opportunity there to construct a new building for The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. "They are actively seeking an unusual design, so it's a chance to really get creative," he explained. "Sky scrapers have an impact on the city skyline but they are limited somewhat in terms of personal style."


"I think you should go for it then."


He looked sheepish. "I have about six different sketches half completed. Maybe there's too much room for creativity this time."


They finished their dinner and he paid the check. Out in the parking lot, they brushed shoulders as he accompanied her to her car. "You know, it's funny," he said. "I used to think maybe you should be the one walking me to my door, what with your gun and all. Now…"


She repressed a sigh and leaned back against the car. She had fought many dangerous men and won, but it was always the losses that seemed to define her. "I'll be fine."


He nodded and took both her hands in his. "I'm sorry you went through all that. But it doesn't matter to me, you know, what happened before… what you might have done or not."


"Well, it matters to me," she said. "And probably it will continue to matter, on some level, for the rest of my life, no matter what happens after I testify. That's the part I need you to know."


"Yeah." His face clouded over, and she stood on tiptoe to kiss his forehead.


"Good night, Keith."


###


McCall could walk the homicide department blindfolded by now, so it was easy to leaf through the coroner's report as she wound her way to her desk. Lily Ann Thompson had been killed sometime between two PM and 2AM Wednesday night. Back in her early days in homicide, McCall read these reports and tried to picture what she was doing during the timeframe of the murder. This person was killed while I was shopping for shoes. But these days, she did not bother with the math: someone was always dying somewhere.


She glanced over to where Hunter was in the middle of a phone call. "Yes, I can imagine that was difficult," he was saying as he took notes. "Do you remember the last time you talked to her? I see. No, no, you've been very helpful, Mrs. Hernandez. Thank you for your time."


"Anything from Modesto?" she asked when he hung up the phone.


"I was able to reach a Mariela Hernandez, who was a neighbor of Lily Ann Thompson's for several years in the late 70s. Lily and her mom Penelope lived in the apartment next door, and according to Mrs. Hernandez, the two were very close – right up until the mom died of cancer when Lily was seventeen."


"Ouch," McCall said, wincing.


"Mrs. Hernandez didn't think they had any other family because Lily went to stay with friends after her mother died. The dad wasn't in the picture at all. Mrs. Hernandez describes Lily as pretty, outgoing and never lacking for male company. I checked with the high school, too. She missed a bunch of classes after her mother died, but she did manage to graduate. Mrs. Hernandez gave me a lead on some of her friends back then, but I don't know how much good it would do to chase them down. I don't imagine she was running with the same crowd anymore."


"It seems unlikely."


"Is that the ME report?" he asked, peering over at the folder on her desk.


"The very same. Barney estimates TOD between two PM and two AM Wednesday night. I think with the McDonald's receipt we found in her purse, we can cut that to between eight and two." She hesitated a moment. "The other significant detail is that she was already dead at the time of the rape."


Hunter sat back and took a deep breath. "So the sex was secondary. He took her up there to kill her."


"Looks that way."


"Sergeant Hunter?" Lisa Kwan, a young rookie, appeared near Hunter's desk. She sometimes hung around the detectives to pester them with questions. "I checked three stores, and this was the closest I could find. It's the same brand, so think it's a good match." She handed him a cheap pink purse.


"Thanks, Lisa. This is great."


McCall eyed him. "You're ordering handbags now? Is there something we need to talk about?"


"You don't think it goes with my ensemble?" He held it against his checkered shirt.


"I stand corrected," she said. "Pink is definitely your color."


He reached into a nearby evidence box and retrieved Lily Thompson's purse. "I was thinking about these hoops here on the end of the bag," he said. "Seems to me the strap is missing. See? This one is the same brand, same size, and it has a strap attached to these little gold hoops here on the end."


McCall got up to come look. "Yeah, the straps are often removable."


"But this hoop is broken, suggesting the strap was torn off." He held up the pink strap between both hands. "Barney said the ligature was about a half-inch wide, right? How big does that look to you?"


"About half an inch," she said as she went to get the file. She pulled out a photo that showed a close-up of the ligature mark on Lily Thompson's neck and took it back to Hunter. He placed the purse strap across the bruise, and it aligned almost perfectly. "I think you've found the murder weapon," she said.


"Which was not present at the scene," he reminded her. "That means the killer took it with him as a souvenir."


"But he didn't bring it with him," she countered. "That's a bit surprising, no? If he was planning on killing her, you'd think he'd want his own equipment."


"If she was walking the streets, he would have seen her purse when he picked her up," Hunter said.


"True." She sat on the edge of his desk. "I have a bad feeling about this one."


"Yeah. For this guy, the motive is the murder itself. No reason for him not to try it again."


"Or before," she murmured thoughtfully.


"You're thinking we should look for similar cases?"


She handed him the photo. "This looks pretty practiced to me. Lily Thompson wasn't a small woman, and her tox screen was clear – she wasn't high or drunk. He managed to subdue her and kill her in a semi-public place and then walk away unseen. If it's his first time, he sure got lucky. I think we should check into similar MOs across the city – assaults on working girls that seem to go above and beyond the usual unnecessary roughness."


"I agree. If he's tried it before, maybe he wasn't so careful then."


They spent the rest of the day split between the phones and the computer, compiling lists and contacts for other cases that seemed remotely relevant. "There are a depressingly large number of these," Hunter said as he returned with another print-out.


McCall had a list of more than one hundred assaults on prostitutes just from the start of the year. "Tell me about it," she replied wearily. "One thing is clear: plenty of guys pick these women up just for the opportunity to knock them around. And I use the term 'woman' loosely. Some of these statements are from girls as young as fourteen."


"And those are just the ones that get reported."


Captain Devane appeared, briefcase and jacket in hand, and regarded them with a frown. "Your shift ended nearly two hours ago. What are you still doing here?"


"The Thompson case," Hunter explained. "It's a bad one, Captain."


"Any leads?"


"Not currently," McCall replied. "We're combing through old files now, looking for related cases."


"We're going to find them, too," Hunter added pointedly.


Charlie took a deep breath. "I see. Well, that's an awfully big task. I'll see if I can't get you two a little help tomorrow. In the meantime, go home."


"Captain, listen, we don't care about the overtime," McCall said.


"I don't care if you don't care! I'm not about to let the two of you start working homicides on your own time. It isn't healthy, and it's not happening while I'm in charge. Out, now, both of you." He pointed at the door.


McCall raised her eyebrows at Hunter, who gave a small shrug and grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. She did the same. Outside in the parking lot, the setting sun turned everything to gold. She squinted up at him with some amusement. "I don't think I've ever been made to feel guilty for working too hard before. Reminds me of when my mother used to shoo us outside to play."


Hunter put on his sunglasses. "You want to go kick a ball around?"


"Pass," she said, laughing. "But I do have a different idea."


She took him down near the Pier for an ice cream cone. "You know this is going to ruin my dinner," he said as he studied the list of flavors.


"You can have the yogurt," she said. "Ask them to roll it in bran flakes or something."


"Wheat grass, maybe."


She made a face at him and ordered a double scoop of strawberry. Hunter surprised her by ordering French Vanilla. They walked as they ate, the light ocean breeze stirring their hair. "To what do I owe this treat?" he asked as he took a lick.


"I wanted to talk to you," she replied. "About the trial." She paused to catch a stray bit of ice cream with her tongue. "I want you to know that I'm not going to fight the subpoena. Not that it's clear to me I could do anything about it, anyway. But I won't fight it and I won't lie. If Mike Snow wants me to discuss what happened with Lloyd Fredericks, then I will. All of it."


There was a moment of silence as that sunk in, and then he nodded. "I figured as much."


"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know what the consequences will be. I can't imagine that they will actually fire you and Charlie in addition to me, but I don't know that for sure."


"Don't worry about me."


"Hunter," she said, stopping to grab his arm. "How could I not? The only thing you and Charlie did was try to help me…the mistakes were all mine. I want you to know I will make that clear to anyone who will listen. It would kill me if anything happened to you because of what I did."


"Stop that," he said, covering her hand with his. "You can own your choices, but let me own mine, okay? I knew what I was getting into. I am sure Charlie would tell you the same thing."


She pulled away with a sigh. "I should probably warn him what's coming. I just keep putting it off, hoping another option will appear."


"I can talk to him if you want."


"No, I should be the one." They walked onward as the sun began to slip into the sea, their ice cream finished. "I told Keith," she said at length. "I think I did it more for practice than for anything else. To see what it would feel like to say the words out loud."


"And?"


"And it still sucks."


He looped an arm around her in silent acknowledgment. "How'd he take it?"


Keith had sent over a bunch of daisies with a note that read "thinking of you," but he had not called since the night at the bar when she'd made her confession. "I think it might have been easier for him if I had a drinking problem," she said wryly.


"That bad, huh?" He dropped his arm and she slipped her hand through the crook of his elbow.


"No, not that bad. He's just... disillusioned, I guess. Police officers aren't supposed to get raped."


"No one is."


"Of course not," she replied, a tad exasperated. "But you know what I mean. We're supposed to 'protect and serve' and I can't even defend myself in my own home. I don't know…" She stopped walking, and he turned around.


"What?"


"When his fiancée was murdered, it shattered his innocence, you know? At twenty-two, you think you're invincible and that bad things only happen to bad people. Then his fiancée gets stabbed to death on a residential street and no one is ever held accountable."


"I think that's awful," he said. "But it has nothing to do with you."


"I'm not so sure. I think maybe the job was part of my appeal. You know, like maybe it's okay to be with me because no one's going to attack me at random. Well, I went and disabused him of that notion, big time."


He took a step back toward her. "He said that?"


"No, of course not." She looked at the ground. "He didn't have to."


"He's an idiot."


She smiled sadly. "No, I can't blame him when I've had some of the same feelings myself." She started walking again and he fell into step beside her. "I wonder if Mike's strategy will even work," she said at length. "He seems to think that my story somehow makes Clare seem sane, but maybe it just makes crazy together. The jury may vote to lock us both up."


"I'm pretty sure that won't be an option. And maybe Mike is right. What if she goes free?"


McCall searched herself for an answer. "What if she goes free? Well, then maybe we both do."


The sun had disappeared completely, leaving behind a dusky peach sky and the shimmering blue-black ocean. Birds scrambled around for the last scraps of tourist food. They turned around just as the streetlamps flickered on. She tried to find the words for the rest of what she needed to say. They reached her car and she realized her time was almost gone. "I'll miss you," she blurted, and he halted with his hand on the door latch.


She twisted the keys in her hands as he turned to face her. Damn it, she was not going to cry again.


"I'm not going anywhere," he said softly, moving to stand over her.


"It won't be the same, and you know it."


"No," he said as he hugged her to him. "It won't."


She squeezed back the hot tears, hiding her face in the rough wool of his coat. She'd forced him into the admission but it brought no relief. "I was willing to pay any price at the time," she said. "And now I can't believe what it cost."


"You don't lose me," he said against her hair. "I promise that."


She hugged him tightly a minute longer, trying to memorize the feel of him. She sniffed and pulled back. "I always figured I would leave under my own terms. Hell, maybe I am, I guess, but this is not how I imagined it. I knew it would be hard to walk away, no matter what. There's so much left behind. Those unsolved cases that stay with you, all the Lily Ann Thompsons that you promise yourself you will put to rest someday. And all the little things that get you through the day: the bad coffee. Charlie's cat pictures. Melendez's dirty jokes."


"Did he tell you the one about the musical octopus?"


"I will never look at bagpipes the same way again." She tried to smile. "But you." She cupped the side of his face. "Scarecrow, I will miss you most of all."


He took her hand and kissed the center of her palm before wrapping her hand in both of his. He looked down at her intently, his eyes shining, and for a moment she thought he might kiss her again for real.


But no. Instead, he hugged her again. "You can't miss me," he said, "because I'm not leaving."


She closed her eyes and held on tight. As long as they remained friends, as long as she still had the chance to stand with him like this, maybe it would be enough.


His voice rumbled in his chest beneath her ear. "You want some real food? I'm buying."


She pulled away slowly, running one hand down the lapel of his coat. "I'll take a rain check. I'm pretty wiped."


"I'll drive back then," he said, taking the keys from her. They got in the car and he started the engine, but did not put it in gear. He shifted to look at her. "Do you have pictures in your wallet?"


She regarded his shadowed face. "What?"


"You know, pictures. They give you those little plastic sleeves to keep them in."


"A few. Why?"


He ran one finger over the top of the steering wheel. "I don't have any. You think that's weird?"


"I've never thought about it one way or another."


"Back overseas, some guys had pictures taped inside their helmets – wives, girlfriends, that sort of thing. I had no one. But it didn't bother me. I figured I'd get there eventually." He looked over at her. "That was twenty years ago."


"Wait, wait, wait – girlfriend? Wife? These are not words I am used to hearing from you." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you seeing someone?"


"No, nothing like that," he said, and she released a breath.


"Then I don't understand."


He spread his hands. "Say a man my age gets shot dead and we go through his wallet and there are no pictures. What does that say about him?"


"Maybe that he's a poor photographer," she said lightly, rubbing his arm.


"Maybe. Or maybe he was just… alone."


She bit her lip a moment. Then she reached down for her purse and took out her wallet. Inside, she bypassed a picture of herself and her sister Karen as kids, her nephew's kindergarten photo, and Steve's graduation picture from the Academy. "Aha," she said. "Here."


She handed him a picture of the two of them taken at the departmental picnic the year before. They sat on a bench, back-to-back in similar poses, arms folded, looking playfully competitive; they'd been on different softball teams and sported opposing T-shirts. But the reason she liked the picture was because he wore a true smile, the one that showed his dimples.


"Keep it," she said as he held the picture up to the window so it caught the light. "I have others."


"Oh yeah? Just how long have you been documenting our relationship?" he asked, his voice somewhere between teasing and touched.


"Since pretty much always." She leaned over to kiss his cheek. "You're not alone, Hunter," she said. "You never were."


###


On Thursday, with Dr. Gallagher, he got right to the point. "I'm not sure there are any happy endings," he told her. "Just endings." There was just one week left before Clare Frederick's trial was set to begin, and perhaps another few days beyond that before McCall would have to testify.


Dr. Gallagher tucked her impossibly tiny feet under her legs as she took a seat on the other end of the couch. "That's a pretty grim view," she said.


He rolled his eyes at her. "Come on, Doc, I know you must get what I am saying here. People don't come to you because they're just so deliriously happy, right? Maybe you're not looking at dead bodies day in and day out, but you must get… what? Addiction? Abusers and their victims? Or maybe just people who are so angry or scared that they can't get out of their own way." He sighed. "And if you can't fix 'em, that's when they end up in our business."

"Okay, yes, I see people when they are in pain or having some sort of difficulty. But often that pain lessens and their problems resolve, or at least improve. I see hope for a happy ending. You don't think people are better off because of the work you do?"

"Better off?" He considered a moment. "Maybe, sometimes. But happy? No. There's not a lot of happy in my line of work."

"Well, let's talk about your work then. Did something happen this week? Something worse than usual?"

"We have an ugly case." He glanced at her. "A rape-homicide."

"I see," she said soberly.

"And we strongly suspect the guy has previous victims. He almost certainly has future ones, if we can't catch him." He leaned back and looked at the ceiling. "And in a week or so, I may be working the case alone."

"Alone? Why is that?"

"I couldn't tell you before," he said to the ceiling. "Because of the legal issues involved. But the Fredericks case, the one that went bad... well, it was worse than I said."

"Worse in what way?"

She had tensed up again, and he knew she was just waiting for him to confess another sin. "Fredericks did actually attack McCall. She ended up with a couple of broken bones and concussion, plus a bunch of bruises." He hesitated. "It was attempted rape, and she chose not to report it."

"Attempted," she repeated steadily.

"He panicked and ran. But McCall wasn't going to let him get away with it." He told her briefly of what happened next: McCall's jailhouse visit with Fredericks, her plan to lure him back to her house so as to kill him, and her ultimate choice to arrest the SOB instead.

Dr. Gallagher immediately made the connection it had taken him weeks to see. "Just like your plan with attaché from Curaguay."


"Yeah." He scrubbed his face with his hands. "Just like that. But you see, Fredericks's wife shot him instead, and she put bullets through the inside of a police station in the process. Now the DA wants to put her on trial for that. McCall is going to have to testify, and it turns out Fredericks kept a journal detailing his crimes. It's all going to come out."


"And what if it does?" she asked softly.


"They will probably fire her. Maybe me too, but I would bet not. Seasoned homicide detectives don't grow on trees, and we don't even have the necessary personnel to handle the body count we see now. No, they'll make an example of McCall and put some reprimand in my file."


"Would you get assigned a new partner?"


Just the words made his stomach turn over. "Eventually," he said, his voice hollow. He wasn't sure he could remember how to do the job without her.


"I see. So I asked you to imagine a future with McCall, whatever that might be, just as your professional relationship is put in jeopardy. Perhaps not one of my better timed assignments." She gave him a rueful smile. "I am sorry to hear of all this new trouble and what it might mean for your partnership. Have you and McCall talked about it together?"


"Some, I guess, but there's not much to say. We can't control the outcome." He wanted to go dig up Fredericks and shoot him dead again. Lloyd was six feet under and it still seemed like he'd gotten off easy.


"I'm not buying the nonchalance," she said. "You came here largely because you were afraid of losing this partnership, and now it seems like that fear might come to pass."


"What do you want me to say? That I hate it? Okay, I hate it! I hate that this happened and I couldn't stop it. I hate that she's going to have to tell everyone what he did to her – tell a bunch of strangers who don't know her like I do – that they'll hear this story and look at her with pity or disgust. That's what happened last time, you know. I heard the whispers and felt the stares, same as she did. I hate that the man who would take her badge has spent more time chauffeuring the brass around town than he ever did patrolling the streets. I hate that I am losing her. There, are you happy now? I have plenty of hate. But it doesn't change a single damn thing."


"That's a lot of anger," she agreed. "Interesting that none of it is for McCall."


"McCall?" He drew up short. "Why should it be?"


"If I've understood you correctly, it's her actions that caused your current predicament. If she had reported the attack at her home, your continued partnership would not be in question."


He sat back, deflated. "I suppose that's true." They sat without speaking for a moment, with only the bubbling from her water cooler to break the silence. "It just feels like blaming the victim," he said after a while. "She's upset enough at herself for both of us. Besides, I probably would have done the same thing in her shoes. I practically did so last time. What right do I have to be angry with her?"


"Anger doesn't always make sense."


"No," he said. "I'm not angry. I'm…"


"What?" she prompted when he did not elaborate.


These days, when he looked at McCall, he wanted to take her back to his place, bolt the doors and windows and hold her tight. They could pry her out of his cold, dead hands. The days were ticking by fast and he had no real plan, no way to keep them together.


"Let's try something else," she said at his continued silence. "What have you said to McCall about her possible departure?"


He cleared his throat. "Not much. I mostly pretend it isn't happening."


"That strategy seems to be working well for you," she said dryly, and he scowled at her. "So that's it? You're going to let her walk away without ever telling her how you feel?"


"I am not good with flowery speeches."


"You seem pretty articulate to me."


"McCall knows I care about her." On this point, he felt certain.


"You love her," Dr. Gallagher corrected gently.


"Well… yes. Of course." She blinked, and he had to smile. It wasn't often that he took her by surprise where emotions were concerned. "You were expecting me to protest? McCall is the most important person in my life and has been for a long time. If I didn't love her, that would make me one sorry son of a bitch, now wouldn't it?"


"That part there," she said. "Where you said she's the most important person in your life. Have you made that clear to her?"


He hesitated. "I don't know. Like I said, I don't go in for long talks about feelings."


"If you did tell her," she said, "if you admitted you were in love with her…how do you think she would react?"


"Search me," he said, leaning back against the couch. "I expect she might think I was kidding. I mean, what the heck do you do in that situation anyway, when you've known someone this long? We've spent thousands of hours in one another's company. It feels a little late to ask her out on a date, you know what I'm saying? At this stage, it kind of seems like I should either propose marriage or keep my mouth shut."


Her eyebrows shot up. "You would do that? Propose marriage?"


"Oh, God no." He echoed her vaguely horrified expression. "I just meant it would be awkward, even figuring out how to begin that conversation."


"But you're thinking about it," she said. "That's a change."


He shrugged. "It's like you said. I came here to make the feelings go away because I didn't want to risk our partnership. Now it seems like that may be a moot point. How much more harm could I do?"


"Maybe don't lead with that when you talk to McCall," she said, hiding a smile. "Have you thought about what you might say?"


He had thought about a lot of things. He'd thought of Steve McCall, who had married a pretty, bright-eyed rookie, someone easy to love and hard to leave. He thought of Keith Holt struggling with the current version, a woman with soft curves but a jagged psyche. He thought of how he had known and loved all the different sides of her, and that maybe this is what he could offer. I know you and I love you. It just might be that simple.


"I have an idea or two," he said out loud. "I'm not sure about the follow-through yet."


"If you wanted to try them out here first," she said, "that would be okay."


He ducked his head. "No, thanks. If I say these things, it should really be to her and no one else."


"Why, Sergeant Hunter, I think you may have lied to me," she said, sounding pleased. "I think perhaps you might believe in happy endings after all."


He was saved by the bell when his beeper went off. "Uh, can I use your phone?" he said as he checked it. "It's from McCall."


"Of course. Dial nine to get out."


He went to the desk and dialed McCall's extension at the precinct. "What's up?" he asked when she answered.


"Where are you?" she asked. "I think we may have a witness in the Thompson case. A Mike Vereen saw the story in the papers and thinks he recognized Lily's picture. He saw her get into a late model Chevy Malibu around 11pm the night of her murder. Seems like he may have gotten look at the driver."


"That's great," he said. "Hook him up with a sketch artist and I'll be right there." He hung up the phone. "Doc, I'm sorry to cut this short, but I've got to run."


She made a sweeping motion with one hand. "Go," she said, "and make the streets safe for the rest of us."


He paused at the door. "No homework this week?"


"No assignment from me." She smiled. "I think you know what you need to do."


 

Chapter 7

 

After all their years together, she could pretty much sense when Hunter walked in the room, so she was not surprised to look up and find him strolling through the squad room door, jacket over one shoulder. "Where have you been?" she asked. There was a stack of assault reports dating back four years sitting on her desk.


"Appointment," he replied as he took his seat.


"Everything okay?"


His gaze flickered over the thick piles of folders between them. "We can talk about it later. What's the story with our witness?"


"He's still with the sketch artist." She stretched out to hand him a typed statement. 


"You can read for yourself what he had to say. I'd like to get excited, but it seems just a little too good to be true. How good a look could he have gotten at eleven-o'clock at night?"


He read through the brief account and then held it up to her. "Let me get this straight: he was down near the Nickel, late at night on Wednesday, and he was watching the working girls closely enough that he saw Lily Thompson get into a car."


"And remembers the driver," she said.


"If he was there, he was looking for action himself."


She rubbed her head with one hand and nodded. "Yeah, that's my reading too. He says his girlfriend was out of town and he was just driving around because he couldn't sleep. I'd say there's even odds that he remembers Lily because he had his eye on her before the killer showed up."


"Great. How come we never get sweet little old lady witnesses?"


"Little old ladies aren't cruising Fifth Street in the middle of the night. We have to work with what we can get. Speaking of…" She saw Mike Vereen returning with Kimberly Cameron, the dayshift artist.


Vereen definitely looked like someone who might be looking for trouble on a weeknight. He had slicked dark hair, a sly smile, and a perfect bronze tan that suggested he didn't work a day job. His faded denim shirt did little to hide his bulging biceps or the heavy gold chain around his neck. "I think I did pretty good," he said, nudging Kim. "That's the guy I saw in the car, right there."


Kim shifted away from him with a frown. "I can have copies made for you if you want," she told McCall as she handed her the sketch.


Hunter rounded his desk so they could look at the sketch together. Vereen had described a heavyset man with a receding hairline, dark eyebrows and brown skin. "He was Latino?" Hunter asked.


"Looked that way to me," Vereen said with a shrug. "Lots of 'spics hanging down around that part of town, you know?"


Charming, McCall thought. He's a bigot too. Let's hope he never has to get on a witness stand.


"Did you see which way they went?" Hunter asked.


"Like I told her," he said, nodding at McCall. "They went west toward the hills and that's all I saw. I didn't exactly follow 'em."


"And just one more time for me," Hunter said. "What were you doing on Fifth Street at that hour?"


He folded his arms and regarded Hunter with a belligerent expression. "I was out driving and I wanted to get a six-pack. There's a liquor store on the corner that's open 24/7. Why? What's that got to do with anything?"


"No reason." Hunter stuck out his hand. "We appreciate you coming in."


"No problem," Vereen said. "I hope you catch this guy. And uh, when you do, is there like…a reward or anything?"


"Sorry," replied Hunter. "Just the thanks of a grateful city."


"Yeah," he said, disgusted. "That and a buck-fifty will buy me a cup of coffee."


"We'll contact you if we need you," McCall told him.


Hunter let out a low whistle as Mike Vereen walked away. Kim put her hands on her hips. "He asked me if I liked to draw nudes," she said. "Can you believe it?"


"What's your read on his description?" McCall asked as she picked up the sketch again.


"He seemed pretty confident to me."


"Would have been better if he got the license plate on the Malibu," said Hunter. "The sketch is helpful but we have nothing to match it to right now."


"I've pulled five cases so far that seem like they could be related," said McCall. "And there are three more stacks of folders to go."


"Good luck," Kim said. "Hope you catch him."


McCall sat on the edge of her desk and surveyed the piles of old cases. "You want aggravated rapes from 1986 or homicides from 1985?"


Hunter did not reply. He was eyeing Captain Devane's office, which was shut tight with the blinds drawn. "What's going on in there?" he asked. "Looks serious."


She set aside the folder she was holding and looked at the floor. "I told Charlie this morning," she said finally. "He's in there talking with his union rep and a lawyer."


Hunter rubbed her shoulder in sympathy. "He'll come out okay."


"I wish I was as sure." She looked at the gold lettering on the door across the room. "He's just two years from retiring with full benefits. If they cut him loose now…"


They might let Hunter slide because his role was minimal, but Devane was supposed to be in charge. One of his officers decided to play vigilante and then he helped cover it up; she didn't see how the men at Parker Center would let him get away with it. She glanced beyond the sea of folders on her desk to the replica of City Hall, which now seemed to mock her.


"If they fire him," she said, "or you, then I might take Mike Snow up on his offer." Even as she said the words, she knew they were a hollow threat. She could sue, and with Mike, she might even get a verdict in her favor. But she could never win. Her job would be lost no matter what the outcome was.


"I'll take the rapes," Hunter said, hefting a sheaf of files from her desk.


"Great," she replied wearily as she took her seat again. They sat together that way for several hours, a small mountain range of violence between them, each peak a monument to a hundred destroyed lives.


As the clock ticked toward quitting time, Hunter leaned back in his chair and rubbed his neck. "I've got five here that seem possible," he said. "Three working girls beat up pretty good with attempted strangulation, one junkie busted for possession but who had a pretty similar story to tell and the marks on her neck to prove it. And one wild card."


"Yes?"


He handed her the file. "UCLA freshman who was out at a Halloween party. She and her date had a fight, and he dropped her off near the park, saying she could find her own way home. It says here a man stopped to give her a ride, but instead of taking her home, he drove her to a parking lot and raped her."


McCall suppressed a shiver as she looked through the slim file. "Seems a bit of a stretch compared to what we know of the Thompson case."


"Look at the bottom."


"He tried to strangle her," she said as she found the words. "With her purse strap."


"Bingo.


"I think we should talk to her," McCall said. "Wonder if this contact information is still good."


"I'll check it tomorrow."

"No, I'll do it." She closed the file so she didn't have to see the girl's battered face.

Hunter's gaze flicked over her with concern. "You sure?"

"Yes." They needed every advantage possible to catch this guy, and if that meant sending one rape victim to interview another, then she was willing to walk that line.

Hunter blew out a long breath. "Guess it will just be me and these files, then."

"No, I have one for you too," she said as she dug it free. "Two working girls killed last year within a few weeks of one another. Patterson and Levy worked both of them, and they took pretty good notes. Looks like they cast a wide net with the local sex offenders, but nothing stuck. There are pictures here of some of the guys they liked at the time. I thought maybe we could show them to our witness and see if he recognized any of them."

"You mean I've got to go talk to Mr. Muscle shirt again?"

"Look at the bright side," she said. "He doesn't work, so he'll have all day."

"Fabulous." He put on his sport coat and then tucked a stack of files inside it.

"What are you doing?" she asked, automatically looking to see if the Captain were watching.

"This case isn't getting solved nine-to-five."

She hesitated a minute and looked over her shoulder once more before helping herself to a bunch of folders. When he gave her a wry grin, she arched an eyebrow at him. "What are they going to do – fire me?"

So she drove home with a dozen murdered women sitting next to her. They came inside and spread out along her coffee table, lying next to her steaming mug as she tried to read their stories like tea leaves. There wasn't just one killer lurking there, but many, and most of these women would just go back into the cold metal file cabinets tomorrow, no better off for her efforts. But for one night at least, they weren't alone.

###

Amy Callahan was now a junior and still at UCLA. The official report said she was originally from somewhere in Texas, a small town with which McCall was unfamiliar. But she recognized Amy's strength of spirit. How tempting it must have been to flee back home, away from the big city that had let her down.


"Sergeant McCall?" Amy was blonde, as Lily had been, but the similarities ended there. The young woman in front of her had nice clothes and perfect teeth. She stood in the squad room like she'd been there before, and she didn't appear to expect a happy outcome this time either.


"You must be Amy. Thanks very much for coming in."


"They said this is Homicide," Amy said, glancing around. "I don't understand why I'm here. Is it...is it because he tried to kill me?"


"Let's go somewhere we can talk in private." McCall fetched them both a soda and took her to Interrogation Room Two. "Please have a seat."


"I don't know how I can help you. I told the other detective everything I remembered at the time, and to be honest, I've tried really hard to forget ever since."


"I understand," McCall said softly.

Amy searched her face and seemed to accept this was true. "You probably see a lot of these cases." She touched the soda can with one finger. "Tell me, do you ever get the guy?"


"Yes, sometimes we do."


"When you called, I thought maybe that was why. That he'd finally been caught." She pinned McCall with her gaze. "But he hasn't, has he." It wasn't really a question.


"Not yet," McCall admitted. "But we're taking a fresh look at the case, and I wanted to see if there was anything at all that might have been left out of your statement. Do you mind going over it with me? It would help us a lot."


"I doubt it." She blew her bangs from her forehead. "But what the hell? I have two hours before my economics class."


McCall walked her through the whole terrible story, from the time his car pulled over to offer a ride to the point he choked her unconscious with her own purse strap. "I assume he dumped me in the parking lot because he thought I was dead," Amy told her. Her hand went to her neck. "I woke up with asphalt and motor oil in my mouth, but at least I woke up."


"It says here you thought he was Caucasian, with dark hair and around thirty years old. Is that right?"


Amy shrugged. "It was really dark. He never got out of the car, so I don't know how tall he was. He was big and strong and smelled like cheap aftershave."


McCall had a flash of Fredericks on the stairs, his stench overpowering. She took a sip of soda and then cleared her throat. "I want to show you a picture," she said. "A sketch, actually. Take a look and see what you think."


Amy accepted the sketch of the man Mike Vereen had seen with Lily Thompson. Her brow furrowed. "I don't know. The hair is about right, and maybe the chin, but he doesn't seem totally familiar. The man from that night…he started out friendly, but then it was like something switched off inside him. His eyes went totally dead."


"Okay, thanks." McCall took the sketch back with a sigh. Eyewitness testimony was always a complicated bit of evidence to assess.


"I told you I wasn't going to be of any help." She sounded disgusted with herself.


"No, you have," McCall replied, taking her hand. "I know how difficult this stuff is to talk about."


Amy gripped McCall back with sudden force. "It's my fault, you know. I never should have gotten into the car with him. It was so cold that night, and I didn't know my way home I thought…I thought he was my savior."


"You can't blame yourself."


"Everyone else does." She pulled back and wiped at her eyes.


"People blame the victim because they want to tell themselves it can't happen to them. They want to believe they wouldn't get in that car, or drink a little too much on a date, or…or open the door to a stranger with flowers." She pulled aside the collar of her sweater to reveal the scar left by Mariano. "But the truth is, it can happen to anyone."


Amy's eyes went wide as she realized what McCall was saying. "You?"


"Three years ago." Here, at last, her victim status might actually make someone feel better. If a cop couldn't fend off a rapist, what chance did an eighteen year old freshman have?


"I'm sorry," Amy said.


"And I'm sorry for you," McCall answered gently, and Amy gave a sad smile.


"Did they get the guy? The one who hurt you?"


"Yes."


"I'm glad."


"We're still looking, Amy," McCall said, taking her hand again. "No one here has given up hope, so don't you be the first."


Amy nodded, still sniffling. "I just wonder sometimes, you know? Who would I be now if I hadn't gotten in that car?"


McCall squeezed her tight. This she understood too well.


"The car," Amy repeated suddenly as she drew away. "That's one thing I didn't tell them."


McCall opened the folder and scanned her statement. "It says you didn't recognize the car."


"No, I didn't, not then. But then my roommate got a new car a few months ago. I took one look at it and I knew. It was the same one from that night, a Chevy Malibu."


###


Hunter glided his car to a stop outside the address Mike Vereen had given them. It was a run-down little house with a dilapidated garage in back. There was a motorcycle in the driveway, and a heavyset Hispanic man was picking up trash from the yard. The sweat stains on his T-shirt suggested he'd been there awhile.


"I'm looking for Mike Vereen," Hunter said as he walked up the path. "LA Metro Police."


"I'm the landlord. Hector Nunez. Mike and Jennifer rent this place from me. He should be in there now watching daytime TV, same like always."


"Thanks." Hunter eyed the man another moment. He seemed familiar. "Have we met before?"


Fear crept into Hector's eyes. "No, I have no dealings with police. If Mike and Jennifer make trouble, I want no part of it."


"No trouble," Hunter assured him. "He's a witness, that's all." He left Hector tending the yard and jogged up the cement steps to the house. Vereen must have torn himself away from the TV because he knew Hunter was coming.


"Sergeant," he said, "what a surprise." His tone suggested it was not a welcome one. "What brings you here?"


"I have some pictures we'd like you to take a look at. Shouldn't take up much of your time."


Mike hesitated a minute and then pushed back the screen door. "Come on in."


###


McCall was initially too excited by the Chevy Malibu connection to pay much attention to Lisa Kwan. Kwan was helping them assemble a bulletin board of cases with a possible connection, and she had a question for McCall. "Just a second," said McCall. "I'm trying to reach Hunter about something important." They patched her through to his car, but he wasn't answering. "Guess it will have to wait," she said with a sigh as she hung up the phone. "Now what was it you wanted to know?"


"The two prostitutes who were murdered in May of '85 – Susie Barringer and Paula Grinaldi – the cops set up a traffic stop on Fifth street two days after Paula was killed. They asked motorists if they'd seen anything suspicious in the area the night Paula disappeared."


"Right, I read something about that." Her pulse picked up as a sudden thought hit her. "Did they record the makes and models of the cars?"


"No," Lisa replied, and McCall's spirits fell. "But there was something weird I found here."


"What?"


"One of the guys they stopped was Michael Vereen. He's your witness, right?"


Dread crept over her. "Yeah, that's him," she said as she took the notes from Lisa.


"Don't you think that's odd, that he'd be connected with two cases?"


"Do me a favor," McCall said, reaching for the phone again. "Find out what kind of car Mike Vereen drives. Do it right now." She tried once more to have dispatch reach Hunter. "Come on, Rick, pick up," she said, twisting the phone cord in one hand.


"Sorry, McCall, he must be out of the car," the operator said when Hunter failed to answer.


Yes, and she had a sinking feeling she knew where he was. Lisa Kwan returned with a printout. "Michael Vereen does not have any cars registered in his name," she said, and McCall felt a faint bit of relief. "But I checked his girlfriend too, and she drives a white 1986 Chevy Malibu."


McCall was in motion almost before Lisa finished speaking. "Captain?"

Devane was on the phone, and he looked annoyed at her outburst. "McCall, I'm in the middle of something here.."


"I think we may have our serial killer," she said.


"I'll call you back," Charlie said, and hung up the phone. "Talk to me."


"Our would-be witness in the Lily Thompson case. Turns out he was questioned in a previous homicide investigation that bears a striking resemblance to this one. I don't think it's a coincidence."


"Nor do I. Get him in here."


"Hunter went over there to show him some photos. He doesn't know Vereen's a suspect. If Vereen thinks we're onto him, I'm afraid there could be trouble."


"Go. Go now, and take a black-and-white with you."


###


"So what is it you want me to look at?" It was just after noon and already Mike Vereen had a beer can in his hand. Hunter could see a couple of empties sitting on the end table next to a beat-up plaid recliner in the living room. If Vereen was drunk, it was pointless to show him the pictures. The place smelled like microwaved Salisbury steak, and The Price is Right was playing on the TV at high volume.


"We have another case that we think might be related to the death of Lily Thompson," Hunter said over the sound of Bob Barker inviting contestants to enter their prices. "We would like you to take a look at the persons of interest from that case to see if any of them look familiar."


Vereen perked up. "Another hooker murder?"


"Two homicides that occurred in roughly the same area." Hunter walked over the window and parted the slits in the blind with two fingers. Hector the landlord was packing up his truck. Hunter could not shake the feeling that he knew the man from somewhere… someplace recent.


"You see something interesting?" Vereen crowded in behind him, beer breath and all.


"Your landlord seems familiar."


"That old wetback? Wouldn't be surprised if he had trouble with the law."


Hunter bit back a stinging reply and reminded himself that they needed this idiot's help. "I have the pictures right here," he said, holding out a folder. "If you wouldn't mind taking a look."


Vereen was like a boy on Christmas morning, taking his package with glee. "Any crime scene photos in here?"


"No, just mug shots." Hunter looked pensively out the window again. Mug shots. Persons of interest. The riddle of Hector Nunez was in there somewhere. God, he'd seen so many files over the last week that all the faces were a blur. On TV, some woman was squealing because she won a car.


"Man, you got some real dogs in here."


"Just pull out any that look familiar to you."


"Hey, my sketch is in here too. You think the same guy did all these broads?"


The sketch. Hunter looked quickly out the window, but Hector was long gone. "That's it," he said out loud. "Your landlord is a dead ringer for the man in the sketch."


"Oh yeah?" But somehow Vereen didn't sound that surprised.


"Does he live nearby?" Hunter asked, still at the window.


"Just down the road. You should go talk to him. I seen him looking at my girlfriend sometimes, you know with a dirty expression on his face. He's a real creeper."


Dimly, Hunter was aware the other man was moving closer. He could go talk to Hector, but it didn't make sense. If Vereen saw Hector the night of Lily's murder, why wouldn't he just say so? Why bother to give a dead-on description and not mention that the guy was your landlord? Maybe it was a frame-up. Or maybe…


He didn't get to complete the thought because something heavy clocked him from behind.


###


Neither McCall nor the black-and-white behind her ran lights and sirens as they approached Mike Vereen's street. She saw Hunter's Dodge parked in front of the house, but there was no sign of Hunter. Presumably, he was still inside with Vereen.


Fournier and Baylor, the officers backing her up, had fifteen years of experience between them. She could trust them to pay attention and play it smart. "I have no idea what we're going to find in there," she said. "But Mike Vereen is now the lead suspect in at least three homicides, and I have no idea how he might have reacted to Hunter's surprise visit. So we're going to go up quietly and hope we find nothing more than an interview in progress."


"Got it," Fournier said.


"One other thing," McCall said as they walked. "Once Vereen sees the three of us, he'll know we're onto him. If he hasn't panicked yet, he might do it now. Be careful."


They reached the porch and McCall drew back the screen door. Fournier and Baylor flanked her on either side. She knocked loudly. "Mr. Vereen?" There was no reply, and she tried again. "Mr. Vereen, it's Sergeant McCall."


She nodded at Fournier and Baylor, and all three of them unholstered their weapons. She tried the front door and found it open. Slowly, she pushed inside. The house was dimmer than she expected for the midday California sun, with the blinds shut and ugly polyester curtains drawn. The worn carpet kept her footsteps quiet as she moved further into the living room. A soap opera was playing on the TV, and there was a can of beer sitting on the coffee table, sweating in the warm air. No sign of Hunter or Vereen.


McCall motioned to the men behind her and started down the hallway. Together, they cleared a bathroom and two cramped bedrooms. She looked out the window into the backyard in case Hunter was there, but she only saw a couple of trash barrels and a rusted out water ski. "They're not here," Fournier said.


"They're here someplace," McCall said. "And there is one door we have not tried."


The mystery door off the kitchen led down some rickety wooden steps. She had descended only a few steps when a bullet whizzed past her. "Hold it right there." She heard Vereen but could not see him.


"Hunter?"


"Over here," he said, and her knees went weak. At least he was alive.


"You shut up," Vereen said angrily, and she could see them now, perhaps thirty feet away in the shadows.


"He has my gun," Hunter said.


"I told you to shut up!" She heard some sort of scuffle, and they emerged into the half-light. Vereen had his gun to Hunter's neck. Overhead, there were footfalls as Fournier and Baylor went to radio for help. She couldn't tell if there was another way into the basement. "I knew it!" Vereen said. "I knew when one cop showed up here that there would be more. You better put that gun down, Sergeant. Nice and easy, or your friend here gets a bullet through his head."


Hunter's eyes glittered in the darkness as he shook his head, almost imperceptibly. She saw blood on the side of his face.


"I said do it!" Vereen jabbed the gun into Hunter, and McCall jumped.


"No," she said. She trained her weapon instead at Vereen's head. It would be nearly impossible to hit him without risking Hunter, but she hoped he wouldn't know this.


"You think I won't do it? I'll do it."


She licked her lips, her heart pounding, but her voice was steady. "I've got two officers with me and there are more on the way. Go ahead and shoot him. You won't make it ten feet."


"God, you're a dumb bitch. Maybe I'll take you both out, how would that be?"


She didn't have to answer because Hunter gave him a sudden elbow to the gut. Vereen doubled over and Hunter slipped free, long enough to sweep Vereen's legs out from under him. By the time he could look up again, McCall had the barrel of her gun aimed between his eyes. "Don't even breathe funny," she said.


Outside, the wail of sirens signaled the arrival of reinforcements. "You okay?" she asked, glancing at Hunter.


He touched the wound on his head. "I'll live." He looked down at Vereen, huddled on the dirt floor like an animal, and nudged him with his foot. "You won't, though. It'll be the gas chamber for you."


They dragged him back out into the daylight where the usual circus of spinning lights and gawking onlookers awaited. Fournier and Baylor were only too happy to shove Vereen into a squad car and take him downtown. McCall fretted while the EMTs checked out Hunter at the back of an ambulance. "You're going to need a couple of stitches and a head CT."


"I'm fine," he protested. "I have a hard head. Ask her if you don't believe me."


McCall smiled a little. "He's not wrong about that."


"We can't make him go," the EMT told her, "but he really should be checked out. Maybe you can convince him."


He moved aside, and McCall went to stand in front of Hunter. There was dried blood in his hair and on his pale blue shirt. "Ouch," she said, touching him lightly. "That looks like it hurt."


"It's fine," he said again as he ducked from her hand. "I didn't even lose consciousness. He just knocked the wind out of me."


"Thank God for that." She smoothed the front of his shirt. "I'm glad you're okay."


"Yeah?" he said, sounding amused. "What happened to 'Go ahead and shoot him'?"


She gave a half shrug. "I figured if he hadn't already done it, he wasn't likely to."


"You figured," he repeated. "Well, that's reassuring."


"Hey, it worked, didn't it?"


"Yeah," he said softly, pulling her down to sit with him. "It did. We got him, and now we're going to have fill out the paperwork to prove it."


She winced and closed her eyes. "I don't even want to think about that part. Can't we just rest on our laurels a moment?"


He made a show of checking out her rear end. "Is that what we're calling it now?" he said, and she swatted him. He squinted at the house. "What do you want to bet we're going to find Lily's missing purse strap in there somewhere?"


"I hope so. We're going to need it to make our case."


"I'll muster the troops," he said, starting to get up. She pushed him back down.


"You go get checked out at the hospital. I'll coordinate the search-" He opened his mouth to argue, but she continued. "And get started on the paperwork."


He shut his mouth in a hurry. "You know, my head does kind of hurt, now that you mention it. Maybe I should have a doctor look at it."


She rolled her eyes and squeezed his hand once before leaving. "Call me if you need me."


"Always," he said after her.


Later, on the drive back to the precinct, she tried not to think about the bullet that missed her or the bruise the gun barrel had left on Hunter's neck. She thought instead about Lily Ann Thompson, dead at twenty-six, lying frozen and unclaimed at the city morgue. At the end, the only one who had wanted her was her killer, the man who came back just for another glimpse or a bit of news on her, and this at last was his undoing.


She thought of Amy Callahan on Halloween night, walking the street alone in the cold, watching the red taillights pull to a stop and thinking she was finally going home. Maybe now that they had him in the daylight where the world could see his crimes, then everyone, even Amy, would know the truth: Amy wasn't a victim; Amy was a hero.


She lived.

###


Evening was just creeping into the sky when McCall closed the front door behind her, slipped off her heels, and leaned back in exhaustion. The adrenaline had cleared her system, leaving her alone with Hunter's brush with death and the feel of a gun in her hands. It was the first time she'd raised her weapon since the night Lloyd Fredericks stood right there in her doorway, just where she was now. Hunter was safe, Vereen was in jail and Devane had actually made eye contact with her again. All in all, it was a successful day.


A sharp knock behind her head made her jump. She was not expecting company. She set down her shoes and peered through her new peephole. Nothing could have prepared her for the person on the other side. Slowly, she opened the door.


"Mrs. Fredericks," she said.


Clare Fredericks tucked a fallen lock of hair behind her ear. "I followed you home. I'm sorry for that, but I didn't know any other way."


McCall looked past her for Mike Snow. "I'm not sure you should be here."


Clare knew immediately who McCall was looking for. "He doesn't know I came. Please, I just wanted to talk to you for a minute."


McCall hesitated for a long time. "Okay," she relented at last. "For a minute." She widened the door so the other woman could enter. Clare brushed past her, slight enough that she was almost a breeze. McCall would never have believed she could kill someone if she had not seen it with her own eyes.


Clare stood in the middle of McCall's living room, clutching an oversized purse and gazing at her surroundings with a pained expression. McCall wondered if she was imagining her dead husband hiding in the shadows.


"I didn't think I would ever get married," Clare said at last. She was still looking around the room. "I was almost thirty when we met, and I'd only been out on three dates before that. I just never knew how to talk to men. Some of the girls from work talked me into coming out for a drink, and he was there at the bar. Cindy and Melanie – the other nurses – they always had guys chasing after them. But Lloyd wanted me." She paused and gave McCall a small, sad smile.


"Would you like to sit down?" McCall asked.


Clare looked afraid to touch anything. "No, no. I won't stay. I just wanted to…I keep trying to figure out where it went wrong and if I could have known. That night we met in the bar, when he came over to us, I thought he was so sweet. He said I was pretty and he wanted to buy me a drink. I said no, I was with my friends. He insisted." She looked at McCall. "He wouldn't take no for an answer."


The words sent a chill down McCall's spine. From the haunted expression on Clare's face, she could see the other woman felt it too.


"I think that's why he picked me," she said, her voice thick. "Because I never said no." She swiped at her eyes with one hand. "You must think I'm a fool."


McCall chose her words carefully. "I imagine he took great pains to hide what he was doing."


Clare gave a humorless, painful laugh. "That's the thing. He didn't. When I bothered to look, the evidence was everywhere. He just knew me well enough to know I would never check. All those nights I thought he was out bowling, and instead he was breaking into women's houses." She looked around again.


McCall hugged herself. "What is it you want, Mrs. Fredericks?"


"I read the journal and what he did to you," Clare said steadily. "Mr. Snow explained his strategy for my trial, how he wants to show that you…that you almost did the same thing that I did. I just had to know: is it true?"


McCall closed her eyes for a long moment. Then she nodded. "Over there," she said, jerking her head at the wall behind her. "You can see the patch on the wall. I shot past him instead."


Clare moved to study the wall, her hand tracing the patch as if she were a blind woman reading Braille. McCall stood beside her. "Mr. Snow wants me to be sorry for the jury," Clare murmured, "but I don't think I am. Does that sound horrible?"


"No." McCall swallowed with difficulty. "I'm not sorry either." Maybe this was the only way they could admit it, alone together at the scene of one of Fredericks's crimes.


Clare nodded, tears in her eyes. "Mr. Snow told me you would be reluctant to testify, and he explained why, that it could mean you are fired."


"I'm going to testify." She looked at the patch job on her wall again, and then back at Clare. "It could have just easily been me. So yes, if Mike thinks it will help, I will tell the whole story."


"You won't have to."


McCall froze. "What do you mean?"


"That's why I came here. To tell you that I am going to accept the plea. I want to. I'm not sorry he's dead but when I think of all those women he hurt, and how maybe I could have stopped it sooner…" She covered her mouth, holding back a sob. "Whatever punishment they choose to give me, I deserve it."


"I don't believe that." McCall touched her arm, but Clare jumped back.


"No," she said, holding up a hand. "You won't change my mind."


"Look," McCall said gently. "Mike Snow won't allow it either way. He's confident he can win your case, and I've seen him at work. He's probably right."


"Then I will get another attorney." Clare's tears had dried up, and her eyes were serious. "I read every word of that journal, and I think the DA might be right to put me on trial. Not for Lloyd. I would shoot him again today if I could. But if just once, I had noticed his bowling shoes never showed signs of wear, maybe Lisa Cartwright doesn't get raped. If I had opened the glove compartment on our car and found the pantyhose, maybe Anne Mapleton is still alive. If I had just asked one time, where he got all those scratches on his arms, then maybe he doesn't show up here at your place."


God help her, the promise of that still sounded so sweet. No Lloyd Fredericks. No terror in her own home. No waking up to the memory of his smell and the feel of his hands around her neck. Suddenly, she was the one fighting tears.


"You can't change the past," she said. "Your husband's crimes were his alone."


Clare shuddered. "I can't undo what he did. I couldn't save the others, but I can put an end to this, at last." She looked McCall up and down. "I think you maybe understand that more than anyone. So please, I am asking you: let it stop here, with me."


###


The sunset was angry, it seemed to Hunter, filled with dark streaks of purple-black clouds. Wind screaming off of the Pacific reminded him that it was still winter. You could forget that during the day when the temperatures routinely reached into the 70s, but when night came, a chill set in that could steal the warmth from your bones.


He picked up his sack of groceries from the passenger side of the car and headed for the front door. There sat McCall on his steps, her hair windswept as she tilted her head at him. "About time you showed up," she said. "It's freezing down here."


"Why didn't you use your key?" he asked as he opened the door.


"Left it at home," she said. "I figured you would be here taking it easy."


She followed him into the house. "That's why you're here? To check up on me?"


"In a way," she said as she removed her coat. "I also have news of a sort."


He went to the kitchen to set the groceries down. "Well, don't keep me in suspense."


"Clare Fredericks came to see me." She leaned over the counter and peered into his sack. "She says she wants to take a plea."


"What?" He paused with a head of lettuce in his hand. "And Mike Snow will let her do that?"


"She said she would get another attorney if he didn't. I don't know. She seemed… determined."


"That's great." He grinned, a little energy coming back. His head still throbbed on one side. "Best news I've heard all day, and today, that's saying something." He nudged her. "Partner."


McCall smiled, but her heart didn't seem in it. "Yeah, it's a relief – assuming it actually happens. But she thinks she owes me, Hunter. Me and all the other women Fredericks attacked. I think she wants to go to jail in his place."


"He would have gotten life. She'll serve a year, tops."


"No," McCall said, her eyes sad. "She got life too. Trust me."


He put down the lettuce and slipped an arm around her. "It's okay, you know, if you get to walk away from this. What happened to you isn't Clare's fault, but her situation isn't your fault either."


"I know," she said, but she did not sound like she entirely believed it.


He squeezed her. "You want something to eat? I have food."


"You have food?" She clearly didn't believe this either. She stood on tiptoe to check out what was in the bottom of his grocery bag. "Okay," she said, "I can probably work with this. You go take it easy, and I will call you when it's ready."


"I didn't mean you had to cook."


"We want to actually eat the food when it's done, right? That means I cook." She pushed him gently toward the living room. "Besides, you're on injured reserve."


So he stretched his tired body along the couch and put the sports channel on low, listening instead to her in the other room preparing dinner. She was humming some tune he did not recognize, and he would give nearly anything to keep this moment, the sound of her happy in his kitchen. But to say so out loud risked scaring her away forever.


It seemed like mere minutes passed and then she was shaking him awake. "Dinner is ready," she said fondly. "But I can put it away if you'd rather rest."


"No, no, I'm up." His knees creaked as he rose, but his head actually felt a bit better. The smell of food made his stomach rumble. She had prepared a simple meal of lemon chicken, rice pilaf and a salad. "This looks great," he said as they sat down. He was surprised at how hungry he was. Adrenaline and painkillers had dampened his appetite through most of the day.


They rehashed the Vereen arrest – what kind of idiot uses his landlord as a proxy ID? – and discussed whether the high profile collar might actually mitigate any fallout from the Fredericks trial, regardless of whether Clare actually sought a plea. It would be hard for the Chief to fire two detectives who had just busted a serial killer.


"So," she said near the end of the meal. "Your appointment the other day – you were going to tell me about that."


"I was?"


"You said we could talk about it later." She checked her watch. "It's later."


He pushed his plate away and folded his arms. This was his opening, if he wanted it. He'd tried several times to start the conversation in his head, but it always came out terribly wrong. McCall, I developed feelings for you, so I immediately saw a psychologist. Because only a crazy person could want you. Or, possibly: I never thought I could have a long-term relationship with any woman, but somehow you snuck in when I wasn't looking. All we're missing is the sex. What do you say?


"Hunter? Are you all right?" She was looking at him with concern now, so he had to say something.


"Let's go for a walk," he said, getting up from the table. There was no way he could have this conversation in one place, with the words trapped between them.


She looked at him like he was crazy. "It's freezing out there."


"I'll make sure you're warm." He handed her coat to her, and she looked at him speculatively before accepting it.


"This had better be good," she warned him, and he tried for a mysterious smile.


The moon was out by now, a fat orb admiring its own pale reflection in the vast ocean. They walked on the streets in back of his house rather than on the windy beach, their hands in their pockets. It was bright enough that he could see the shadowed fringe of her lashes as she regarded him with curiosity.


"Well?" she asked. "You're not dying or anything, are you?" She was kidding, but there was a definite note of distress in her tone.


"No, no, nothing like that," he said, and her shoulders relaxed.


"Well then what?"


He glanced at her. "Before I say anything at all, I have to ask you: Keith Holt – is he the one?"


Her brow furrowed. "The one what?"


"You know, the one for you, someone who you could spend your life with."


"I haven't exactly thought that far ahead. Right now, we can barely manage a simple phone call."


"But you're not in love with him."


She stopped walking to stare at him. "No, I'm not in love with him. I would have gladly told you all this back at the house – where it is warm."


He nodded and continued walking so that she was forced to keep up. "And he's not in love with you either," he said, more a statement than a question. He could barely look at her. It was the only way he could get the words out.


"No, he's not in love with me," she said patiently and slowly. "Why this sudden interest?"


"Because I am," he said. Fear and excitement shivered through him. There, it was done.


"You're what?" She sounded confused.


Shit, he thought. Normally he could just quirk an eyebrow at her and she knew exactly what he was thinking. What a perfect time for their usual telepathy to desert them. He was going to have to say it again. He took a breath and stopped walking.


"In love with you." He said it to the sky rather than her, but there was no way she could mistake his meaning this time.


"W-what?"


He risked a look down at her to see how she was taking the news. She seemed… bemused. He could see she was searching him to determine if he was kidding. "Yeah," he told her softly. "At least I'm pretty sure that's what this is. I've consulted an expert, and she seems to agree."


"Your appointment," she guessed immediately.


He nodded. "I've been seeing a department psychologist," he said as he started moving again. The hardest part was over, but that didn't make the rest of it any easier. She fell into step beside him.


"Because of me?"


"Because of my feelings for you, yes. They've been kind of distracting, and they also seemed…" He searched for the right word. "Dangerous. We have a pretty good thing going here, and I didn't want to wreck it, especially if I wasn't sure."


"And now you're sure?"


He stopped again and looked at her. Her eyes were huge and dark. "I've loved you in one way or another for a long time," he said, his voice low. "I hope you know that."


She gave a tiny nod.


He continued. "But I never considered trying to have some sort of romantic relationship with you because I didn't think I wanted one with any woman."


"The available evidence does seem to support that conclusion," she said.


This was going to be the other hard part, he knew, trying to convince her that she was different. But he had decided the important part was first to make her see that he was different. "What Dr. Gallagher helped me understand is that maybe I decided I didn't want a relationship because I figured I couldn't have one." He hesitated. "Because of my parents."


She knew enough of his background to be able to follow along. "They weren't happy together," she agreed.


"I guess it was easier in some way to opt out than to risk repeating their mistakes." He took a deep breath. "And you have always been clear about your desire for marriage and family. I didn't want to make you promises I couldn't keep. Now…"


"Now?" She prompted when he didn't finish.


He looked beyond her at the horizon. "I still can't make any promises. But I can tell you: I don't completely hate the idea."


She laughed, thoroughly amused, and he smiled too.


"See?" he said. "It turns out I'm a romantic at heart."


Shyly, she tucked her hand in his. "I have never doubted it." He rubbed the soft skin of her inner wrist with his thumb, and she shivered. "I…I don't know what to say," she murmured.


"Don't say anything yet," he told her. "I have something to show you."


"What?"


"You'll see." He held her hand all the way back to his place, where he let her go long enough for them to remove their coats. Her cheeks had pinked up from the cold, and now she matched her sweater. The air between them crackled with something new; he'd thrown her completely for a loop once already and now she would not take her eyes off him.


He took her hand again. "This way," he said as he led her back to his bedroom. He paused to turn on the lights. "I heard you appreciate the grand gesture, and so here it is."


She blinked and looked where he was pointing. "The bed?"


"Sit," he said, pulling her down next to him. "I know your mattress is special because of the situation with your back." Getting shot in the back had rendered ordinary mattresses fine for a night or two, but more than that, and she woke up in pain. "So I found the same model." He bounced lightly to show her the extra support. "See?"


"You did that? For me?" She looked as though she might cry.


He leaned in and rested his forehead on hers. "I'm kind of hoping you'll find reason to put it to good use."


She gave a watery laugh and held the sides of his head. "Tempting," she murmured, and then they were kissing. It was a slow "getting to know you" kiss at first, but then she made some humming noise and he was lost. He pressed her back into the mattress, half on top of her as they kissed some more. Her hands wandered his back and his thigh lay heavy and hard between her legs. Lust crashed through him like the waves outside. "Mmm," she said against his mouth as his hand crept under her sweater. Soon he was stroking her through her bra as he rubbed himself against her like a horny teenager.


"Mm, no," he said, pulling his mouth from hers.


She tried to kiss him again, but he held her in place. They were both breathing hard. "Not yet," he said. "I've had months to think about this. You should take at least twenty-four hours."


She arched against him. "Hunter, please…"


"It's too important," he told her softly, nuzzling her warm cheek. "I've spent five years not falling into bed with you. I don't want to start now. Go home and think about it."


"That's it? You make this big speech, buy me this bed, and now you're just sending me home." She narrowed her eyes at him.


He smiled tenderly. "I have a feeling you might be back."


"Confident, are you?"


"I'm taking this as a good sign," he said sliding his body against hers one last time. She hissed in pleasure, and he rolled off of her. "You should go now, though," he said, "before I change my mind."


He tugged her back off the bed and back out to the living room. She was flushed again, this time from his kisses. They stared at each other as she shrugged into her coat, and he forced himself to open the front door. Cold ocean air rushed past them. "You've given me a lot to think about," she said as they lingered in the doorway. She toyed with the hem of his T-shirt.


"Yeah? Any first impressions?"


A slow smile spread across her face. "Let's say I don't completely hate the idea."



Chapter Eight

McCall brought bagels and coffee to the counseling center as penance for the unusual hour. Since it was before nine on Saturday morning, Anita had swapped her usual skirt and blouse for jeans and a sweater. "Thanks for coming," McCall said as she handed her a paper cup of hot coffee.


Anita blew on it gently. "I don't think I've ever heard from you at eight AM, even in the darkest days. And you were so cryptic on the phone. I was concerned."


"Sorry about that. I didn't mean to worry you."


Anita looked her up and down. "Yeah, you don't strike me as someone in crisis. So what's up?"


McCall tried to figure out how to say it. She had spent half the night staring at her ceiling and replaying Hunter's words, each one a secret thrill. If she said them aloud to another person, they became real. "Um, I had dinner with Hunter last night, at his place. He..." She paused. "We went for a walk and he told me he's in love with me."


Anita looked totally nonplussed. "This is me being surprised," she said, deadpan. She spread some cream cheese across her bagel and took a bite. "If he's really just figuring this out now, he must be the slowest detective on the force."


"Well, it was news to me," McCall said, perturbed.


Anita flashed a teasing smile. "Okay, then I guess that makes him the second slowest detective. You guys solve actual cases and stuff, right?"


"We closed a big one just yesterday, as a matter of fact."


Anita raised her eyebrows, still amused. "Closed it already, did you? That was fast."


McCall felt herself blush. "Not that kind of closing," she said, and Anita turned serious.


"I see. So he's in love with you, and you feel...what?"


She felt about seven thousand things at once, which is why she had called Anita. Amazed. Terrified. Humbled. Aroused. The last one especially made it difficult to think. Her body tingled from head to toe whenever she thought of last night's romp on Hunter's bed. The bed he'd bought for her because he wanted them to make love. Just the thought was dizzying.


She swallowed with difficulty and tried to summon an answer. "I want him," she said. "So much. But there are real reasons why we have never crossed that line before. We would be risking everything we already have."


"It doesn't seem like there is a way around that," Anita agreed. "So then what?"


McCall felt chagrinned as she looked at her coffee. "i was sort of hoping you could tell me. I thought maybe there was an easy answer I was overlooking here."


"Sorry to disappoint you."


McCall was quiet for a long moment. "I love him," she said softly. "That's the easy part. The hard part is all the unknowns. Suppose we do this and three weeks later he changes his mind? Or what if it's two years later and he still doesn't want to get married? Or what if it turns out twelve hours a day is really the limit to how much time we can spend in each other's company? I adore the man, but sometimes I just want my own space at the end of the day, you know? And I am pretty sure he feels the same."


"All reasonable concerns. So what it if you tell Hunter no? What then?" She sipped her coffee.


"Then I might miss out on the most amazing relationship of my life." Emotion caused her eyes to water.


Anita looked thoughtful. "Have you ever read any of the Spenser novels? They are about a PI working in Boston."


McCall shook her head. "Missed those. Why? Does he have it bad for his partner or something?"


"No, he's in love with a psychologist," she said, and the appeal of the books for Anita became clear. "But I was reading an interview last month with the author, Robert Parker. He and his wife have been married for decades and raised two sons, but they live in separate apartments - he upstairs and she downstairs."


McCall raised an eyebrow at her. "You think Hunter and I should get a duplex or something?"


"I am not suggesting any particular solution. But what is obvious to me in the time that I have known the two of you is that you don't much pay attention to conventional rules, at least where your partnership or friendship is concerned."


McCall squinted beyond her and nodded a little. "That's probably a fair assessment."


"And so," Anita continued, "I would not expect anything different now."


McCall considered this a minute. Her life with Steve had been almost entirely conventional, but happy, as long as it lasted. Since then, she had been chasing that same connection with a series of nice men who seemed to be what she wanted - safe and predictable - but in the end she was always a bit bored. Hunter ran toward danger, not away from it, and for years, she had been running right behind him. Now he was asking her to follow him someplace entirely new. It was up to her to find the courage to follow.


###


Keith was working from his home office when she called, but the warmth in his voice was genuine as he invited her to stop by. So she once again stopped for coffee, this time poured over ice, and drove the winding road to Santa Monica with the windows down and the breeze on her face. The sun sat high and twinkling in the sky. On her left, the ocean stretched blue and wide, fading into a haze by the horizon, so that it seemed like the rest of the world no longer existed. On days like this one she could understand the pull of the sea.


Keith had an impeccably neat brown bungalow with bright orange trim and an aquamarine chair on the front porch. The lush yard featured several types of grasses, large potted flowering plants, and tucked between two hedges, a sleepy longhaired cat. She smiled and rang the bell.


He answered straight away, his feet bare and his glasses slightly askew. "Hi," he said, drawing back the door. "Come in, come in."


"I figured you could use this," she said, handing him a coffee.


"I could probably use three of them," he replied as he kissed her cheek. "I've been working since six this morning, so I could definitely use the break."


"I'm sorry I can't stay long."


"No?" He looked curious and disappointed.


"But I would like to see what you've been working on," she said. "That is, if you don't mind showing me."


"Not at all. Step into my lair…and watch out for the crumpled paper."


She followed him back to his office, noting the framed black-and-white photos of various buildings along the way. At the end of the hall, there was a framed painting of two dark-skinned girls wrapped in colorful dress, sharing a simple picnic of fruit. McCall stopped and studied it a moment. It appeared to be an original, although any signature was obscured by the gold frame. "Gauguin?" she guessed.


"Mmm-hmm," he replied, and she recalculated again just how many millions he had at his disposal. "The office is this way."


His office had big windows, hardwood floors and pale blue walls. In contrast to the rest of the house, it was Spartan in appearance. There was a low drafting table, a chair on wheels, and a tin waste can overflowing with scrunched-up paper. A large metal lamp hung over the table like a crane.


"I like to keep distractions to a minimum in here," he said.


"Are you working on the The Cooper Union project?" She followed him to the table, where he moved aside his ruler, pencil and calculator so that she could see the sketches.


"Yes, I think I've finally settled on a direction. This is roughly what it would look like from the outside." He showed her a large structure, at least ten stories high, but with walls that buckled along one side. It looked very much like his inspiration was the crumpled paper from his wastebasket.


"You can actually build something like this?"


"I guess we'll find out," he replied with a smile. "I was going for playful and quirky, but also for environmentally-friendly. This façade of glass and perforated metal skin will change throughout the day. The building can sense sunlight and adjust the interior climate accordingly – without air conditioning."


"It's amazing," she said, touching the paper lightly. "They would be crazy not to pick you."


He looked pleased. "I'm glad you like it, and I hope I can convince the committee to see what I see. The aesthetic – well, it won't be for everyone. But I think if a certain fraction of the population doesn't viscerally hate your work, then you're not taking enough chances."


"Ugly is in the eye of the beholder?"


"Exactly." He sipped the coffee she had brought for him. "But you didn't come all the way out here on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to see my etchings. You want to sit down for a bit? I have a patio out back."


She shook her head. "No, I'm sorry, but I can't stay."


"Don't be sorry. Another time then."


"Keith…"


"There isn't going to be another time, is there?" He sighed and put aside his plastic cup.


"I'm afraid not."


"The other night, when you told me what happened to you, that's when I blew it, didn't I? I should have called you sooner but I had no idea what to say."


"No," she said, taking a step toward him. She covered one of his hands with her own. "That's not it at all. You have been kind and generous, and I am going to miss you."


"Then I don't understand," he murmured, looking down at their hands.


"It turns out my heart is spoken for," she said. "I just didn't realize it."


He failed to look surprised. "Hunter," he said, pulling away. She was starting to think perhaps Anita had been correct about their feeble detective skills.


"I'm sorry," she said again. "I didn't mean to lead you on."


"You made no promises." He shook his head and reached out to toy with a mechanical pencil. "I just…I thought we had a real connection."


"We did," she said gently, touching his arm. "You weren't wrong. But…but it's like these sketches here." She paused to gesture at his drawings. "We were more of an idea, just the beginning of something. Real but not yet formed."


"Whereas Hunter is a skyscraper unto himself," Keith said, resigned. "I get it."


Yes, she felt the truth of this immediately. Hunter was the one who had altered her skyline forever, a six-and-a-half foot tower of steel and grace. He was a landmark she could see from any angle; never lost, because everywhere she went, there he was, showing her the way home.


###

Hunter had spent the day distracting himself with activity. He went for a drive through the hills and then for a run along the beach. His living room had been tidied and all the dishes were put away. After a long, hot shower, he changed into a clean gray T-shirt and jeans and settled onto the couch to flip through the TV channels, watching the passing images without really seeing them. Despite his confidence when he'd sent her away the night before, he knew it was entirely possible that McCall had changed her mind in the cold light of day. Hell, he had changed his mind about six times in the last twenty minutes alone.


Half of him hoped she could save them from themselves. The other half remembered the feel of her beneath him, her skin hot against his hands.


Just past eight, there was a knock at his door. He opened it and found her standing there with wide, dark eyes. He lounged against the door frame and made a show of checking his watch. "It's only been twenty-one hours and fifty-three minutes," he said.


"You're not seriously going to make me wait out here, are you?"


"No," he said, looking her up and down. "I won't make you wait."


He moved out of the way so that she could enter, the delicate scent of her perfume teasing him as she walked past. She took off her coat and put it on a nearby chair while he went to sit on the edge of his sofa, long legs stretched in front of him. They eyed each other from their separate corners. "I told Keith I couldn't see him anymore," she said at length. "And of course I meant it in the sense that I won't be dating him, but I was thinking on the way over that it's more than that. I can't see a future with him, or with anyone else, not after what you said." She swallowed and shivered a little. "All I can see is you."


He found he couldn't speak, so he simply held out one hand to her. She moved stiffly, as if forcing herself along, and grabbed his hand tightly. He pulled her to stand between his legs. They had stood like this before, holding hands with only inches of warm air between them, but this time he could feel every ridge of her fingertips. Her eyes were lowered and he could see the pulse fluttering in her neck. There was no way she could miss the painful bulge in his jeans.


They leaned foreheads together, breathing each other in. Her fingernails pricked his knee through his jeans, and he automatically closed his legs, bringing her against him. He pressed his lips to the side of her neck, right at the pulse, and she gasped as her fingers tangled in his hair. She dragged his face up to hers, and they started kissing, softly at first, but then with growing need. They weren't going to stop this time, so he let the kisses get deeper, hotter, his tongue in her mouth and his hands holding her firmly against him.


She reached under his shirt to stroke his back, caressing him with the same rhythm of their kiss. Lust sang in his veins. He wanted to touch her everywhere at once, but she was wearing too many clothes.


He pulled his mouth from hers and kissed her cheek, her eye. Their breathing was ragged as she bunched his shirt halfway up his back. "Sergeant McCall," he said in a low rumble. "I want to take you to bed."


"Oh, yes, please," she replied, her words a relieved sigh against his cheek.


He was tempted to scoop her up and carry her there, but this had to be her decision, too. They went hand-in-hand to the bedroom, where he had already turned down the crisp white sheets in hopeful anticipation. Light from the bathroom shafted across the bed, and they lay together beneath its illumination.


Their legs entwined as they kissed some more, and he tried with one hand to open the first tiny button at the base of her shirt. His fingers felt huge and clumsy as he fumbled to get it free. It parted at last, but he found yet another one not a half-inch upward. "God, you're perverse," he muttered against her temple. "Leave it to you to come over here wearing a shirt with seven thousand itty bitty buttons."


She laughed and kissed the underside of his jaw. "You do that side I'll get this one." She was much faster unbuttoning from the top end, and their hands met at her middle, where she brought his palm down across her smooth, flat stomach.


"True partners," he murmured before kissing her again. His hand slid up her ribs and over to find her breasts. He thumbed a nipple through the lace of her bra until it grew fat and hard and she whimpered against his mouth.


They rolled together until he was on the bottom, his thigh between her legs, still kissing. She was holding his head, stroking his face and murmuring small sounds of pleasure while blood pounded in his ears. He used the opportunity to reach around under her blouse and undo her bra, pleased that he could at least manage this in one try. The lace fell away, and he kissed his way down her neck to the new flesh he had just uncovered. She cried out at the first touch of his hot mouth at her breast, her hands lazy in his hair as he sucked and nuzzled around the obstacle of her half-open bra.


"Off," she said, breathless, trying to wriggle out of her top. "Now."


He obliged her by yanking the shirt and bra away and tucking her beneath him again. Her legs parted easily and he opened the snap and zipper on his fly before settling on top of her again. He was hard enough to pound nails. She slipped her hands under the backside of his loosened jeans, down to his naked skin. The only sound in the room was their labored breath and the rough slide of denim-on-denim as they rocked against one another.


It was a bit like being a teenager again, frantic for relief, half undressed, crazed with lust and tinged with no-no-we-should-not-be-doing-this-but-just-a-littl e-more. Her hand, oh, her clever little hand, it snaked between them and slipped inside his open fly. His breath caught in his throat as she touched him, his forehead on her shoulder and his jaw clenched. There wasn't enough room for her to get a real rhythm going, and it was just as well, or he would be lost. He held his breath and moved himself against her warm fingers as long as he dared.


"Enough," he managed, pulling his hips back. "I can't take any more."


"Then don't," she said suggestively.


He pulled down both her jeans and her underwear before shucking the rest of his clothes. Her eyes were dark and hungry as he settled over her again. He reached between her thighs to find where she was swollen and ready for him. For several long moments, he stroked and kissed her, showing her with fingers and tongue what he wanted to do to her. His erection was a hot poker against her thigh. Soon she was tense and squirming, almost desperate. She grabbed his backside and tried to urge him into position. "Be in me now," she murmured, her tongue on his neck, and he nearly came from the words alone.


With shaking hands, he grabbed a condom and shifted between her legs. She welcomed him down with open arms, raining kisses on his prickly neck as he slowly began to push inside. "Oh," she said with wonder, her lashes tickling him as her eyes flew open. "Oh, yes."


Yes, he thought. This was it. No turning back. Yes. Yes. Yes.


The tendons in his neck stood on end as he moved within in her. He braced himself up enough so that he could see her face, but her eyes were closed again, her brow wrinkled as if in deep concentration. They'd had years of verbal foreplay to get to this moment, and he was not sure he would last more than two minutes. He rocked into her with smooth strokes as her mouth parted, going slack.


He gritted his teeth and felt tears of need sting his eyes. "Close," he gasped out in warning as his world started to go off-kilter.


"Me too," she breathed, and that was all it took. He shook and shuddered in her arms, nearly blacking out from the intensity of his orgasm.


When he came back into himself, she was rubbing the soft hair his neck and planting tiny kisses along his jaw. He wasn't sure he could talk yet, so he squeezed her tight, a gesture of deep friendship embedded in a moment that had become much more. He could feel the tension still coiled inside her, her hips still rocking gently against his. He pushed himself back up on one arm.


"Look at me," he urged softly, and she did, letting him see just how far gone she was. He moved with her, still mostly hard, and trailed his fingertips up her thigh and to the place where she needed to be touched. A few seconds later, she jerked sharply and clutched him, her eyes screwed shut again as climax buffeted through her. He rubbed his face against her hair and grinned.


They rested entwined together, touching and kissing softly. She yawned and snuggled closer. "Wore you out, did I?" he asked, amused.


"I was up most of the night considering your offer," she replied.


"If I'd known it would be like this, I would have offered a long time ago."


She smiled against him. "I don't think it would have been like this. Not then."


"I suppose not." He kissed the top of her head, and a sudden thought struck him. "You okay?"


She shifted to look up at him. "Why wouldn't I be?"


"I don't know…it's just…well, I figured that you and Keith never…"


"No," she said, "never."


"So there hasn't been anyone since you were attacked," he said, smoothing the hair off her shoulder. "I just wanted to make sure…" He wasn't quite sure what he was trying to say here.


"I'm fine," she said firmly. "More than fine. If I was any more fine, I think I might have to be hospitalized."


Okay, now he felt a little stupid for even bringing it up. "Okay, sorry to mention it."


"No," she said, drawing a random pattern on his chest. "It's okay. We haven't talked about it, but it's true that sex hasn't really been the same since…since I was raped."


He ran a soothing hand down her back but said nothing.


"It's not that it hasn't been good sometimes," she continued. "But it takes longer for me to relax, and with new people, it's hard to let my guard down, you know?"


"And with me?"