Breathless by Lois Kay

Disclaimer: this is an original work of fiction. Any resemblance to a person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. It portrays, probably, more than one loving relationship between consenting, adult women. If this is something you have a problem with or if you are not of age, in the state or country you live in, please, read something else. No hard feelings, I promise.

This story is a sequel to “Hindsight”. It is not necessary to read the aforementioned story, but it might make a few things a little clearer.

Breathless
by Lois Kay

 

 

It had not been the sound of spinning tires on the dusty gravel road that had pulled him from sleep. Nor the veil of dust that was kicked up in the air and slowly settled on the bushes at the side of the road, coating their branches and leaves with a thin layer of grey and red, making them look dry and withered. It had not been the sound of the startled hawk, either, that had gracefully unfolded its powerful wings to push itself away from the pole it had been perched on, basking in the warm Spring sun, until the fast moving vehicle had scared it away. It was a scent that had been carried through the warm air by a gentle breeze, tickling his nose until he opened his eyes and lifted up his head, suddenly aware of his surroundings. The smell was familiar and even though he was an old dog, his ears perked up while he carefully sniffed the air, all traces of sleep disappearing when he growled deep in his chest. Rising up from his spot underneath the old, half-rotten porch he slowly made his way toward the source of the scent. His hind legs were stiff with old age, but in spite of the discomfort he limped as fast as he could, effortlessly finding his way through the high grass, still dry and brittle after the Winter season in which there had been little precipitation. Although his eyesight was practically gone, his ability to smell had not been affected by the long years he had lived. It only took him a few minutes to reach the track where the dust had settled, leaving the road quiet; a desolated strip of gravel cut through the high plains of Oklahoma.

The dog’s low growl turned into a soft whine when he carefully approached that which had drawn his attention. He cautiously sniffed around the large bundle on the side of the road and sneezed when the scent violently tickled his nose. Butting his nose against dark-colored fabric he let out a low bark, using one of his front paws to scratch the rough, dust- covered texture. It did not budge and, with an almost frustrated growl, he tried it again, with the same result. Finally, a small movement made him almost jump back in surprise. Stiffly laying down, he rested his nose, dusted with gray on his front paws, while his eyes stared into the distance. He let out a deep sigh, the short burst of air kicking up a tiny cloud of dust that slowly settled on an elegant brown leather shoe that seemed completely out of place, laying on its side alongside the road.

#

Absentmindedly, Agent Lauren Darkwolf chewed on the end of a pen, while her eyes studied the report she was holding in her hands. Halfway through, she sighed and rolled her eyes, while her face showed a mixture of amusement and annoyance.

“What a jerk,” she mumbled when she was through and, with a sigh, she put the sheet of paper back on the desk. “But then, we already knew that. Ah, well, more paperwork, I guess.”

Lauren pulled her keyboard toward her and, just when she was about to start typing, her phone rang.

“Darkwolf,” she spoke, while her hand was busy clicking through different programs that had showed up on her screen.

“Lauren, did you get a chance to go through that report yet?”

“I just finished it, sir, and I’m about to reply to it.”

“Ignore it, Lauren,” Jack Wilson said, knowing the moment the words had left his mouth, Lauren’s face would hold an expression of complete bewilderment.

“The guy withdrew the complaint.”

“Why?” Lauren frowned, leaning back in her chair and casting a look through the window.

“Somebody reminded him about the fact he’d pulled a knife on one of our Agents once and that, in the past, he has resisted arrest on more than one occasion. I guess that helped him understand a false accusation against you would not help his case.”

“He did? I didn’t know that,” Lauren drawled, wondering who had been able to dig up that information so fast. She had only arrested the man in question the previous evening. “Who did he pull a knife on?”

“Lawrence,” Jack Wilson answered and immediately Lauren smiled.

“Wrong person to mess with,” she replied and she could hear Jack Wilson chuckle.

“All that meth he’d been producing and using must have affected his brain, otherwise you’d think he would have remembered her,” Jack Wilson sighed, very happy with the arrest his Agents had made the previous evening. It meant another huge meth-lab had been taken off the map and the producers and distributors of the home-made poison would probably be spending a very long time behind bars.

“Well, thanks for letting me know in time, sir. I’m glad I hadn’t start that report yet.”

“Go home, Lauren,” Jack Wilson spoke, knowing how many hours his Agent had put into the case. “Relax and get some rest.”

“I might just do that,” Lauren nodded with a smile. “Thanks.”

“You bet. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Lauren broke the connection and pushed back her chair, determined to leave the building within the next five minutes. She had worked hard the weeks before the team she had been leading had arrested the owner of the meth-lab and most of his distributors. She had put in long hours and the little time she had spent at home had been to get some much needed sleep. She had not been able to spend any time with her family or friends.

Lauren sighed and rubbed her tired eyes. It felt like it had been months since she had seen Maureen. The red-haired Agent had been very busy with her own investigation, which had forced her to travel outside the city a lot. Every now and then the two women had been able to talk on the phone, but those moments had been rare.

Opening the top drawer of her desk, Lauren grabbed her cell phone and stuffed the small device in the pocket of her windbreaker. She would take Jack Wilson’s advice and take the evening off. She would go home, cook a decent meal and, who knows, maybe she would be able to catch Maureen finally. It had been three days since she had been able to talk to her friend and, deep down inside Lauren had to admit she missed the red-head’s company, something she would not dare say out loud. Not yet anyway.

“What? Leaving already?” the receptionist, Sarah Nichols, called out in mock-surprise when Lauren passed her on her way to the exit.

Lauren smiled at the elderly woman and gave her a friendly wave.

“I know, it’s shocking,” Lauren nodded. “I’m almost scared to leave while it’s still light outside.”

“You’ll be fine, sweetie,” Sarah laughed. “I know you can take care of yourself.”

“If not, I’ll call for you,” Lauren promised with a grin, while pushing the door open. In spite of her fatigue, there was a energetic bounce in the tall woman’s step when she stepped into the sunlight. Tilting her head to the sky, she took a deep breath and let the view of the endless blue sky seep into her senses. Lauren Darkwolf had been raised by parents who had instilled a deep respect and love for nature into their offspring, something she was very grateful for. Nothing centered her more than being surrounded by nature. Even while being in the city, Lauren only had to look at the ever changing sky to feel a quiet peace settle deep inside of her, forgetting about the traffic on the nearby turnpike or the stress of her job. She just soaked up the endlessness and with a small smile she noticed a red-tailed hawk, high in the sky.

“Good hunting,” she whispered, before getting inside her car and starting the engine.

Lauren had just eased her car into the rows of traffic on Memorial Road when her cell phone rang. Immediately, she felt her heart skip a beat, but when her eyes quickly scanned the phone’s display she could not help letting out a small sigh of disappointment. When she realized who the caller was, however, she smiled and pressed the ‘talk’ button.

“What a nice surprise,” she spoke into her headset, while her eyes never left the road in front of her. With its many businesses and restaurants, Memorial Road was always busy and one moment of inattentiveness could easily cause a lot of problems.

“Hello, Lauren,” Gertrude Jensen’s voice sounded warm and friendly. “I was just calling to find out how you’re doing. I haven’t heard from you in a while and no, e-mail doesn’t count.”

“I’ve been so busy, my head’s still spinning,” Lauren answered. “But, hopefully, I’ll get a few quiet days with nothing but paperwork ahead of me and who knows, Gertrude, I might even get some rest,” she added with a grin.

“I hope you’re right, sweetie. I promised your mother I’d keep an eye on you.”

“You what?” Lauren asked, her eyes wide in surprise. “When did you see my mother?”

“We talked, on the phone,” Gertrude answered. “We’ve been doing that ever since we met, in December. I like your mother, Lauren, she’s a wonderful person.”

“I like her too,” Lauren mumbled, still trying to process what Gertrude had just told her. Her parents lived near Grove, in the northeastern part of the state, about a three hour drive away from Oklahoma City, where Lauren lived. Her mother had never liked her being that far away and it made perfect sense she and Gertrude would come up with a plan to keep an eye on the youngest Darkwolf.

“So, you and my mother, huh?” Lauren drawled, but Gertrude could hear the amusement in her voice. “I should have known.”

“You’re too smart,” Gertrude laughed and Lauren smiled. Even though Gertrude Jensen was more than fifty years older than she was, they had become very good friends. Lauren admired the elderly woman for her spirit and wisdom and she found her look on life and sense of humor very refreshing.

“It’s only a matter of time before June and I will have Maureen on our side as well,” Gertrude continued, chuckling when she heard Lauren mumble something unintelligible. “What was that, dear?”

“I said you’re counting on something that might never happen,” Lauren answered, trying to keep her voice neutral, but Gertrude’s ears had picked up the undertone of sadness and, unseen to Lauren’s eyes, she leaned back in her chair and smiled.

“Lauren, honey, you’re not giving up already, are you?”

“I can’t give up on something that doesn’t exist,” Lauren sighed.

“Oh, but it’s there,” Gertrude smiled, realizing her young friend had to be very tired to respond in such a discouraged way. “It’s just that both of you have been so busy lately.” She paused for a moment, while quickly coming up with a plan.

“Why don’t you come over here? Let me feed you, so I know you’ll get a decent meal. You don’t have to stick around if you don’t feel up to it. After dinner, you can leave, go home and relax. How about it?”

“That’s sweet of you, Gertrude, but I…”

“But what? It’s no trouble, Lauren, believe me. Hannah and Nicky will be home in just a little while and with a little luck Rachel won’t be far behind. I’ve got plenty of help here. Besides, the girls would love to see you, it’s been a while. Nicky loves it when you tell her stories,” Gertrude played her trump card, which made Lauren burst out laughing.

“Alright, alright, you win. You play dirty though, you know that right?”

“How do you think I managed to live this long?” Gertrude quipped and Lauren could hear the smile in her voice. “Come whenever you’re ready and no, you don’t have to bring anything, just yourself.”

“And she’s a mind reader as well,” Lauren sighed. “Alright, I’ll see you in about an hour or so.”

“Thanks for humoring me, dear,” Gertrude spoke. “Drive safely.”

#

With an impatient gesture, Maureen Lawrence pushed back her long red hair, while her green eyes, shaded by a pair of dark sunglasses shot a tired glance at the digital clock of her car-radio. It had been a long week and she could not wait to go home, take a long shower and kick back in her favorite recliner to watch a movie or maybe even read a book. Ever since her divorce, it had been hard to be alone. The long hours at work and the recent assignment had kept her away from home a lot, which Maureen had not minded at all. They usually left her exhausted at the end of the day and every night Maureen welcomed the fatigue, letting it carry her into a deep sleep where there was no room for worrying thoughts or regrets.

Maureen sighed and cast a frustrated look at her cell phone that was cradled in its holder on the dashboard. It had been silent all afternoon. No word from Lauren at all. A sudden wave of sadness made her briefly close her eyes in order to fight the stinging sensations of tears welling up.

“I’m not going to cry,” Maureen muttered in a low voice, grinding her teeth in determination. “I’ve been doing that enough already.”

Letting out a long, shuddering breath, Maureen squared her shoulders and lifted her chin in an unconscious defiant gesture.

“I’ll have a decent meal in nice company, go home and relax. If Lauren DarkWolf thinks I’ll be sitting around pining for her, she’s dead wrong.”

Happy with her newfound optimism, Maureen steered her car through traffic, effectively pushing away images of a smiling, dark-eyed woman.

#

“My goodness, Granny, did you invite an entire army?” Hannah asked wide-eyed when she entered the kitchen.

“Hello, Dear,” Gertrude smiled, lovingly patting her granddaughter’s cheek when the blonde bent over to kiss her cheek. “How was your day?”

“It was busy,” Hannah sighed, kneeling down on the kitchen floor to untie Nicky’s shoes. The toddler loved to run around barefoot and Hannah had learned from experience that if she didn’t take off the little girl’s shoes, Nicky would do it herself and there would be no way to find out where the shoes would end up. “The best part of the day was actually clocking out and picking up this little rug rat,” Hannah added with a smile, giving the little girl a quick hug.

“Hannah, cookie?”

“Half a cookie,” Hannah decided, knowing her Grandmother already had the treat in her hand. “You’ll need to eat dinner soon, so we can’t fill up your belly with all those goodies,” she teased, tickling the toddler.

Nicky squealed and wiggled away from Hannah’s grip, running over to Gertrude to give the elderly lady a hug and to take possession of her cookie.

“I invited two guests,” Gertrude explained the presence of the large amount of food that was either being cooked, baked or fried.

“Lauren and Maureen?” Hannah asked with a twinkle in her eyes. She knew her grandmother was a little frustrated with their two friends. It was clear the two women were kept apart by their work, but even on their scarce days off they seemed to avoid each other, clearly afraid to explore the budding feelings between them.

“Are you playing matchmaker again?” Hannah smiled, pouring herself a glass of iced tea and sitting down at the kitchen table.

“No, sweetie, that’s not necessary. We all know they’re dancing around the subject. The match is made, they just need a good shove in the right direction.”

“How do you plan on doing that?”

“By having them at the same table for a change. We’ll take it from there.”

“You’re wicked,” Hannah chuckled, taking a sip from her tea. “Has Rachel called?”

“No, I haven’t heard from her.” Seeing the happy smile on the young blonde’s face, Gertrude chuckled. “I guess that’s a good thing then?”

“Very good,” Hannah nodded. “She said she’d call if she’d be running late. If she didn’t call, she might be home on time for a change.”

“Did that new Doctor start already?”

“Yes, he did, but Rachel wants to give him some time to get settled in. She’s afraid that if they overwork him now, he might run screaming. He seems to be doing a good job though, so hopefully she’ll get a little more breathing room soon.”

“And the three of you can take that vacation to the Texas coast?” Gertrude smiled, knowing how much Hannah was looking forward to that.

“Absolutely, Rachel and I are…” Hannah stopped in mid-sentence because she heard the garage door shut and, with sparkling eyes, she pushed back her chair. “Be right back, Granny,” she grinned, jumping up from her chair and heading towards the hallway.

“A honeymoon is not supposed to last longer than six weeks, maximum,” Gertrude called after the disappearing blonde. A loud snort, followed by a chuckle told her Hannah had heard her and, with a smile, Gertrude took a sip of her tea. She loved to tease her granddaughter, but, in the meantime, she made sure the young blonde knew how much joy it brought her to see Hannah so happy.

“Precious,” she whispered, while her mind traveled back to the problem Lauren and Maureen posed. And how to fix it.

#

An old Chevy Blazer carefully made its way down the road. The driver was familiar with the uneven surface and had no desire to shake and rattle the groceries that were stacked up in the back. Experience had learned a slow and easy approach usually brought the more delicate ware home in one piece. Dealing with dirt- and gravel roads was the price one paid when choosing to live in a remote area. Brown eyes took in the rolling hills and waving grass in which the wild flowers were starting to bloom. The view was worth having to drive down three miles of non-maintained road.

As soon as the car rounded the last corner, the driver smiled when the large dog slowly rose to its feet and its long, thick tail started a familiar wag. Immediately, the smile disappeared when eyes fell on the small bundle at the side of the road.

“What the heck?”

Pulling over, the driver killed the engine and quickly jumped out of the car, almost running to where the dog was still standing over the bundle, as if he was guarding it.

“Good boy,” Constance Perez mumbled, patting the large dog on his head. Her eyes though were focused on the bundle of fabric that, almost imperceptibly, seemed to move.

“Oh, Dios mio.” The woman swallowed hard and with trembling fingers she untied a loose knot, peeling back the rough-textured fabric to be able to peek inside. As soon as her eyes fell on the bundle’s content and her brain caught up with what her eyes were registering, she sank through her knees, not able to remain standing.

“Sweet Jesus,” she whispered, pushing a strand of black hair behind her ear. “I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something,” she whispered, while her eyes still rested on the bundle.

“Call the police,” she answered herself, pulling a cell phone from a clip on her belt. “Call 911.”

#

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Lauren mumbled when she entered the cul-de-sac where her friends were living. As soon as she had rounded the corner, her eyes had fallen on a familiar dark-green Jeep Liberty. “Gertrude, what are you doing?” she sighed.

For a brief moment, Lauren was tempted to put her car in reverse and back out of the street. She could always call Gertrude with some lame excuse. Of course, Maureen would probably see straight through that tactic. Especially, since the red-head exited her car and was staring at her with a mixture of surprise, joy and worry.

“Time to bite the bullet, Darkwolf,” Lauren told herself, parking her car behind Maureen’s and slowly getting out.

“Hey, I hadn’t expected you here,” she greeted the red-head with an insecure smile.

“Ditto,” Maureen answered, taking in the tall form in front of her with curious eyes. Lauren looked good, as usual, but Maureen also noticed the tired lines around her eyes and the way the dark eyes were avoiding hers.

“How have you been?” she asked in a soft voice, not aware of how the sun was painting her hair into a golden red. Lauren did notice though and, all of a sudden, she sent Maureen a warm smile, happy to see the other woman and pushing away the questions as to why.

“I’m good,” she nodded. “I’m tired, but good. I’m done with that meth-lab bust we did the other day. By the way, thanks for defending me,” she added, knowing Maureen would understand what she was referring to.

“That guy is something else,” Maureen nodded with a chuckle. “He once pulled a knife on me, the idiot. When he was yelling you had beat him up, I knew it wasn’t true. I only had to remind him about our previous encounter and how it had added to his time in the can to make him rethink his actions.”

“Well, I’m grateful because I wasn’t exactly looking forward to all the paperwork.”

“Ugh,” Maureen pulled a face and laughed, which made her look a lot more relaxed and younger.

“So, Gertrude lured you into a home-made dinner as well, huh?” Lauren smiled, suppressing the urge to reach out and pull the other woman into her arms. Maureen looked like she could use a hug. But fear took over immediately and, with a small sigh of defeat, Lauren shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans.

“Yes, she did,” Maureen nodded, while they slowly made their way up the driveway. “I love her cooking,” she added with a grin. “And it’s nice to see the girls again. It’s been too long.”

“That it has,” Lauren nodded. “We work too hard.”

“I know. I’m planning to change that though. I need a vacation.” And guess who’ll be coming with me, although she doesn’t know that yet.

“I guess I do, too. But there’s always something that comes up. I’ve been promising my family for months to come home for a week or so.”

“Do you miss them?” Maureen asked, glancing at the strong profile of the taller woman next to her. She knew that, as a rule, Lauren did not like questions that were personal, but that was one thing that had changed between them over the last few months; Lauren was willing to get personal, to a certain extent. It was something Maureen saw as a huge victory and as a step in the right direction. Winning Lauren Darkwolf over would be a long process that would require patience and determination and Maureen had sworn herself she would acquire and cultivate both qualities. It would be worth it.

“The kids grow up so fast,” Lauren sighed. “My sister-in-law emailed me last week to tell me Joshua took his first steps. The last time I saw him, he could hardly stand up by himself. I haven’t seen any of them in months.”

Maureen stopped in front of the door and half-turned so she could look at Lauren whose dark eyes held a mixture of regret and sadness.

“What are you doing this weekend?”

Lauren’s eyes were captured by a pair of sparkling green ones and immediately she felt her heart flutter in her chest.

“I’m not sure. There are still some reports I need to finish and…”

“And they’ll grow legs and walk off when you don’t?” Maureen asked with raised eyebrows.

“I wish,’ Lauren answered with a soft chuckle.

Maureen smiled and, in an impulsive gesture put her hand on Lauren’s arm, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“Go home,” she urged. “Leave early in the morning, so you’ll be there around noon. Come back Sunday evening. Spend some time with your family before they disown you,” she added jokingly. “It’s time to take some time for yourself, Lauren. Even you need to relax from time to time.”

“What that does mean?” Lauren asked with a frown.

“It means you’re human,” Maureen answered. “You’re so damn conscientious when it comes to work. It’s good to be loyal, Lauren, but you know as well as I do that there’s always something. If it isn’t a drug-bust, it’s a murder or fraud or identity theft. We finish one case and before we can take a breath, we’re in the middle of a new one. Your paperwork will wait, believe me. It will be there on Monday morning, whether you like it or not, but I bet it will be easier to deal with it after you’ve spent some time with your family.”

Lauren’s dark eyes were pensive when she stared at the red-head who was looking back at her with a fiery glare in her eyes. It made them look even greener and, inwardly, Lauren smiled. She wondered if Maureen knew how attractive she was.

Her friend was right though, Lauren knew, facing work next week would be so much easier if she would be able to go home, if only for a day or so. She did not have to consider Maureen’s words for long.

“You’re absolutely right and I think I’ll follow your advice,” she smiled. “All that paperwork can wait, I’m going home in the morning.”

“Good,” Maureen nodded with a small smile. Sometimes it sucked to be selfless. How easy would it have been to ask Lauren to spend some time together, since, for a change, they were both in town at the same time. But she cared for the tall, dark-haired woman and she knew how much she missed her family. Maybe next weekend…

“Come with me,” Lauren’s voice penetrated Maureen’s darkening thoughts and, startled, the red-haired woman looked up.

“What?”

“Come with me,” Lauren repeated, while her dark eyes searched Maureen’s eyes for an answer. “My family likes you and besides, that lecture you just gave me applies to you as well.”

“Oh, ha ha,” Maureen snorted, laughing when she noticed the twinkle in Lauren’s eyes.

“You know I’m right,” Lauren gently teased.

Maureen nodded and she cast down her eyes. She felt like she could drown in the warm brown of Lauren’s gaze, but that was something she could not allow herself to do. It was too dangerous.

“I…I’ve got a lot of things to do and…”

“Will those things grow legs and run off?” Lauren interrupted in a soft voice, smiling knowingly when Maureen looked at her like a deer that was caught in the headlights. The red-head was about to reply when they both heard somebody opening the door they were standing in front of. It saved Maureen from answering Lauren, but the dark Agent winked at her and just before the door was opened she whispered:”We’ll talk about it later.”

#

“Lauwen, Lauwen,” Nicky cried enthusiastically when her favorite playmate entered the room.

With a chuckle, Lauren knelt down and opened her arms to the toddler, who threw herself into the warm embrace with reckless abandon.

“Umph,” Lauren breathed when she caught the little spitfire. “Look at you,” she laughed, tossing Nicky up in the air. “You’ve grown. But you still have a problem with the ‘r’, haven’t you?” she smiled, hearing Rachel chuckle behind her.

“I think it’s cute,” Maureen spoke, while her eyes absorbed the happy scene in front of her.

“It won’t be when she’s sixteen,” Gertrude spoke, drawing a laugh from Hannah, who motioned Maureen to take a seat at the huge kitchen table.

“She’ll learn fast enough, Granny. Before you know it, she’ll be asking Rachel for the car keys.” the blonde spoke.

“Isn’t that the truth,” Gertrude mumbled, winking at her granddaughter. She took a seat across from Maureen and sent the red-head a warm smile.

“How have you been, sweetheart? It’s been such a long time we’ve seen you and Lauren. Has work been that busy?”

“Crazy,” Maureen nodded. “The last few weeks I’ve been traveling all over the State and I’ve hardly been home. I’m really looking forward to some time off.”

Gertrude’s eyes took in the face of the woman who was sitting opposite her and she slowly nodded. The fatigue showed in Maureen’s face; it was visible in the small lines around her eyes and the tired look in her green eyes.

“You look like you could use some rest,” Gertrude continued. “Do you have the weekend off?”

Before Maureen could answer, Lauren, who was carrying a squealing Nicky in her arms, sat down next to her and answered for her.

“She’s off,” Lauren nodded. “And she does look like she needs some rest. I’ve been trying to tell her that,” she continued, giving the red-head a gentle nudge with her shoulder.

“Listen who’s talking,” Maureen softly snorted, nudging Lauren back. The dark-haired woman chuckled, pleased with Maureen’s playful reaction. It almost made her feel giddy to see the sparkle return in her friend’s green eyes. She had missed her during the last few weeks in which they had both been so incredibly busy. Sitting next to Maureen, with Nicky in her lap, Lauren felt relaxed for the first time in a long while.

“You look like you need some serious R&R yourself,” Gertrude smiled, pleased to see the two women sit so close together. Watching their interaction strengthened her belief Lauren and Maureen needed to be together and she was determined to give them a gentle push in the right direction, if needed, like she had done with Hannah and Rachel.

“I’m going home this weekend,” Lauren answered with a warm smile. “Someone twisted my arm,” she continued with a sideway glance. “Although I’ll have to admit it didn’t hurt.”

Maureen chuckled and she needed all her willpower not to lean against the taller woman next to her. It was so tempting to lean a little closer to seek the warmth she could feel radiating off Lauren’s bare arms and through the cotton shirt she was wearing. By the way Lauren had pulled her long, dark hair back in a braid, Maureen knew the other woman had enjoyed a shower before she had made her way to Gertrude’s house. The combined scent of Lauren’s shower-gel and very light perfume made her heart skip a beat and it was all Maureen could do not to let out a frustrated moan. Why did Lauren Darkwolf have to be so darn attractive? And why did she have to smell so great?

“Are you alright?” a gentle voice suddenly interrupted her thoughts and when Maureen looked up it was in a pair of friendly blue eyes.

“Yes, yes, I was just…um…zoning out, I guess,” she stammered, sending Hannah an apologetic look. “By the way, I like your hair,” she quickly changed the subject. “Are you letting it grow out?”

“A little,” Hannah answered with a smile, raking her fingers through her blond hair. “But, knowing me, I’ll get fed up with it soon enough and have it chopped.”

“Hannah’s pwetty,” Nicky remarked, sending the blonde a beaming smile from the confines of Lauren’s arms.

“She sure is,” the dark-haired Agent smiled. “So are you, little Missy.” She tickled the toddler, who squirmed on her lap, while giggling loudly.

“Mommy too,” Nicky managed to cry out.

“Yup, Mommy’s pretty too,” Lauren laughed, winking at Rachel who was standing behind Hannah, looking at their daughter with an indulgent smile. Playing with Nicky made her realize how much she missed her nieces and nephews. The idea of seeing them again soon was exhilarating.

“And Gwandma,” Nicky continued. “And Lauwen and Mauween.”

“Yup, let’s not forget Grandma and Maureen,” Lauren nodded while she glanced aside to the red-head, who turned her head and looked at Lauren with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s true,” Lauren nodded. “Tell her, Nicky.”

“Mauween is pwetty,” Nicky obediently repeated. “Weally,” she added with a nod.

Maureen laughed and reached out a hand to cup the little girl’s cheek. She leaned forward and dropped a kiss on her silky, dark hair.

“Thank you, sweetie,” she whispered, acutely aware of Lauren’s close presence. When she lifted her head their gazes locked and Maureen could feel her heart skip a beat when she noticed the intensity in the other woman’s eyes. For a brief moment, it felt like the world stood still, but then Lauren gave her an almost imperceptible nod, accompanied by a small smile and Maureen slowly exhaled. She felt a flush creep up her cheeks when she realized Lauren’s stare had almost made her forget where she was. She had been so very close to leaning forward and kissing the dark-haired woman on the lips.

Maureen took a deep breath in an effort to calm her racing heart and when she looked up it was straight into Gertrude’s clear blue eyes. The elderly lady had noticed the exchange and, for a moment, Maureen was afraid she would say something about it, but to her relief, Gertrude sent her an encouraging smile, before turning her attention to Rachel.

“How was your day, sweetheart?” she asked with genuine interest.

“Pretty busy,” Rachel answered with an answering smile. “It’s amazing how many drugged-out teenagers we’ve been getting lately,” she said, while shaking her head in disbelief.

“What kind of drugs?” Lauren and Maureen asked simultaneously, the latter one rolling her eyes at her friend.

“Mostly Meth,” Rachel answered, taking a seat next to Hannah and draping her arm around the backrest of her lover’s chair. “Yesterday, I saw a nineteen year old, a student, whose friend had convinced him to try some home-made stuff, probably some meth or xtc. When he came in his heart rate was 155,” Rachel sighed. “He was gasping for breath and before we could stabilize him, he went into cardiac arrest,” she added, shaking her head. “Can you believe that? Nineteen years old?”

“Did he make it?” Maureen asked with a frown.

“So far,” Rachel answered. “He’s in the CCU, on a ventilator. It’s anybody’s guess how he’ll come out of it, if he does at all, that is. I hate that stuff,” she muttered. “I see so many lives destroyed because of it.”

“We’re working on shutting them down and, so far, it’s been quite a success,” Maureen replied.

“I know, I read that in the paper the other day,” Rachel nodded. “I’m glad, I really am. You guys do a great job.”

“We try,” Lauren sighed, remembering the skittish, hollow-eyed teen she had arrested the previous day. The boy had been so bone-thin Lauren had been hesitant to touch him, afraid she would hurt him if she did. But she had to put him in cuffs, because he had been part of a small group of young people who had created a meth-lab in the backyard of one of them. One look at him and she had known he needed medical attention, but he had tried to resist arrest and had left her no choice but hand-cuff him and put him in the back of a police-cruiser. He had hardly been able to stand up by himself, but when one of the uniformed officers had lead him away, he had violently cursed Lauren.

“Are you okay?” a gentle voice next to her softly asked.

“Just peachy,” Lauren smiled at Maureen. “Enough shop talk, what have you guys been up to?” the dark-haired woman asked sending Hannah and Rachel a warm smile.

Lauren’s dark eyes traveled back to Maureen and she sent the red-haired woman a barely visible wink. Maureen saw a flicker of mischief in her friend’s eyes and she let out a soft chuckle. It had been a very obvious change of topic, but their friends did not seem to mind at all. It was clear Lauren really wanted to relax and talking about work would have the opposite effect, on both of them.

“Smart ass,” Maureen whispered.

Lauren just grinned and turned her attention back to Rachel and Hannah, smiling when she felt Maureen lean in a little closer.

#

“Make sure noone crosses that tape and I mean, noone,” a gray-haired men spoke in a solemn voice while pulling his hat deeper over his eyes. “This is way over our head. I’ll have to call for help on this one.”

The young Deputy Sheriff, who was standing next to the older man nodded his head, not able to let his eyes travel to the area that had been cordoned off with the well-known yellow crime scene tape and that was being illuminated by the bright floodlights on the police-cruiser’s roof. He had been the first one to arrive at the scene, since he had only been a few miles away when the call had come in. At first it had been hard to fully understand the distraught woman who had placed the call, but after she had practically dragged him to the scene, all of a sudden his training had kicked in and he had quickly called all the appropriate departments, starting a wave of activity that would eventually reach all corners of the state.

“Are you okay?” the gray-haired man asked, just before he turned to walk away. He had known the young Deputy since he was a toddler and the paleness of his face, combined with the perspiration on his upper lip and forehead had not escaped his eyes.

“I…I’m fine, sir,” the young man nodded with more confidence than he felt. Involuntarily, his eyes traveled to the area beside him, resting on the bulky, cloth covered form on the side of the road. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath, fighting the bile that rose in the back of his throat.

“You did a good job, Henderson,” the older man spoke with a nod, before turning around and walking back to the police-cruiser.

Deputy Henderson’s eyes followed his superior officer to the car, wishing he had never received the call, no matter how good a job he might have done. He knew the images that had entered his brain that late afternoon would stay there forever, although he would never admit that. He had to tough it out and pretend the horror of it all had not affected him. He knew he was just a small-town cop, but the people in the area counted on him to do a good job, even if the most important thing he did was writing the occasional speeding ticket. He could not afford to be afraid, especially not now, when evil had entered his jurisdiction.

Part 2

Maureen yawned when she turned the corner onto Council Road. It would take her another ten minutes before she would be home and she hoped she would be able to stay awake. The evening had been a success and, deep down inside, she was grateful to Gertrude, Hannah and Rachel for providing Lauren and her a few hours of good food, pleasant company and a well-deserved break from work.

Maureen’s eyes cast a look into her rearview mirror and she smiled when she noticed Lauren was right behind her. Throughout the evening, her friend had been relaxed, witty and absolutely charming, making it even harder for Maureen to ban Lauren from her thoughts. There had been a lot of…looks, Maureen mused. Maybe it was wishful thinking on her part, but it was almost as if Lauren constantly followed her with her eyes, knowing exactly where Maureen was, even though she was moving from room to room.

And then there had been all the times the other woman had touched her, innocent touches that, to Maureen, meant so much more and she wondered if Lauren touched Rachel and Hannah in that manner as well. A few moments of reminiscing showed her the answer to that was ‘no’. Lauren hardly ever touched her other friends. But with Maureen she often briefly touched her arm, her shoulder or knee and on one occasion Lauren had covered Maureen’s hand with her own, just for a split second, but for Maureen it had been long enough to realize how soft and warm Lauren’s skin was and how pleasant it was to feel the slight pressure of the other woman’s hand on her own.

“Lauren DarkWolf, if I didn’t know any better I’d think you were flirting with me tonight,” Maureen sighed wistfully, casting another look in her rearview mirror. The unexpected sound of her cell-phone almost made her jump and, with a muttered curse, she reached into her purse on the passenger seat.

“Hello?” she spoke, a little more gruff than she intended.

“Maureen, it’s me. Are you okay?” Lauren’s voice sounded, its rich tones filling Maureen’s chest with a deep warmth that made her want to lean back, close her eyes and relax. She could listen to that voice for hours.

“I’m fine, just tired,” Maureen answered. “What’s up? That’s you behind me, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lauren answered and Maureen could easily hear the smile in her voice. “You’ll make a fantastic policewoman one day,” Lauren added in a teasing voice.

“You think?” Maureen smiled. “Maybe I should consider a change in career then.”

“I could get you an appointment with my Captain,” Lauren continued.

“Let me think about it,” Maureen sighed. “I might not like the hours.”

“I know what you mean,” Lauren’s voice had lost its teasing tone and she suppressed a yawn. “Aren’t you wondering why I am calling you?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me, eventually,” Maureen chuckled. “By the way, didn’t we just pass your exit?”

“We sure did,” Lauren grunted. “All right, here’s the deal; since you’ll be coming with me tomorrow, to have a nice relaxing weekend at the lake, I thought we’d be more….time efficient, if you’d spend the night at my place.”

Lauren’s suggestion was followed by a silence that lasted so long, the dark-haired woman wondered if Maureen had heard her.

“Are you…?” she started hesitantly, but Maureen quickly interrupted her.

“I’m still here and, yes, I heard you. Um…I guess you have a point. Are you…are you sure, though? I mean, it’s no trouble to…”

“We’ll both be able to sleep a little longer,” Lauren smiled, wishing she would be able to see the conflicting emotions in Maureen’s expressive green eyes.

“Now you’re talking,” Maureen laughed, knowing Lauren’s dark eyes would sport a mischievous twinkle.

“Is that a ‘yes’?”

“Is that why you’re following me?”

“Of course,” Lauren answered dryly and Maureen laughed.

“All right, keep following me home, so I can pack a weekend bag. Your car?”

“Sure,” Lauren smiled, pleased with the easy way Maureen had accepted her offer. “Lead the way.”

“I guess I should have been worried about someone following me,” Maureen continued in a relaxed voice, not ready to break the connection yet. “I could have hurt you, you know.”

“I know,” Lauren answered in a voice that was so serious it made Maureen chuckle. “I was taking a huge risk.”

“You’re in a playful mood,” Maureen laughed, slowing down for a busy intersection.

“I am,” Lauren admitted with a sigh. “And why not? I had a great meal, visited with my friends and tomorrow I’ll visit my family…’in the company of a beautiful, attractive woman’,”she silently added. “Right now, life is good.”

“Amen to that,” Maureen agreed in a soft voice.

After a few minutes, Maureen turned off the main road, entering the addition where she lived. Lauren dutifully followed her partner, knowing exactly where they were heading.

“Please, don’t mind the mess,” Maureen’s voice broke the silence. “It’s been a while since I’ve been home long enough to make the place look decent.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lauren answered, following Maureen onto a wide driveway.

With a click of the remote garage door opener, the door opened and Maureen drove her car inside, while Lauren parked in the driveway. She exited the car and stretched out to her full height, feeling the pull of her tired muscles.

“Come in, Lauren,” Maureen encouraged, gesturing her friend to follow her into the kitchen, which Lauren obediently did. “Make yourself at home, I won’t be long,” she called over her shoulder, disappearing into the hallway, heading for her bedroom.

Lauren sank down on a barstool in the kitchen and with curious eyes she looked around, deciding she did not like what she saw. The kitchen was almost barren and peering through the doorway into the living room, Lauren noticed a leather couch, a coffee table, a TV and at least a dozen moving boxes that were neatly stacked against the wall. That was it. There were no books, no CD’s or DVD’s, no photo’s of any kind, no art on the walls, nothing that indicated somebody actually lived there.

“Don’t mind what mess?” Lauren mumbled, repeating Maureen’s words, aware of a feeling of sadness that quickly settled in the pit of her stomach. The house looked like Maureen was in the process of moving in, while she had been there for months already.

“If you want something to drink, there should be something cold in the fridge,” Maureen called from the bedroom.

After the big meal Gertrude had cooked for them, Lauren did not feel like eating or drinking anything at all, but the interior of Maureen’s house had made her curious and, after a moment of hesitation, she quickly stood up from the barstool and walked toward the big, side-by-side refrigerator. Even before she opened the door, she knew she would not like what she would find. She was right. The inside of the refrigerator revealed five cans of Diet Coke, a bottle of Ketchup, a jar of pickles and a couple of apples.

“Oh, Maureen,” Lauren sighed, having suspected her friend had not exactly been taking care of herself lately. Grabbing a Coke, Lauren closed the door and turned around, startled when she looked straight into a pair of familiar green eyes that gazed at her with a mixture of guilt and defiance.

“After this weekend, when we’re back in town, we’ll make it a rule I’ll cook for you at least once a week,” Lauren decided. “You don’t have to return the favor, although it would be nice,” she added with a wink.

“I’m a terrible cook,” Maureen answered, too tired to fight Lauren’s suggestion. “I manage to burn water.”

“Don’t tell my mother that, or she’ll make you her special little project,” Lauren chuckled. “She thinks everybody should know how to make at least a couple of decent meals.”

“I guess she has a point,” Maureen sighed. With tired eyes the red-haired woman looked around her kitchen, suddenly embarrassed by the lack of personal touch. “Listen, Lauren, I know this place doesn’t exactly look homey, believe me, but lately I’ve been so busy and…and when I am home, I usually try to catch up on my sleep. Besides, it’s…I…”

Lauren noticed the turmoil in her friend’s eyes and she remembered part of a conversation they had the night a few months before, when Maureen had told Lauren she was going through a divorce. The redhead had confessed she did not like to be alone, after which Lauren had told her that Maureen could count on her being a friend.

“It’s hard to be alone, isn’t it?” Lauren softly spoke, seeing Maureen cast down her eyes, while she slowly nodded. The dark-haired woman stepped a little closer and gently lifted her friend’s chin, so they were eye-to-eye.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Maureen looked into the deep, warm brown of Lauren’s eyes and for a moment it was like she was floating on air, like the genuine compassion in her friend’s gaze literally lifted her up, holding her in a strong embrace. She became aware of the pounding rhythm in her chest and reluctantly she looked away, afraid she might make a fool out of herself if she didn’t.

“I meant it when I said you don’t have to face your demons all alone, Maureen,” Lauren continued. “I respect it if you try to work things out by yourself, but I’m still a good listener, so, if you want to talk about something, anything at all, I’ll be there for you. Alright?”

Oh, Lauren, if you only knew…

Maureen lifted her eyes and swallowed hard when they were immediately caught by a pair of dark, almost black ones.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Lauren could tell Maureen was not willing to talk about anything yet, but she did not push it. Maybe the weekend would relax her enough to share some of her worries with her friend. The dark-haired woman knew she would not be able to solve Maureen’s problems, but the least she could do was listen and be there for her.

“Are you ready to go?” Lauren asked, feeling that changing the subject would be the best thing to do. “All packed?”

“It’s not that much,” Maureen frowned, wondering if her friend was being serious or not. When she allowed her eyes to be locked with Lauren’s she noticed the little sparkle and with a snort she backhanded her friend in the stomach.

“Better watch it, Wolfie,” Maureen growled.

Lauren rubbed the offended spot and chuckled at the frown on her friend’s face.

“What did you just call me? Wolfie? You’re a courageous woman, Maureen, I’ve hurt people for less.”

“Sure,” Maureen nodded, not at all impressed by Lauren’s mock-glare. She was thoroughly enjoying the sudden, playful mood. “Did they live to tell about it?”

“I’ll take the Fifth on that one,” Lauren grinned, taking a sip from her Diet Coke.

“Smart,” Maureen nodded. “Well, I’m ready when you are,” she added, secretly pleased to be able to leave the depressing confinements of her house. She suppressed a smile when Lauren took over the bag she had slung over her shoulder and headed for the door, holding it open and gesturing Maureen to walk through.

“Your Mama taught you manners,” Maureen mumbled, while passing the taller woman.

“You bet,” Lauren answered with a smile, resisting the urge to snake out an arm and wrap it around her friend in order to give her a one-armed hug. Maureen’s eyes still held a hint of sadness and pain and Lauren wished she could just wipe that away. But hugging the other woman would probably only add to the redhead’s confusion And upsetting her friend was the last thing Lauren wanted to do. She clearly remembered the look on Maureen’s face when she had given her a hug after they had been on a date. They had enjoyed a great dinner at Pete’s and afterwards they had strolled through town, just talking and window shopping. Both women had felt like they had grown a little closer that evening. Lauren had wanted to deepen their friendship, she still did, but she felt like she needed to tread lightly, for Maureen’s sake. The other woman clearly had a hard time adjusting after her divorce and Lauren knew she needed time to settle comfortably into her new life. The hug had been spontaneous, but it had left Lauren craving for more, which had been unsettling. And when Lauren had slowly let go of the other woman, gently giving her shoulders an encouraging squeeze, Maureen’s eyes had been moist and filled with a mixture of quiet joy and wonder. But Lauren knew Maureen’s emotions were still out of balance so shortly after her divorce, so she decided to keep her distance, giving the other woman the opportunity to find her equilibrium again, emotionally and mentally.

“Are you alright?” a voice suddenly interrupted Lauren’s thoughts and, with an apologetic smile, she nodded.

“Sorry, just took a trip to La La land. I guess I’m more tired than I thought.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind me staying at your place? I mean, I’d understand if…”

“It’s fine, really,” Lauren said, stepping in her car. “I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t want you to stay. All right?”

“Okay,” Maureen nodded, letting herself sink into the passenger’s seat. Even though her tired body was protesting her every move, deep down inside she was excited to spend the entire weekend with Lauren. For the last few months, they had not been able to enjoy any time together and it would be interesting to see if they could pick up where they had left off after their date, back in February.

#

Maureen must have been asleep for only a few hours when she woke with a start. Pushing herself up to a sitting position, she took a deep breath, willing her pounding heart to slow down. She had no idea what had pulled her from her deep sleep, but, whatever it was, for a few moments it had left her completely disoriented.

“What the hell?” Maureen mumbled, pushing her hair away from her damp forehead. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the darkness in the room and with a sigh she reached out to switch on the lamp on the small table next to the bed. The soft light illuminated the tastefully decorated guest bedroom, with its Southwestern furniture, colorful handwoven rugs and Native American art that decorated the walls. The moment Maureen had set foot in Lauren’s house, she had felt the warmth of the place enveloping her like a blanket and she had immediately recognized Lauren’s touch in all she saw. It had been strangely comforting and Maureen had felt ashamed about the cold state of her own house.

Blinking against the light, Maureen looked at the alarm clock and frowned when she saw it was just after three in the morning.

“So much for a good sleep,” she muttered a little more than annoyed. “Well, whatever it was that woke me up, it will have to wait,” she decided, stretching out her hand to turn off the light so she could go back to sleep. At that exact moment, two things happened simultaneously; Maureen’s pager beeped twice and there was a knock on the bedroom door.

“What?” Maureen growled, a little more gruff than intended, while reaching for the pager.

The door was opened and a sleepy looking Lauren stepped in the room. She was clad in a yellow t-shirt and gray knit shorts and, in spite of the situation, Maureen could not stop herself when her eyes traveled down a pair of long, strong legs with an appreciative glance.

“I got paged,” Lauren grunted, suppressing a yawn.

“So did I, apparently” Maureen sighed swinging her legs out of bed, while pushing herself to a sitting position. “What’s going on?”

“We need to go to Washita County.”

“Washita County?” Maureen repeated, the disgust evident in her voice. “That’s hours away. Do we need to go there now?”

“He wants us there at first light,” Lauren answered with a shrug of her shoulders. She could not hide the disappointment in her voice and immediately Maureen’s irritation melted away.

“I can go,” she spoke with determination. “You’re supposed to have the weekend off and visit your family. I’m sure I’ll be able to cope and…”

“It’s your weekend off as well,” Lauren interrupted. “Besides, the Boss was very specific about the assignment; you and me, both, because, for some reason, he thinks whatever happened there ties in with both our cases we’ve been working on lately.”

Maureen gestured Lauren to take a seat on the edge of the bed next to her, so she did not have to crane her neck, looking up at the tall woman.

“What do you know?” she asked, all traces of sleep forgotten.

“Not much,” Lauren answered, pushing back her thick, long hair. “He gave me a name and phone number and told me this person, a local Sheriff, could fill us in. All I know is that a civilian found a body on the dirt road in front of her house, somewhere between Burns Flat and Elk City.”

“A dead body?”

“Very much so,” Lauren sighed. “And there’s more, there was a baby as well.”

Maureen’s head shot up and she glanced at Lauren with eyes full of shock.

“A baby? Was it…?”

“Barely alive,” Lauren answered with a grim face.

#

Maureen’s eyes rested on a pair of hands that were holding the steering wheel in a relaxed grip. Lauren’s hands were strong, she could tell just by how the veins and muscles moved underneath the smooth, tan skin. It was fascinating to see the occasional twitching of the long fingers, illuminated by the light of the dashboard instruments and the headlights of oncoming traffic. Maureen could not help wondering what it would be like to run her fingers over the soft looking skin, what it would be like to feel her hand disappear in Lauren’s strong grip and how…

“Are you doing okay?” a soft voice interrupted her thoughts.

Maureen immediately cast down her eyes, grateful for the darkness inside the car, so her companion would not be able to see her blush.

“I’m fine, just zoning out,” she answered quickly, taking a deep breath.

“Tired?” Lauren asked in a compassionate voice.

“What do you think?” Maureen softly snorted. “I’ve been yanked out of bed in the middle of the night after a two-week period of chronic sleep deprivation.”

“I take that as a ‘yes’,” Lauren replied dryly, making Maureen chuckle. “Usually I like my job, but sometimes it really sucks.”

“Is this ‘sometimes?’” Maureen asked with a smile in her voice.

“Absolutely,” Lauren nodded. “I was so looking forward to tomorrow and Sunday that when my pager went off I seriously considered flushing it down the toilet.”

“Maybe we should have,” Maureen muttered, rubbing her tired eyes. “I’ve no idea why the Boss insists on having us there. Besides,” the red-head hesitated and glanced aside at Lauren, who, even though her eyes were on the road in front of them, seemed to listen intently. “I hate cases that involve kids,” she confessed with a heartfelt sigh.

“I do too,” Lauren nodded. “Every case that involves a child is one too many.” There was a brief silence in which Maureen stared outside the window, trying mentally to prepare herself for what they would hear and see that morning. Whatever it would be, she knew it would be hard. Deep down inside she hoped she would be able to handle it. She was so bone-tired her emotions were all over the place and how embarrassing would it be to break down in front of curious, local police officers.

Maureen’s thoughts were interrupted by a warm, strong hand that unexpectedly covered her own. Immediately, her heart skipped a beat. Lauren felt the other woman tense, but to her credit she did not pull away, knowing the gentle touch had taken the other woman by surprise. And when the hand underneath hers turned and boldly entwined their fingers Lauren involuntarily sucked in a breath. The physical contact felt so good she had to force herself not to pull over so she could bury herself in Maureen’s arms. They were in a moving car, on their way to a, no doubt, horrific crime-scene and she knew she had to prepare herself mentally and emotionally . Instead, her entire focus was on the warm hand that had comfortably wrapped itself around hers and on the way her body and mind were reacting to that.

“Maureen…,” Lauren started uncharacteristically insecure. “I…Maybe if…”

“We need to have a talk soon, don’t we?” Maureen interrupted in a gentle voice, while her thumb caressed the skin on Lauren’s hand.

“Yes. Yes we do,” Lauren breathed, glad of her friend’s remark. “We really need to. And I think, maybe we should have a while ago, but…”

“But work keeps getting in the way,” Maureen nodded. “Like now.”

“I’m sorry,” Lauren spoke in a soft voice. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Ssh, not now,” Maureen interrupted, gently squeezing Lauren’s hand. “We’ll talk later. We need our focus on this case, now even more than ever, because we’re both so tired.”

“I know I am,” Lauren admitted, surprising Maureen with that confession.

“What? You’re not a super hero?” the red-head gently teased.

“Sorry,” Lauren muttered, sending her companion a tired grin.

“Doesn’t matter, I like you anyway,” Maureen replied, barely audible, but Lauren had heard the confession and increased her grip on Maureen’s hand.

“I’m glad,” was the whispered answer and with a smile Maureen closed her eyes, reveling in the warmth that had settled in the pit of her stomach, while their linked hands rested on her thigh.

“Why don’t you close your eyes and take a nap?” Lauren suggested. “It’ll be at least another hour before we’re there.”

“You don’t have to twist my arm,” Maureen yawned. “Will you be alright, though?” she asked with a sideway glance.

“I’ll be fine,” Lauren smiled, reveling in the warm pressure of Maureen’s hand.

“Wake me a couple of miles before we get there, so I can iron the wrinkles out of my face,” Maureen sighed, burying herself deeper into the seat.

“I will,” Lauren chuckled.

There was a brief silence in which Lauren wondered how long it would take for her friend to fall asleep. Maureen had looked so tired it would probably only take a few minutes. She was right, because, less than a minute later, Lauren could feel Maureen’s grip on her hand relax, while the red-head’s breathing became deep and regular.

“Sweet dreams, Maureen,” Lauren whispered, not at all inclined to remove her hand from its comfortable resting place.

#

Bradley Henderson stared at the police cruiser that slowly made its way down the dirt-road, followed closely by what looked like a silver-colored car. His tired eyes lit up when he recognized the form of Sheriff Boswick, exiting the cruiser. The gray-haired man slowly walked to the car behind him and opened the passenger door.

With curious eyes, Henderson watched two women get out of the car and, for a brief moment, he was stunned to find out the OSBI agents were actually women. Being in Law Enforcement could be a dangerous job and he wondered if they realized that.

Unconsciously straightening his shoulders, Bradley Henderson looked at the Sheriff when he lead the two woman towards the cordoned area.

“Henderson, these are Agents Darkwolf and Lawrence, from the OSBI Headquarters in Oklahoma City.”

Bradley Henderson nodded and grabbed the hand that Lauren offered him.

“Nice to meet you, Henderson,” her low voice sounded genuine when she shook his hand, while Maureen sent the young Deputy a tired smile. “What do you have for us here?”

‘Umm…it’s…well,” the young man stammered, casting a glance at the Sheriff who stood behind Maureen, patiently waiting for him to continue.

“Well, right behind us here, alongside the road, the owner of the house, Constance Perez came across a…a bundle of, what she initially thought to be fabric, like a carpet or rug.” Deputy Henderson cleared his throat, well aware of the intense gaze in a pair of dark-brown and green eyes. “She was under the impression her dog was guarding the…bundle and she was curious about it. Especially since it had not been there when she had left for work in the morning. Mrs. Perez stated that when she approached the bundle she detected a movement and when she carefully lifted up a corner of the fabric she…she…” Deputy Henderson mentally slapped himself for stuttering again, but, when he saw the barely perceptible nod the tall dark-haired Agent gave him, he took a deep breath and continued. “When she lifted the fabric she saw a baby, held in its mother’s arms, but the mother seemed…deceased.”

“Was she?” Maureen asked dryly, frowning at the young man. She was a seasoned Agent and the way the Deputy was carefully choosing his words was testing her patience. When the young man shot her a puzzled look, Maureen let out a sigh and she was about to roll her eyes, when Lauren’s hand lightly touched her arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. She immediately knew what her friend was trying to tell her and she nodded. Lauren was right; the Deputy was a true rookie. He looked so young in his immaculate uniform and she was sure he had gone through a tremendously stressful day.

“At the time Mrs. Perez found her, was she dead?” she asked, not unfriendly.

“Yes, ma’am,” the Deputy nodded. “According to what Mrs. Perez told me when I arrived, the victim was de…had died, ma’am.”

“What about the baby?” Lauren asked.

“The baby, a boy, was alive. He was wrapped in the victim’s arms and he looked in good condition, although he seemed pretty lethargic, but the paramedic said he could have been dehydrated.” The young Deputy swallowed hard, still trying to come to terms with what he had found that afternoon. It was hard to get rid of the image of the helpless baby, clutched in the arms of a dead woman. He knew it was something that would stay with him for a long time to come.

“Where’s the baby now?” Maureen asked , peering over the yellow tape to get a good look at the crime scene. It was hard to get a clear view, because of the darkness. A couple of floodlights were haphazardly placed around the area, but the light was so bright, it was still impossible to get a detailed look. Their Captain had been right when he had urged them to be there at daybreak; they needed daylight to canvas the area and look for any clues.

“They took him to the hospital in Elk City. He’ll be in DHS custody until they find his family. If he has any,” the young Deputy answered with a sigh.

“Any clues or leads?” Lauren asked, pushing the tape down stepping over it with her long legs. Still holding the yellow tape down, she motioned for Maureen to follow her, which the red-head obediently did.

“Not really,” the Sheriff answered, speaking for the first time. “We haven’t really investigated the crime scene yet. When Henderson here radioed in what he’d found, I came down to take a look, but I already knew this case would be out of our league. We don’t have stuff like this happening around these parts.” The Sheriff shot Lauren an inquisitive look. “Wilson promised he’d send his best,” he continued and both Lauren and Maureen could easily detect the doubt in his voice.

Ignoring Maureen’s barely audible snort behind her, Lauren turned to cast a look at the Sheriff. Her expression was neutral when she slowly nodded.

“We do have a lot experience,” she explained in a low voice, wondering if the small-town Sheriff was one of the many ‘good ol’ boys’ who still thought women should be teachers or nurses, but certainly not top investigators for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

“That’s what I heard,” Sheriff Boswick answered. “I gotta tell ya, when I first saw the two of you drive up to the station, I was surprised.”

“Really?” Maureen drawled. Without looking back at the other woman, Lauren knew the green eyes were shooting fire and she suppressed a chuckle. “Surprised how?”

“I thought I heard you both were involved in that meth-lab thing, last week. I’d have thought Wilson would have given you some time off.”

“You know him?” Maureen asked with rising curiosity.

“I sure do,” Sheriff Boswick grinned. “I’ve known him for a very long time.”

“Well, he thinks this case could be linked to our previous ones,” Lauren explained. “I’m not sure how, though.”

“Maybe this clipping will give you an idea,” Deputy Henderson spoke, almost reverently handing Lauren a clear, plastic bag. With raised eyebrows she took the small bag, intently looking at its contents.

“It’s a newspaper clipping,” Maureen said, leaning closer to Lauren to get a better look. “Hey, look at the picture ! That’s…”

“Us,” Lauren interrupted with a nod. “This must have been taken last month, when we left the courthouse after we testified in that…”

“Drug-trafficking case,” Maureen added with surprise. “What the…?”

“See that number that’s scribbled on the bottom?” Sheriff Boswick pointed out.

Lauren nodded while Maureen gasped in surprise.

“This is the OSBI phone-number,” Lauren said pensively. “That’s interesting. Where does this come from? Was it found here, at the scene?”

Deputy Henderson cleared his throat while he shook his head.

“No, well, actually, sort of,” he replied, blushing when Maureen sent him an impatient glance. “It…I found it in the lady’s pocket, of her coat, when I was looking for an ID,” he quickly explained. “I immediately bagged it, because I…I recognized Agent Darkwolf.”

“You did?” Maureen asked, looking at the Deputy in surprise.

“You…um…Agent Darkwolf spoke at my Highschool, a few years ago. It…um…it was very interesting.”

“What did she talk about?” Maureen inquired, nudging Lauren with her shoulder, suppressing a smug smile when the dark-haired woman sighed.

“It was about how many people are affected by crime, no matter how small and how…fulfilling it is to solve crimes and help bring justice to the victims and to our society.”

“That does sound interesting,” Maureen admitted. And it sounds just like Lauren.

“Thanks for bagging this, Henderson,” Lauren spoke, changing the subject and ignoring Maureen’s soft chuckle. “You did a good job.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Deputy Henderson blushed.”To be honest, I…I wasn’t really sure what to do. This is the first time I’ve been involved in a case like this. But, I’ll be right here, so, just tell me what to do.”

“You can help me when we canvas this area,” Lauren smiled at his boyish eagerness. “It’ll be a good learning experience.”

“Great ! Thank you,” Deputy Henderson tried to answer in a calm voice, but both Lauren and Maureen heard the undertone of enthusiasm and they smiled. It had not been that long ago since they had been rookies themselves.

“Found anything?” Maureen yawned, glancing at her watch. It was close to nine o’clock. The sun was already heating up the air and Maureen was getting thirsty and hungry.

“Was it only last night I ate fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits and mashed potatoes?” she mumbled, not aware of Lauren, who was standing right behind her.

“Don’t forget the gravy and green beans,” the other woman smiled, wishing she could stretch out a hand and smooth a rebellious strand of red hair away from Maureen’s forehead. Her friend looked pale and tired and Lauren knew it would only be a matter of time before the other Agent would keel over.

“I know you’re hungry, so am I,” Lauren said in a soft voice. “We’re almost done here and as soon as we pack up, I’ll find a place to eat.”

“Just a cup of coffee would be heaven,” Maureen sighed.

“You got it,” Lauren smiled. “Hang in there, okay?”

“I’m trying,” Maureen yawned. “What do we have so far? Some tire tracks, a shoe, that newspaper clipping and…what else?”

“A wallet,” Lauren spoke. “The one she was carrying.”

“But there’s no ID in there.”

“Nope, just some coupons and an appointment card. There’s no name on it, though.”

“Show me.”

Lauren handed her the small bag with the appointment card. The top part had been cut off, so it was impossible to see which Doctor’s office, clinic or hospital the card had come from. ,

“April 7th,” Maureen muttered, twirling the small bag with the card around her finger. “Why does that sound familiar to me?”

Lauren did not answer, but looked at Maureen in fascination. Her friend had a formidable memory and, on a few occasions, she had been witness to Maureen digging up information from within the deep recesses of her brain. It had been interesting to witness. Maureen had stared, mumbled, closed her eyes in concentration and a few minutes later, she had come up with the answer.

“April the seventh,” Maureen spoke slowly, as if she was tasting the words. “April. The Seventh.”

With her eyes closed, the red-head rocked back and forth on her heels, willing her memory to give up the information. Her lips moved, but there was no sound and, unconsciously, Lauren held her breath. Then, all of a sudden, the green eyes popped open, glancing at Lauren in satisfaction.

“There was a Health fair that day,” she said. “It was in downtown Oklahoma City and sponsored by St. Andrew’s. There was a special deal about pregnant and nursing mothers.”

“Really?” Lauren replied, clearly impressed by Maureen’s information. “How do you know?”

“Because, a few weeks before that day, I had to take a suspect to the hospital and I saw the poster in the elevator,” Maureen answered with a small smile. Her heart had skipped a beat when she had noticed the admiration in the other woman’s eyes and all of a sudden she felt a lot less tired. “I know that appointment card could be from some place totally different, so it’s a long shot,” she added with a sigh.

“It’s worth looking into, though,” Lauren said, knowing they barely had a lead. Right now, anything was welcome. “You’re amazing,” she added, so softly Deputy Henderson, who was still carefully searching the long grass alongside the road, would not be able to hear her.

“You think?” Maureen replied, having meant to sound playful, but instead there was a tiny quiver in her voice.

“Absolutely,” Lauren smiled, stuffing her hands in her pockets to keep herself from doing something stupid, like pulling Maureen into her arms right in front of Deputy Henderson.

“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Maureen glanced up and sucked in a breath when she noticed the intensity in the other woman’s gaze. Again, her heart did a double-take.

“No, I really don’t,” Lauren replied. She leaned forward, until her lips were dangerously close to Maureen’s ear. “See? You’re special,” she added in a whisper, before turning around and walking back to Deputy Henderson, who was straying away from the crime scene.

Maureen’s tired eyes were filled with smoldering green fire when she stared at Lauren Darkwolf’s retreating back.

“Breathe, Maureen. Breathe.”

Part 3

“Is it really time to get up already?” Hannah mumbled, pressing her face against a conveniently close shoulder. “Please, tell me it’s not Monday,” she added in a voice that was husky with sleep.

“It’s not Monday,” an amused voice answered and the blonde sighed in relief, snuggling closer to the warm body next to her and smiling when two arms slid around her body, pulling her even closer.

“Morning, favorite nurse of mine,” Rachel Kendrick dropped a kiss on the unruly blond hair that tickled her cheek and grinned when Hannah answered with something unintelligible.

“What was that?” she chuckled.

“It’s a good thing I’m your favorite nurse,” Hannah mumbled. “I like that.”

“I do too. I guess I’ll keep you,” Rachel gently teased, laughing when Hannah playfully bit her shoulder.

“And you decided that just now?” the blonde asked with feigned hurt. “All those months we’ve been together and…mmm.”

Hannah’s words were cut short by a pair of warm lips that descended on her mouth, quickly robbing her of speech. They kissed slowly, thoroughly tasting each other unhurriedly and when they finally broke apart, both women were breathless.

“You were saying?” Rachel whispered.

“Was I talking?” Hannah dreamily answered. “I can’t remember that. You just turned my brain to mush, along with a few other interesting places.”

“I did, huh?” Rachel smiled, running her fingers through Hannah’s hair, chuckling when the blonde softly moaned. “Do you want me to take care of those places? I might find them interesting as well.”

“Now you’re talking,” Hannah breathed, aware of the increase in her heartbeat. “I guess I can leave taking care of those places up to you, since you’re a Doctor and all that.”

Rachel’s dark-brown eyes shone with amusement when she looked at her lover’s flushed face with the smoldering blue eyes. It still surprised her how easily the blonde reacted to her touch. Sometimes, all it took was one kiss to make Hannah go limp within the circle of her arms. It was humbling and arousing at the same time and Rachel loved every second of their private encounters.

Very aware of Hannah’s body that was pressed close against her own and her lover’s roaming hands that, somehow had found their way underneath her shirt, Rachel let out a shuddering breath, finding it harder and harder not to let her body succumb to Hannah’s touch.

“Sweetheart, what are you doing?” she whispered hoarsely.

Hannah raised her head and she frowned, gently poking Rachel’s chest with her index finger.

“If I need to explain that, then I wonder where you’ve been all those other times we’ve made love,” she winked. “Tell me it was you, honey. I’d hate to think I did all those things to somebody else.”

The blonde grinned when Rachel rolled her eyes, but before the dark-haired woman could respond, her lips effectively swallowed the words her lover was about to utter. The Doctor softly moaned, aware of Hannah’s silent chuckle, but when the blonde slid her body atop her own and she unconsciously shifted to accommodate a smooth thigh, there was nothing left but the soft lips that set fire to her skin and the reaction of her body to the insistent touches.

“One day, you’ll be the death of me,” Rachel sighed a long time later, while her hands caressed the soft skin of Hannah’s back. “But what a way to go,” she added, kissing the blonde on the tip of her nose.

“You’ll be fine,” Hannah decided with a sigh. “You’ve got a whole lot more stamina than you give yourself credit for. I’m not worried about you.”

“I love you,” Rachel smiled, feeling incredibly relaxed, sated and happy.

“I love you, too,” Hannah smiled, burying her face against the soft, warm skin of Rachel’s neck. She let out a contented sigh, feeling thoroughly loved and protected. Involuntarily, her thoughts returned to the previous evening.

“How do you think Lauren and Maureen are doing?” she mused.

“They seemed fine last night,” Rachel answered innocently.

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about,” Hannah gently rebuked, pressing her lips against Rachel’s collarbone. “They’re so attracted to each other, it almost hurts my eyes just looking at them,” she continued, ignoring her lover’s laugh. “I wonder if they’ll ever‘fess up to it.”

“I’m sure they will,” Rachel nodded. “Lauren is waiting on purpose. I think she wants to give Maureen some space to come to terms with her divorce.”

“Sounds like something you’d do,” Hannah mumbled.

“It makes sense, honey. I don’t think Lauren is the type to take a relationship lightly. Maureen needs to come to terms with her failed marriage and the fact that she’s in love with a woman. I’m sure that takes some time and adjusting.”

“You’re the voice of reason, as usual,” Hannah teased, but she was smiling. “I just want to see them happy. They seemed to be when they left, but when they came in it seemed like they were a little uncomfortable with each other. I’m glad they decided to spent the weekend together.”

“I just hope they won’t be called in. That would really suck. They need some time together.”

#

“So, what do you think about all this?” Maureen asked, glancing at Lauren over the rim of her coffee cup. “Any ideas yet?”

“No, not really,” Lauren sighed, absentmindedly chewing on a piece of toast.

After they had left the crime-scene, the first thing they had done was find a local diner that Deputy Henderson had recommended. The freshly brewed, strong coffee was welcomed by both women, who carefully sipped the hot liquid, enjoying the warm rush of caffeine through their tired bodies.

“We do have the appointment card, her wallet, the shoe, the newspaper clipping and the tire tracks,” Maureen mused, staring at Lauren through half-lidded eyes.

“Don’t forget the preliminary lab report,” Lauren nodded, referring to the phone call from the laboratory they had received just before they had left the crime-scene. “There were traces of methamphetamine on her clothes and skin.”

“But they don’t think that killed her?” Maureen shook her head. “I’d have thought she OD’ on something.”

“That seems the most logical conclusion,” Lauren admitted, grabbing a piece of freshly baked biscuit and popping it in her mouth. “But, apparently, there’s more to this than meets the eye. They found traces of something they need to have a closer look at. It might be a new drug, but it’s unclear what it is and where it comes from. It’s our job to figure that out.”

“I’m sure I could do my job a lot better if I wasn’t so tired,” Maureen sighed, sending the young waitress a grateful smile when she put a plate of hot food in front of her.

“Are you sure you’ll be able to eat all that?” Lauren chuckled.

“You bet,” Maureen nodded with a grin. “Gertrude’s amazing dinner is long gone and I’m hungry !”

“So I see,” Lauren smiled. “Well, who am I to come between you and your…stack of food.”

“It’s not that bad,” Maureen shrugged her shoulders, liberally pouring syrup over her pancakes. “Just a short stack of pancakes, eggs, bacon and a sausage.”

“And toast,” Lauren added, pointing to a small plate the waitress had placed at Maureen’s elbow.

“With jam,” Maureen grinned, winking at the woman across the table from her.

“Just let me know if you need help getting out of here,” Lauren remarked with a twinkle in her eyes. “I’m sure I’ll be able to borrow a cart or something, to wheel you out.”

“The good thing about pay backs is that the receiver usually never sees them coming,” Maureen answered without missing a beat, before sinking her teeth in a piece of pancake.

“Oh, a threat?” Lauren smiled, unconsciously leaning forward. Her brown eyes rested on Maureen’s bent head and stayed there, knowing the other woman would eventually look up. She didn’t have to wait too long. After a few moments of silence, Maureen raised her eyes and seeing the look of warm intensity in the other woman’s eyes, her skin immediately flushed a delicate pink. Inwardly, she groaned. Lauren’s face was so close she only would have to cross a very short distance to do what she had been dreaming about for a long time. But kissing Agent Darkwolf in a public place at their table in front of the window would certainly cause a riot. In more than one way. So Maureen exhaled slowly and frantically tried to come up with something intelligent to say. Anything really, to prevent her from making a total fool of herself. But it was hard, because Lauren was so close and she looked so good, even with the dark circles underneath her eyes, painted by lack of sleep. Maureen had to restrain herself not to reach out a hand and caress the soft looking skin around Lauren’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Lauren spoke in a soft voice.

“About what?” Maureen frowned, letting out a shaky breath.

“About being here, instead of at the Lake. I had…I really had hoped we’d been able to spend some time together, without the work, the death and the misery.” Lauren smiled sadly and reached out a hand, covering Maureen’s with her own. She gave it a gentle squeeze before letting her go again. “Soon, I promise, we’ll take a weekend, or even longer, and spent time together. That is, if that’s what you want as well,” Lauren ended with hesitance.

“Are you kidding?” Maureen softly snorted. “There’s nothing I want more. Besides, I need a break. I’m not sure how long I can keep this up without falling apart or, worse, killing a suspect.”

“We’ll get through it,” Lauren promised. “We just need to keep it together a little longer and when we’re done with this case, I’ll tell Jack Wilson he’ll have to give us some time off, or I’ll quit.”

Maureen stared at Lauren and let out a soft chuckle. But the brown eyes were serious and she quickly swallowed a sip of coffee.

“You mean it,” she spoke.

“I do,” Lauren nodded.

“What would you do?” the redhead asked. She could not imagine Lauren as anything else but a police officer.

“Fishing guide,” Lauren answered and Maureen laughed when she noticed the twinkle in her friend’s eyes. “I know Grand Lake like the palm of my hand. I could make it as a fishing guide. God knows it would be a heck of lot less stressful.”

“Well, if you decide on a career change, let me know,” Maureen encouraged. “I always wanted to learn how to fish.”

“Deal,” Lauren smiled, sipping her coffee.

The dark-haired Agent’s thoughts returned to the death of the young woman and the cold, heartless abandonment of the baby and deep down inside she felt anger bubble up. She welcomed the emotion, because it immediately drove away the exhaustion she felt. If she would be able to keep the anger below the surface she knew it would help her to focus on the task at hand. They needed to focus, she knew. It was too easy to be distracted by her feelings for the red-haired woman, but that was something she could not allow herself to do. She had to get a handle on her attraction for Maureen Lawrence, at least until she had the time to examine her feelings closer and explore the possibilities, if there would be any. Until then, she would bear the heavy beating of her heart, every time her eyes were caught by the green of Maureen’s.

“We’ll need to talk to some people,” Lauren heard Maureen speak and startled she looked up.

“What?”

“I said, we need to talk to some people,” Maureen repeated, looking at the other woman with a frown. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Lauren quickly answered. “And yes, I agree, we need to find out if anybody has seen something out of the ordinary. Why don’t we finish breakfast and drive back to the area where the body was found? There are a couple of houses there.”

“A couple?” Maureen muttered. “You must have some undetected eye problem. I saw a house, only one, if you can call it a house and to me it didn’t look like anybody was living there. And if I’m wrong, I’ll strongly advise them to move.”

“You wanna bet?” Lauren suggested with an amused twinkle in her eyes.

“If someone actually lives there? Heck, yes,” Maureen laughed. “What’s the wager?”

Lauren felt a surge of warmth settle in the pit of her stomach when she saw the sparkle in Maureen’s eyes. It made her look years younger and, in Lauren’s eyes, incredibly cute.

“You tell me,” Lauren smiled.

“Oooh, I get to pick,” Maureen smiled, rubbing her hands together in anticipation. “Let me think here for a moment, because this is going to be good.”

“You’d better choose wisely, because you’re going to lose,” Lauren teased, laughing when Maureen snorted in response.

“I don’t think so, Wolfie. Alright, here’s the deal. If you are right, I’ll…cook you dinner and if…what?” Maureen asked, noticing the look of shock in Lauren’s eyes.

“Cooking? You?” Lauren leaned forward and lowered her voice, so only Maureen would be able to hear her. “Honey, no offense, but I’ve seen your fridge. The thought of you cooking is a little…unsettling,” Lauren continued, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.

“Then think of how much more special it will be,” the red-head nodded with a grin. “However, if I am right and nobody lives in that…house with only half a roof, you, Agent Lauren Darkwolf, will cook for me,” Maureen purred.

“God, I hope I’m wrong,” Lauren sighed, which earned her a playful slap from her friend. “Can I, at least, be around when you cook for me, so I can give you some pointers?”

“That won’t be necessary, because I’ll win this bet,” Maureen answered with a smug smile.

“Pretty sure of yourself, huh?” Lauren smiled. “Alright, Lawrence, we’ll find out soon enough.”

#

Agent Lauren Darkwolf drove her vehicle slowly down the dirt-road, skillfully avoiding the holes that littered the dry, cracked surface. Every now and then one of the tires slid into a deep track, violently rocking the car.

“Ooof,” Maureen blew out a breath and planted both hands against the dashboard to keep from being flung across the car. Lauren shot her an apologetic look and grimaced in sympathy.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

“No problem,” Maureen muttered. “I just hope my pancakes will stay where they are. I can’t promise they will though,” she spoke through clenched teeth. “I tell you, Darkwolf, nobody in his right mind lives there.”

“I never said they had to be in their right mind,” Lauren replied, steering around a big branch that had landed at the side of the road, its smaller twigs sticking out like little tentacles, trying to grab on to anything that would try and pass them.

After Lauren’s remark, Maureen glanced aside and opened her mouth to reply, but changed her mind. Instead, she stuck her hand inside her jacket and pulled out her gun, sliding out the clip and carefully inspecting it before putting it back into place again.

“You’re making me nervous,” Lauren chuckled. “Why are you doing that? Nobody lives there, right?”

“Oh, ha ha,” Maureen mumbled. “I just want to make sure. I have no intention of shooting anyone today, or of getting shot. Once is enough.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” Lauren said, reaching out a hand to give Maureen’s knee a friendly pat. “I didn’t mean to make fun of that.”

“I know,” Maureen sighed. “And I’m okay with what happened, really. It could have been a lot worse, back then, but still, I’d like to make sure. If, and I repeat, if, anybody lives out here, they might…um…not really be very hospitable, you know.”

“I know,” Lauren nodded, while her eyes traveled from the back of the house they were approaching to the old, run down truck that was parked in front of it. It looked like it would not be able to run anymore, but Lauren had seen vehicles in the same bad shape that had still managed to try and outrun a police car.

“Somebody is in the back,” she said matter-of-factly.

“You’re kidding,” Maureen hissed, leaning forward in her seat. “Did you see anyb…oh, there he is,” she said, having seen the figure of an old man exiting the back of the house, slowly walking toward the truck.

“Is that a shotgun he’s carrying?” she spoke, immediately knowing the answer when the old man leaned against the back of his truck, with the shotgun casually resting on his shoulder. “Looks like he knows how to use it, too,” she mumbled.

“Yup, he sure does,” Lauren nodded, parking the car alongside the dirt track and opening the door. Maureen followed her example and opened the passenger door, slowly exiting the car and making sure the old man could clearly see her hands, that were empty.

“Good morning,” Lauren called out. “How are you?”

The old man scratched his unkempt beard and spit on the ground, kicking up some dirt to cover the saliva that was dark from chewing tobacco.

“Pretty good,” he drawled. “What y’all want?”

Lauren held her hands to her side and stepped a little closer, respecting the fact that the man was obviously intent on exercising his right to defend his property, no matter how run down it might be.

“My name is Lauren Darkwolf and this is Maureen Lawrence,” she introduced herself. “We work for the OSBI and are investigating the death of a young lady. We’d like to ask you some questions, if that’s alright with you.”

Again, the old man spat on the ground before he turned his attention back to the two women.

“Got some ID?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, we do,” Maureen asked. “I’ll have to reach into my pocket to get it though,” she added.

“Go ahead,” the man encouraged. “I won’t shoot ya.”

“Better not,” Maureen mumbled, reaching into her pocket to pull out her leather covered ID. She flipped it open and held it up, so he could see it.

“Come closer, girl. My eyes are retired, like me.”

Maureen suppressed a nervous chuckle and the urge to ask him if it was a good idea to hold a shotgun while his eyesight was bad, but she decided against it.

“You, too,” he gestured Lauren. “C’mere.”

Lauren stepped closer, suppressing the urge to step in front of Maureen to shield her friend with her body, if necessary. She was sure her red-headed friend would not appreciate a gesture like that. Although Lauren realized Maureen was a very capable, experienced Agent, her eyes never left the old man when her friend held out her ID badge for him to see. Lauren calculated that, if it would come to a shoot-out, she would most likely be faster than the old man. First of all, she was a lot younger and her reflexes would be better and secondly, he was balancing his shotgun on his shoulder and it would take him at least two to three seconds to get it in position and aim. Enough for Lauren to pull her gun and disarm him.

“Looks real to me,” the old man nodded, casting Maureen an approving look. “She with you?” he gestured to Lauren.

“She sure is,” the redhead answered, casting a look over her shoulder and winking at Lauren, who visibly relaxed.

Oh, look at that, Maureen mused. She was worried about me. How cute!

Lauren sent the old man a tight smile, still keeping a close eye on him and the shotgun he was holding.

“Sir, may we ask you a few questions?” she politely asked.

“Morton,” he muttered.

“Excuse me?”

“My name, it’s Morton. Call me that, or Mort or Morty. I don’t do ‘sir’. Not anymore.”

“Alright, Morton. May I ask…?” Lauren started, but she was interrupted by Morton, who brought his gun down and put it in the back of his truck. His now empty hands were stuffed inside his dirt-covered jeans.

“Go ahead, ask,” Morton spoke gruffly, looking at Lauren from under grizzly eyebrows.

“Did you see anything out of the ordinary yesterday?” Maureen asked, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her slacks.

“Yesterday?” Morton repeated with a drawl. Again, he turned his head and spit on the ground in an almost perfect arc. “Why?”

Maureen rolled her eyes and took a deep breath, intent on answering the old man, but the sight of a pair of amused dark eyes all of a sudden made her very self-conscious, which in turn irritated her. She knew how to ask questions. It wasn’t like she was a rookie. Over the years she had interrogated hundreds of people and she was ready to prove that to the silent Agent next to her.

“I can’t give you any information, but we’re investigating a crime.”

“Something I did?” Morton asked undisturbed.

“I don’t know, sir, have you done anything?”

“Yesterday?” Morton asked, scratching his beard and glancing aside at Maureen with a deep frown. “Lemme think…yeah, yeah, I did some stuff,” he nodded, seemingly unwilling to elaborate.

“Like what?” Maureen sighed, feeling she was losing patience and her grip on the conversation. She just wanted the questioning to be over, so she could go home and sleep.

“Drove to the city. Bank. Bait shop ‘n all that.”

Maureen sucked in her bottom lip and slowly counted to ten. She needed to stay calm. She was not sure if Morton was being vague on purpose or that he was deliberately pushing her buttons, but, when she looked up again, she noted the barely visible wink he sent her partner.

“Alright, Morton. I’m sure it’s great fun to play games, but you know what, I am really tired and not in the mood for this. So, if you…”

“Morton,” Lauren’s voice interrupted Maureen, while the dark Agent briefly touched Maureen’s shoulder. “Did you notice anything out of the ordinary yesterday? Maybe some folks that seemed out of place.”

“Sure did,” Morton nodded. “They came barreling down the road in one of them fancy foreign cars. Sure as hell scared the fire out of me. I thought they were fixin’ to run straight into my truck.”

“When was that?”

“Oh, ‘bout lunch time, I guess,” Morton shrugged.

“Do you remember what kind of car?”

“It was a dark one, blue or black. With some silver on the front. One of them pissants.”

Maureen shot Lauren a puzzled look, before returning her attention back to Morton.

“A what?”

“A pissant. One of them German cars.”

“A Passat?” Lauren asked with a barely audible quiver in her voice. The look on Maureen’s face was priceless. It was obvious the red- head did not know whether to be angry with Morton and arrest him for obstruction of the law, or just throw her head back and laugh.

“Yeah, that,” Morton grinned, nodding at Lauren, sending her an approving glance. “Like I said, one of them German cars,” he repeated.

“Did you see the driver?” Maureen asked, trying to ignore her annoyance with the old man. She had a feeling he would love to toy with her and she did not want to give him that pleasure.

“Nope, windows were too dark. ‘Sides, I was trying to keep my damn truck on the road. They left nothing but a cloud of dust.”

“What about a license plate?” Lauren tried her luck.

“Oklahoma,” Morton answered with a nod. When he noticed Maureen opened her mouth to speak, he held up his hand and shook his head. “Nope, couldn’t read it,” he said.

“Anything else that stood out?” Lauren asked, giving her friend an encouraging nod. Maureen looked so tired, Lauren wanted to take her home as fast as she could, so she could get some rest. They both needed it. Desperately.

“Music,” Morton answered.

“Music?” Lauren echoed.

“Yup, pretty loud, too. Must have been a bunch of youngsters, playing that noise so loud. They must be deaf and if they ain’t, they will be soon.”

“Any specific music?”

“Loud,” Morton snorted. “I dunno. Lot’s of beat and bass.”

“So, a dark-colored Passat, with tinted windows, Oklahoma plate and loud music,” Lauren repeated, looking at Morton who nodded in agreement. “Which direction were they going?”

“West,” Morton pointed. “They came out of the neighbor’s road and went West.”

“Neighbors? Constance Perez?”

“Yup,” Morton said. “Is she alright?”

“She’s fine,” Lauren answered. “A bit shaken up, but she’ll be fine.”

“Did she find that baby?”

“How do you…?” Lauren started, but then she paused and let out a small chuckle. “Never mind. I’m from a small town myself and I know how fast news travels. I can’t give you any details, Morton. Sorry.”

“S’Alright,” he grinned. “I’ll hear about it soon enough.”

Lauren nodded and extended her hand, which Morton grabbed in a firm grip.

“Thanks for your help, Morton. I appreciate it.”

“No problem. Drop by anytime you need some information. I know all the folks around here. Most of them since they wore diapers.”

“We will, thanks, Morton,” Lauren smiled. Her dark eyes traveled to the back of the truck, where she knew he had put the shotgun. “What’s up with that?” she casually asked.

“Too many damn strangers around lately,” Morton spat. “They’re leaving I-40 and driving around all over the place. Most of ‘em young ones and they have guns. I don’t want no trouble, but I’ll defend myself. Little snots.”

“Who are they?” Maureen frowned.

“Dunno,” Morton shrugged. “They look like gangs to me. Too much mouth and too much money. They’re trouble, I’ll tell ya. Using these here roads as damn race tracks. Running back and forth like chickens with no head.”

“How often?” Lauren asked with keen interest.

“Couple ‘o times a week. Same cars. Same young folk. I tell ya, they’re trouble.” Again he spit on the dust-covered ground and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Y’all be careful now, y’hear,” he mumbled casting a look at the sky. “Weather’s gonna be rocky.”

“It is?” Maureen could not help asking, glancing up at the sky that was a perfect shade of blue. “I didn’t hear the forecast,” she spoke, wondering if they needed to keep an eye out for severe weather.

“Tornado chances are up,” Morton nodded.

Lauren cast a look at his house, noticing the lack of electricity wires running to it and she knew the old man spoke from good old fashioned gut-feeling and experience.

“We’ll keep that in mind,” she nodded.

“You’d better,” he grumbled. “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

“About those…gang members you just mentioned,” Lauren continued with a thoughtful expression on her face. “Do they…race up and down the same road, or…”

“From East to West and then a day or so later they come racing back again.”

“A pattern,” Maureen cast Lauren an appreciative look and felt a surge of anticipation. She did not know the specifics yet, but they were on to something, she was sure of that.

Lauren nodded and sent Morton a slow smile and Maureen could tell her friend was working on a plan.

“Can I ask you a favor, Morton?” Lauren asked, looking the old man square in the eyes. He nodded at her with a raised eyebrow. “Whenever you notice one of those cars again, could you keep track of what day and time they come by? I’m a little curious about that, I’m sure you’ll understand.”

“You bet,” Morton nodded with a grin, rolling his plug of Red Man from his right cheek to his left, before half-turning his head and spitting on the ground.

Maureen winced and tried not to look at the dark spots on the dusty road. Her grandfather had chewed tobacco and one day, when she was about eight years old she had secretly taken a pinch out of the can he had left on the table. She had stuffed the strong smelling substance in her mouth, immediately regretting that move, because it was like the inside of her mouth and her tongue were on fire. Running to the kitchen sink, she had been ready to spit out the contents of her mouth, when the door was opened and her grandmother had come in. Feeling trapped, Maureen had swallowed the tobacco and shortly after that she had become incredibly sick. It had taken her more than a full day to be able to keep any kind of food down. The dark-colored blobs of saliva on the ground reminded her of that fateful day and, to her horror, the memories triggered a wave of nausea that made her acutely aware of the large breakfast she had consumed.

A warm hand on her shoulder made her look up into the concerned eyes of Lauren Darkwolf.

“You don’t look all that great,” Lauren spoke softly. “Why don’t you go sit in the car with the engine running, so the air conditioning will cool you off a little,” she suggested in a gentle voice. “I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

Maureen was about to protest. She wanted Lauren to understand that she was tough enough to handle a stressful day on only a few hours of sleep, but the genuine warmth in the dark-brown eyes made her change her mind. With a small sigh of defeat, she slowly nodded and closed her fingers around the keys Lauren pressed into her hand.

“Don’t be surprised to find me asleep,” she said with a wry smile.

“I won’t,” Lauren smiled, giving her friend a gentle pat on the back. “Go on, I’m right behind you.”

Maureen nodded and, after sending Morton a small smile, she turned around and slowly walked back to the car.

“She’s something else,” Morton chuckled. “Little spitfire.”

“Were you yanking her chain for a reason?” Lauren asked calmly.

Morton chewed his tobacco, while he cast Lauren an inquisitive look. The dark woman patiently waited while the old man got rid of another mouthful of spit. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and chuckled again.

“I thought it would be fun to rile her up a bit,” he finally confessed. “Sides, she’s got you as her protector, doesn’t she?” he shrugged.

For a brief moment Lauren was speechless. Was she that transparent? Here was an old man who lived in a severely run down house and looked like he had not had a decent bath in a very long time. A lot of people would not grant him a second look, but the moment she had walked up to him, he had recognized something she had been carefully trying to keep hidden.

“There’s nothing wrong with your eyes,” she finally answered with a small smile.

“Only when it suits me,” he admitted with a grin. “Your partner reminds me of somebody I knew, a long time ago. Teasing her was always great fun. I guess I couldn’t help myself.” Morton looked up into a pair of pensive dark eyes. He liked the tall woman and he felt like he could trust her. “My wife,” he continued. “She was an Irish lass and she had the red hair and freckles.” Morton paused while his eyes followed a circling hawk high in the sky. “Died in childbirth, she and the baby both.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Lauren replied in a soft voice.

Morton nodded and pulled a red bandana out of his pocket, using it to wipe the perspiration of his forehead.

“It’s been a long time ago. They’re both buried underneath that big oak over there,” he pointed toward a hill behind the house where Lauren could see a small fenced off plot. Even from a distance she could tell it looked meticulously maintained. “She loved this land and we had big plans for this place,” Morton said, after clearing his throat. “I promised her we’d always live here. No punk will make me break that promise. I’d shoot them first, ya know,” Morton almost growled.

“Gotcha,” Lauren answered, understanding what Morton was telling her. He was willing to keep his eyes open so he could give her some more information about the coming and going of cars that Lauren suspected to be connected to drug runs. But Morton was intent on protecting his property and Lauren knew he had every right to do so.

“Just be careful,” Lauren warned the old man. “If you’re right and they do have guns, you don’t want to provoke a shoot-out.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep a low profile,” Morton promised with a chuckle. “I can play dumb real well.”

“I’m sure you can,” Lauren smiled. “I’ll be back sometime this week.”

“Make sure to drop by,” Morton nodded. “And tell that pretty lass to get some sleep. Seems to me like she needs it.”

“I will,” Lauren promised. “Take care, Morton. Thanks for the information.”

“You bet,” the old man replied, leaning his back against his truck while watching Lauren walk back to the car where Maureen was waiting for her. He had a feeling he would see the dark woman again real soon and he suspected it would not be a social visit.

Part 4

The car sped down the dirt-road, kicking up big clouds of dust that clung to the outside of the vehicle, turning the shiny, dark-blue paint into a dull, reddish grey. The occupants of the vehicle did not seemed to mind. The windows were closed to keep the dust and the heat out, but it could not contain the loud music that made the air vibrate with its rhythmic drums.

“Turn the volume down, idiot,” the driver snapped at his companion who was fiddling with the buttons of the car-stereo. “Musk said he’d call and I don’t wanna get my ass chewed for missing the call.”

“Chill, man,” the passenger drawled, “Ya know he never gets up early, anyways. We’re cool.”

“Keep it down, I’ve got a headache,” the driver mumbled.

“You’re a mess, man. It wasn’t our fault. Musk gave it to her. He wanted it this way.”

“Of course it was our fault, Ape. We’re the ones who…”

“Shut up, Squid,” the passenger yelled. “I don’t wanna hear it.”

“Cause you’re a coward, like me,” the driver spoke, increasing his grip on the steering wheel. “Damn it !”

“Come on, Squid, you’re worrying me, I…”

Ape was interrupted by the buzzing of Squid’s cell phone and, while taking a deep breath, the driver answered the call.

“Yeah?” he greeted as nonchalantly as he could. Showing signs of weakness now would certainly be suicide.

“Hey, Squid, it’s me, Musk. Are you and Ape on the way back?”

“Yup, we’ll be home in a few hours,” Squid answered.

“Did everything go alright?”

“Pretty smooth, man,” Squid answered, moistening his dry lips.

“Cool. What about your…assignment?”

“Taken care of,” Squid replied with a barely audible quiver in his voice.

“Good job,” the voice on the other side of the connection laughed. “What did you do with…where did you drop…it off?”

Squid cast a nervous look at his friend in the passenger seat, who was fidgeting with a switchblade, opening and closing the knife in rhythmic succession.

“We didn’t know…What did you give her, man? She just…”

“Doesn’t matter what I gave her, she deserved it. Don’t worry, she didn’t suffer or anything.”

“I’m not sure, Musk, I…it was like she couldn’t breathe, man. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Where did you drop her off?”

“It happened so fast, we…”

“Where, Squid?”

Squid swallowed hard and cast a look at his friend who winced in sympathy.

“Somewhere between Burns Flat and Elk City. No-man’s land.”

“That’s not what I…oh, well, if it’s no-man’s land she won’t be found for a while. Good job, Squid. How’s the baby?”

“The…baby?” Squid swallowed.

“Yeah, the baby. I know this girl who won’t mind looking after him and…Squid, where’s the baby?”

#

“I’m sorry about the delay, Maureen. I really planned on leaving a lot earlier,” Lauren cast a look at her friend who was sipping a cup of Java; she looked tired, but relaxed.

“No problem, Lauren. I understand, really. Besides, it was better to leave after the preliminary lab report came in. I still can’t believe that stuff has made it down here that fast.”

“I know,” Lauren sighed, casting a look in her rearview mirror before steering her car into the left lane so she could overtake a speeding Mack truck. She was in a hurry to make it back to the city. Not just because she wanted to go home, take a shower and sleep, but also because one look at the sky showed her Morton’s prediction about the weather would probably come true. It was three-thirty in the afternoon and ominous clouds were quickly rolling into the Oklahoma plains. Outside, it was hot and humid and Lauren knew the atmosphere was unstable. Perfect conditions for severe weather.

“In St. Louis, more than a hundred people have died of this stuff since the beginning of the year,” Maureen sighed, tapping on the lab report in her lap.

“And even more in Detroit, Michigan and Chicago,” Lauren said in a somber voice. “Heroin laced with Fentanyl, what a combination.”

“Pretty deadly cocktail,” Maureen nodded. She yawned behind her hand, desperate for sleep that would not come for hours, she knew, there was too much going on in her head.

“Do you think they’re producing it here?” she asked her friend.

“Pretty sure,” Lauren nodded. “This dead girl probably died of it. Unless they run the stuff down from the Midwest, I’m convinced it’s made in Oklahoma,” she added cynically. She cast a look at Maureen who looked pale and tired, but whose green eyes shone with a fire. Maureen was angry and she had every reason to be.

“We’re fighting this stuff on a daily basis, but right now it feels like we’re losing the battle,” Lauren sighed. “We finally get the amount of meth-labs down and this stuff pops up. It’s so deadly I don’t even want to think about the amount of victims we’ll see in the near future.”

“It’s a scary thought,” Maureen admitted, tempted to reach out a hand and wipe away the frown lines on her friend’s forehead. “The most horrific thought is that a lot of addicts don’t even know they’re using it, they think they’re using heroine. Talk about a nasty surprise.”

“I’d like to talk to Rachel about this,” Lauren decided. “As an ER-doctor she might know a few things that are helpful to us. She probably knows the hard-core addicts and maybe she can provide us with some leads. We need anything we can get. This stuff could spread like wildfire.”

“Talking about wildfire, did you see that lightning flash up there?” Maureen breathed. “I bet that hit something. That was a huge fireball.”

“The storm is getting closer,” Lauren nodded. “We might need to seek shelter somewhere. It looks like all hell will break lose soon.”

“I don’t like thunderstorms,” Maureen admitted in a small voice. “They scare the heck out of me.”

“We’ll find a place to ride it out,” Lauren answered in a comforting voice, reaching out her right hand and covering Maureen’s, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Could you do me a favor? Find a radio station so we’ll stay up-to-date.”

“Sure,” Maureen nodded, immediately missing the comforting warmth of Lauren’s skin on hers when the other woman withdrew her hand.

Maureen turned on the radio and only had to switch channels once to find a station that was broadcasting weather updates. Both women listened intently and Lauren nodded with a grim expression on her face.

“We need to get off the road and find shelter,” she spoke, seeing an immense wall cloud rapidly approach. According to the weatherman on the radio, they were in the middle of an area where a Tornado warning had been issued and one look at the sky that had acquired a greenish tint, showed both Lauren and Maureen that pretty soon they could be in major trouble.

Maureen had unfolded a detailed map and quickly searched for their location.

“We should be approaching the exit to Hinton,” she said in a tense voice.

Lauren nodded and bit the inside of her lip when, from the corner of her eye, she noticed an impressive curtain of red dust that was being sucked into the wall cloud. She knew that was not a good sign. For a brief moment, she wondered if it would be better just to pull over and see if the storm would miss them, but one look over her shoulder showed her that would be disastrous. The storm was huge and ran for miles. There was no way they could sit it out in the car. They needed to leave the road and find a solid structure that would provide them with shelter.

“According to the map, there’s a gas station,” Maureen spoke, glancing aside at her companion who winced at her words.

“I see what you mean,” Maureen responded with a nervous chuckle. “Gas station and severe thunderstorm slash tornado does not go well together, does it?”

“Not really,” Lauren smiled. “But it will have to do, because this is looking more serious by the second. I’ll take the Hinton exit and we’ll run into the gas station. If I remember correctly it’s fairly big with restrooms and a convenience store.”

“Good,” Maureen sighed, nervously eying the sky. “I don’t want to rush you or anything and I’m not a weather person, but I’ve been an Okie long enough to recognize rotation when I see it and that cloud is definitely rotating,” the redhead spoke, feeling her heart thunder in her chest.

“I know, sweetie, hang on,” Lauren answered, increasing speed. She knew it would be madness to try and outrun a tornado, but they were so close to shelter, she had to try. Besides, there was no tornado, yet.

With breakneck speed, they practically flew down the road until Lauren’s eyes saw the sign of exit 107. Skillfully, she steered her car down the exit, while her eyes searched for the gas station.

“South,” Maureen croaked as Lauren’s eyes fell on the building. With one eye on the sparse traffic and one eye on the sky, Lauren drove her car into the parking lot in front of the convenience store. Before it came to a stop, she already had unbuckled her own seatbelt and Maureen’s.

“Quick,” she urged, hearing the tell-tale roar of rotating wind. As soon as they stepped outside the car, they were hit by driving rain and a gust of wind that blew them against the wall of the store. Without thinking twice, Lauren grabbed Maureen’s hand and pushed her in front of her, while her other hand reached for the door that all of a sudden flew open.

“Hurry,” a male voice yelled, grabbing both Lauren and Maureen by their arms to pull them into the building. “To the back,” he yelled over the roar of the wind.

Lauren and Maureen ran towards the restrooms in the back of the building, closely followed by the man, while the windows of the store gave way to the violent pressure of the wind. The glass shattered and immediately the store erupted in chaos, when the wind blew its inventory around, smashing bottles and cans against the walls and turning innocent objects into deadly projectiles.

As soon as the women entered the restrooms, Lauren and the man slammed the door behind them, hoping it would provide a buffer between them and the raging wind.

“Get down,” Lauren urged Maureen, pushing her down onto the floor, in the corner furthest away from the door. Luckily there were no windows and Lauren counted their blessings. There was a good chance they would get through the storm unharmed.

“My God,” Maureen whispered, involuntarily ducking her head every time an object slammed against the concrete walls outside. The sound of tearing metal made everybody look up and, to their horror, Lauren, Maureen and the other shelter seekers saw how the metal roof was slowly lifted. It was like a giant hand peeled back the metal, neatly folding it back to get access to whatever and whoever was inside the building.

“Lauren,” Maureen whispered, feeling how the other woman’s arms pulled her closer to her chest, sheltering her from falling debris.

“Keep your head down, it will be alright,” Lauren urged, wincing when something hard slammed into her back. She pulled Maureen even closer, desperately shielding her from the violence that was wreaking havoc all around them. It had only taken seconds for the rain to drench them and Lauren could feel the water run down her back. Involuntarily, she shivered, wondering how much longer their ordeal would last. Maureen’s fingers dug into the other woman’s shoulder and Lauren knew her friend was more than a little scared.

“It’s okay, Maureen, it’s gonna be okay,” Lauren spoke with her lips pressed against the redhead’s ear. The roaring of the wind made it impossible to hear her soft spoken words, but the vibration of her voice had caught Maureen’s attention and, pressing herself even closer to Lauren’s body, Maureen buried her face in the crook of Lauren’s neck and held on for dear life.

Then, all of a sudden, there was an eerie silence and, when Lauren looked up, she noticed the violence had ended. It took a few seconds for her brain to register the fact that the roaring sound of the wind was gone, taking the rain with it.

“It’s over,” she whispered a little dazed. She used her hand to wipe the water out of her eyes and gave Maureen a gentle squeeze.

“Are you alright?” she asked in a hoarse voice.

“I think so,” Maureen answered, untangling herself from Lauren’s firm hold. “Are you?”

“Yes. I’m fine,” Lauren answered, looking around and only then noticing the other occupants in the restroom.

“Is everybody alright?” she called out.

“Yes, we’re fine,” a young woman spoke, slicking back her wet hair with shaking hands. “Oh, my God, that was close,” she shivered.

“You can say that again,” the man who had pulled Lauren and Maureen inside the building sighed. He had jumped to his feet and walked to an elderly woman who was sitting in a corner, wiping away some blood from her forehead.

“Are you alright, Mom?” he asked with concern.

“Just peachy, honey,” she nodded. “It’s just a scratch. I’ll be fine as soon as you help me to my feet. I sure hope the coffee maker survived, I could use some caffeine.”

Maureen chuckled and patted Lauren’s arms, casting her friend an inquisitive look.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, really,” Lauren answered with a tight smile.

“You’re in pain,” Maureen said, getting to her feet. Her concern only increased when Lauren let out a soft moan when she tried to follow her example.

“It’s nothing,” the dark-haired woman said. “Something hit me in the back and I got the wind knocked out of me for a second. It’ll be a bruise and that’s it. I’m fine, really.”

“Show me,” Maureen insisted.

Lauren rolled her eyes, but obediently turned around, hearing a sharp intake of breath.

“What?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.

“This is more than just a bruise, Lauren Darkwolf,” Maureen chided. “You’re shirt is ripped and there’s a deep gash just below your shoulder blade. It’s bleeding,” she added in a voice full of sympathy. “And you need it looked after,” Maureen quickly added before Lauren could say anything else.

“Alright,” Lauren sighed. “I’m sure I’ll live, though.”

“You’d better,” Maureen replied in a soft voice, reaching out a hand and gently patting Lauren’s side.

“Was there anyone else in the store?” Lauren asked, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in her back.

“No, thank goodness,” the elderly woman sighed. “My daughter-in-law had to take the kids to the City for a dental appointment and I think most people on the road either managed to miss the storm or ran into town.”

As if on cue, the man’s cell phone started to ring and he quickly pulled it out of his pocket. Before answering the call, he sent his mother a radiant smile.

“It’s Evonne.”

“Thank, God,” the elderly woman sighed, sending Maureen a grateful smile when the redhead helped her bypass some of the debris on the restroom’s floor. “Thank you, honey. How’s your friend? Will she be alright?”

“Lauren’s tough,” Maureen replied, casting a look at her friend who sent the elderly woman a sheepish smile. “But I’ll have that cut looked at just the same.”

“Good for you,” the woman nodded. “She seems the stubborn kind.”

Maureen chuckled and had to make a conscious effort not to reach out a hand and wipe away the smudge of mud on Lauren’s cheek. In spite of everything, she thought the dark Agent looked incredibly cute.

“I wonder if my car’s still where I parked it,” Lauren muttered in a somber voice. Looking around at the destruction around them, she pulled a face. “I don’t think it is.”

“Probably not,” Maureen agreed. Not able to resist, she reached out and rubbed the damp skin of Lauren’s forearm. “We’re here and we’re safe,” she continued in a soft voice. “That’s the main thing.”

“I know,” Lauren nodded. “I was just wondering how we’ll get home.”

“We’ll find a way,” Maureen spoke in a voice full of self-confidence. “Let’s have a look outside.”

The interior of the convenience store was almost unrecognizable. Boxes, jars, cans and bottles were scattered all over the place, their contents coating every available surface. Maureen and Lauren carefully made their way through the debris, very aware of the fact that the front wall of the store had been completely ripped away.

“Careful,” Lauren warned, pointing at some electrical wires that were dangling from what had once been a ceiling but was now reduced to a damaged frame.

They managed to reach the parking area without a problem and with wide eyes they looked around. Except for the back part, where the restrooms were, the convenience store had been destroyed. But the gas pumps, only a small distance away, looked unharmed.

“It’s like the tornado dropped down on the roof of the store and then just bounced off it again,” Maureen whispered. “This is amazing.”

“It sure is,” Lauren nodded, eying her vehicle that was buried under a pile of wood, bricks, a part of a tree, a billboard and a ‘No Left Turn” sign. “My car’s toast.”

“It looks that way,” Maureen agreed. “I’m sorry, Lauren.”

Lauren shrugged her shoulders and tried not to wince when that move reminded her of her injury.

“It’s just a car and it’s replaceable. I’m just glad we weren’t in it.”

“So am I,” Maureen sighed, wrapping an arm around Lauren’s waist and giving her a one-armed hug. “Thanks for keeping me safe.”

Lauren smiled and slid her arm around Maureen’s shoulders, answering with a hug of her own. Before she even realized what she was doing, she bent her head and dropped a kiss on the windblown red hair.

“You’re important to me,” she spoke softly, smiling into a pair of green eyes that looked up at her in surprise. “Besides, you owe me dinner.”

#

Lauren shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position on the backseat of the black Ford Five hundred. Every time she leaned back too far, the pain in her back increased. The wound had been cleaned by an EMT only because Maureen insisted. Lauren would have been happy to have it looked at in the City, not wanting to waste the precious time of Hinton’s medical personnel. The brief tornado touchdown had not only destroyed the convenience store, but it had also torn up a handful of houses. Nobody had been seriously injured, but there had been quite a few cuts and bruises.

Lauren let out a deep sigh and became aware of a pair of concerned green eyes looking at her from the passenger seat in the front.

“I’m fine,” she said quickly, before Maureen could even open her mouth. She sent her friend a small smile and shrugged her shoulders. “I guess working for the OSBI has its perks, don’t you think? When was the last time you were taken home in a car with a driver?”

“I can’t remember, I’m too tired to think back that far,” Maureen sighed, smiling when she heard Lauren chuckle. “But we’re not going home,” she continued, immediately seeing the dark woman’s eyebrows rise. “We’re going to the hospital. I want Rachel to have a look at your back and…”

“I’m sure Rachel has better things to do,” Lauren interrupted. “Besides, by the time we get back to the City, Rachel might already have left for the day.”

“No, she’ll be there,” Maureen spoke with confidence. “I called her,” she added with a smug smile.

“But…” Lauren started, until she noticed the look of determination in her friend’s eyes. “Alright, alright, I’ll go see Rachel, but after that I want to go home and take a shower. I feel like I’ve been drug through the mud.”

“You look it, too,” the driver replied, casting a look at her in his rearview mirror.

“Thanks, Tom,” Lauren answered dryly. “You always make me feel better.”

“That’s my job,” the young man grinned. “Ever since you kicked my ass in that self-defense class, I’ve been waiting to get you back .”

Lauren laughed. She had known Tom Baker for quite a few years and considered him one of her friends.

“That class was years ago, when we were in training,” she reminded him. “Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting that long?”

“He’s a patient guy,” Maureen chimed in, winking at the blond driver. “Talking about patience, Tom, how’s Marcy?”

“Oh, ouch,” Tom laughed. “It’s definitely not good to use the word ‘patience’ and my wife in one sentence. She’s sick and tired of being pregnant and lately she’s been shooting me dirty looks when she runs back to the bathroom, ten minutes after she’s just been.”

Maureen chuckled and knew exactly what kind of look Tom was talking about. Marcy was Jack Wilson’s secretary and she and Maureen had always gotten along really well. Marcy was pregnant with twins and had needed an early maternity leave, because she had developed high blood pressure and the gynecologist had ordered her to stay home and rest.

“When is she due? Next month?” Lauren asked.

“Three-and-a-half weeks,” Tom answered with a grin. “Part of me is glad it’s going to be a C-section. It will be a lot easier on her.”

“And on you,” Maureen said dryly,

Tom grinned and stopped the car in front of a traffic light. He half-turned and cast a look over his shoulder.

“Office or Hospital?” he asked Lauren.

“Home,” the dark haired woman answered, which earned her a long-suffering look from Maureen.

“Alright, hospital,” she sighed. “I’d hate for Rachel to wait for me for nothing.

“Hospital it is,” Tom nodded, taking a right turn. “Wise choice, Agent Darkwolf.”

Lauren nodded and stared outside the window, where the busy afternoon traffic rushed by. She was so tired, but she knew Maureen was in no better shape, so, if her friend was willing to take her to the hospital, who was she to refuse?

As usual, the Emergency Department was bustling with activity but, as soon as she set foot inside, Lauren and Maureen were whisked away into a small corner room. Immediately, the door was closed behind them and when they looked up, it was into two pairs of concerned eyes.

“What happened?” Rachel asked, while her eyes scanned Lauren’s face, searching for any visible injuries.

“We had a close encounter with a tornado,” Maureen sighed, sinking down on a chair. “Very close,” she added softly.

“So I heard,” Hannah replied, taking a seat next to Maureen. “But we thought you guys were heading to Grand Lake today?”

“Work happened,” Lauren answered with a shrug of her shoulders. Her tired eyes looked from Rachel to Hannah and back again. All of a sudden realization set in and she let out a soft groan. “You’re both in street clothes. You’re supposed to be off today.”

“Oh, crap,” Maureen responded with her hand pressed against her mouth. “I completely forgot. Rachel, I’m so sorry. I…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Rachel interrupted. “I’m glad you called, I really am.”

“I am too,” Hannah nodded with a smile and a wink at her partner. “You deserve the best.”

“I’m not sure if that’s me, but I’ll have a look anyway,” Rachel replied, motioning Lauren to take a seat on the examination table. “Ladies?” she spoke over her shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah, we’re going,” Hannah chuckled, standing up and pulling Maureen with her. “Come on, I know where to find some good coffee.” In passing Rachel, Hannah put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a quick kiss on her cheek.

“You know where to find us,” she said, gently squeezing the Doctor’s shoulder.

“We’ll be there before you know it,” Rachel promised. “Don’t eat that brownie all by yourself.”

Hannah stuck out her tongue, making both Rachel and Lauren laugh, before she and Maureen left the room, carefully closing the door behind them.

“Does it hurt?” Rachel asked, pointing at Lauren’s shoulder.

“Kind of,” the tall woman answered.

“Would you mind taking your shirt off?” Rachel asked, holding Lauren’s eyes with her own compassionate, brown ones.

Lauren smiled and shook her head, unbuttoning her shirt and slowly sliding it off her shoulders. Rachel stepped behind her and carefully examined the injury just below Lauren’s shoulder blade. With gentle, but experienced fingers she probed the skin around the tear, careful not to hurt her friend.

“Do you know what it was, that hit you in the back?” Rachel asked after having removed the dressing the EMT had used to cover the wound.

“I’m not sure,” Lauren sighed. “It all happened so fast. We ran into that convenience store and went straight for the restrooms, because they were in the back of the building. I pushed Maureen down on the floor, in the corner and a split second later all hell broke lose. All I could hear was the roaring of the wind and then I noticed the tornado had started to peel back the roof. I leaned over to try and shield Maureen from the flying debris, when I felt something hit me in the back. It was like a real hard punch and for a couple of seconds I could hardly breathe. Only when everything was over, I started to feel pain. I didn’t realize it was bleeding, until Maureen told me it was.”

“It’s a ragged looking cut,” Rachel explained, turning on a bright lamp to illuminate the wound better. “That EMT did a pretty good job cleaning it out, but I need to have a closer look to see if there’s any metal or wood splinters in there. And it does need a few stitches.”

“It does?” Lauren reacted in surprise.

“Yes, it does,” Rachel nodded. “I could clean it out better and dress it, but it would leave an ugly scar.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Lauren mumbled with a shrug.

“Yes, my friend, it does matter,” Rachel disagreed. “That’s your fatigue talking.”

The Doctor patted Lauren on the shoulder, knowing her friend was close to exhaustion.

“Why don’t you lie down, on your stomach and make yourself comfortable? I’ll examine and clean this cut, numb up the skin and stitch it back up. In the meantime, you can relax. How does that sound?”

“Pretty good,” Lauren smiled, looking up and catching Rachel’s eyes. “Thanks, Rachel.”

“No problem,” the Doctor smiled. “Go ahead, make yourself comfortable, while I get all the stuff I need.”

“You might find me asleep,” Lauren warned, suppressing a yawn.

“All the better.”

#

“Oh, Hannah, this coffee is divine,” Maureen sighed, taking another sip from the hot beverage. “That certainly hits the right spot.”

“Mmm, it’s nice,” Hannah agreed. “Their brownies are to die for as well, but I’m not giving into the temptation,” she sighed, patting her belly.

“Hannah, I’d hate to tell you this, but you’ve lost weight,” Maureen chuckled.

“And I’d like to keep it that way,” the blonde nodded with a wry grin. “Between Rachel and my Grandmother, I’d double in size within months.”

“Gertrude is a great cook,” the red head smiled. “Dinner the other night was great.”

“It was,” Hannah nodded, while her clear blue eyes looked at Maureen with a pensive expression. “Granny really likes you and Lauren,” she added.

“She does?” Maureen asked, glancing up at Hannah over the rim of her cup.

“Yes, she does,” the blonde smiled. “She’d love to see you and Lauren get together,” Hannah added, wondering how Maureen would react to those words.

The red head’s eyebrows rose into her hairline and for a few moments there was a silence in which Hannah carefully observed her friend, who was trying to come up with something intelligent to say.

“Together, as in…together?” Maureen finally asked, missing the twinkle in the blonde’s eyes.

“Yes, like that,” Hannah chuckled. “As in: relationship together, like Rachel and me.”

Maureen shook her head and chuckled wryly.

“I see where you get your…directness from: Gertrude.”

“That’s what I’ve been told,” Hannah nodded with a smile. “Although I do hope I’m more diplomatic. But then, Granny keeps telling me she doesn’t have time to be diplomatic, she’s too old for that.”

“I’ve heard her say that,” Maureen laughed. “She’s something else.”

“She really is,” Hannah nodded. Her blue eyes reflected warmth and compassion when she leaned forward a little. “If you don’t mind me asking; how are things between you and Lauren?”

To win a few seconds, Maureen took another sip of coffee, enjoying its rich taste before swallowing it. Her green eyes were captured by a pair of blue ones, but what she saw in Hannah’s eyes had nothing to do with curiosity and everything with compassion.

“There’s nothing,” she finally answered in a slightly hoarse voice. “I was hoping that, maybe, a weekend at the Lake would have…given us the opportunity to…evaluate our friendship and…”

“Evaluate?” Hannah echoed with a twinkle in her eyes. “Maureen, now you sound like a real cop.”

“I am a cop,” the red head smiled. “But yes, I admit it sounds a little clinical.”

“You wanted a quiet weekend at the Lake, so you’d have Lauren all for yourself and maybe would have the chance finally to ambush her and kiss her senseless, among other things,” Hannah calmly continued.

Maureen almost snorted out her coffee and when she had finally stopped coughing, she cast her friend an accusing look.

“I survived a tornado today and now my friend is trying to kill me.”

“Sorry,” Hannah chuckled, but it sounded anything but remorseful. “But, I’m right, right?”

Maureen cast down her eyes and let out a deep sigh. It was obvious Hannah could see straight through her. On top of that, the exhaustion had lowered her defenses and she could not come up with anything to avoid having to give her friend as answer, so, she decided to be absolutely honest. Besides, maybe Hannah would be able to give her some advice.

“Yes, you’re right,” she finally answered. “And it’s driving me nuts.”

#

Rachel worked quietly, cleaning Lauren’s ragged cut by rinsing it with a saline solution. She had numbed the surrounding area, making sure the dark- haired police woman would be comfortable while her wound was being seen to. Lauren was lying absolutely still and the Doctor had noticed the Agent’s breathing was deep and regular, making her believe her friend had fallen asleep. Her thoughts went back to the previous night, when they had all been sitting around the table together, enjoying dinner and each other’s company. And now, less than twenty-four hours later, Rachel was suturing a wound in Lauren’s back, caused by debris from a tornado. Life was fragile, the Doctor knew. It was something she was confronted with on a daily basis and it had made very aware of her own life and the lives of the people she loved.

“I’m very sorry you had to come in, Rachel,” Lauren spoke so unexpectedly, Rachel almost dropped the tweezers she was holding, while removing a tiny piece of something that looked like metal from Lauren’s wound.

“I thought you were asleep,” Rachel sighed with a chuckle.

“I almost was,” Lauren admitted. “But there’s something about being in the Emergency Room, on my stomach with a Doctor standing over me that sort of makes me feel….helpless,” Lauren said dryly, making Rachel laugh.

“I’m cleaning it out,” the Doctor explained. “I found another tiny little piece of something while I was irrigating the cut, but it’s cleaned out now. I can start putting in sutures.”

“Great,” Lauren replied. “I can’t wait to go home and sleep. I know we’ll have to do some paperwork, but you know what? I’m tired.”

“I’m sure your Boss will understand,” Rachel mumbled, concentrating on her job. “Even Special Agents need to sleep every now and then. Maureen looks like she could topple over.”

“She’s exhausted,” Lauren admitted with sigh. “And to think we were looking forward to spending some time at the Lake. So much for rest and relaxation.”

“How are you guys doing?” Rachel asked, pausing a moment to grab a clean gauze and wipe away a trickle of blood. “I mean, is there any…are you…?” She took a deep breath and shook her head. “I sound like an idiot. What I mean to ask is…”

“Have Maureen and I made progress in the love and dating department,” Lauren interrupted in an amused voice.

‘Exactly,” Rachel nodded with a grin. “Thank you.”

“To be honest, we haven’t,” Lauren answered somberly. “At first, I wanted to give Maureen some time and space to deal with her divorce. No matter how long she’s known she’s gay, breaking up with Robert was a major change in her life and if we ever get a chance to date and maybe even…more…I want her to be able to do so without any major issues.” Lauren shifted a little and sighed. “Who knows, she might even meet somebody she likes better than me. I…”

“For an OSBI Agent as sharp as you are, you’re pretty blind when it comes to personal issues, aren’t you?” Rachel interrupted her friend. “She only has eyes for you, Lauren, trust me.”

“She does?” Lauren asked in a small voice, after a brief moment of silence.

“Yes, she does,” Rachel answered with confidence. “So, how do you feel about her?”

Lauren Darkwolf was a very private person, but from the first moment she had met Rachel Kendrick, she had liked the Doctor. In the months after their hunt for and arrest of Nathan Kendrick, Rachel’s cousin, the two women had become friends. Lauren trusted the calm, level-headed Emergency Room Doctor, who radiated a mixture of warmth, compassion, intelligence and professionalism. On top of that, Rachel was gay as well and had gone through all the ups and downs of a developing relationship.

“When she’s not around, I wonder where she is and what she’s doing,” Lauren started in a soft voice. “And I want to be with her. She makes me laugh and she makes me feel good about myself, although I can’t help wanting to keep her from harm. I worry about her,” she swallowed and moistened her lips, while Rachel kept her focus on her busy hands. “Our jobs can be pretty dangerous at times and I often have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that Maureen can take care of herself.” Lauren sighed again and let out a soft chuckle. “I probably sound like a confused teenager, but often when I think about her, at the most inappropriate times and places, my heart skips a beat and my stomach starts doing somersaults. And then, when we’re together, I’m so happy. Just seeing her, being able to talk to her, hear her laugh…it makes up for everything else.” Lauren glanced over her shoulder and her eyes were caught by a pair of warm brown ones. “So, what’s your diagnosis, Doctor?” she gently joked.

“Sounds to me like you’re in love,” Rachel answered undisturbed. “But you didn’t need my expert opinion on that,” the Doctor smiled. “I’m pretty sure you’re aware of that yourself.”

“Yes, I am,” Lauren answered. “The only thing that eludes me is how to deal with it.”

“Kiss her,” Rachel suggested in a calm voice, chuckling when Lauren’s entire body jerked.

“What?”

“You heard me, Lauren Darkwolf. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.”

“Is that how you won over Hannah?” Lauren asked with a smile.

“Actually, yes,” Rachel nodded, laughing at the memory. “I knew I was in love long before Hannah realized she was. I had taken her to countless movies and dinners and weekends to the Lake, while I patiently waited for her to make up her mind about us.”

“What happened?” Lauren asked in a curious voice.

“I got caught up in the moment and ran out of patience,” Rachel explained. “We were at the Lake and it was a beautiful night. We had taken a walk and were standing on the porch, ready to go back inside, when Hannah turned around and gave me this…look, like she was trying to ask me something personal, but was afraid to.” Rachel’s hands stilled and she smiled. “I just thought: ’To heck with it’, pulled her in my arms and kissed her.”

“How did she react?” Lauren wanted to know.

“It was a mind-blowing kiss,” Rachel answered with a smile. “When we finally broke apart she said: ‘I’ve wanted you to do this for a long time now,’”

Both women laughed and Rachel continued her work meticulously stitching up the wound in Lauren’s back.

“Who knew it could be that easy?” the dark haired Agent mused. “Maybe I should give it a try.”

Part 5

“Did you, really?” Maureen laughed out loud, enjoying the sparkle in her friend’s clear blue eyes. “Oh, God, that’s priceless. Her face would have been something else to see.”

“It was,” Hannah nodded with a chuckle. “After I told her that, Rachel looked like she didn’t know what to do: kiss me again or throttle me.”

“What did she do?”

“She kissed me,” Hannah answered with a saucy wink, making her friend laugh again.

“Thanks, Hannah, I needed a good laugh,” Maureen chuckled, after emptying her cup of coffee. “It’s sad to say, but I haven’t laughed a lot lately.”

“That’s a pity, Maureen. Laughing is a good stress reliever.”

“I know,” the redhead nodded with a small smile. “There hasn’t been much reason to laugh, though. Too much work, I guess.”

“All work, no play,” Hannah nodded in understanding. “Rachel gets like that sometimes. It’s not always easy to leave work and turn that knob in your head. Some things stay on your mind a little longer.” Hannah reached out and briefly covered Maureen’s hand with her own, giving it a gentle squeeze before withdrawing. “That’s why it’s so important for you and Lauren to clear up any misunderstandings or insecurities. Life’s too short to waste precious time.” Hannah swallowed hard and sent her friend a sad smile. “Believe me, I know.”

“It must have been hard, those years without Rachel,” Maureen replied with compassion.

“It was horrible,” Hannah nodded. “After Rachel left, I was…devastated. There was this deep, cold pain that never seemed to go away. Even during my, so called, ‘good’ days, it was still there. And when she came back…” Hannah paused and Maureen saw a slow smile spread across the blonde’s face. It was fascinating to see how it reached her eyes, chasing away even the last trace of lingering dark memories. “She came back,” Hannah repeated with a happy sigh. “Even though, at first, I was hurt and angry, I became complete again, because that’s how she always made me feel.”

“Rachel’s a lucky woman,” Maureen smiled warmly.

“No, I’m the lucky one,” Hannah gently objected. “And right now, I’d like to see if she’s done fixing your Agent. Are you coming?”

“Definitely,” Maureen laughed, pushing back her chair. “I’d like to take Lauren out of here and make sure she gets some sleep. Make sure we both get some sleep,” she corrected herself, which earned her a playful pat on the back from Hannah.

As soon as the two women entered the Emergency Department, they ran into two young men who seemed to be completely out their element in their expensive looking suits.

“May I help you?” Hannah asked.

“Um…you work here?” one of the men asked, the frown leaving his forehead when he saw Hannah nod her head.

“We…um….we just dropped off a friend who was not feeling well and we’re looking for the exit,” he explained, letting out a short, nervous laugh. “This place is a maze and I’d like to get out of here as fast as I can. No offense, but I don’t like hospitals.”

“None taken,” Hannah smiled. “If you follow me, I’ll show you the way out.”

“Thank you,” the young man grinned, while he sent the blonde an appreciative look. Behind her back he made a suggestive gesture at his friend, who chuckled, but immediately fell silent when he noticed the cold stare in Maureen’s eyes. With a mumbled excuse, he followed the nurse to the exit, under the watchful eyes of the Agent, who patiently waited for her friend to return.

“Did they find it?” Maureen asked.

“They did,” Hannah answered. “I’m not sure what to think of those two. They seemed a little…odd.”

“They were,” Maureen agreed, following the blonde toward the room where they had left Rachel and Lauren. “They seemed a little too slick for my liking.”

“They’re young. They’ll learn,” Hannah chuckled, knocking on the closed door behind which her partner should be.

“Did you bring me half your brownie?” she heard Rachel’s voice.

“Sorry! I shared it with Maureen,” Hannah chuckled.

“Aw. Well, alright then. I guess you can come in anyway, we’re done.”

“You’re too kind,” Hannah replied, opening the door and gesturing Maureen to follow her in.

Rachel was cleaning up the tray she had used, while Lauren was sitting on the edge of the gurney, sipping from a Styrofoam cup of water. Her dark eyes lit up when they fell on Maureen and the redhead had to make a conscious effort not to reach out and brush her fingertips across Lauren’s cheek.

“Are you alright?” she asked in a soft voice, putting her hands in her pockets.

“I’m fine,” Lauren smiled. “I’m just tired. I almost fell asleep here, but then I remembered Rachel was holding a big, old needle.”

Maureen laughed and sent Rachel a grateful look.

“Thanks for taking care of that, Rachel. I’m sorry you had to…”

“It’s okay, Maureen,” Rachel interrupted. “It was no trouble. I’m really glad you called, because I’ve got a feeling Lauren would just have gone home and it really needed to be cleaned out more and stitched up.”

“So, I’m free to go now?” Lauren asked, glancing up at Rachel with hopeful eyes.

“Yes, you are,” Rachel chuckled. “Keep it dry for a day or three, just try to shower around it and if it gets wet anyway, change the dressing. Tuesday, you can leave it open to air and rinse it out with the shower head. And I need to see you twelve days from now, to take the stitches out.”

“I’ll be here,” Lauren smiled, extending her hand to grab Rachel’s, but the Doctor ignored the gesture and, instead, gave her friend a quick hug, careful not to put any pressure on the freshly- dressed wound.

“I’m glad you and Maureen came out of that tornado unharmed,” she said, giving the Agent’s unharmed shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Now, let us take you and Maureen home, so you can get some rest.”

“Thanks, Rachel,” Lauren sighed, feeling completely drained. “I’m sure I’ll be sleeping for the next week or so.”

“Make that a month,” Maureen yawned, stepping out in the hallway and heading toward the exit.

“Hey, Hannah. Are you guys all done?” one of the nurses asked the blonde when she stepped out of the room.

“Hi, Betty,” Hannah greeted her with a warm smile. “Yup, we’re done and out of here.”

“Did that one guy talk to you?” Betty asked her friend, sending her a curious look. When Hannah shot her a puzzled look, she chuckled. “The young guy in the suit.”

“Oh, him, Yes, he needed to know where the exit was,” Hannah explained.

“Really?” Betty drawled. “I had already told him that, after I ran into him next to the supply room. Are they gone now?”

“I escorted them to the door,” Hannah explained, aware of Maureen’s and Lauren’s undivided attention. “They went outside, but I’m not sure if they actually left.”

“I’ll notify security, just in case,” Betty sighed. “There are too many nut cases around lately. I don’t care if they looked like business men, I don’t trust them. The way they were checking out some of the nurses gave me the creeps and that one guy was asking some strange questions.”

“Like what?” Maureen wanted to know, all traces of sleep gone and in full police mode.

“The effect certain drugs have on an infant,” Betty replied. “And he wanted to know if Fentanyl could be passed through breast milk. Weird question for a guy, really.”

“Did you get a name?” Lauren asked with a worried frown.

“Um…no, I didn’t,” Betty shook her head.

“Listen, if he ever comes back, call me, alright?” Maureen asked, handing the nurse her business card. “Right now, there’s nothing to worry about, but after what you’ve told us, I’d like to talk to him myself.”

“Sure, no problem,” Betty answered, putting Maureen’s card in the back of her badge-holder. “I’ll keep my eyes open.”

#

“I’m sorry to invade your house, again,” Maureen apologized when Lauren closed the door behind them, after Rachel and Hannah had dropped them off.

“Don’t be,” Lauren answered, giving the other woman a gentle push toward the back of the house. “Go on, you know the way,” she encouraged. “I’ll be taking a shower and for the next ten hours, I’ll be asleep.”

“Sounds good to me,” Maureen sighed, heading for the guest bedroom. With her hand on the doorknob she turned around to look at her friend, who was standing in the middle of the hallway. Lauren’s face was pale and the dark circles underneath her eyes were testimony to her fatigue. Maureen had never seen her that tired, but still, in her eyes, Lauren was as beautiful as she always was. Swallowing hard, she saw how the dark-haired woman removed the band from around her braid and raked her fingers through her long, thick hair, until it cascaded down her back, framing her face with unruly strands.

Lauren caught Maureen’s gaze and smiled.

“I know, I look like a scarecrow now,” she chuckled.

Moistening her dry lips, Maureen shook her head and swallowed hard. Before she could speak again, she knew she had to clear her throat, knowing her emotions would be reflected in her voice if she didn’t.

“No, you don’t look like a scarecrow,” she said in a soft voice. “I know you’re dead tired, but you’re still very beautiful.” Maureen exhaled slowly, happy the words had come out smoothly. “Have a good sleep, Lauren,” she added with a smile, disappearing into the bedroom and closing the door behind her. She knew if she would have looked back at Lauren, she would not have been able to control her impulses any longer; she would have ended up in Lauren Darkwolf’s arms. And no matter how much she craved just that, she knew it was not the right time. Not yet.

Unbeknownst to Maureen, Lauren stood in the hallway, staring at the closed door, while her heart was pounding in her chest. The redhead’s words had surprised her. Maureen had sounded subdued, but at the same time very confident, while the tired green eyes had displayed so much warmth and affection, it had taken Lauren by surprise.

“Rachel, you were right,” Lauren whispered, momentarily feeling the cloud of weariness lift when her heart did a double take. “You were right,” she repeated in a voice filled with wonder. “I have been blind.”

#

The dar- colored car had stopped in front of the barn a while ago. The sun had set and it was pitch-dark. The surrounding trees added to the darkness, with their thick, leaf-covered branches that were stretched out wide, creating a roof that slowly moved in the breeze, blocking the light from the moon overhead.

“I don’t like this, dude,” one of the car’s occupants sighed. “He should have been here by now. He did say ten, didn’t he?”

“That’s what he said,” was the mumbled answer. “He’ll be here soon. Musk’s never late.”

“He is now.”

“Stop whining, Ape. You know he’s busy.”

“Yeah, I know. But you tell me why he wanted to meet us here, man. There’s nothing here. It’s a miracle we found this place. Hey, Squid, d’you think this is the right place? Maybe we’ve missed…”

“This is the right place. Chill, man. Musk won’t be far away.”

“I hope you’re right. This place is giving me the creeps. I don’t like it. Why do you think he wants to meet us here? You think he wants to start a lab here? It looks like a pretty good place.”

“I dunno, Ape,” was the sighed reply. “All I know is I don’t want to piss Musk off. That’s all. I think that…hey, look, there’s a car coming.”

“That’s about freaking time,” Ape muttered, feeling a nervous tingle in the pit of his stomach. “I guess that’s Musk.”

“I guess so,” Squid agreed, squinting his eyes against the bright head lights of the approaching car. “I just wished he’d turn off those lights. I can’t see a damn thing.”

The car stopped a in front of the already parked one, but the headlights were not turned off.

“I can’t see who’s with him,” Ape mumbled. “Come on, Squid, let’s see what he wants.”

#

No matter how exhausted she might have been, Lauren tossed and turned for a long time, before she finally decided to get up and leave the warm comfort of her bed in search for some welcome distraction. She had to find a way to turn off the endless stream of thoughts that kept running through her mind and the best way she knew how was to get her sketch-pad and start drawing.

Equipped with a pencil and a pad, Lauren sank down in her overstuffed couch and turned on the lamp behind it, so she had enough light to sketch. Her hand hovered over the pristine white paper only for a few seconds. Her grandfather had always told her to start drawing what came to mind first and Lauren still liked to follow his advice. Closing her eyes, she let instinct take over and with a small smile she nodded when her hand started to guide the soft pencil. Her eyes followed the dark lines on the paper and her smile deepened while she drew from memory. Immediately, she felt herself settle down. The whirlwind of thoughts and emotions receded until she was focused only on the picture that was taking shape underneath her skillful hand. A sense of calm over took her and, with a sigh of relief, Lauren nodded.

“There are a lot of things to think about…tomorrow,” she told herself, feeling her eyes grow heavy.

Within minutes the dark woman’s breathing was deep and regular. The muscles in her hand slowly relaxed, until the pencil slipped out of her hand and quietly rolled to the floor.

Maureen Lawrence let out a frustrated groan and turned on her other side, wondering why she had such a hard time falling asleep.

“I should have been out like a light as soon as I hit the pillow,” she grumbled, wishing she could turn off the constant flow of thoughts in her head. Every time she managed to stop thinking about the abandoned baby and the lone man they had met that day, the memory of the roaring tornadic wind filled her mind and, every time, she shivered. They had been so close. She had been able to feel the pull of the vortex as it was peeling off the roof of the building they had found shelter in. Maureen had been petrified, but as soon as Lauren’s arms had wrapped themselves around her, pulling her close, an immediate sense of safety had eradicated her fears, leaving her calmer and wondering at the peace she felt.

Maureen pushed herself up until she was sitting and raked her fingers through her unruly hair. It was utterly frustrating to be so tired and yet so awake.

“Maybe some hot tea will help,” she mused, remembering an old remedy her mother swore by. “Guess it won’t hurt,” she decided, kicking the blankets off her legs.

As soon as she entered the hallway on her way to the kitchen, Maureen noticed the light in the livingroom and, curiously, she changed direction, wondering if Lauren was still up.

When she stepped inside the livingroom, she immediately noticed the sleeping form on the couch. In her sleep, Lauren had turned on her side, with one hand tucked underneath her head, while the other one still held the sketch pad.

A warm feeling spread through Maureen’s body and with a smile she stepped closer, careful not to wake her friend. When her eyes fell on the pad, she could not contain her curiosity. Gently, she pried Lauren’s fingers away from the pad so she could pull it from the sleeping woman’s grip and when she saw the rough sketch, she let out a surprised gasp. From memory, Lauren had drawn a picture that was so detailed, Maureen felt like she was looking in a mirror.

“Oh. Lauren,” she whispered.

Maureen did know enough about art to recognize the precision and care Lauren had displayed to produce a detailed picture like that.

With a sigh, Maureen sank down on the edge of the couch, careful not to wake the sleeping woman. Her eyes traveled from the portrait she was holding, to the relaxed features of her sleeping friend and for a brief moment she wished she had the talent to capture Lauren Darkwolf in a drawing. The dark-haired woman looked so peaceful and relaxed, it made her look years younger. Long, dark eyelashes rested on tanned cheeks and with a smile Maureen realized she had never known they were so long. A straight nose and full lips, in combination with her tan, gave Lauren an exotic look and Maureen could not help wondering how heartbreakingly beautiful Lauren would be in a traditional, buckskin dress with its colorful beads and decorations.

Not able to resist any longer, Maureen stretched out a hand to brush away a strand of dark hair from the other woman’s forehead. Immediately, Lauren stirred and Maureen held her breath.

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

“Why aren’t you asleep?” Lauren mumbled, trying to pull herself from slumber.

“I can’t shut off my brain,” Maureen explained, using her index finger to trace an invisible line on Lauren’s cheek.

“C’mere,” Lauren mumbled, scooting back on the couch, making room for Maureen, whose heart had picked up speed and felt like it would pound straight through her chest wall.

“W..What?” the red-head stammered, completely taken aback by Lauren’s suggestion.

“Come here, join me. This couch is warm and snugly. I bet you’ll be out in a minute. You need to sleep, Maureen.”

“I know, but…um…I don’t want to inconvenience you and…”

Maureen’s words were interrupted by a strong arm that was all of a sudden wrapped around her waist, pulling her down onto the couch, straight into Lauren’s arms.

“Now, make yourself comfortable and go to sleep,” Lauren mumbled. “This couch is big enough for the two of us. Besides, you don’t have to worry about me, if anybody will fall off during the night, it will be you.”

Maureen let out a nervous chuckle and immediately felt herself relax a little. It was not her body that was rejecting Lauren’s proposal, it was her mind. As soon as Lauren’s arms had settled around her, pulling her close to her chest, Maureen’s body had gone limp, craving the contact with the other woman with an intensity that almost took her breath away.

“Maureen?” Lauren’s sleepy voice sounded.

“Yes?” was the whispered answer.

“Close your eyes, relax, enjoy the warmth and shut off your brain.”

Maureen swallowed hard, knowing she did not have the energy to resist any longer.

“Okay,” she answered in a soft voice, smiling when Lauren mumbled: ‘Atta girl.”

Maureen let out a soft sigh and closed her eyes, reveling in the sensation of being in Lauren’s arms. It felt so good to be so close. After her heart rate had settled down a little, she focused on the warmth that had settled in the pit of her stomach and made her feel safe and cared for.

“Lauren?” she whispered after a long silence.

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

“For what?” Lauren asked, rasing her head a little, so she could look at the woman in her arms.

“For keeping me safe from the tornado, for being my friend, for…for comforting me.”

“You’re very welcome,” was the dark-haired woman’s response and Maureen could hear the smile in her voice. “Now, go to sleep.”

“Alright,” Maureen smiled, closing her eyes and snuggling deeper into the arms that were holding her. “Don’t let me fall off the couch,” she added sleepily.

“Never,” was the whispered answer.

#

Light, filtered by the blinds that decorated the windows, fell into the room, illuminating the furniture with a soft, golden glow. It highlighted the red in the hair of one of the sleeping forms on the couch. It made the color of Maureen’s hair look like burning amber and Lauren’s not so sleepy eyes took it all in with awe.

She had been roused from sleep by an unknown sensation and as soon as she had opened her eyes, it had become clear to her why there was a pressure on her shoulder. It was Maureen’s head. During the night, the other woman had turned around in her sleep and her head had somehow ended up on Lauren’s shoulder, while the dark-haired woman’s arm had held her close, as if, in her sleep, Lauren had wanted to make sure Maureen would not slip off the couch and end up on the floor during the night.

Lauren carefully brushed away a strand of hair, smiling when, in her sleep, Maureen sighed, but did not wake up. Looking down at the sleeping woman in her arms, she was assaulted by a multitude of emotions. She was aware of her increased heartbeat, something that she had become quite familiar with, because that is what it always seemed to do, whenever she was around Maureen. The temptation to lean down and press her lips against the other woman’s skin was almost unbearable. It was something she craved with such an intensity, it made her tremble inside.

“Just do it,” a little voice in the back of her mind whispered. “Maureen’s asleep, she doesn’t know and if you don’t tell her, she never will.”

“No, I can’t,” Lauren answered in silence. “That would be taking advantage of the situation and that’s something I can’t do. I won’t.”

Lauren shifted, trying to remove her arms from around Maureen’s body without waking the other woman up. It took her a few minutes, but when she had almost succeeded, Maureen mumbled something in her sleep and Lauren knew she was on the verge of waking up.

“Sh, go back to sleep,” she whispered. “I’ll be right back.”

“ ‘Kay,” was the sleepy answer and as soon as Lauren managed to get up from the couch, Maureen rolled on her side, hugging an overstuffed pillow.

For a few moments, Lauren looked down at the other woman, swallowing hard against a painful pressure in her chest. It almost physically hurt to get up and away from the warmth and comfort of Maureen’s body, but she felt like she had no choice. Lauren Darkwolf would never take advantage of the sleeping woman, no matter how much she craved the contact.

“I’ll be right back,” she whispered again, while she turned around and left the living room, unaware of the shuddering breath the red-head let out and the tear that slowly made its way down her cheek.

As soon as Maureen heard the kitchen door close behind Lauren, she opened her eyes and stared at the couch, while taking in a deep breath. Even though her eyes had been closed, she had practically felt Lauren’s stare and deep down inside she had known that the other woman was about to kiss her. And when she had felt Lauren put distance between their bodies, she had almost sobbed in disappointment and desperately wondered what it would take for Lauren Darkwolf to give in to something they both seemed to want so much.

“God, I’m so frustrated,” she sighed, wiping the tears off her cheeks. “I should have pulled her right back and kissed her.” Maureen balled her hand into a fist and punched a pillow. “Why didn’t I just do that?”

Maureen knew the answer to that question. If she would be honest with herself, she would admit she knew Lauren was attracted to her, but she did not know if that was enough to take their friendship to another level. Her biggest fear was Lauren pushing her away, gently, but with determination.

“This being in love stuff is crappy,” Maureen mumbled, still on the verge of tears. “I need to do something about it.”

#

“Alright, fish, I know you’re there. Let’s see if you want to bite this nice, big, tasty lure,” the man said, casting his line, causing ripples that quietly moved through the water.

“Will it bite now, grandpa?” a young voice asked. “What did you put on it?”

“That, my boy, is a secret,” the older man laughed. “But watch this, Scotty, once I get this fish, you’ll be amazed.”

“The last one we caught was just a little baby catfish,” the boy teased his grandfather, who just laughed and ruffled Scotty’s spiky, blond hair.

“You just wait,” Martin Janek chuckled. “ Catching the big one is just a matter of time.”

Reeling in his line, Martin Janek let out a triumphant laugh when his line was pulled down by something heavy.

“Whoa,” he exclaimed, feeling the small bass boat rock. “Sit down, Scotty,” he ordered his grandson.

“But I’m wearing my life jacket,” the boy argued, looking up at his grandfather with pleading eyes.

“I know, son, but I don’t want you to fall overboard. Just sit down for a minute, alright. You can help me pull this thing in soon.”

Scott obediently sank down on the low bench and stared at the water where his grandfather’s line was still pulled down. Martin frowned and moved his fishing rod from side-to-side. It was like his line was stuck on something big, but he had fished in the same spot for most of his life and knew there were no shrubs or trees there.

“Weird,” he muttered, all of a sudden feeling the line break free from whatever it was that had it pulled down. Quickly he reeled it in. There was still something fairly heavy attached to the line, but at least it moved.

“Stay where you are, Scotty,” he warned his grandson, who was about to get up. “Let me have a look at this first.”

Martin Janek knelt on the bottom of the small boat and grabbed the fishing line, carefully pulling it from the water. Slowly, but surely a small, plastic bag surfaced. At first, it was hard to see what was inside, but when he pulled it up a little more, his eyes fell on its contents. With a gasp, he almost dropped his line and with a quick look over his shoulder, he made sure his grandson was still sitting down.

“Scotty, hand me the net,” he asked in a hoarse voice.

“What is it, grandpa,” the young boy asked, having noticed there was no sign of a struggling fish. “Grandpa?”

“I’ll tell you in a minute, son,” Martin Janek promised, scooping the plastic bag in his fishing net, securing it on the side of the boat.

“We’ll have to stay here a while, Scott,” he spoke, turning around so he could look at his grandson. “We need to call the police, because I’ve found something they need to know about, alright?”

“What is it?” Scott asked. His grandfather’s face worried him, so did the use of his full name. His grandfather never called him ‘Scott’, unless something was seriously wrong.

“It’s…” Martin Janek debated with himself, not sure if he should tell the boy, but then realized Scotty would hear him talk with the police as soon as he called them. “It looks like a hand, son.”

#

Lauren stared at the coffee maker, not really seeing the small drops fill the pot with the fragrant brew. All she could think of was the red-haired woman in the living room. She had been so close to kissing Maureen, but she had refused to give into that urge. Thinking back, she wondered if it had been the right choice. It was obvious Maureen was interested in her, so what was the problem?

“Do you want her to take the first step? Is that it?” Lauren asked herself in a quiet voice, unaware of the door being opened. “God, Lauren, you’re such a loser,” she added with a groan.

“No, you’re not,” Maureen’s voice suddenly sounded behind her and immediately Lauren whirled around. Her dark eyes took in her friend who looked adorable with her tousled hair and sleepy eyes. Her heart immediately did a double take and Lauren had to take a deep breath to try and calm herself.

“Maureen? I…”

“If you’re a loser, what would that make me?” Maureen asked, stepping closer. Within a few strides she had Lauren backed up against the kitchen counter, where they stood toe-to-toe. “Lauren,” she continued, moistening her dry lips. “I know we’re both control freaks, I think that’s part of our jobs. But I’ve seen your eyes and I think I know what you want. And guess what? That’s what I want as well,” Maureen said in a soft voice, reaching out a hand to cup Lauren’s cheek. With her thumb, she gently caressed the soft skin that, at first, was cool to the touch, but quickly began to heat up under the soft ministrations.

“So, I think it’s about time we both give up a little bit of that control and just go for it, because, I’m not sure about you, but I’m absolutely dying to kiss you.”

“You are?” was the only response Lauren could come up with as she looked into her friend’s smoldering green eyes.

“I am,” Maureen nodded, cupping Lauren’s face between both her hands, gently pulling it down.

Lauren’s heart was pounding so hard and fast, she was convinced Maureen could hear it and, for a split second, she was afraid she would pass out, right then and there, in the kitchen. Maureen’s face was so close, Lauren could feel the heat radiate from the red-head’s skin. She breathed in the warm scent that was distinctively Maureen’s and involuntarily she let out a soft moan.

“Maureen…,” she whispered.

“Shut up, Lauren,” Maureen whispered back, focusing on Lauren’s lips that looked so soft, warm and inviting. They were only a breath away and all of a sudden Maureen’s nervousness disappeared, leaving her calm, but determined.

The first contact was so incredibly soft, Maureen wondered if their lips had actually touched. But then Lauren’s arms were around her, pulling her closer, while the tentative contact turned into a more solid one.

“Oh, God,” was the last coherent thought Maureen had for a long time, because Lauren’s reaction to Maureen’s initiative was mind-blowing. The dark-haired woman’s lips quickly took the lead, sliding against Maureen’s in a slow, maddening pace, before coaxing the red-head’s lips apart and intensifying the contact.

If she would have been able to, Maureen would have sobbed when Lauren’s tongue softly, almost shyly touched her own, but instead she moaned, clasping her hands behind Lauren’s head, pulling the other woman impossibly close. All rational thought had fled her mind and instinct had taken over completely, fueled by a deep, burning desire to give into her body’s cravings.

Maureen’s hands had slipped underneath Lauren’s t-shirt and the sensation of the soft, warm skin, in combination with the passionate kisses made her throw all caution in the wind. She was vaguely aware of Lauren’s fingers dancing across her lower back, fueling the fire within and coaxing her body even closer.

Eventually, both women needed to come up for air, which they reluctantly did. Slightly breathless, Lauren moistened her lips, while her dark eyes searched Maureen’s face for any sign of regret or discomfort. She smiled when the other woman sent her a dazed look.

“Is that what you had in mind?” she asked in a gentle voice, brushing her lips against Maureen’s forehead.

The red-head nodded and her green eyes showed a twinkle when she looked up at the slightly taller woman, who was still holding her close in the circle of her arms.

“It’s a start,” she answered in a hoarse voice.

Lauren smiled and kissed the bridge of Maureen’s nose.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“For what?” Maureen frowned, raking her fingers through Lauren’s long, dark hair, reveling in the silky feel of it.

“For taking the initiative,” Lauren explained, dipping her head so she could capture Maureen’s lips in a brief kiss. “I know I had the chance, but I lacked the courage,” she added.

“I was scared, too,” Maureen admitted, pressing her cheek against Lauren’s, smiling when the arms around her tightened.

“What made you change your mind?” Lauren asked with her face buried in Maureen’s hair.

“I was desperate,” was the dry answer and Lauren chuckled.

Maureen lifted her head, tilting it back so she could look Lauren in the eyes. She smiled when she noticed the mixture of desire, joy and shyness in the other woman’s gaze. It made her feel warm inside and happier than she had felt in a very long time.

“You’re beautiful,” she said softly.

“So are you,” Lauren smiled. “But you’re changing the subject.”

“I know,” Maureen sighed. “We need to talk, Lauren.”

“Yes, we do,” Lauren agreed. “But, before we do, may I ask for another kiss?” she added with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Absolutely,” Maureen nodded, happy to oblige.

Just as their lips met Lauren’s ears picked up the familiar sound of her pager beeping and, with a groan of frustration, she broke off the kiss before it became too intense again.

“I’m being paged,” she explained apologetically.

“I heard,” Maureen sighed, pressing her forehead against Lauren’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Lauren whispered, hugging Maureen close, before reluctantly letting go of the warm body in her arms. Grabbing the pager from the kitchen table, she pressed a button and turned around to cast Maureen a worried look.

“It’s the lab,” she explained. “Maybe the baby’s and mother’s blood tests are in.”

Part 6

With anticipation, Lauren dialed the number of the OSBI laboratory. There could only be one reason for them to call her on a Sunday morning; they had the results of the blood test for the dead girl.

“Gordon? This is Lauren Darkwolf,” she spoke when her call was answered.

“Hey, Lauren. I’ve got some results on Jane Doe. I just emailed them to you. I just wanted to be sure you did get them.”

“Is there anything special about it?” Lauren asked, motioning Maureen to follow her to her office and her computer.

“Yes and no,” Gordon answered. “The blood test on the baby boy shows there were no traces of drugs in his system. Yet, the mother was…”

“Hold on,” Lauren interrupted him, while booting up her computer. “The mother? So, the child was hers?”

“Absolutely,” Gordon answered. “Anyway, the mother was loaded with drugs and that’s what killed her.”

“What kind?” Lauren asked with a grim expression on her face.

“The new kind,” Gordon sighed. “Fentanyl laced heroin. Taking that stuff is like playing Russian roulette; will I stop breathing or will I live?”

“And she had that in her system?” Lauren asked, typing her password so she could pull up her email.

“She was loaded. That stuff is so incredibly dangerous. The chances of respiratory arrest are so high, it’s a miracle some people survive,” Gordon sighed. “That, and more, is in the report I sent you. The interesting thing, though, is that the baby was clean.”

Lauren, who had motioned Maureen to take a seat in front of the computer and open up her email, sucked in a breath and nervously rubbed her forehead.

“Are you…? Was she breast feeding?” she asked, not able to hide the tension in her voice.

“She was,” Gordon replied in a solemn voice. “You know what that means.”

“I do,” Lauren nodded. “There’s a real chance somebody gave her the drugs against her will.”

“You’re spot on,” Gordon acknowledged. “The marks on her body tell the story. Read the report and call me if you have any questions, Lauren.”

“I will. Thanks, Gordon.”

Lauren broke the connection and cast a look at the monitor. Maureen had already opened the attachment and was quickly browsing through the preliminary autopsy and lab report. Lauren’s eyes flew across the screen.

“Somebody killed her,” Maureen spoke in a voice that was void of emotion. “They intentionally shot her up with an overdose of this stuff.”

“So, we’re looking at murder now,” Lauren nodded, feeling a wave of sadness when her thoughts returned to the young infant whose mother’s life was deliberately snuffed out.

“We sure are,” Maureen sighed, turning around and grabbing the other woman’s hand. Her green eyes were dark with sadness when they looked up at the other woman. “Is…will the baby be alright?”

“Yes, he didn’t have any trace of it in his system, which is why I think the girl OD’ed by someone else’s hand. Gordon said something about marks on her body,” Lauren said pensively, staring at the computer screen.

Maureen scrolled through the file, looking for the autopsy report and when she had found it, she felt Lauren’s hand tighten around her own.

“Bruises and rope burns on her wrists and ankles, contusions across her back and abdomen,” Lauren read in a voice that was void of any emotion. “Traces of duct tape around her mouth. Multiple puncture wounds consistent with injection needles on both her arms. Hairline fractures on right cheekbone.”

“Looks like she put up a heck of a fight,” Maureen commented in a soft voice.

“Some of those could be post-mortem, though,” Lauren sighed. “She was thrown out of the car.”

“I’m sure we’ll find out more about that later,” Maureen nodded, rubbing her tired eyes. “This is just a preliminary report anyway. But, it seems to me China Girl has made it down to Oklahoma,” she added in a somber voice, referring to the fentanyl- laced heroin that had already been responsible for a lot of deaths in Detroit and St. Louis.

Lauren tugged Maureen’s hand in a silent request to follow her out of the study into the kitchen, which the redhead willingly did. Without speaking, Lauren poured coffee into two mugs and handed one to Maureen, who accepted it with a grateful smile.

Maureen took a seat at the kitchen table and motioned Lauren to do the same.

“We might be more comfortable in the livingroom,” Lauren gently objected.

“That’s exactly why it’s better to sit here,” Maureen nodded with a small smile. “I think I might be able to keep my hands to myself while in the kitchen.”

“Oh,” Lauren responded, setting her mug down. “I think you have a point,” she added with a chuckle, leaning forward to kiss Maureen’s cheek before taking a seat across from her.

In comfortable silence both women sipped their coffee, while exchanging an occasional glance and smile over the rim of their mugs. Maureen’s body still tingled with the memory of Lauren’s kiss and every time she looked at the dark-haired woman she could feel a pleasant flutter in her stomach. She had not been exaggerating when she had told Lauren it would be hard to keep her hands to herself. The desire to touch her friend was so great, Maureen needed the physical distance between them in order to be able to focus on other things.

It was as if Lauren could read her mind, because the other woman extended her arm across the table and covered Maureen’s hand with her own. Immediately, Maureen’s heart did a double-take and with a sigh she looked up into a pair of smiling dark eyes.

“You’re very distracting,” Lauren gently teased, rubbing the back of Maureen’s hand with her thumb.

Maureen smiled and shifted her hand so she could entwine her fingers with Lauren’s.

“So are you,” she answered in a soft voice. “In fact, you’ve been a distraction to me for quite a while now.”

“I have?” Lauren asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes, you have,” Maureen smiled, raising their entwined fingers so she could kiss the back of Lauren’s hand. “In fact, and don’t take this the wrong way, I was attracted to you when I was still with Rob.”

Maureen could feel the fingers she was holding tense and she gave Lauren’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

“No, you had nothing to do with our break-up,” she immediately added when she noticed the worried look in Lauren’s eyes. “All it did, was force me seriously to think things over.”

“And you did,” Lauren spoke, her eyes warm when they caught Maureen’s green ones.

“Yes, I did,” Maureen smiled. “I know I’ve told you this before, but, I never should have married Rob. It wasn’t fair to him.”

“Then why did you?” Lauren asked, sipping her coffee while her eyes took in the woman who sat across from her. Maureen’s long hair spilled across her shoulders in a wave of different shades of red, mesmerizing the dark-haired woman, who found it very hard to take her eyes off the colorful display and whose hands were itching to rake her fingers through the thick, soft tresses.

Maureen was aware of the expression in Lauren’s eyes and, with a knowing smile, she took a sip of coffee.

“I married Rob because it was expected of me. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents and I thought it was the right thing to do. We practically grew up together and he was my first boyfriend,” Maureen finally answered with a sigh. “I mistook friendship for love and, naive as I was, thought that over time, I’d learn to love him more.” Maureen shook her head and sent Lauren a sad smile. “Poor Rob, I never did.”

“Did you ever tell him you thought you might be gay?” Lauren asked curiously.

“No, he told me,” Maureen answered, much to the other woman’s surprise. “Apparently, he figured it out before I did.”

“When was that?”

“A few years ago,” Maureen answered softly. “Deep down inside I knew he was right, but I wasn’t ready to accept that yet, so I threw myself into my job, alienating myself even more from Rob, and my family. It was a pretty confusing time.”

“I’m sure it was,” Lauren nodded. “That can’t have been an easy time.”

“It wasn’t,” Maureen answered. “Especially not when I started to fall for you,” she added with a smile.

“How long ago was that?” Lauren wanted to know, aware of the rapid beating of her heart.

“At least more than a year ago.”

“Really?” Lauren responded in surprise.

“Really,” Maureen nodded. “I remember the moment it dawned on me that I was attracted to you. It was an…eyeopener…to say the least.” Maureen smiled at the memory and gave Lauren’s hand a affectionate squeeze.

“You were in the office, standing in the doorway, with a cup of coffee in your hand. I stepped out of the elevator and you smiled at me, giving me a look that was part amusement, part curiosity and part affection.” Maureen paused to take a sip of her coffee, while her eyes caught Lauren’s. “My heart skipped a few beats when you looked at me like that and all of a sudden I realized I was seriously attracted to you.”

“I remember that moment,” Lauren mused. “It was just after you had finished the investigation of that triple murder in Duncan.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Maureen smiled. “You remember,” she added in a voice that was a mixture of surprise and wonder.

Lauren smiled and could not help herself when she noticed the look of slight bewilderment on her friend’s face. It was too cute. She simply had to lean forward to capture the red-head’s warm lips in a soft kiss.

“Yes, I remember. Like I remember the first time you walked through the door, looking sharp, professional and incredibly nervous.”

There was a twinkle in Lauren’s eyes and Maureen laughed.

“I was pretty nervous,” she admitted with a chuckle. “I vaguely remember you being there.”

“Vaguely?” Lauren repeated with a raised eyebrow.

“Pretty much,” Maureen answered. “I was too preoccupied with making a good impression and hoping nobody would notice how much of a rookie I was.”

“That’s alright, I didn’t tell anyone,” Lauren replied with a smug smile, which made Maureen playfully punch her shoulder. For a brief moment, both women smiled at each other.

“So, what happens next?” Maureen sighed after a few moments of silence. “I mean…,” with a frustrated gesture she raked her fingers through her thick, red hair. “I mean work wise.”

“I thought that’s what you meant,” Lauren replied dryly, earning another swat. “I guess we’ll have to make a list with everything we know, all the facts and data and then take it from there.”

“And we need to look into that health fair,” Maureen added with a frown. “I guess the easiest way to do that, is to ask Rachel and Hannah, because I’m sure the fair was sponsored by St. Andrew’s. And I want to figure out why that newspaper clipping was on the girl’s body.”

“If you are right, we might be on to something,” Lauren drawled, while her dark eyes held a pensive expression. “The fair, where was it held?”

“The convention center,” Maureen answered. “I don’t think…oh, wait a minute,” she took a deep breath. “You’re thinking about the security cameras, aren’t you?”

“Yup,” Lauren nodded with a smile. “If the convention center is where the girl went to, then they might have her on tape.”

“And anybody she was with,” Maureen added. “Damn, why didn’t I think about that?”

“You would have, eventually,” Lauren laughed. “I just beat you to it.”

“Smart ass,” Maureen mumbled, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.

“Thank you,” Lauren responded with a broad smile. “It looks to me like we’ve got some work to do, Agent Lawrence.”

“I’m afraid you’re right, Wolfie,” Maureen answered, not expecting Lauren to jump up so fast, she had hardly time to blink her eyes. Strong hands on her arms practically lifted her out of the chair.

“There’s that ‘Wolfie’ thing again,” Lauren growled, pulling Maureen into her arms. Before the red-head could make any sound, a pair of warm, insistent lips had already descended on her mouth, robbing her of speech and, within moments, from every coherent thought. Maureen’s body craved the close contact with Lauren and, involuntarily, molded against the other woman’s slightly taller frame. She softly moaned when Lauren’s arms pulled her even closer and a strong hand wound its fingers through her hair. The contact was so intense, Maureen could feel her knees starting to give out and when they finally had to come up for air, her hands dug into Lauren’s shoulders for support.

“My God,” the red-head whispered, still clinging to the other woman in an effort to stay upright. “Lauren…”

“I know and I’m sorry,” Lauren answered in a whisper.

“You are?” Maureen asked with a weak smile.

“Well, no, not for the kiss,” Lauren replied, pressing her lips against Maureen’s forehead. “But my timing is way off. I didn’t mean for it to get so…intense…I just felt the need to kiss you.”

“And you did,” Maureen agreed with a soft laugh. “Do you have urges like that often?”

“I don’t know,” Lauren smiled. “I might. Your kisses are addicting.”

“Well, no need to worry,” Maureen promised, using the back of her hand to caress Lauren’s cheek. “I’ll never stop you. Next time you feel the need to…”

“Even at work?” Lauren asked with an innocent expression.

“Even at work,” Maureen nodded with a grin.

“The Chief might frown on that,” Lauren mused, chuckling when Maureen started laughing.

“Maybe in private settings then,” the red-head decided.

“I’d like that,” Lauren replied, smiling at the woman in her arms. Her words had sounded like a promise and, by the look on Maureen’s face, she could tell it was perceived that way as well.

“So, you are serious about this…about us?” Maureen asked in a soft voice.

Lauren nodded and dropped a kiss on the bridge of Maureen’s nose.

“I’m very serious about us,” she acknowledged.

With a sigh, Maureen buried her face in the crook of Lauren’s neck, closing her eyes in contentment when she felt the arms that were holding her pull her even closer.

“I realize I sound pathetically insecure,” she mumbled.

“Don’t worry about that,” Lauren answered kissing the top of Maureen’s head. “We’ve been dancing around our attraction for each other for quite a while now, so it’s only natural it will take some time for us to get used to the fact we finally admitted to it.” After Lauren dropped another kiss on Maureen’s forehead, she let out a soft chuckle.

“What?” Maureen mumbled, reluctant to lift up her head from its comfortable resting place.

“Our timing is not exactly perfect. Here we are, in the crucial first phase of an investigation and we don’t even have time to enjoy the moment thoroughly. We’re quite the pair.”

“I don’t care,” Maureen said, finally lifting her head so she could look the other woman in the eyes. “Of course I’d rather run off with you and hide for, oh, a couple of weeks. But at least one of my biggest insecurities has been addressed; you,” she added, playfully poking Lauren in the chest.

“You do have a point,” Lauren nodded. “I’ve wanted to hold you like this for ages now.”

“Just holding?” Maureen could not help asking with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Among other things,” Lauren laughed. “Like I said before; I think I’m already addicted to your kisses. I can only imagine what making love to you would be like.”

Those last words were met with a barely veiled sharp intake of breath from the other woman. Maureen could not help wondering what it would be like to be as physically close to Lauren as she was at that moment, but without the barrier of clothing. All of a sudden her hands ached to touch Lauren’s skin, exploring the tall body with her fingers and lips, losing herself completely in her feelings of love and desire for the other woman.

Moistening her lips, the red-head gently pushed herself away from Lauren and shot the other woman an apologetic smile.

“You just put an image in my mind that is so incredibly…distracting…that, if I don’t create some space between us right now, you wouldn’t have to imagine what making love to me would be like.”

“Let me guess, I would be doing it?” Lauren asked in a soft voice, smiling when Maureen nodded.

“Unfortunately, we’ll have to hold that thought,” she continued.

“I know, duty calls,” Maureen sighed.

“And it’s deafening,” Lauren gently joked, happy to see the smile on Maureen’s face.

“Let’s get started on that list.”

#

“Alright, Mr. Janek, where did you say you cast out your line?” the police officer asked, staring at the lake where a small police boat was slowly cruising the surface while two officers were intently staring in the water.

“Over there, where I left the buoy,” the older man answered. “It was pretty close to the shoreline. And please, call me Martin.”

“Okay, Martin,” the officer smiled. He cast a look at the boy, who was standing next to his grandfather and who was completely transfixed by what was happening on the lake.

“Is he…maybe it’s better…,” the officer started, but Martin Janek interrupted him.

“Don’t worry, his dad is on his way to pick him up. He’ll be here any minute now.”

“Good,” the police officer nodded. He himself had a ten year old and the idea of his son having to watch the police drag the lake for, possibly human body parts, did not sit well with him.

“As a matter of fact, there’s my son,” Martin Janek smiled, waving at the driver of a pick-up truck.

“Aw, grandpa,” Scotty tried with a pout, but Martin Janek was determined.

“No, son. You’re going with your dad. You don’t need to see this.”

“It’s on TV all the time,” Scotty objected, which earned him a raised eyebrow from his grandfather.

“I know for a fact that you’re not allowed to watch stuff like that, so don’t even go there. Come on, get in your dad’s truck. We’ll talk later.”

“What about that big fish we’re gonna catch?”

“We’ll do it later, I promise,” Martin Janek smiled, ruffling his grandson’s hair. “Go, on, Scott.”

“Okay. I’ll see you later.”

“You bet.”

“Bye, grandpa,” Scotty said, still not happy with his grandfather’s decision. “Bye, sir,” he politely greeted the police officer, who smiled at him while tapping the rim of his hat.

“I’m sorry about that,” Martin Janek apologized after his grandson and son drove off.

“I’ve got a son about that age,” the officer smiled. “He’d have tried the same thing. Are they in the right area now?” he asked, pointing at the small boat that was going around in slow circles.

“Yes, that’s about it,” Martin Janek answered, feeling the tension grow within his body. The contents of the plastic bag he had pulled out of the lake had seriously rattled his nerves and he was afraid of what else would be discovered. He did not have to wait long. Only a few minutes after carefully pulling a long pole through the water, one of the officers on the boat raised his hand, signaling to drop the anchor.

“I’ve got something here,” his voice was low and controlled and carried far across the water. “Give me a hand, Joe,” he asked his colleague kneeling down and peering into the water. Within a few seconds Joe was at his side and together they used a big net to bring up whatever was hiding below the surface.

“God have mercy,” escaped from Joe’s lips when his eyes fell on their catch.

“Amen to that,” was the grim reply from the shore.

#

A slender young man, dressed impeccably in his navy-colored suit, muttered a soft curse when his cell phone rang. With an annoyed frown, he reached for his belt where he had clipped his Blackberry. The frown on his face deepened when he recognized the number that was displayed.

“Yeah?” he answered, not trying to hide his irritation.

“Hey, Musk, it’s me. It went alright, man.”

“Is that why you’re calling?”

“Um…well…I guess you wanted an update, or something…”

“Did you find what I was looking for?”

There was a moment of silence, in which the young man cast an impatient look at his watch.

“I…um…yes and no, man. I got most of the stuff back, but…it was kinda hard to find out where…where the other…thing…is, you know.”

“I told you where to…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, man. I’ll go after it today.”

“You’d better. Don’t call me back, unless you have results. And you know what happens if you screw up.”

“I know, I know. I won’t, man. You can count on me.”

“I’d better. Now, stop wasting time and get going.”

Without waiting for a reply, Musk broke the connection, clipping the Blackberry back to his belt. His eyes fell on the TV and he quickly grabbed the remote when he noticed the local news had just started. Increasing the volume, he sank down on a chair and listened intently to the blond woman who filled the screen.

“…by a local fisherman and his grandson. According to the a spokesperson of the Grove police-department the identity of the two men is still unknown. The car that was found a few miles south of the gruesome site has not been officially linked to the discovery of the two bodies, but, according to the police spokesperson, there is a possibility the two finds are connected. The OSBI has been called to the scene as well to assist the local police with the investigation of this, what seems to be, foul play. We will keep you informed of any new developments. Now, we’re going to the weather…”

“Shit,” Musk exclaimed, hitting the ‘mute’ button on the remote, before throwing the device across the room. “Morons! I knew I should have done it myself. Now I’ve got to do all the clean-up!”

#

“… According to the spokesperson of the Grove police department, the identity of the two men is still unknown. The car that was found a few miles south of the gruesome site has not been officially linked to the discovery of the two bodies, but according to the police spokesperson, there is a possibility the two finds are connected. The OSBI has been called to the scene as well to assist the local police with the investigation of this, what seems to be, foul play. We will keep you informed of any new developments. Now, we’re going to the weather…”

“They’re spreading us thin,” Maureen mumbled, muting the sound of the TV, before putting the remote down.

“Who’s thin?” Lauren asked, walking into the room, while toweling her wet hair. She had just showered and even from the other side of the room, Maureen’s nose was tickled by the fresh, flowery scent she dark woman had brought into the room.

“We both will be, if we don’t get anything to eat soon,” Maureen quipped. “I’m starving.”

“I’m sorry, I guess I should have fed you earlier,” Lauren apologized with a smile. “But I’ll make it up to you; if you’ll go ahead and shower, I’ll fix us some breakfast.”

“Really?” Maureen replied, answering Lauren’s smile with one of her own.

“Really,” Lauren nodded. “What would you like?”

“I don’t care,” Maureen answered with a shrug. “I’m just thrilled someone will actually make me breakfast.”

“Eggs and bacon?”

“Oh, you’re a woman after my heart,” the red-head sighed, playfully patting Lauren’s stomach when she walked past her.

“Are you telling me I just discovered the way to keep you happy?” Lauren chuckled.

Maureen, who had almost reached the door, stopped dead in her tracks and turned around. Her green eyes were sparkling when she looked up at her friend, who looked down at her with warm, brown eyes.

“That’s just one way to keep me happy, Darkwolf,” Maureen spoke in a low voice, reaching up to brush her fingertips across Lauren’s cheek. “But it’s a good start,” she added in a whisper, before replacing her fingers with her lips, giving Lauren a chaste kiss on the cheek. “Keep up the good work,” she added with a wink, before pulling back, so she could quickly exit the room, before Lauren, who was stunned into silence, would regain her senses.

“Not so fast there, Lawrence,” Lauren spoke, grabbing Maureen’s hand just before she could disappear. She pulled the red-head into the circle of her arms and looked at her intently, bringing her face so close to the other woman’s that she could feel the heat radiate from Maureen’s skin.

“I’d like to learn more about your…list,” she purred, biting back a laugh when she saw Maureen swallow hard. “You do have a list, don’t you? Of things that keep you happy?”

“Where’s the fun in telling you?” Maureen quipped with a grin. “You’re the hot-shot Agent here, you’ll figure it out.”

Lauren laughed and pulled Maureen in for a quick hug.

“You’re something else, Maureen. I’ve got to tell you I’m looking forward to exploring your secret list. I don’t think…”

Lauren paused in mid-sentence when, from the corner of her eye, something on TV caught her attention. Maureen followed her gaze, not surprised it was the ‘breaking news’ update that had caught Lauren’s eye.

“Let me turn the sound back on,” she said, quickly walking toward the remote. Within seconds a clear, female voice filled the room.

“…as I’m standing here near the site where the bodies were found. Behind me you can see the police dredging the area, in the hope to find clues that will help them in the investigation. The police still have not confirmed the find of a severed hand, wrapped in what appeared to have been a clear, plastic bag. That morbid discovery lead to the meticulous search of this part of Grand Lake. “ The petite blonde on the screen brought her hand to her ear and seemed to listen intently. She nodded, before returning her gaze back to the camera. “I’ve just been told we have footage of the car that was dredged up from the lake, just minutes ago. Let’s have a look. We’re live.”

The image of the blonde was replaced by a live account of a dark-colored car that had been pulled out of the water. Water was pouring out of the door at the driver’s side and both Lauren and Maureen were completely engrossed at what was going on.

“That’s a Volkswagen Jetta,” Maureen spoke and Lauren nodded. “Did you see the windscreen? It’s busted.”

“Looks like a bullet hole to me,” Lauren replied. “My gut-feeling tells me those bodies came out of that car.”

“Yup, that’s what I think as well,” Maureen agreed. “The questions is why they didn’t leave the bodies in the car, before dumping it in the lake.”

“Who knows,” Lauren sighed. “Maybe a case of warped, criminal logic.”

“Just before you came in they said the local police had already asked the OSBI for help.”

“Great,” Lauren sighed. “I’m sure that will make the captain very happy. There’s so much stuff going on, we’re running out of Agents. Maybe Jack can do this case himself, huh?” Lauren joked.

“Why don’t you suggest it to him?” Maureen grinned.

“I might,” Lauren smiled. Leaning against the back of the couch her dark eyes stared at the TV with a pensive, almost brooding expression.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Maureen said in a soft voice, curious to find out if she and Lauren were on the same wave-length.

“I was thinking about that car,” Lauren answered, slowly letting her eyes travel from the TV to Maureen. “I can’t help wondering if…”

“If it’s the dark car we’re looking for? The one who dumped the girl and baby at the side of the road?” Maureen interrupted.

“Yes,” Lauren replied in an eager voice. “I can’t shake the feeling that it might be.”

“Sometimes it’s good to go by instinct,” Maureen smiled. “Do you want to drive up to Grove and do some sniffing around?”

“I do,” Lauren chuckled. “But I need to convince the Chief first.”

“Good plan,” Maureen nodded. “Why don’t you call Jack while I shower. And don’t forget breakfast,” she added with a grin.

#

“St. Andrew’s Emergency Department. This is Betty. How may I help you?”

“Oh, hi, um…my name is…Paul…um…Paul Jackson and I…I was in the hospital the other day and there was this really great nurse who helped me and…my wife…I’d like to…thank her…for all her help, but I don’t remember her name.”

Betty Palmer was no rookie. She had been a nurse for a very long time and the phone call she was handling made the alarm bells go off in the back of her mind.

“Do you remember what she looks like, Mr. Johnson?” she asked in a polite voice. Betty did not fail to notice there was no response to using the wrong name.

“Um, yes, she…um…was blond. About five foot seven, blue eyes…”

“I’m afraid we have a few nurses here that would fit that description, sir. Do you remember what day you were here, so I can check the schedule, see who worked that day?”

“It was yesterday,” was the quick answer.

“I’ll have a look at the schedule, sir,” Betty answered, accessing the computer. She quickly typed the name ‘Jackson’ and was not surprised there had not been anybody by that name in the ER the previous day. “ I’m looking at it right now. By the way, how’s your wife doing, Mr. Jackson?” There was no answer.

“Mr. Jackson?” With a concerned frown, Betty put the phone back on the receiver. The caller had hung up.

“I’d better talk to Hannah,” she mumbled.

Part 7

“I can’t believe Jack beat us to it,” Maureen sighed, steering her car out of the garage. “Who knew he’d send us to check out that dredged- up car? He’s smarter than I gave him credit for.”

“Don’t underestimate the boss,” Lauren chuckled, flicking through some documents she had stored in her PDA. “I’ve worked with him for a few years now and I know the man has an amazing instinct. He thinks our Jane Doe and this car they’ve found might be connected.”

“Well, so do we,” Maureen answered. “The question though is: ‘How?”“

”We’ll have to find that out,” Lauren mumbled, reading the small display in her hand. “The sheriff I talked to promised they would not touch the car, until our forensic team has been able to have a look at it.”

“Do you think they’ll find any drugs in the car?” Maureen asked, glancing aside at Lauren, who had pulled her hair back into a braid again, showcasing her profile to the red-head’s admiring eyes.

“I’m not sure,” the dark-skinned Agent answered, not taking her eyes off her PDA. “I’ve got the feeling we’re talking murder here and dumping the car in the lake was probably an effort to get rid of some evidence. They might have cleaned out the car before they got rid of it.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Maureen mumbled, looking in her rearview mirror before changing lanes. “What do you think about that guy trying to call Hannah at work?”

After breakfast, just before they had left, Maureen had called Hannah to see if she had some information about the recent health fair. The blonde had confirmed there recently had been a St. Andrew’s sponsored health fair, so Lauren had immediately made a few phone calls, making sure the security tapes of that day would be sent to the office.

“I’m not sure what to think about that,” Lauren answered, putting her PDA on her knee and turning her head, so she could look at Maureen. A smile curved her lips when she noticed the look of concentration on the red-head’s face. It was obvious Maureen’s brain had kicked into high gear. “I do know he has scared the heck out of Rachel and Hannah. They’ve been through enough with Nathan, last year. His phone call has brought that all back.”

“Hannah said she and Rachel had their first big fight over this,” Maureen sighed. “Apparently, Rachel didn’t want Hannah to go to work next week. Not until they’ve figured out who the caller is and what he wants.”

“I can’t blame her,” Lauren muttered, understanding the Doctor’s fears. “But somehow I don’t see Hannah doing that.”

“No, I don’t either,” Maureen chuckled. “She’s as stubborn as she’s tall.”

“Like someone else I know,” Lauren smiled.

“What does that mean?” Maureen frowned, shooting Lauren a quick, inquisitive glance. “You’re not talking about me, are you?”

Lauren did not answer, she just looked at Maureen with a raised eyebrow, smiling when the redhead, frustrated with the silence, moved back to the right lane, so she could reduce speed and have a longer and better look at her friend.

“You are talking about me,” Maureen accused. “You think I’m stubborn?”

“Just a tad,” Lauren answered, holding up her thumb and index-finger, measuring about an inch.

“Oh, really?” Maureen snorted.

“Oh, yes,” Lauren answered, biting back a laugh. It was so much fun to tease the red-head.

“When?”

“When what?”

“When have I been stubborn?”

“Oooh, you want an example,” Lauren feigned innocence. “Let me see, I think I can come up with something…”

Maureen concentrated on the road, mumbling something unintelligible, completely missing the amused twinkle in Lauren’s eyes.

“How about…when you were in the hospital, after you were shot?”

“What about it?” Maureen frowned.

“Well, if I remember correctly, you were ready to leave four days before they discharged you. Weren’t you ready to go AMA?”

Maureen rolled her eyes and her right hand quickly left the steering wheel to slap the dark-haired woman’s knee.

“Am I ever going to live that down?” she sighed. “I wasn’t being stubborn, I just…I just…I didn’t want to be in the hospital.”

“You were being stubborn,” Lauren replied calmly. “You almost forced me to take extreme measures.”

“Like what?” Maureen chuckled, amused by the tone of frustration in Lauren’s voice.

“Handcuff you to the bed.”

“You wouldn’t have !” Maureen laughed, glancing aside. “Would you?” she added when seeing the look of determination on her friend’s face.

“Oh, yes,” Lauren nodded. “I would have.”

“So, are you telling me you’re that bossy?” Maureen smiled.

“Not really,” Lauren answered, reaching out her left hand and tucking a strand of hair behind Maureen’s ear. Her fingers lingered for a moment, caressing the soft skin, before withdrawing again.

“I was just worried,” she confessed in a soft voice.

“You were, huh?” Maureen answered in a slightly husky voice. “Why?”

“Because,” Lauren took a deep breath and swallowed hard. They had never really talked about the moment Nathan Kendrick had shot Maureen in front of Hannah’s cabin. Every now and then, Lauren still woke up in the middle of the night, bathed in sweat when, in her dreams, the vivid image of the red-head getting shot made her relive that awful memory. “You could have died,” she finally continued, after clearing her throat.

There was a moment of silence and Maureen sensed the tension in Lauren’s body. Silently, she stretched out her hand and covered Lauren’s, feeling her heart skip a beat when the other woman entwined their fingers. Lauren made her feel so much and so deeply, she knew it would take her a while to wrap her mind and heart around the fact they had finally given a voice to their attraction.

“I didn’t,” she replied in a soft voice. “Thanks to you.”

Lauren let out a shaky breath and brought their entwined hands up, so she could kiss the back of Maureen’s hand.

“I still dream about it, every now and then,” Lauren confessed, immediately feeling the grip on her fingers increase. “Reliving it is actually a lot scarier than the moment itself was. I guess that’s because I didn’t have time to think, I just reacted. Later on, when I realized what could have happened…”

“I know what you mean,” Maureen nodded, taking the exit to a roadside rest area. “I need to stop driving for a moment,” she explained when she saw the questioning glance that was sent her way.

The rest area was quiet. There were two semi-trucks parked in a faraway corner and an SUV just pulled away when Maureen parked the car. Turning in her seat, the re-head looked at the woman next to her and shot her a small smile.

“Why have we never talked about it before?” she mused.

“I don’t know,” Lauren sighed. “Maybe we just…wanted to forget it. Maybe we just wanted to shrug it off as an occupational hazard.” Dark, warm eyes caught Maureen’s green ones and Lauren smiled. “Maybe I just didn’t want you to know how much you getting shot rattled my world.”

“I remember the look on your face, when I took that dive to get away from Nathan’s gun,” Maureen remembered, her voice soft and gentle. “I’ve never seen so much focus or dedication on anybody’s face. I was scared when Nathan aimed at me, but when I saw your face, I knew everything would be alright.”

“Really?” Lauren asked in surprise.

“Yes, really,” Maureen smiled. “I knew you’d make the shot. And you did.”

The red-head put her hand on Lauren’s arm, rubbing the warm skin with her thumb, somehow needing the contact.

“I just knew I’d only get one chance,” Lauren sighed, unbuckling her seatbelt. She turned in her seat and wrapped her arms around the surprised red-head, pulling her into an awkward, but very welcome hug. Maureen put her head against Lauren’s shoulder and let out a deep sigh.

“Thank you. I needed this,” she smiled against the smooth skin of Lauren’s neck.

“I did, too,” Lauren confessed with her face pressed into fragrant red hair. “I guess we should have talked about that incident a long time ago.”

“Probably,” Maureen mumbled, distracted by the feel of Lauren’s arms around her. “Maybe we’re too much of ‘an Agent’, you know. We’re tough as nails kinda gals.”

That remark made Lauren laugh out loud and the arms around Maureen squeezed a little tighter, before they let her go.

“Have you been watching Charlie’s Angels again?” she teased, making he other woman smile.

“Nope. I haven’t seen much TV lately, but I wouldn’t mind watching a movie with you,” Maureen answered wistfully.

“How about as soon as we’ve sorted out this mess?” Lauren suggested. “I’ll take you to the movies, or, we can watch a DVD at your place.”

“Why my place?” Maureen frowned, noticing the amusement in Lauren’s eyes.

“Because you owe me dinner, remember? So, when I cash in on our bet, we can watch a movie after, to take my mind off my hurting stomach.”

“Oh, ouch, you rat,” Maureen laughed, putting her hands on Lauren’s shoulders so she could give her a good shake. “You think it’s going to be that bad, huh?”

“I’m not sure,” Lauren chuckled. “But I’ve seen your fridge.”

“Well, there was nothing in it, because I’m never home,” Maureen defended herself. “But as soon as I know when you’re coming over for dinner, I’ll make sure it’s filled.”

“Sounds like a deal,” Lauren smiled, amused by their gentle bantering. “I’ll bring the wine and some TUMS.”

“You do that,” Maureen laughed. “Don’t be surprised when you don’t need them, though.”

“We’ll see,” Lauren answered, cupping Maureen’s face and playfully kissing the tip of her nose.

“I guess we need to get going,” the red-head sighed regretfully, basking in the warmth of Lauren’s dark-brown eyes. “Duty calls.”

“In a minute,” Lauren whispered, ducking her head and capturing Maureen’s lips in a slow deliberate kiss. For a long moment, they leisurely explored each other, until Lauren finally broke away, causing Maureen to let out a soft whimper.

“I’m sorry, but I just had to kiss you,” Lauren confessed, stroking Maureen’s cheek with the back of her hand.

“Don’t apologize for that,” Maureen answered softly, leaning into the gentle caress. “I love your kisses and right now, I wish we could turn around and go home, but we’ve got a job to do.”

“Yes, we do,” Lauren nodded. “And I’m sure the rest of the day is going to be quite ugly, but at least you’re there with me.”

“You mean that, don’t you?” Maureen smiled, having seen the truth of Lauren’s words in her eyes.

“I do,” Lauren replied. “I know it’s part of our job, to be confronted with nasty things, like death and abuse, but when you’re with me, it makes me feel better, just because you’re there.”

Staring into the warm depths of Lauren’s eyes, Maureen swallowed hard and tried to blink away an unexpected tear.

“Lauren Darkwolf, you make me fall deeper and deeper,” she whispered. “Have you any idea how special you are?”

“No,” Lauren smiled. “But I’m sure you’ll tell me all about that, later.”

“I will. Later,” Maureen promised with an answering smile. “After we catch the bad guys.”

#

“Jones, make sure those news people stay behind the tape. I’m getting tired of them,” an older police officer shouted to one of his younger co-workers. “Tell them the next one who crosses the line will be arrested for interfering with police business.” From the corner of his eye, he noticed a movement and he turned his head, immediately letting out an exasperated sigh.

“That also applies to the two of you,” he yelled angrily to the two women who had just stepped over the yellow tape. “Get back behind that tape, before I throw your asses in jail.”

When there was no reply, the bulging vein on his forehead became even more prominent and Officer Jones quietly wondered if it was possible for a person’s head to explode. True, it had been annoying to deal with the press. They were like flies, buzzing around a sweet treat, but in Jones’ eyes there had been no incidents of misbehavior. The press only wanted to do their job.

“Is he always like this?” Maureen asked the young officer, after she and Lauren had flashed their badges.

“Pretty much,” Jones shrugged. “He’s a little short-tempered.”

“A little?” Lauren mumbled, squaring her shoulders and heading straight for the red-faced man.

“Haven’t you heard me?” he screamed. “Get back behind that tape. Now !”

Lauren had made good use of her long legs and stopped just a few feet away from the man. Her dark eyes were calm when they stared at the man, who was a good four inches shorter than she was.

“Deputy March?” she asked in a low voice.

“I told you to get…”

“I heard you the first time, I’m not deaf,” Lauren answered deceptively calm. “You’d do yourself a favor to keep your voice down, Deputy. I don’t appreciate being yelled at.”

Her reaction was not what he had expected and, for a moment, he gasped for air, while his face became a darker shade of red.

“Who the f…”

“Do not, I repeat, do not say it,” Lauren’s voice had lost its soothing tone. Within moments it had become sharp and harsh. “Deputy March, if you’d paid any attention to your surroundings, you’d have noticed we were let through, by Deputy Jones after we showed him our badges.”

Again, Deputy March had to gasp for air, all of a sudden feeling thoroughly rebuked by the tall woman’s words.

“Ba…badges?” he managed to croak.

Without taking her eyes off the man, Lauren flipped open the leather cover of her wallet and showed him her badge.

“Agent Lauren Darkwolf, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation,” she said calmly. “This is my partner, Maureen Lawrence. We’re here to help canvass the crime scene.”

“I…I hadn’t expected…”

“If you hadn’t been so occupied with the press, who, if I may say, is behaving absolutely correctly, you would have known who we were the moment we stepped across the tape,” Lauren interrupted him coolly. “I suggest you relieve Jones from his duty, so he can lead us around.”

When Deputy March opened his mouth to speak, Lauren glared at him, effectively silencing him.

“If I hear as much as one profanity or unnecessary loud word out of you, I’ll have your…” Lauren’s eyes traveled up and down the Deputy’s body before she finished her sentence. “…jewels on a silver platter, delivering them to Sheriff Crow myself. Understood?”

Deputy March did not answer her, but when he turned around to stomp off, Maureen was sure she heard a mumbled ‘bitch’.

“Wow, that was…um…was that…?

“Yes, that was necessary,” Lauren sighed, staring atthe retreating back of the Deputy with a dark look.

“So, you know him?” Maureen asked curiously. “Was he a cop when you grew up here?”

Lauren pulled her eyes away from the man who had angered her and turned to cast a look at the red-head. Immediately, her eyes lost their harsh expression, which Maureen noticed with fascination.

“Remind me never to underestimate your brain,” she smiled.

“Thank you,” Maureen smiled back. “But that didn’t answer my question. Was he?”

“Yes, he was,” Lauren sighed. “And the arrogant idiot doesn’t even recognize me.”

“Should he?”

“Well, considering he was always out to get me and my brothers and considering the fact his Sheriff is my cousin, yes, I guess he should,” Lauren chuckled.

“Maybe he has blocked you out of his memory,” Maureen joked, elbowing the taller woman in her ribs. “Oh, is that your cousin?” she added when she noticed a tall, broad-shouldered man walking towards them. His long legs ate up the distance and before Lauren could answer, she was enveloped in a bone-crushing hug.

“Cousin Lauren, where have you been hiding?” Jeremy Crow laughed when he stepped back to take a good look at her. “Catching bad guys?”

“Among other things,” Lauren laughed.

“It’s good to see you, Lauren,” Jeremy smiled. “I’ve missed you. You’ve been away too long. We’ve all missed you. I’m sorry we’ve got to deal with…this situation first,” Jeremy sighed, gesturing to the dark-colored Jetta where a team of OSBI specialists were meticulously inspecting every square inch of the vehicle.

“I know, Jer, but that’s my job,” Lauren nodded. “By the way,” she continued stepping aside so she could push Maureen forward. “Have you two…?”

“Yes and no,” Jeremy interrupted, extending his hand and grabbing Maureen’s in a firm grip. “I was there that day you got shot, but I didn’t think you felt like being properly introduced to all the brothers and cousins,” he winked.

“Not exactly,” Maureen laughed. “Especially since I was bleeding all over the place.”

“It’s good to see you’re completely recovered,” Jeremy spoke with sincerity. “And it’s nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Maureen smiled.

“We’ve heard a lot about you,” Jeremy continued, pretending he did not see the dour look his cousin sent him.

“You have?” Maureen asked in surprise.

“Yes, Aunt June has been singing your praises and yours, too, of course,” Jeremy grinned, turning to Lauren.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Lauren sighed. “Let’s keep the small talk for later, shall we? What have you got for us?”

“Follow me,” Jeremy gestured, all of a sudden all business. He walked a few steps in front of them, occasionally looking over his shoulder while talking to the two women. “You know about the hand, right? The one that was fished up out of the lake?”

#

After a solid three hours of searching the area the car had been dumped in, the OSBI forensic team had found some interesting evidence; a clear plastic bag had been taped underneath the passenger seat of the car. In it, a mixture of different colored pills and a few small, one inch bags that contained white powder. Also, in the back of the glove compartment, they had found a soggy envelope. The address was barely visible, but in the high-tech environment of the forensic lab, it was not unlikely for the scientists to discover a name, or address, which could be helpful in the investigation.

In the meantime, three police boats had been dredging the area where the hand had been found and, to nobody’s surprise, they had found the owner. The second body that had surfaced had been unexpected though. Immediately, it was clear both men had been murdered. The bullet-hole in their foreheads had been a dead giveaway. Both victims had been separated from their hands that had been stuffed inside their pockets. Even the rookie police-officers knew it had been an execution. The question that needed to be answered was: ‘why?’

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Maureen asked Lauren who was studying the battered, drowned car from different angles. Her dark eyes held a pensive expression and the look on her face was one of pure concentration. She had been silent for a very long time, just like her cousin, Jeremy. He was patiently waiting, his arms crossed his chest, watching Lauren with calm, dark eyes.

“Are you thinking we should visit our friend, Morty, and show him some pictures?” Lauren answered in a low voice, not taking her eyes off the car.

“Something like that,” Maureen smiled. “I’ve got this sudden urge to be insulted again.”

Finally directing her gaze to her friend, Lauren chuckled. There was a twinkle in the red-head’s eyes and Lauren appreciated the fact her partner could laugh at herself like that.

“He likes you, you know,” she said, stuffing her hands in her pockets, rocking back and forth on her heels.

“Sure he does,” Maureen snorted.

“No, he really does,” Lauren insisted. “You remind him of his wife.”

“Now, that’s a scary thought,” Maureen joked.

“It’s true. He told me,” Lauren shrugged. “His wife died in childbirth. She and the baby both.”

“Oh, my God,” Maureen responded. “That’s awful.”

“Yes, it is,” Lauren sighed. “After you left and sat in the car he told me about it. He loved teasing his wife and since you remind him of her, he couldn’t resist.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, about his wife, I mean. But next time he starts teasing me, I won’t give him the satisfaction of responding,” Maureen replied. “So, are we heading to Elk City today?”

Lauren shook her head. She wanted some answers and the faster the better, but she was so close to her family the desire to see them was almost painful. She knew there was always a place for her in her parent’s house. All it would take was one phone call to tell them she was on the way. Lauren looked up at Maureen and shot her a smile. To tell them they were on the way, she mentally corrected herself.

One glance at Jeremy’s face made it clear to her that her cousin was waiting for her to tell him she would stick around a little longer.

“I think it would be better to drive to Elk City tomorrow,” Lauren answered, immediately noticing the big grin of her cousin’s face. “Why don’t we stay at my folks tonight?” she suggested, sending Maureen a hopeful look.

The red-head suppressed the urge to reach out and ruffle the taller woman’s hair. Lauren looked so much like a little girl, she almost melted on the spot.

“Why don’t we?” Maureen smiled, knowing how much her friend had missed her family. Her reward was a dazzling smile and for a brief moment, Maureen caught a glimpse of the little girl Lauren Darkwolf used to be. With a smile of her own, Maureen reached out and gave Lauren’s arm a warm squeeze. She hoped she would get to see more of that happy, relaxed part of her friend and deep down inside she knew she most likely would.

#

“Hey, Musk, what are you doing here, man? Haven’t seen you in a long time,” a well-dressed young man was greeted by a short, muscular man as soon as he entered the small hallway that lead from the house he had just entered to the fairly large shed behind it. “Are you here to inspect the merchandise?”

“Hey, Brains. How are you, dude?” Musk greeted his friend with a firm handshake. “I trust your skills, buddy. I’m sure my investment is safe in your capable hands. No, I’m here to ask a favor.”

“I’m all ears,” Brains replied, raking his fingers through his short-cropped hair.

“Are you still seeing that chick? You know, the one who works at Saint Andrew’s?”

Brains chuckled and shook his head. His clear, blue eyes took in his friend and a small frown appeared in his forehead. He had the impression something was wrong.

“No, I haven’t seen her for a very long time. When she found out what paid my rent, she didn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore. Pity, she was pretty cute .” Again, Brains raked his fingers through his hair. “What’s up, Jake? You look like hell,” he asked, unconsciously using his friend’s real name.

“Ah, man, what a mess,” Jake sighed, loosening his tie, to give himself some short-lived relief from the heat that had been clinging to his skin all day. He could feel the perspiration on his back and he could not wait to go home and take a well-deserved shower.

“So, what’s up? Come here, I’ll get you a nice, cold beer,” Brains said, gesturing Jake to follow him into the shed that was big and at first glance looked well-used. Boxes were stacked high on one side of the wall. They gave the impression they were moving boxes that still had to be unpacked. A large work bench stood in the middle and on it was a children’s bike. It was upside down and the front wheel was missing. Apparently, it was being repaired.

The other wall was covered with shelves that held a variety of items. Underneath one of the shelves was a small refrigerator and when Brains opened its door, Jake saw it was stocked with beer and soft drinks.

“Thanks,” he sighed when his friend handed him an ice-cold beer. He brought the bottle to his mouth and gulped down half of its contents. He belched loudly, making his friend chuckle and follow his example.

“Doesn’t that make you feel better?” Brains asked with a grin, downing the rest of his beverage.

Jake just nodded and rolled the bottle around in his hands. His eyes studied the room they were in and mentally he applauded his friend. Brains was doing a great job. The shed actually looked just like that; an ordinary shed.

“Where’s the stuff?” he asked after a brief moment of silence.

Brains pointed toward the boxes and grinned when he saw Jake frown.

“If I can fool you, I can fool anybody,” he laughed, very pleased with himself. “I’ll show you.”

“You’d better,” Jake mumbled, following his friend, who had walked up to the boxes and was pushing the outer row aside. That action revealed a hatch in the floor and effortlessly Brains opened it. A sturdy ladder brought them underground and when Jake followed the other man down, he whistled softly.

“I love what you’ve done to the place,” he said, making Brains chuckle.

“Not bad, huh?” Brains responded, looking at the neatly organized area. “I got some stuff in yesterday,” he explained, pointing at a corner, where red cans were lined up against the wall. “I’ve got some Iodine and HEET, so I’ll be cooking up some nice stuff today.” Brains turned around to look at Jake who was standing in the middle of the converted storm-cellar, quietly sipping his beer.

“Have you found another buyer yet?”

“I think so, but I’ll need to go over there and check it out. We might need a new route, too.”

“Why?” Brains asked in surprise. “I thought Ape and Squid…”

“They cashed in,” was the short reply.

“They what?” Brains asked, stunned.

“They’re dead,” Jake repeated with a voice that was void of emotion. “I had to off them.”

“Shit ! ” Brains exclaimed, slamming down his beer- bottle on the table in the middle of the room. His move shifted small bags that were filled with a powdery substance and Jake shot him a warning look.

“Shit, man. Why?” he asked, this time a little calmer.

“Because those idiots put the cops on my trail, that’s why. I had no choice, man. And they screwed up with Jess.”

“Oh, man, this is not good. What about Jess?”

“She took an overdose,” Jake explained, immediately seeing the blood leave Brains face.

“She…? Oh, jeez, is she…?”

“She’s gone,” Jake sighed. “Those idiots left her where the cops could easily find her. Now they know about the stuff. We’ve got to lay low for a while, man.”

Brains was still trying to wrap his mind around what he had just heard and he silently nodded.

“So, it’s you and the kid then, huh?”

Jake shook his head and his eyes narrowed when they looked at his friend.

“They left him with Jess.”

Brains’ face turned a new shade of white and drops of perspiration formed on his forehead.

“They what?”

“Left him with Jess. He’s alright, but I need to find him. That’s why I needed your girlfriend. Now I’ll have to come up with something else.”

“What are you going to do?” Brains asked.

“I’ve got an idea,” Jake smiled and, involuntarily, Brains shivered. Jake’s smile was devoid of any warmth or emotion. “There’s this nurse I’ve seen. She might be able to help me.”

Part 8

It was a small room, with only one window that barely let through the bright sunlight. It was not just the blinds that shielded the room from the light, but also the layers of dust and mud on the outside of the panes. There was dust everywhere, a thick layer of soft, grey-colored powder that danced in the single beam of light that had managed to illuminate the room. It was disturbed by every movement, especially when the door was opened or closed. Little puffs of powdery material tumbled in the shift of air, until they finally settled, on the blinds, the table, the old TV in the corner or even on the bed.

A pile of clothes, that had once been colorful, had haphazardly been deposited on a chair, too much for the seat to bear, so pale blue sleeves hung over the side, almost touching the floor’s carpet that had seen better days–-a very long time ago.

In the corner, opposite the TV, a single bed was shoved against the wall. The linens were stained and there were numerous holes in the fabric, testimony to its age. The mattress was thin and lumpy, almost worn out completely in some areas and it barely fit the frame it was resting on.

Two small figures were sitting on the bed, their backs resting against the wall, while their eyes stared at the door. There was no room for fear in the blues that were so much alike. They had past that emotion a very long time ago. The raised voices and harsh language had become a part of their lives, as were the meager meals that were brought inside the room every now and then. A few empty KFC boxes on the floor were testimony to that. So was the color of their skin that was too pale and the brittle hair that was too long and desperately needed a cut.

The door, the gateway to another life because the window was barred, remained locked. At first, that had instilled almost uncontrollable fear into their bodies that were too small and too light for their age. Recently, though, it had become a safe barrier between them and what was going on in the outside world. As long as the door was closed, things would be better.

“When will she come back?” a husky voice, barely audible, broke the silence in the room. The words were followed by a hacking cough that left the small body gasping for air.

“She’ll be here soon,” another voice answered, hoarse from the lack of use.

“Really?” was the wheezed response.

“Really. We’ll just have to hang in there, okay? Jess said she’d be back.”

“Okay,” was the tired response.

Two small hands reached for each other and held each other tight. No matter what would happen, or when, at least they had each other.

#

Sarah Nichols, OSBI’s receptionist and secretary, let out a deep sigh and switched off her computer. It sucked to be called back in on a Saturday to process documents. But she was dedicated to her job and she knew the work she did was very important. There were times the Agents in the field were heavily relying on the work she did to close a case. She had spent part of her afternoon processing information. It had been satisfying to assemble the information Agent Darkwolf and Agent Lawrence needed. She had emailed the file she had been working on to Lauren Darkwolf’s PDA, knowing the dark-haired Agent would be waiting for it. One thing that would be unexpected for the Agen, though, would be the letter Sarah had scanned and sent to Lauren’s email. Somehow, she had known it to be important. The letter had been sent to the OSBI, but after Sarah had opened it, she had noticed it had been addressed to Lauren Darkwolf and Maureen Lawrence. She had read the contents to determine if it was urgent or if it could wait, but she had decided it was information Lauren and Maureen needed as soon as possible. That’s why she had it earmarked as ‘high priority’.

Sarah knew she had only scanned the contents of the letter because it was part of her job, but what she had read was something that would not leave her alone. She debated with herself whether she should call Lauren Darkwolf. It seemed a silly thing to do, especially since she knew it would only be a matter of time before Lauren would check her mail.

“Oh, whatever,” Sandy muttered, grabbing the phone and dialing Lauren’s cell phone number. It only rang three times, before it was answered.

“Lauren? Hi, this is Sarah. I’m sorry to call you, but…no, I’m not sorry at all,” Sarah corrected herself. “I just sent you a scan of a letter you need to see. It was addressed to you and Maureen. I’ve got the feeling it could be important.”

Lauren, who would never doubt anyone’s gut-feeling, immediately felt a tightening in her belly. If it was serious enough for Sarah to give her a call, she knew she needed to check her PDA as soon as possible.

“I’ll pull it up right away, Sarah. Thank you,” Lauren said.

“No problem,” Sarah answered in a soft voice. “Let me know if my instincts were right, OK?”

“I will,” Lauren smiled. “I promise.”

As soon as the connection was broken, Lauren reached for the PDA that was clipped to her belt. Within less than a minute, she stared at the small screen that showed the letter Sarah had scanned for her.

If you receive this letter, I won’t be able to talk to you anymore. If my friend has not heard from me before Thursday evening, she will mail this letter for me and I know you’ll eventually get it. I just hope it won’t be too late. It might be for me, but hopefully not for my son. I need to be sure he’ll be alright.

Jacob Mannen is my ex-boyfriend. He is the father of my son, Caleb. I left him because I don’t want to be involved in his business. I found out his dealings in drugs after I gave birth to Caleb. I left him, but fear that one day, he will find me.

I know he will try to hurt me after he finds out I tried to contact you. From the newspaper, I know you are with the OSBI and you’ve dismantled a lot of meth-labs. Jake has one, a Superlab. On Tenth street, in Oklahoma City, just before you reach the Fair Grounds, there’s a small house with yellow siding. There’s a lab in the shed behind the house. It’s in the storm cellar. The hatch is underneath the outer row of boxes. You’ll find everything you’ll need there.

Inside the house, there’s a small bedroom. The door is always locked. Get them out. Please, get them out. Their names are Kyle and Dustin. Tell them Jess sent you. Please.

Jess Garrett

Looking at the writing that had started out very neat and readable, but ended in something that was hard to decipher, Lauren guessed the writer had been in a hurry to get all the information on paper.

“Jess Garrett,” she said softly. “Are you the girl from Elk City? Something tells me you are.”

With a worried frown, Lauren opened the door to the living room, immediately noticing a pair of green eyes looking at her expectantly. No matter how comfortable Maureen felt, surrounded by Lauren’s family, the moment her friend had jumped up to answer her phone, she had felt totally lost. As soon as Lauren stepped back into the room, Maureen let out a sigh of relief. Until she noticed the expression on her friend’s face.

“Are you alright?” she asked, not aware of the sudden silence. “What’s going on?”

“I need to show you something,” Lauren said, sending her a tight smile. “It’s work related.”

“Alright,” Maureen replied, getting up from the couch and walking toward the door, where Lauren was waiting. As soon as they entered the hallway, Lauren closed the door behind them, leaving her family in worried silence. She would explain it to them later. First she wanted to know Maureen’s thoughts on the letter.

Without saying a word, Lauren handed Maureen the PDA and waited while the other woman’s eyes scanned the screen.

“Jess Garrett,” Maureen spoke softly. She lifted her head and cast a look at Lauren. “Do you think she’s the girl?”

“Yes, I do,” Lauren nodded.

“I wonder who Kyle and Dustin are?” Maureen wondered.

“I don’t know,” Lauren answered. “But I’m sure we’ll find out soon.”

#

“Alright, so far so good,” Lauren sighed when she exited the car, followed by Maureen and two other OSBI-agents they had picked up at the office A team of specially trained police-officers was right behind them in a van, equipped with all the instruments they needed to check the house. If Jess’ letter was right and there was an active meth-lab in the building, the situation could become dangerous, because of the chemicals used and the fact that labs sometimes were booby-trapped. Being cautious was extremely important, but if there were children in the house, they needed to act fast.

“Do we have the search-warrant?” Lauren asked Tom, who nodded and reached inside his pocket, pulling out the envelope a Sheriff’s Deputy had handed him. They had been lucky a judge had been willing to sign the document. Usually, it took a lot longer to get all the formalities and paperwork out of the way, but, after Lauren had informed him about the situation, Jack Wilson had convinced the right people to sign off on their request and less than a day later, Maureen and Lauren were standing in front of the house with the yellow siding.

“I’m going in first,” Lauren decided, knowing deep down inside that Kyle and Dustin were in dire need of help.

“Then I’m right there with you,” Maureen decided, knowing they would be breaking protocol.

“Maureen, I…”

“I’ll be right there with you,” Maureen repeated, this time a little more firm. When Lauren shot her a glance, she noticed the determination on her friend’s face and inwardly she sighed. She should have known Maureen would follow her right in, against all rules and regulations.

“Wilson will have my head,” Lauren warned, but when Maureen just shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes, she let out a soft chuckle. “Alright, let’s go then.”

“Do you really think it’s a good, idea. Lauren?” Tom Baker asked, looking at his friend with a worried frown.

“Come on, Tom,” Lauren smiled. “You’d do the same thing. I just beat you to it.”

Lauren gave Tom a friendly slap on the back and gestured Maureen to follow her. With confident strides, they crossed the street and walked up through the narrow front yard to the porch that looked badly maintained. Big chunks of concrete were missing and when Maureen carefully put her weight on the middle of three steps, she could feel the surface buckle underneath her feet.

“Are you alright?” Lauren asked, having reached out a hand to grab Maureen’s elbow.

“Yeah, thanks,” Maureen mumbled. “If this front porch is like a death-trap, I wonder what the rest of the house will be like.”

“Something to look forward to,” Lauren answered, opening the storm door that was hanging from one hinge only. “Here goes,” she added, knocking on the door.

Both women felt the familiar rush of adrenaline surge through their bodies, increasing their heart rate and enhancing all their senses. Lauren thought she heard a faint sound inside and she knocked again, a little louder this time, aware of Maureen’s presence at her back. Knowing her friend was right there made her feel less tense and involuntarily she smiled.

“Who is it?” a clear, crisp voice at the other side of the door sounded.

“Agents Darkwolf and Lawrence, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation,” Lauren spoke through the door. “Please, open the door. We need to ask you some questions.”

Maureen cast a look over her shoulder and nodded at Tom Baker, who immediately moved to one side of the house, while the other Agent moved to the other side. They had all experienced the meth-lab busts where the suspects tried to flee through the backyard, shooting their way through the front door or even escape via the roof. They were prepared for anything.

“Can you prove that?” the voice asked with a barely audible quiver.

“If you open the door, I can,” Lauren answered, nodding when Maureen whispered: “They’re trying to buy some time. “

“Okay,” was the answer from behind the door and both Lauren and Maureen took a deep breath ,their hands loosely on their guns they, for this occasion, were carrying on their hips.

Slowly the front door opened and a face appeared, blinking against the bright light from the early morning sun. Both Lauren and Maureen flashed their badge, taking in the figure who was standing in front of them. It was a young woman who was painfully skinny. Her shoulder-length hair was unkempt and brittle. Lauren immediately noticed the flaky skin and the sores around her mouth.

“Agent Darkwolf, what can I do for you?” the young woman asked, showing teeth that were almost rotten. The young woman was averting her gaze, but Lauren noticed the fast eye-movements and inwardly she sighed.

“Tweaker,” she spoke softly, knowing Maureen heard her when she saw her friend nod. The red-head had already come to that conclusion. They would have to be very cautious in their approach. Any wrong move or word could trigger a violent reaction. If they were right, the young woman was a hard-core methamphetamine user, craving her next fix, but unable to reach a high. It was very possible her addiction had kept her from sleeping for days, making her extremely irritable.

“Call me Lauren,” Lauren smiled, keeping her voice low. “This is my partner, Maureen. We’d like to ask you a few questions. Could you, please, step outside?”

“I don’t know if…,” the young woman started, but was interrupted by a sound that came from the back of the house. Immediately, she jumped, wiping her hands at her jeans with jerky movements.

“What’s your name?” Lauren continued, pretending she had not heard the hacking cough, that had sounded suspiciously like a child’s.

“What?” the young woman breathed, clearly agitated.

“Your name?” Lauren repeated, wondering how to get the young woman away from the door.

“Kate,” was the reply and Lauren nodded.

“Would you mind stepping outside, Kate?” Lauren asked.

“Actually, I would,” Kate replied, visibly shaking and raking her fingers through her hair. Her breathing had increased and it was obvious she had become very nervous.

“I need you to step outside, Kate,” Lauren said calmly, ready to step forward and grab Kate as soon as she would attempt to run back into the house. At that moment, a police cruiser pulled up in front of the house, followed by a second one and two uniformed officers appeared.

“Damn,” Maureen muttered under her breath. From the corner of her eyes, she could see Kate reach for her back pocket, letting the alarm bells go off in the back of her mind. But before she could shout out a warning, Lauren had already stepped forward, grabbing both Kate’s arms and twisting them behind her back. With a thud, a hunting knife tumbled to the ground, reflecting the bright morning light off its razor-sharp blade. Lauren cast a look at it and used her foot to quickly push it to the side.

“Not a smart move, Kate,” she sighed, expertly cuffing the young woman’s hands behind her back.

“Take her,” she motioned to one of the uniformed officers who had run toward the house as soon as Lauren had surged forward.

Kate screamed and tried to kick the officer in his shins, but he was at least six inches taller than she was and he weighed a lot more. Without much effort, he escorted her to his cruiser, putting her in the backseat and closing the door.

“Alright, let’s go in,” Lauren decided.

Both women entered the house, with their guns drawn. They had no desire to be caught unaware and Lauren, who was walking in front of Maureen, knew the red-head was covering her back.

“OSBI,” Lauren called out. “Is anybody home?”

There was no answer and Lauren cast a look over her shoulder, motioning the second uniformed officer to follow them inside. Lauren and Maureen had seen a lot of meth-houses on the inside and they knew from experience how filthy they could be, but nothing had prepared them for this. The floors were littered with empty beer and soda cans. The low coffee table was covered with half-eaten pizzas, fries and pieces of bread. Bags from different fast-food restaurants were strewn across the couch and the chairs. In the corner of the room was a pile of dirty clothes and what seemed like diapers.

“Good God,” the uniformed officer mumbled, trying hard not to breathe in too deeply. The stench of rotten food and urine was almost unbearable.

“The kitchen’s clear,” Maureen mumbled, having cast a look inside the small area that was covered in filth.

They slowly approached the narrow hallway and noticed two of the three doors were open. It did not take them long to secure what appeared to be a bedroom on one side of the hallway and a bathroom on the other side. Maureen almost gagged when her nose was filled with a smell that was a mixture of human waste and decay.

“Holy crap,” she muttered when her eyes fell on the decomposing body of what appeared to have been a small dog that was laying in the bathtub.

Lauren’s face held a grim expression when they had reached the closed door. If Jess Garrett’s letter had been true, they would find Kyle and Dustin behind the locked door. The question was; who were they?

“I need you to stay back a little,” she told the uniformed officer in a soft voice. He nodded and took a few steps back, his hand on his gun.

Lauren glanced at Maureen, noticing the tension in the other woman’s eyes. If only she could reach out and give her a supportive hug, but she knew that had to wait till later. Much later.

Lauren took a deep breath, immediately regretting that when it almost made her cough. She tried not to think about the bad air quality when she softly knocked on the door.

“Kyle? Dustin?” she called out. “Is there anybody in there?”

There was no answer, but both Lauren and Maureen had heard a sound. It had been barely audible, but as soon as they exchanged glances they knew they had not imagined it.

“I know you’re in there,” Lauren said. “Do you want to come out?”

The sob on the other side of the door was clear now and Lauren nodded.

“Kids,” she spoke, seeing Maureen nod.

For a brief moment, the red-head could see the anger in Lauren’s face and she knew her friend was struggling to keep her composure.

“Kyle, Dustin, Jess sent us,” Maureen called out, reaching out and giving Lauren’s arm a quick, encouraging squeeze.

“Jess?” a husky voice answered, so full of wonder and hope, it brought tears to Maureen’s eyes.

“Yes, Jess. She asked us to come and get you.”

“The door’s locked,” the child’s voice sounded again. “Me and Dustin can’t get out and she’s sick.”

“Is Dustin your sister?” Maureen asked, glancing aside to notice Lauren had regained her composure.

“Yes, she’s only three,” was the answer.

“Okay, honey, listen to me,” Lauren spoke, her voice low and warm. “Are you and Dustin close to the door?”

“No, we’re on the bed.”

“Is there a closet?”

There was a moment of silence and then the husky voice answered.

“Yeah,” it sounded hesitant.

“Can you and Dustin go inside the closet for just a minute? I need to open the door and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“Me and Dustin don’t like the closet,” Kyle answered in a quivering voice.

“Why is that, sweetie?” Maureen asked, exchanging a glance with Lauren.

“It’s so dark in there.”

Lauren clenched her teeth, knowing exactly why the little boy was afraid to go into the small space.

“Bastards,” she whispered angrily.

“It’s only for a minute, Kyle,” Maureen explained in a soothing voice. “As soon as the door is open, you can come out of the closet and you will never, ever, have to go back in there again.”

There was another moment of silence.

“Promise?”

“I promise,” Maureen answered, swallowing away the lump in her throat.

“Okay,” Kyle answered and immediately they heard him talk softly to his little sister. There was the sound of a door being opened and closed and then a muffled, almost panicked :’Okay’.

Not wanting to waste one more second, Lauren stepped back and before Maureen and the uniformed officer could even blink their eyes, Lauren had kicked in the door, putting her long legs and anger to good use. The door, no match for a six foot one, pissed-off OSBI agent, sprung open, almost flying off its hinges and, immediately, Lauren stepped inside the darkened room, effortlessly finding the closet and opening the door. Knowing her height could easily intimidate small children, especially when they were already afraid, she stepped back and knelt down.

Two painfully white faces were turned her way and the first thing she noticed were the eyes that seemed to be too big for the children’s faces. A small boy who seemed to be about five or six years old, had his arms wrapped around the tiny form of his sister, who, Lauren noticed, was too small for a three year old. Her heart broke at the sight.

“Hi, my name is Lauren,” she introduced herself. “And this is my friend, Maureen,” she added when she could feel the red-head kneeling next to her.

“I am Kyle and this is Dustin,” the little boy introduced himself, staring at both women with huge blue eyes.

“It’s nice to meet you, Kyle,” Maureen responded with a warm smile.

“Are you taking us away?” Kyle asked in a serious voice.

“I would like to,” Maureen answered. “I am sure we’ll be able to find you a place that’s a lot nicer.”

“Dustin is awfully thirsty,” Kyle spoke, using his pale, skinny hand to brush away the dirty blonde hair from his sister’s forehead. The little girl, who was leaning heavily against her brother, just stared at Lauren and Maureen with tired, unfocused eyes.

“Maybe we should go see a doctor,” Lauren suggested.

Kyle nodded and cast a look at his sister.

“I think she’s sick,” he answered. “She coughs a lot and then her breathing sounds all funny.”

“No doubt,” Maureen mumbled, eying the small room with its layers of dust and dirt.

“We’d better go quickly,” Lauren suggested, reaching out a hand to Kyle, smiling when he grabbed it. She knew there were teams waiting to enter the shed and the suspected meth-lab underneath it. But, first, the children had to be brought out of the house. They could not risk their safety and they would, if the lab was booby-trapped.

“Is it okay for me to carry Dustin?” Maureen asked, not wanting to scare the boy, or his little sister by just grabbing the child.

“That’s okay,” Kyle decided, turning to the little girl, who looked at him with trusting eyes.

“The nice lady will carry you out, Dusty,” he patiently explained. “We’re gonna see a Doctor, so he can make you all better.”

The little girl did not respond at all, but when Maureen reached out and carefully lifted her up, Dustin did not protest, she just rested her head against Maureen’s shoulder as if she was too tired to hold it up.

“I can walk,” Kyle announced proudly and Lauren had to smile at that.

“I know you can,” she said. “And I bet you can even run like the wind,” she added. “But there’s a lot of stuff on the floor, Kyle and I don’t want you to trip and fall. So, why don’t I just give you a ride? It would make me feel better.”

After a brief moment of hesitation, Kyle nodded and Lauren effortlessly lifted the little boy into her arms. Inwardly, she cried. She had a nephew that was Kyle’s age, but Amos was at least twice as heavy as the boy in her arms and she could only hope the malnourishment would not have a lasting effect on the courageous little boy.

“Let’s go, partner,” she smiled into blue eyes and for the first time she noticed a shadow of a spark in the child’s gaze.

“Will the Doctor make Dustin better?” he asked in a hushed voice, not wanting his sister to know how worried he was.

“We’ll go ask him right away, alright?” Lauren answered, trying to hide her worry over the listless, little girl. “I don’t know much about stuff like that. I’m just a police person,” she added, pulling a face, which made the little boy smile. Content with her answer he relaxed in her arms, while she carried him toward the door.

Curious onlookers had already assembled in front of the house, among them a crew of one of the local news channels, which made Maureen send Lauren an exasperated look. Lauren shared that sentiment, but she was pleased to see the first police-officer had moved the car with a still screaming Kate in the back. More police-cruisers had arrived, creating a protective cordon, keeping the curious onlookers on a distance.

“Cover your eyes, buddy,” Lauren encouraged Kyle, happy to see Maureen had already wrapped her jacket around the little girl. “You’ve been in the dark a long time and the bright light outside might hurt your eyes.”

Kyle did not answer, but he buried his face in the crook of Lauren’s neck, closing his eyes tightly.

“Atta boy,” Lauren smiled. “Alright, Maureen, let’s go. You drive,” she spoke to the uniformed officer, who nodded and opened the door for them to step outside.

As soon as they stepped outside, the fire-department’s hazmat truck arrived, its occupants ready to go into the house and the shed in the back as soon as they would be given permission to do so.

The door to the police cruiser was opened and, quickly, Maureen and Lauren took a seat in the back, holding the children close to them.

“To St. Andrew’s, as fast as you can, please,” Lauren told the police-officer as soon as he had taken a seat behind the steering wheel.

“As you wish,” the officer said with a grim face, immediately switching on the lights. “Let’s go.”

#

Rachel Kendrick glanced at the clock, noticing it was rapidly approaching noon. Her stomach was growling and she was craving a hot, cup of coffee. The morning had been long and extremely busy. From the moment she had entered the Emergency Department she had been seeing patients, one after the other. She had been going full speed for hours and was hoping she could leave soon to have a well-deserved lunch, preferably with Hannah.

“Hey, Doc,” Betty called out when Rachel came out of one of the rooms. “Come here for a minute, will ya?”

“Sure,” Rachel sighed, casting another glance at the clock. Hannah would be coming to get her for lunch soon and if she was tied up with a patient she would have to give it a miss. “What’s up?”

“Hannah just called. She needs to go to lunch now, so she’ll be down in a minute to see if you’re available.” Betty smiled when she saw the smile on Rachel’s face. “Go wash up, Doc,” she winked.

Rachel shot the nurse a grin and turned around, heading for the restroom and hoping nobody would call her back, if only for about thirty, maybe forty minutes. She quickly washed her hands again and splashed some cold water in her face. While drying off the water with a paper towel, she cast a look in the mirror, seeing her reflection staring back at her. She pushed back her unruly, brown hair and rolled her eyes at herself when she realized she was looking at herself with scrutiny.

“Come on, Rachel, Hannah would say you’re pretty enough as it is,” she chuckled, smiling when she thought about the blonde who had captured her heart so many years ago.

“No, that would be ‘pwetty’,” an amused voice sounded behind her, making Rachel jump. When she quickly turned around, she looked straight into a pair of laughing blue eyes.

“Hannah,” Rachel breathed. “You little sneak.”

“That’s not what you called me last night,” Hannah winked, laughing when a faint blush crossed her partner’s face.

“You’d better be careful,” Rachel warned, vigorously rubbing her cheeks. “The stalls might have ears.”

Involuntarily, Hannah shot a quick glance at the two stalls to her left, grinning when she noticed both doors were ajar.

“Oh, you almost had me there,” she chuckled, stepping closer to the other woman. Before Rachel could protest, or join in, Hannah had given her a quick kiss, before stepping back again.

“I love you,” she said in a soft voice, the glow in her eyes testimony to her words.

Rachel swallowed hard and stepped a little closer, aware of the fact somebody could come in at any time, but not caring about that.

“You are all I ever wanted, or needed. I love you, too,” she smiled, reaching out and gingerly touching Hannah’s cheek. “More than I can ever put into words.”

“So far, you’re doing a pretty good job,” Hannah smiled. “In fact, it’s so good that, if we don’t get out of here, I might do something that would draw unwanted attention,” she added in hushed tones.

“In that case, we’d better get lunch,” Rachel decided. She was standing so close to Hannah, she could feel the other woman’s body heat. It made her want to reach out and pull her into her arms, so she could kiss her senseless and hold her close enough to feel the beat of her heart. “We’d better go right now,” she added in a whisper. “I mean it.”

Rachel put her hands on Hannah’s shoulders and turned her around so she was facing the door. With a smile she gave the blonde a gentle shove, which made Hannah chuckle.

“Keep walking, Jensen,” Rachel playfully growled. “All the way to the cafeteria. Don’t stop.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” Hannah laughed, opening the door and stepping back into the hallway, closely followed by her partner. “Are you going to walk behind me?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder. “People might think you’re checking me out.”

“And that would be a bad thing, why?” Rachel laughed. “But, to answer your question; I’d rather walk beside you, so I can..”

Rachel was interrupted by the beeping noise of her pager. Muttering an expletive, she pulled the device off her waistband and looked at the display.

“Figures,” she sighed. “I’m needed back in the ER.”

“Anything unusual?” Hannah asked.

“I’m not sure, but I guess it’s serious,” Rachel answered. “The police are bringing in two children.”

Part 9

The first thing Rachel Kendrick noticed when she pushed open the door into the ER, was the tall figure of Lauren Darkwolf, who was holding a small child in her arms. With a frown she opened her mouth to ask her friend a question, but, seeing the little girl Maureen was holding, answered her first few questions.

“Follow me,” she said curtly, stepping into an empty examination room, closely followed by Maureen and Lauren.

“I can take care of the boy,” one of the other physicians offered, but, seeing Kyle stiffen in Lauren’s arms, made Rachel shake her head.

“No, not yet, Jim. Thanks.”

She gestured Lauren and Maureen to follow her into the room.

“Hannah?”

The blonde, who had taken a seat in one of the office chairs in the nursing station, looked up and shot her lover a questioning look.

“Would you mind coming in as well?”

“Umm…,” Hannah looked a little surprised, but before she could answer, one of the other nurses stepped closer and stared at Rachel with a frown.

“Hannah doesn’t work here in the ER, Doctor Kendrick, and I…”

“Hannah has more experience with traumatized children than any of you,” Rachel interrupted. “She’s here, she’s available. Period.”

Rachel was in Doctor’s mode and Hannah suppressed a chuckle. It had been a long time since she had seen her lover pulling rank and deep down inside she cheered her on. Rachel Kendrick usually was pretty easy going, but if she put her foot down, she meant business.

“Hannah?” Rachel gestured to the blonde, who silently got to her feet and followed her into the examination room. While walking past her lover, she gave her arm a gentle squeeze, but when the door closed behind her, all her attention went to the two small children, who were sitting on a Gurney, side-by-side, with Lauren and Maureen standing beside them, both with pained expressions on their faces.

“This lady is the Doctor, Kyle, her name is Rachel,” Lauren explained, pointing at Rachel. “And the other nice lady is a nurse and her name is Hannah.” Lauren put her hand on Kyle’s small shoulder, giving it an encouraging squeeze. “Ladies, this is Kyle and his sister, Dustin.”

Hannah had worked in the Emergency Department for more than five years and had seen her share of suffering children. One look at the faces that were too pale, the hair that was too brittle and bodies that were too small and skinny told her more than she really wanted to know. But her love and compassion for children immediately brought her to her knees, mentally, when she stopped in front of the Gurney, gently covering cold, fidgeting fingers with a warm hand.

“Hello, Kyle,” she greeted the small boy with a warm smile. “How are you doing?”

“Okay,” the little boy answered, shyly staring up at her through long, blonde eyelashes. “Dustin is sick,” he added, wrapping his arm around his little sister, who immediately leaned into his body.

“I see that,” Hannah nodded, reaching out a hand and touching the little girl’s cheek. The eyelashes fluttered and slowly Dustin opened her eyes, looking at Hannah with dull eyes, before closing them again with a small sigh. When she felt a warm presence at her side, she knew Rachel was standing next to her, which gave her a sense of confidence. Rachel Kendrick was a great physician and the two little children were in the best of hands.

“Is it okay for Rachel to listen to your lungs, Dustin?” Hannah softly asked, aware of the ache in her heart when the little girl’s hands dug into her brother’s shirt.

“It’s okay, Dustin,” Kyle soothed her, gently rubbing his sister’s back. “Rachel is a Doctor and she will make you all better.”

“Kay,” was the barely audible response and Kyle nodded at Rachel, who quickly rubbed the membrane of her stethoscope to warm it up a little.

“I’m gonna put this against your chest, okay, Dustin? It helps me listen to your heart and lungs,” Rachel explained.

The little girl could only nod. She leaned heavily against her brother, too tired to keep her eyes open. Gently, Rachel used the stethoscope and her trained ears immediately noticed the rapid heart rate and the decreased sound in both of the little girl’s lungs.

“Can you take a deep breath for me, sweetie?” Rachel asked, almost wincing when the Dustin obediently sucked in a breath.

“Kyle, has Dustin been able to eat and drink anything lately?” she asked, gently probing the child’s neck with her fingertips.

“No,” Kyle shook his head. “When Kate brought chicken nuggets, Dustin didn’t want to eat. I tried to tell her she should,” he added in a small voice.

“I’m sure you did, honey,” Hannah smiled, brushing a strand of too long blond hair away from his forehead. “You’re a great brother, I can tell. Did Dustin drink anything?” she asked, knowing Rachel needed the information.

“She had some milk, but she threw it all up,” Kyle related softly.

“Can you remember when that was?”

“I don’t know,” Kyle answered with a sigh, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand.

“Try to remember, Kyle,” Lauren urged. “It would really help Rachel a lot if you could.”

Kyle nodded and rubbed his nose. His eyes were closed in concentration and the women gave him a few moments to gather his thoughts.

“It was…it was…when the man was there,” he finally answered, not seeing the puzzled look on the women’s faces.

“What man, sweetie?” Hannah asked, having seen the look Lauren and Maureen exchanged.

“I…Kate always closed the door extra tight,” Kyle answered, looking Hannah straight in the eye for the very first time, melting her heart with his blue eyes that were too wise for his age and the dirty blond hair that kept falling over his forehead. “I think…his name is…I’m not sure,” he added in a whisper, afraid to disappoint the adults.

“That’s okay, buddy,” Lauren smiled, gently ruffling the boys hair. “Was it yesterday?”

“No,” Kyle shook his head. “I…it was the day before…I think.”

“And that was the last time you and Dustin had anything to eat?” Hannah asked in a soft voice.

“I ate,” Kyle nodded. “Dustin had milk, but it made her throw up. We had water yesterday,” he added.

Maureen’s eyes were glued to a patient education poster on the wall. They did not register the explanation about patient’s rights, but she needed something to focus on. The small boy’s simple words had touched her deep inside and red-hot anger flared up within her chest every time she thought about the people who were supposed to look after and care for innocent children, but instead locked them up and physically and emotionally abused them.

A gentle touch on her arm almost startled her and, when she looked up, it was into a pair of concerned brown eyes.

“You okay?” Lauren mouthed and Maureen nodded, slowly exhaling.

“Hang in there, just a little while longer,” Lauren whispered, very aware of the fact her words made Maureen swallow convulsively. It was clear the exhausted redhead was close to tears. Reaching out, she grabbed Maureen’s hand and gave it a warm squeeze, immediately feeling her friend’s fingers close around her hand.

“I know you must be very hungry and thirsty,” Rachel smiled at Kyle, trying her best to reassure the young boy. “And we will give you something to eat and drink as soon as we can, but first we need to run a few tests. I promise they’ll be fast,” she added, impressed by the child’s composure. “Hannah will help me, so we’ll be done in a jiffy,” she smiled.

In a language the little boy could understand, she explained to him about the chest x-rays she would have to take of his sister’s chest, the blood and urine tests and the fluids his sister would need to receive through an intravenous catheter. Kyle took it all in with a calm expression on his face, nodding every now and then to show Rachel he understood.

Within less than thirty minutes, both children had undergone all necessary tests and Kyle was sipping from a glass of apple juice, waiting for the chicken fingers, apple sauce and green beans Hannah had ordered for him. He had not left his sister’s side and by the look of determination on his face, it was clear he had no intention to go anywhere anytime soon. Hannah had changed the little girl into a pair of pink pajamas, decorated with little white elephants and she was sound asleep, not aware of the IV fluids that were rhythmically pumped into her tiny frame, nor the nasal cannula that delivered some much needed oxygen to her laboring lungs.

“DHS has been notified,” Rachel told Lauren and Maureen in a soft voice, while her eyes were glued to Hannah, who was talking to Kyle, occasionally touching the little boy’s cheek, or his hand. She had no idea how intensely her eyes reflected the love she felt for her partner. But, to Maureen and Lauren, it was clearly visible and they exchanged a smile.

“Rachel,” Lauren spoke softly, trying to catch the Doctor’s attention. “Rachel” she tried again, gently nudging her friend, who slowly turned to her with slightly unfocused eyes.

“Mmm?” the Doctor responded and Maureen chuckled when Lauren rolled her eyes. “Oh, sorry,” the doctor apologized with a small smile. “I…um…I was a little distracted, I guess.”

“Yes, that’s obvious,” Lauren responded dryly. “But it seems to be a very nice distraction,” she added with warmth, shooting a glance at Hannah.

Rachel laughed and shook her head, turning her back to Hannah, so she could focus on the two Agents.

“I am sorry,” she said. “It’s amazing how, at the weirdest and most inconvenient times I realize how lucky and blessed I am,” she added with a sigh. “Okay, back to the children: DHS is sending somebody to assess the situation and they will find Dustin and Kyle a place to stay, after they’re discharged from the hospital, that is, which will be a few days.”

“They’re not breaking them up, are they?” Maureen asked in alarm, knowing how devastated the children would be if they would be separated.

“I’ll make sure they understand they need to stay together,” Rachel nodded. She cast a glance at Lauren, who was looking at Kyle with a pensive expression in her eyes. “Is there anything you need, or want to ask Kyle, before they take them to the kiddie unit?”

Lauren’s dark eyes traveled to the young boy, who, somehow had ended up in Hannah’s lap, looking up at the blonde with big, trusting eyes.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” Lauren smiled, giving Rachel a friendly pat on the back. The tall Agent walked to where Hannah and Kyle were softly talking and knelt down in front of them.

“Is it alright for me to ask you one more question, Kyle?” she asked. When he silently nodded, she smiled at him and patted his knee. “Before, you said something about a man, who sometimes came and when he did, Kate closed the door extra tight. Can you remember anything about that man?”

Kyle’s blue eyes turned a little darker and he pursed his lips in thought.

“I…I never really saw him,” Kyle answered after a long silence. “Kate…she…she was always mad and she…they fought a lot,” he answered with difficulty.

“Did she ever mention his name, Kyle?” Lauren asked gently, afraid to pressure the little boy.

“I can’t…I believe…I think…Jake, I think,” he answered slowly, looking utterly relieved when Lauren sent him a warm smile.

“Good job, Kyle,” she commended him, ruffling his hair. “I am so proud of you.”

“Is Kate going to jail?” Kyle asked unexpectedly, having been told that his caretaker had been taken by the police.

“She might, Kyle,” Lauren answered honestly, wondering what he was thinking when she saw him nod his head.

“How do you feel about that, honey?” Hannah asked with so much kindness and compassion it brought tears back to Maureen’s eyes.

“She hurt Dustin,” Kyle mumbled. “I don’t like her.”

Lauren, who had been focused on Kyle, could feel Hannah’s stare and when she looked up, it was straight into a pair of inquisitive blue eyes.

“Was…is Kate your Mom?” Lauren asked, trying to sound as casual as possible.

“She’s my dad’s girlfriend,” Kyle answered in a husky voice.

“And where’s your dad?”

“Jail,” Kyle shrugged.

“So, where’s your mom?”

“I don’t know,” Kyle sighed. “She left when Dustin was a baby.”

#

Maureen was sipping a cup of coffee, waiting for Lauren to get off the phone. Her pager had beeped for attention as soon as they had left Kyle and Dustin in the capable hands of a pediatric nurse from the children’s unit. Her mind was still spinning with the events of the day and the anger she had felt over the treatment of the children was still burning deep down inside. As an OSBI Agent, she had seen her share of child-abuse, but no matter how often she was confronted with the suffering of children, it never became easier. Her thoughts returned to Kyle and the casual way he had related the lack of care and love. It had been so infuriating to realize the poor child did not know any better. How sad was it to grow up, locked away like a caged animal and only being fed and bathed on occasion?

“Dark thoughts?” a familiar voice sounded and Maureen jumped, almost spilling her coffee.

“Very,” she nodded, casting a sideway glance at Lauren, who had ended the phone call and had somehow managed to sneak up on her.

“I can tell,” Lauren responded in a soft voice. “You look like you need a hug.”

Those soft- spoken words, so full of warmth and compassion were almost the red-head’s undoing. Maureen swallowed convulsively, taking a deep breath to force away the tears that were stinging the back of her eyes.

“I need some fresh air,” she spoke hoarsely, turning away from Lauren and heading toward the exit.

Lauren’s dark eyes turned a shade darker and with a worried frown she watched her friend exit the Emergency Department. She wanted to follow Maureen outside so badly, it almost physically hurt, but she needed to finalize the paperwork from the DHS first.

With a heavy heart, Lauren walked to the DHS caseworker, who was patiently waiting for her.

“Is everything alright?” the elderly lady asked in a friendly voice.

“My partner is a little shaken up,” Lauren answered, grabbing a pen to sign a form. “We’re both very tired and finding Kyle and Dustin this morning was…too much, I guess,” she sighed, looking into a pair of warm, hazel eyes. “We need a rest,” she added with a smile.

“Then get some,” the caseworker smiled. “What you two did for those two poor children is pretty amazing. I know your job is not an easy one, Agent Darkwolf. But you’ve made quite the impression on that little boy, he can’t stop talking about you.”

In spite of her fatigue and her concern for Maureen, Lauren smiled at the caseworker’s words.

“Would it be alright to come see him and Dustin, later?” she asked quietly.

“I’m sure it would. Those poor little souls need a friend, right now,” was the answer and Lauren smiled. She quickly signed all the appropriate paperwork, waved at Rachel, who just came back from lunch, letting her friend know she would call her later and headed toward the exit, looking for Maureen.

She did not have to search too long. As soon as she stepped outside, her eyes fell on the form of her friend, who had taken a seat on a bench, underneath an old Pin oak tree. Maureen had wrapped her arms across her chest and her long legs were stretched out in front of her. Even from a distance, Lauren could see her eyes were cast down, giving the impression she was asleep, but the Agent knew her friend wasn’t.

With long strides, Lauren crossed the distance and took a seat on the bench, close to the red-head, who did not immediately acknowledge her presence. But then, after a few moments of silence, a warm hand found its way to Lauren’s, entwining their fingers.

“Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?” Lauren gently teased, giving Maureen’s hand a loving squeeze.

“It’s the perfume,” Maureen sighed, opening her eyes and glancing aside. A tired chuckle escaped her when she noticed the twinkle in Lauren’s eyes. “You goof,” she smiled, nudging the taller woman with her shoulder.

“How are you doing?” Lauren asked, not able to hide the concern in her voice.

“I’ve been better,” Maureen sighed, wanting to be totally honest. “I’ve seen a lot of misery, Lauren, but…this…today…somehow it got to me and I…,” the red-head let out a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry,” she ended, her voice barely audible.

“Don’t be,” Lauren replied, wishing she could pull Maureen into her arms and hold her close. She knew a hug would do wonders, not just for her friend, but for herself as well. She craved to be physically closer to the other woman, but the small park-like area across from the hospital Emergency Department was not exactly the right place for such a display. Inwardly, Lauren sighed. For the first time ever, she felt like neglecting her job and running off with Maureen.

“I guess we need to get going. Duty is probably hollering at us again,” Maureen muttered. “Where are we heading to next?”

Lauren did not immediately answer. She pondered over Maureen’s question, having wondered exactly the same thing. There were so many things that had to be researched and she knew that, at some point, to get an answer to certain questions, they would need to travel back to Elk City, to talk to Morty. But what good would it do to push themselves to, and maybe over, their limit? The DHS caseworker had been right; they needed some rest.

“We’re going home,” Lauren finally answered, smiling when she noticed the look of surprise on the other woman’s face.

“We’re what?”

“Going home,” Lauren sighed. “We’re both exhausted and in desperate need of a rest. I’ll call Jack Wilson and let him know. Being worn out doesn’t really help the case,” she added, aware of the warmth that settled in the pit of her stomach when Maureen sent her a grateful look.

The red-head did not immediately answer, but for a very brief moment, she pressed her face against Lauren’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Let’s go,” Lauren answered equally soft. “I don’t know about you, but I hear a cool shower and a soft bed calling my name.”

“Oh, you’re speaking my language,” Maureen smiled warmly. “Are we really going to take the rest of the day off?”

“Really,” Lauren laughed at the childish joy in her friend’s voice and jumped up, pulling the red-head with her. “Come on. Let’s pick up a light lunch somewhere and head to…my house?” she asked. “I’m sorry, I should have asked if…”

“Your house is perfect,” Maureen interrupted. “Besides, I left my toothbrush in your spare bathroom.”

#

Jacob Mannen frowned and muttered a curse when the car in front of him slowed down. The traffic had been unusually heavy and when he was forced to come to a complete stop, he wondered if there had been an accident. Tenth street was not exactly the safest street in the area. It was narrow for a four-lane road, with many side streets and businesses. The recent rain had wreaked havoc on the clumsily repaired potholes, making large areas of the road treacherous.

Casting a look at the clock on the car’s dashboard, Jake, or Musk, as he was known to his friends and business relations, shifted in his seat, trying to look past the car in front of him. He had almost reached his destination and was impatient to pick up some of the merchandise for a new client.

“What the…?” Jake mumbled, when he caught sight of the police-cars and hazmat truck that were parked alongside the road.

“Damn,” he exclaimed when he saw the door of the house he was heading to was wide open, with two police officers standing in the doorway. They were talking to a neighbor who, Jake knew, would recognize him without a problem.

Immediately, Jake’s brain kicked into high gear and he quickly decided he had to leave the area as soon as he could and as fast as possible without drawing any unwanted attention. He knew there was one more side street between him and the police officers and he knew turning there would be his only chance to avoid an encounter with the police. It seemed to take forever for the cars in front of him to move forward, while in reality it was less than five minutes. By the time Jake was able to round the corner, he was perspiring profusely. His heart was pounding in his chest and he had to make a conscious effort not to drive away with breakneck speed.

“Damn, what a mess,” he mumbled, casting a look in the rearview mirror. “I need to pull over somewhere and make a few phone calls. See where Brain’s at…”

Only when he was a few blocks away from Tenth Street, Jake dared to pull over into a small parking lot, where he grabbed his cell phone and speed-dialed a number. Impatiently drumming the fingers of his right hand on the steering wheel, he waited for an answer.

“Come on, Brains…come on,” he mumbled, staring in his rearview mirror. When the connection finally came, it was his business partner’s voice mail. Jake knew better than to leave a message and, frustrated, he raked his fingers through his hair, weighing his options.

If Brains had been caught in the lab, he, Jake could be in very deep trouble and it probably would only be a matter of time before the police came looking for him.

“I need to leave the city,” Jake decided, putting his car in gear and heading back to the street. “And I need to leave now.”

#

“What did Jack say?” a soft voice startled Lauren out of her reverie. She had been standing in front of the window, staring into her backyard where one of the neighbor’s cats was clumsily stalking a bird. The red robin, however, was a lot smarter than the feline and gracefully flew away, landing in a nearby willow, where he observed the scene below him with curious eyes.

“Good job, my little feathered friend,” Lauren smiled, turning around so she could face Maureen. Her smile widened at the sight in front of her. Maureen was barefoot and clad in a white bathrobe that fell just below her knees. Her hair had been blown dry and she was raking her fingers through the thick, red tresses.

“Jack said he’ll call us tomorrow morning with an update. Not earlier,” Lauren answered, chuckling when she saw the relief on Maureen’s face. “He told me to make sure we get a good rest.”

“Don’t worry, I will,” Maureen sighed, leaning her hip against the back of a recliner, looking at Lauren with tired eyes. “Who knew the Boss was so human?” she added with a wry chuckle.

“His wife,” Lauren quipped and Maureen laughed. She stepped closer to the taller woman and reached up to cup a dark- skinned cheek. While her thumb caressed the soft skin, her green eyes turned a few shades darker.

“You’re so beautiful,” she whispered with an audible touch of wonder in her voice. “And so incredibly sweet.” Maureen leaned forward and brushed her lips against Lauren’s in a gesture that was barely a kiss. It made the other woman smile and a pair of warm dark-brown eyes shone with affection when they looked into Maureen’s green ones.

“That hug you were talking about before, can I have that now?” Maureen asked softly, letting out a deep sigh when a pair of arms were immediately wrapped around her, pulling her close against Lauren’s taller frame.

“This feels so good,” she mumbled, feeling like she could finally relax. With her head pressed against Lauren’s chest, Maureen listened to the strong, steady heartbeat of the woman who was holding her and it made her relax even more. All of a sudden, the events of the past few days faded away within the circle of Lauren’s arms.

The dark-haired woman’s cheek rested against Maureen’s hair that still felt a little damp. She breathed in the scent of shampoo and shower-gel and felt the tension leave her muscles.

“It feels more than good,” she mumbled. “Holding you feels like…home,” she added in a whisper.

Maureen did not respond but she pressed her face even closer, tightening her grip around Lauren’s waist. She only became aware of the tear that was rolling down her cheek, when it left a moist track that quickly dried in the air-conditioned room. Her feelings for Lauren were so intense that, at times, it almost took her breath away. Like now. A wave of emotions crashed over her, flooding her senses and sweeping her away into unexplored and uncharted territory. It was frightening, but Lauren’s arms supplied the support she needed. So, Maureen did the only thing she could do; she held on for dear life, blindly trusting the dark-haired woman to be her anchor.

“Are you alright?” a soft voice sounded close to her ear and Maureen nodded.

“It’s…a lot,” she answered, not able to phrase her answer any better. Reluctantly pulling away from the other woman, she looked up into a pair of concerned eyes.

“I’m fine,” she smiled. “Honestly,” she added when she noticed the doubt in the warm brown. “Sometimes I feel like I am on a roller coaster and…Kyle’s and Dustin’s situation was the last straw, I guess. When he was answering Hannah’s questions I…it…it just cut through my heart and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to take anymore.”

Lauren nodded and her eyes were serious when she looked down at the woman in her arms.

“Do you think…?” she swallowed hard and involuntarily the arms around Maureen tightened. “If it’s too much…you’ll let me know, right? Maybe we’re going too fast and…”

Lauren was interrupted by a finger that was firmly pressed against her lips.

“Hush,” Maureen whispered. “That’s not it, Lauren. You and me, our relationship is something….so precious to me, I…,” the red-head took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “Please, don’t think it’s too much for me. I admit it’s pretty intense at times, but…I want this. I want us, Lauren. So much,” she ended in an, almost desperate whisper. “I guess my senses were on overload today, that’s all. I already feel a lot better.” She smiled and brushed her fingertips across Lauren’s cheeks. “Your hug was the best medicine.”

“I’m glad,” Lauren smiled. “And I have to admit I needed it as much as you did.”

They smiled at each other and, deep down inside, Maureen felt something shift and fall into place. It brought her a sense of belonging and all of a sudden Lauren’s words hit home with absolute clarity. It was a profound feeling that filled her with a mixture of warmth and giddiness and the desire to bury herself in Lauren’s arms and stay there, for a very long time. But the dark-haired Agent looked exhausted and Maureen did not want to keep her awake longer than needed. They both needed a good rest. Later, they would have time to talk and, hopefully, to snuggle up together and just relax.

“You need a shower,” she spoke with a smile, patting Lauren’s side. “You look tired.”

“I am tired,” Lauren confessed with a sigh. “And yes, I need a shower,” she added, pulling a face. “Especially after having been in that awful, sorry excuse for a house.”

“Go shower,” Maureen encouraged her friend. “I’ll be here when you’re finished.”

“You’ll probably be asleep,” Lauren objected, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.

“I might be,” Maureen nodded, suppressing a yawn.

“What if I need another hug?” Lauren asked with a smile.

“Wake me up,” Maureen immediately answered and Lauren laughed.

“I might just do that,” she promised, leaning in to give the red-head a quick kiss. A small glimpse of insecurity crossed the taller woman’s face, but did not go unnoticed by her friend.

“What?” Maureen asked quickly.

“It’s nothing,” Lauren shrugged, feeling silly about her unexpected insecurity. “I’ll go shower and I need you to relax.”

Lauren wanted to turn around, but Maureen had grabbed her hand to stop her.

“Lauren?” Maureen asked. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s nothing wrong,” Lauren hurried to answer when she saw the look of concern on the red-head’s face. “It’s just….” Lauren looked so uncharacteristically shy it was almost amusing. “I was thinking…I thought…maybe, if you…After yesterday and today I just don’t want to…Maureen, I sound like a babbling idiot,” Lauren said, rolling her eyes at herself. “All I wanted to suggest is for you to sleep…with me, and I mean sleep,” she quickly added. “I want to hold you until we fall asleep.”

“I’d love to,” Maureen answered with a warm smile, giving the dark woman a quick hug. “Thanks for having the courage to bring that up. I thought about it, but I was too chicken to ask you.”

“You can always ask me anything,” Lauren promised. The sudden twinkle in Maureen’s eyes made her add a quick reply. “No, I don’t feel like going dancing right now,” she chuckled, playfully shaking the red-head.

“Me neither,” Maureen sighed. “Alright, Wolfie, get your butt in gear, because I’m about to topple over and I so want to snuggle first, before I fall asleep.”

Lauren did not need anymore encouragement. After one more quick kiss, she turned and left the room, heading straight for the bathroom, leaving Maureen staring at the door with a soft, wistful smile on her face.

#

Hannah Jensen was sitting on a bench, outside the Emergency Department, unknowingly occupying the same spot Maureen had earlier that day, She was waiting for Rachel to end her shift, so they could go home together. A small smile appeared on her face when she thought about her partner. Life with Rachel was good. Hannah let out a happy sigh and her blue eyes traveled to the sliding door that lead into the hospital. Her heart skipped a beat when her eyes fell on the familiar form of her partner and she softly laughed to herself.

“I guess I’m still having butterflies,” she said softly, smiling brightly at the dark-haired woman who was quickly crossing the street.

“Hello there, pretty lady,” Rachel greeted her as soon as she had reached the bench. “You look like a nice person. May I offer you a ride somewhere?”

To Rachel’s delight, Hannah laughed which caused a dimple to appear in her cheek. A pair of twinkling blue eyes looked up at her and she chuckled when Hannah wrinkled her nose.

“I don’t know,” the blonde drawled. “Are you a reputable person?”

“I am a Doctor!” Rachel answered with feigned hurt.

“So was Hannibal Lector,” Hannah quipped and Rachel laughed, offering the blonde a hand-up.

“I’m not interested in eating liver,” the Doctor answered with a chuckle, when the blonde grabbed her hand and let herself be pulled to her feet. “I am more into taking you home and having a relaxed evening.”

“Watching Dora the Explorer again?” Hannah laughed, referring to their daughter’s favorite movie.

“I was thinking about…after spending time with Nicky and Dora,” Rachel chuckled. “How about…a cup of something…a movie? Some music? Snuggling up on the couch?”

“Ooh, I like that idea,” Hannah smiled. “Count me in, Doctor Kendrick.”

They casually strolled to the parking garage where Rachel had parked her car that morning, enjoying the mild Spring temperature.

“How are Kyle and Dustin doing?” Rachel asked, knowing her partner would have checked up on the siblings before she left the hospital.

“They’re settling in,” Hannah nodded. “Dustin’s perking up a little, but she’s so not happy with her IV.”

“She needs the meds and the fluids though,” Rachel sighed. “She was pretty dehydrated.”

“That’s what Kyle keeps telling her,” Hannah smiled. “He’s such a sweet, caring, big brother. You know, honey, the reason I left the ER was because of cases like this. I couldn’t stand it anymore,” the blonde explained. “I don’t understand how people can treat children like that.”

“It’s because they were either treated like that themselves, or because they have an addiction that numbs them completely. It’s sick, I know.” Rachel glanced aside and wrapped her arm around Hannah’s shoulder, giving her a quick one-armed hug. “You did great today and I am so grateful you were there. It did bring back a lot of memories.”

“About the time you were a resident and I bailed you out every time you had to stick a needle in a poor, little kid?” Hannah smiled.

“Among other things,” Rachel admitted with a chuckle. “You are naturally good with children. For some reason they all love you.”

“I don’t know about that,” Hannah replied, wrinkling her nose. “But it’s nice you think that.”

They had reached the car and Hannah had opened the door, but, before getting in, she shot Rachel an inquisitive look.

“You’re not trying to recruit me back, are you?”

“No, I’m not. I promise,” Rachel laughed. “No matter how much I love working with you, I’m afraid constantly having you around would be entirely too distracting.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult,” Hannah teased, while getting into the car.

“A compliment, trust me,” Rachel answered with a warm smile.

As soon as they were both within the privacy of the car, Rachel leaned over to give the blonde a kiss. It had been her intention to be quick, but Hannah’s response made it impossible to withdraw and, for a few precious seconds, the intimate contact lingered.

“We’re in a public place,” Rachel whispered, after they broke apart.

“In a car, with tinted windows,” Hannah added with a smile, using the tip of her finger to trace an imaginary line from Rachel’s forehead all the way down to her lips. “But, I guess we can’t stay here, making out, huh?”

“I’m afraid not,” Rachel answered with an amused smile. “No matter how much I’d love to.”

“Just…hold that thought,” the blond sighed.

“Absolutely,” Rachel nodded, reaching for her seatbelt. “By the way, I don’t know if you have noticed, but…”

“Somebody is keeping an eye on us?” Hannah interrupted. “Yes, I’ve noticed. Do you think we’re imagining things?”

“I’m not sure,” Rachel frowned, casting a look in her rearview mirror. “He’s been hanging around the place all day. And he seems way too interested in you. But I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

“How?” Hannah asked with curiosity.

“Because I’m not going anywhere,” Rachel answered, putting the car in reverse and backing out of her parking spot. “I’ll drive up to security and point him out to them. They can take it from there.”

Part 10

Maureen Lawrence stared at the ceiling, blinking her eyes against the painful stinging. She was so tired, she could hardly keep her eyes open. All she wanted was to go to sleep. Just not yet.

Maureen, who had been listening to the unfamiliar sounds of Lauren’s house, noticed the water in the shower had stopped running and, unconsciously, she took a deep breath, her heart skipped a beat.
It would not be long before Lauren would enter the bedroom and, if everything would go according to plan, crawl next to her in the bed. They were both exhausted, so expecting anything more than just snuggling together and going to sleep would be unrealistic. But even that thought did not settle Maureen’s heart rate.

After taking a deep breath, Maureen turned on her side, facing the empty half of the queen-sized bed. Her eyes were heavy and her body almost ached from fatigue, but still she fought the need to close her eyes and let herself drift off into oblivion.

“Just a few more minutes,” she mumbled, wishing Lauren would hurry.

She must have dozed off, because all of a sudden, the mattress next to her dipped to accommodate the dark-haired Agent’s tall frame. The unexpectedness made Maureen’s eyes fly wide open.

“It’s okay, go back to sleep,” Lauren reassured her friend.

“I wanted to fall asleep in your arms,” Maureen answered groggily.

“You can,” Lauren smiled, reaching out her arm and wrapping it around Maureen, who immediately scooted closer, tucking her head underneath Lauren’s chin, smiling when the arm pulled her closer.

“How’s this?” a warm voice sounded near her ear and Maureen sighed.

“Wonderful,” she mumbled with a sigh. “You’re so…soft and…strong.”

Maureen felt Lauren chuckle and raised her head to look up at the dark-skinned woman, smiling when she noticed a twinkle in the dark-brown eyes.

“What’s so funny?” she asked, before putting her head down again, pressing her cheek against Lauren’s chest, immediately hearing the comforting beat of the other woman’s heart.

“You are funny,” Lauren smiled, dropping a kiss on Maureen’s temple, letting her lips linger to inhale the scent of the redheads soft skin. “You have no idea how wonderful it is to hold you like this.”

“If it’s half as wonderful as it is to be held, I’ve got a pretty good idea,” Maureen smiled, lifting her head one more time to kiss Lauren’s chin.

“Go to sleep,” the dark-haired woman’s voice spoke softly, while her hand gently rubbed Maureen’s back. “Just relax and sleep,” she added in a whisper.

She smiled when, less than a minute later, Maureen’s breathing had become deep and regular, a tell-tale sign that the other woman had fallen asleep.

With Maureen’s head tucked under her chin, Lauren stared at the ceiling, reveling in the feeling the redhead’s closeness evoked. It was a mixture of tenderness, happiness and giddiness all wrapped in one and Lauren decided she liked it. A lot.

Slowly, but surely, the solid brown eyes became heavier, until Lauren could not keep them open anymore. With the smile still clung to her lips, she fell asleep. Her arms firmly wrapped around Maureen.

#

Rachel Kendrick tried not to sigh and roll her eyes at the security officer who was taking her statement, as he called it, in a stern and very official tone of voice. All she wanted was to go home and relax and spend time with her daughter and partner. She cast a look at Hannah, who was sitting in the corner of the small office, her head resting against the wall behind her and her eyes closed. Rachel realized the blonde was tired and mentally she slapped herself, second-guessing her decision to report their stalker to the security department. Maybe it would have been better to have gone to the police station, which was only a couple of blocks down the road. That way they would have skipped some steps, because right now, they were waiting for the police officer who had been called to the hospital.

“I know you want to go home, Doctor Kendrick,” John Overlander said in a deep voice. “But this is a serious matter, especially after what happened to you and Miss Jensen last year.”

“I know, John,” Rachel sighed, wishing she could walk over to her partner, sit down next to her and pull her in for a warm, solid hug. If not for Hannah, then for herself.

“Do I have to tell this police person the same story again?” she asked in a soft voice, groaning when John Overlander nodded.

“I’m sorry, Doc,” he said with as much compassion as he could muster. He genuinely liked Rachel and Hannah, whom he had known ever since she started working at the hospital. The blonde reminded him of his daughter and, from the beginning, he had a soft spot for her, something he would never admit.

“You did a good thing, though,” he added with appreciation. “I’m sure the police will love to question this guy,” he added. “We were lucky to grab him before he ran.”

“I guess,” Rachel mumbled, staring at a stain in the carpet, feeling utterly sorry for herself and Hannah to have landed in yet another stalking situation.

When she had the sensation of being studied, Rachel looked up, straight into a pair of clear, blue eyes that were twinkling at her from across the room and immediately she felt a smile tug at her lips.

“It will be fine, Rache,” Hannah spoke. “I’m sure we’ll be out of here pretty soon.”

“I hope you’re right,” Rachel answered, all of a sudden deciding to defer to the situation when Hannah pulled up a chair and pointed at it.

“Alright, alright,” Rachel smiled. “I know I’m a pain in the neck, but I just…”

“Want to go home,” Hannah finished the sentence for her. “And we will, soon. Now, sit down and try to relax. I’m getting tired of watching you fret over there.”

“Yes, mom,” Rachel chuckled, which earned her a playful swat across the stomach.

“Good ! Here they are,” John Overlander spoke with obvious relief when the door was opened and two police officers, a male and a female, stepped inside, crowding the small space even more.

John Overlander got to his feet and quickly explained the situation to the officers, making sure to emphasize that Rachel and Hannah had been stalking victims before.

“I remember,” the female officer answered, sending Rachel and Hannah a warm smile. “It’s nice to meet you both, although the circumstances could have been a lot better, I guess.”

“Absolutely,” Rachel nodded, wondering why the female officer looked so familiar. “Have we seen you before?”

“No, I don’t think so,” the officer laughed, stepping closer and reaching out a hand in greeting. “But I have been told I resemble my cousin, Maureen,” she added with an easy smile. “My name is Lee Ann Lawrence.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Maureen has mentioned you a few times,” Hannah laughed. “You two do look alike.”

“That’s what they say,” Lee Ann smiled, sending the blonde an appreciative look. Maureen had not exaggerated when she had described the blonde; Hannah was very attractive.

“Are you the cousin they call Lally?” Rachel quipped with an innocent smile, aware of the look the police woman had given her partner.

“Yes, that would be me,” Lee Ann responded, making a mental note not to ogle Hannah. At least, not with Rachel around. “Alright, let’s get down to business. I need you to tell me what happened.”

Less than an hour later, a tired Hannah and slightly grumpy Rachel were finally allowed to leave the hospital, after they had identified the man who had been arrested, as the one who had been following them to their car.

The man, a skinny, unkempt individual who seemed to be in his early thirties, had refused to talk at all, not even stating his name, thoroughly testing the police officers’ patience. He would be taken to the police station, where they would, hopefully, get more information about who he was and why he had been following Rachel and Hannah.

“I so wish we didn’t have to deal with all this,” Rachel muttered, steering her car out of the parking spot in front of the security office.

“I know, honey, I wish that, too, but, here we are, in another scary situation,” Hannah answered in a soft voice. “We just have to deal with it as it comes.”

“Are you scared?” Rachel asked, glancing aside to her partner, smiling when the blonde’s hand made it to her knee and stayed there, after having given it a loving pat.

“Not for me,” Hannah answered after a brief moment of silence. “I’m more scared for you and Nicky.”

“Same here,” Rachel sighed. “I’m scared for you and Nicky and I pray this ends up to be something silly.”

“I do, too,” Hannah answered. “But, since he was trying to follow us from the hospital, I’ve got the feeling he doesn’t know where we live, which is a good thing.”

“You have a point,” Rachel nodded, covering the hand on her knee with one of her own. “I love you.”

Hannah glanced aside, sending her partner a surprised smile.

“I love you, too. Where did that come from?”

“I just wanted to say it,” Rachel answered. “It’s important for me that you know how much you mean to me. I’ve come close to losing you twice now and…”

The Doctor’s voice broke and Rachel had to swallow away the lump in her throat, annoyed at herself for becoming so emotional. The hand underneath her own turned and Hannah interlaced her fingers with Rachel’s longer ones.

“Do you want to pull over?” Hannah asked in a soft voice, caressing Rachel’s hand with her thumb.

“No, I want to go home and hug you and Nicky. And Gertrude,” she added with a watery smile. “I want all of this to go away.”

“I’m sure it will,” Hannah replied, while her heart went out to her partner. Rachel was used to being under a lot of stress, it was part of her job as an Emergency Department physician, but when her own family was involved, her focus shifted. From a skilled, calm physician, she turned into a worried partner and mother, who would do anything to protect her family.

“Let’s go home and do some serious hugging,” Hannah suggested, smiling when Rachel sent her a grateful look. “I’m sure things will look a lot better in the morning.”

#

Lauren Darkwolf was slowly pulled out of slumber by something heavy and unfamiliar. There was a slight pressure on her chest and with every breath she took, something tickled her nose.
Dark-brown eyes popped open, staring at the ceiling with glazed sleepiness, while its owner tried to take notice of her environment.

She was in bed, Lauren knew, pinned on her back with a warm, soft body almost laying on top of her. Rapidly blinking her eyes to get rid of the sleep, Lauren’s face split in a happy grin when she remembered.

“Maureen,” she whispered, brushing away the strand of red hair that tickled her nose, careful not to awake the other woman. “What a glorious way to wake up,” she mumbled to herself, thoroughly enjoying the warm body in her arms. Maureen’s breathing was deep and regular and Lauren hoped she would sleep a little while longer. The red-head had been near to exhaustion and had been in dire need of a good rest and Lauren would do anything she could to make sure her friend would get that rest.

A sideways glance at the alarmclock showed her it was close to six-thirty and Lauren shook her head in amazement. She had been asleep for hours. No wonder her stomach was growling, which, at the time, she happily ignored. There were a lot more interesting sensations to take stock of. Like the pressure of Maureen’s cheek on her chest and the puffs of warm breath that tickled her skin, just above her collar bone. And the bare leg that was wrapped around her own, applying an interesting kind of pressure to her thighs and pelvic area.

“Alright, Lauren, refocus,” the dark-haired woman scolded herself. “Think about something else, like…like…like…snow bunnies.”

“Snow bunnies?” a sleepy voice echoed. “Why snow bunnies?”

“Oh, great,” Lauren groaned in frustration. “How long have you been awake?”

“Long enough,” was the chuckled reply and Maureen lifted her head, sending Lauren a warm smile. “Snow bunnies?”

With a deep sigh, Lauren pulled a pillow over her face, not sure if she was ready to confess her friend exactly why the white, fluffy creatures had popped up in her mind.

“Oh, Lauren?” Maureen smiled with a sing-song voice. “Is everything alright?”

“Just peachy,” was the mumbled reply, but Lauren did not move.

“Really?” Maureen responded, shifting her body, acutely aware of the sharp intake of breath that was coming from the other woman. With a knowing smile she pushed herself up, forcing her head underneath the pillow as well.

“Are you hiding from me?” she asked in an innocent voice.

“Do I need to?” Lauren quipped, removing the pillow and throwing it toward the foot of the bed.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Maureen sighed, leaning so close their noses were almost touching. “It’s not like I am used to waking up like this, no matter how often I’ve fantasized about it. I’m a little lost here and don’t really know what to do,” she confessed, showing her vulnerability.

Her words had the desired effect on Lauren, who immediately relaxed and wrapped her arms around the redhead.

“What would you like to do?” she asked softly, brushing away a strand of red hair that was threatening to fall into Maureen’s eyes.

Maureen, aware of their bodies touching in almost their entire length, swallowed hard and moistened her lips.

“Well,” she drawled, gathering courage from the fact it was Lauren Darkwolf who was holding her, looking at her with a soft smile. It was her friend she was so in love with, who, just by being herself, gave her all the self-confidence she needed. “I’d love to kiss you.”

“I would very much like that,” Lauren smiled, feeling her heart skip a beat when Maureen leaned in and captured her lips in a kiss that was so soft, for a brief moment Lauren wondered how it was possible to experience a kiss without physical contact. But then the pressure intensified and with a sigh of happiness she gave in to the soft, probing lips that were rapidly chasing every thought from her conscious mind. She let her body respond to the caresses, feeling a comfortable warmth settle around her like a blanket.

Maureen, who had been a little shy and hesitant at first, had grown more confident with each shared kiss, feeling safe and welcome in Lauren’s arms. She knew it would probably be better to lighten the mood, so they could get up and get something to eat, but it was as if she could not pull herself away from Lauren’s lips. They were so soft and responsive, it made her want to kiss the dark-haired woman again and again.

It was increasingly difficult for Lauren to remain passive and let Maureen set the pace. The lips on hers were igniting a fire, deep inside her body and she had to fight the urge to flip Maureen over and show her exactly how much she wanted her.

“Maureen,” Lauren finally managed to whisper in between kisses. “Maureen, sweetheart, I…we…”

“You’re right,” Maureen answered with a moan, not able to leave Lauren’s soft skin. She kissed the corner of the other woman’s mouth, leaving a trail of kisses to her ear, down her jaw and finally across her throat. Lauren made a soft sound, almost like a growl and Maureen was aware of the thundering heartbeat underneath her hands.

“Right… about… what?” Lauren asked after a long silence that was filled with soft moans and sighs

“I can’t…remember,” was the answer and in spite of the desire that was rushing through her veins like a wildfire, Lauren chuckled.

Maureen’s remark had been enough to let reality sink in and, with a gentle smile, she pushed the redhead away, just enough so she could look her in the eye.

“Maureen, it’s not that I’m not enjoying this, I am,” she smiled, caressing the other woman’s face with her fingertips. “In fact, I am enjoying it so much, that, if we keep this up, we’ll be making love pretty soon, because I don’t know how much longer I will be able to keep from touching you.”

“And that is a bad thing?” Maureen replied with a small sigh.

“No, I don’t think so,” Lauren answered softly. “But it will change everything,” she added, pressing her lips against Maureen’s forehead.

There was a moment of silence, in which Maureen looked at Lauren with calm, pensive eyes. It was obvious she was thinking about the other woman’s words, letting them sink in first, before responding.

“Are you ready for things to change?” she finally asked, tracing one of Lauren’s eyebrows with the tip of her index finger.

“I am,” Lauren answered in honesty.

“I am, too,” Maureen sighed. “And, before you say anything else, yes, I am sure,” she quickly added, seeing Lauren was about to speak. “Our job is not always free of danger, Lauren, you know that. But whether we are lovers, or not, I’ll always worry about you when you’re on an assignment. We see people’s lives change in a heartbeat, every single day. I don’t want to have to look back one day and regret we never acted on our feelings.” Maureen paused, pressing her cheek against Lauren’s in a gesture that was so tender, it almost brought tears to the other woman’s eyes. “I am in love with you, Lauren, and tonight I really would like to show you how much. If you’ll let me,” she added with a small smile.

“I’ll let you,” Lauren whispered. Maureen’s words had touched her deep inside. In fact, the redhead had worded what she herself had felt for a while now. Actually to hear the words had only made things so much clearer.

“I am in love with you, too,” she smiled, raising her hands so she could cup Maureen’s face in between them. Guiding the other woman’s face closer, she softly kissed her, letting her lips linger for a long time, soaking up their newfound closeness. “And I want to show you how much,” she repeated the words Maureen had just spoken to her.

“God, yes, please, show me,” Maureen breathed, feeling herself lifted up and rolled over. Without interrupting their kiss, Lauren managed to reverse their position, finally giving her hands free reign to roam the body underneath hers. It was easy to gain access to the creamy, soft skin. All Maureen was wearing, was a cotton shirt and a pair of panties. Both women moaned when Lauren’s hands slid underneath the shirt, mapping and caressing Maureen’s skin that already felt hot to the touch.

“Take it off, please,” Maureen whispered urgently, raising her upper body, so Lauren could slid the shirt over her shoulders and head, leaving her clad in her panties only.

The redhead’s hands had taken hold of Lauren’s shirt and impatiently she tugged it, trying to pull it over the other woman’s head. The honest urgency made Lauren smile and she quickly disposed the only piece of clothing that stood between her skin and the softness of Maureen’s breasts. The shirt was haphazardly thrown to the side, landing halfway between the bed and the door, but neither woman cared.

As soon as Lauren lowered her body, touching Maureen’s skin with her own, they both let out a sound that was a mixture between a sigh and a moan.

“Oh, this feels good,” Maureen gasped, searching for Lauren’s lips and finding them immediately. Her hands stroked the skin of Lauren’s back and it was as if the more she touched her, the more Maureen craved the contact.

The redhead softly groaned when Lauren’s lips traveled down the side of her neck, to her collarbone, lightly brushing the swell of her breasts. Strong hands caressed her shoulders and upper arms, before finding their way to her ribs, neatly avoiding the most sensitive parts of her chest.

“Lauren,” Maureen whispered, almost accusingly.

“Maureen,” Lauren replied, whispering as well, but there was a hint of a smile in her voice.

“Are you teasing me?”

Lauren raised her head, smiling at the woman who had her undivided attention.

“Not yet,” she answered, which made Maureen chuckle. “Patience, my love,” she added, leaning over so she could kiss the soft skin of Maureen’s abdomen. With soft kisses and nibbles she worked her way down, until she had reached the last piece of clothing that shielded Maureen from her roaming hands and inquisitive lips.

“Lift,” she whispered, sliding the smooth fabric down the red-head’s hips, and down her legs. Less than a heartbeat later, the silk panties had landed on top of Maureen’s shirt.

“Oh, my…,” Maureen sighed, mumbling something unintelligible, burying her fingers in Lauren’s long, thick hair.

For a long time, only soft moans and whispered endearments filled the air-conditioned room. The snow bunnies were long forgotten.

#

Lee Ann Lawrence looked at the man who sat slumped in his chair, staring at the floor, showing no interest at all in answering any of the questions he had been asked. She fought the urge to roll her eyes and glanced at her partner, who was leaning against the wall, studying Rachel and Hannah’s stalker with half-lidded eyes. Lee Ann knew from experience that David Hargrove was anything but sleepy. It was his way of observing and analyzing a situation and she knew that, at any moment, his eyes could regain their clear, intelligent expression. When that happened, the object of his interest would become subject to question after question. If needed, David could be relentless.

“It’s better to cooperate, my friend,” Lee Ann advised the silent figure. “It will get you out of here a lot faster.”

A pair of pale blue eyes were lifted and the man shrugged his shoulders, casting down his eyes when they were met by a pair of fiery green ones.

“Why Doctor Kendrick?” she asked, trying not to lose her patience.

“Doctor Who?’ the man replied, speaking for the first time. Lee Ann and David exchanged a glance and for a moment, they both detected a hint of insecurity in the stranger’s voice.

“Kendrick,” Lee Ann repeated, stepping closer and leaning both hands on the table, her eyes never leaving the bent head.

“Did you try to stalk the wrong person?” she dared with a chuckle, trying to get a rise out of him.

“I wouldn’t say that,” was the mumbled answer.

“So, you meant to stalk the Doctor? Do you care to tell us why?”

“Not really,” the man muttered, staring at his shoes. His fingers were nervously picking on a small hole in his jeans and he was so absorbed in what he was doing, he did not see David Hargrove move. All of a sudden the tall officer stood next to him, slamming his fist on the table with such a force, the stranger jumped out of his chair, immediately pushed back by a pair of small, but strong hands on his shoulder.

“Show me your hands,” David Hargrove ordered.

The man looked up, trying to muster up a defiant glance, but the expression in David Hargrove’s eyes made him change his mind. He swallowed hard and tried to hide his hands underneath the table.

“Show me your hands !” David Hargrove bellowed, the veins in his muscular neck bulging.

Shocked by the unexpected yelling, the man pulled his hands from under the table and put them on the flat, wooden surface.

“Hold them up,” David commanded.

Slowly, the man lifted his hands, holding them up in the air. Without the support of the table, it became clear his hands were shaking so badly, he had to clench his hands into fists to control the tremors.

“What do you use?” Davis asked with a sigh, putting his hand over the man’s and pushing them back on the table, shooting Lee Ann a knowing glance.

“Everything,” was the hoarse answer.

“If you tell us your name and why you were following the good doctor and her nurse, you’d still be in trouble,” David said, not unfriendly. “But we’d be able to get you some drugs, to help you, so you don’t have to go cold turkey.”

“You just say that,” was the gruff response.

“Even if that’s the case, taking the chance to believe me is better than the alternative,” David Hargrove replied in a calm voice. “What’s your name?”

“Ben,” the man spoke softly. “Benjamin Nunn.”

“Alright, that’s a start,” David nodded, pulling up a chair so he could sit down. “Tell us, Ben. Who has promised you a free fix in return for the Doc’s address?”

“I don’t know his real name,” Ben answered with a sigh. He looked up and both David and Lee Ann knew he spoke the truth. “This guy, he came up to me, asking me if I wanted to do him a favor. I’d never seen him before, I swear. He said he could get me some good stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?” Lee Ann asked.

“Meth,” he shrugged. “He said he cooked it himself.”

“Where are you supposed to meet him?”

“I’m not,” Ben replied. “I need to write down the address and put it under the overpass, on Tenth and Reno. He said he’d leave the stuff there, in a bag.”

“And you believed him?” Lee Ann asked with a frown.

“Hey, I had nothing to lose, right?”

“Wrong,” David answered. “Can you tell me what this guy looked like?”

“Just a young punk. Slick suit, shades, fast car,” Ben shrugged.

“Do you remember what kind of car?” Lee Ann asked, wondering if her cousin would be interested in the information Benjamin Nunn was reluctantly sharing with them.

“I guess it was a Volkswagen. One of those Jetta’s, or maybe a Passat.”

#
“I’m hungry,” Maureen mumbled, burying her face in the crook of Lauren’s neck, nibbling the skin that was so conveniently close.

“I noticed,” was Lauren’s dry reply.

The answer was a chuckle and a soft pinch, which made Lauren jerk. The dark-haired woman quickly grabbed Maureen’s hand and held it tight.

“I mean I am hungry for food,” Maureen elaborated with a laugh.

“Oh,” Lauren answered, playing innocent. “Well, maybe we should get up and find a bite to eat then.”

“Maybe,” Maureen mumbled lazily.

“Or not,” Lauren chuckled.

Maureen smiled against Lauren’s skin, enjoying the feel of the softness against her lips. They had made love until they had both been completely satiated, afterwards dozing in each other’s arms, reveling in the newness of their relationship. It had been…amazing, Maureen mused. Lauren had showed a mixture of controlled desire and tenderness, adapting to Maureen’s insecurity and eagerness with an ease that had made the redhead fall deeper and deeper in love with the dark-skinned Agent.

“You’re amazing,” Maureen sighed, lifting her head and rubbing her nose against Lauren’s chin, which made the other woman smile.

“So are you,” was the soft reply, before Lauren captured Maureen’s lips in a short, but passion-filled kiss.

Their kiss was interrupted by a growling stomach and Lauren laughed out loud when she noticed the frustrated look on her lover’s face.

“Come on, let’s get you something to eat,” she suggested, brushing Maureen’s cheek with the back of her hand. A pair of smiling green eyes captured her brown ones and Lauren smiled back, restraining herself from reaching out and losing herself all over again in Maureen’s soft, creamy skin.

“What time is it?” the red-head asked, her eyes still captivated by Lauren’s.

“About eight o’clock,” Lauren answered, not looking at the alarmclock.

“Wow,” Maureen mouthed, exhaling slowly to try and get a grip on the desire that, once again, surged through her body. The feel of Lauren’s hands, the smell of her warm skin, it was enough to refuel her arousal.

“How about a….light snack…?” she suggested, leaning in and kissing Lauren’s shoulder. “And after that…back to bed?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Lauren breathed, aware of the lips that nibbled a path to her chest, kissing the swell of a breast and approaching a sensitive nipple. When Maureen’s warm lips reached their goal, Lauren could not suppress a moan. She leaned back into the pillows, pulling the redhead with her.

Their light snack simply had to wait.

#
The tiny baby frowned when the bottle was empty and the nurse who was holding it, smiled. It was so good to see the little baby boy eat so well. The first days after his arrival there had been serious concerns for his health. He had been severely dehydrated and they had all been afraid there had been illegal substances in his tiny body. But, when that had not been the case, a collective sigh of relief had rolled through the small, rural hospital. With the right care, the little boy would, hopefully, not experience any long-lasting effects of his ordeal.

“You’re insatiable, aren’t you?” the nurse cooed. “You’re catching up. You’ll be on your right weight pretty soon. You’re doing such a good job.”

A pair of dark-blue eyes stared at the nurse, the gaze still a little unfocused, while the baby-boy made little noises of contentment.

“It’s time to digest, little one,” the nurse smiled, lifting the baby up and laying him against her shoulder, softly patting his back. “It’s okay to burp in the presence of a lady when you’re that little,” she added with a chuckle, looking up when the door of the nursery was opened.

The smile froze on her face when she noticed the stranger, who had, somehow, made it into the closed unit.

“May I help you?” she cautiously asked, getting to her feet, making sure to keep the baby on her left side, away from the stranger.

“Yes, you may,” the young, well-dressed man answered with a smile that did not reach his eyes. “You may come with me.”

“Excuse me?” the nurse stammered, slowly backing away to where she knew there was a door that would lead her to the nurses station.

“You heard me,” the young man answered, still smiling. “We can do this two different ways; your way, or my way. I assure you my way is a lot better, and a lot less painful.”

“I…I don’t understand,” the nurse replied, aware of the feeling of panic that was rising in her chest. “Security will…”

“Security is no issue,” was the answer. “It’s all taken care of. Now move,” he added, a little more aggressive.

“I can’t…the baby…”

“The baby is coming as well.”

“No !” the nurse answered, more forcefully this time. “I will not allow you to…”

“You have no say in the matter, sweetie,” the man snarled. “I need you to take care of him,” he said, pointing from her to the baby. “Like I said, move !”

“But why?” the nurse cried out, wincing when the man forcefully grabbed her arm, pulling her with him toward the door. “He’s just a baby. What has he done to you?”

“Nothing, he’s my son!”

Part 11

It was not the hair tickling under her chin, nor the gentle pressure of a cheek pressed against her shoulder that pulled Lauren Darkwolf out of slumber. It was the incessant ringing of the phone, a noise that started like a faraway echo and quickly developed into something so utterly annoying, the dark-skinned Agent swatted at the source of the disturbance, only realizing it was the phone when she actually touched it. With a frown, she picked up the receiver and brought it to her ear.

“Darkwolf,” she said, sounding more awake than she really was.

“Lauren,” a familiar voice filled her ear and immediately all sleep vanished.

“Chief,” Lauren responded, putting her free hand on the back of Maureen’s head when she felt the other woman jerk. With gentle pressure she coaxed her back to her shoulder, smiling when Maureen let out a soft sigh and kissed the skin just below her collar bone.

“Lauren, I’m sorry to wake you this early, but I think there has been a development in the case.”

“There has?” Lauren replied, aware of Maureen lifting her head and sending her a curious glance.

“A nurse and baby have been kidnaped from the hospital in Elk City and we think there’s a link to the case you and Lawrence are working on.”

“How so?” Lauren asked, all traces of sleep forgotten.

“It’s something he said and one of the nurses overheard when he was on his way out, with the nurse and the baby.”

“What was it?” Lauren asked, feeling the tension surge through her body, that immediately responded by pumping adrenaline through her veins. Her heart rate picked up and the synapses in her brain were already firing, going through countless possible scenarios.

“Something about he had never intended his boy to be dumped at the side of the road.”

“Is there a security camera in…”

“The tapes are secured,” Jack Wilson interrupted. “I need you and Lawrence to fly to Elk City immediately.”

“Fly?” Lauren echoed in surprise.

“A police helicopter is waiting for the two of you at Wiley Post airport. How fast can you be there?”

“Forty minutes,” Lauren answered, not entirely succeeding in suppressing her feelings of disappointment. She had hoped to have been able to wake up slowly and peacefully, taking her time spending some more precious snuggling time with Maureen. Letting out a small sigh, Lauren looked into the green eyes that were staring up at her and mustered up a smile. “We’ll be there in forty minutes,” she repeated, before putting the phone down.

“Where are we going?” Maureen asked, rolling on her back, trying not to sound too disappointed.

“Elk City.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Maureen moaned. “Are we visiting your friend Morty while we’re there?”

“We might,” Lauren chuckled, unexpectedly rolling over and pinning the redhead underneath her. Before Maureen could react to the gentle assault, her lips were captured by Lauren’s, kissing her deliberately slow and tender. It did not take long for Maureen’s body to go completely limp, surrendering to the warmth that overtook her. By the time Lauren broke away, Maureen’s heart rate had picked up and her skin was flushed.

“That was…that was…very, very nice,” she said softly, looking up at Lauren with smiling green eyes.

“It’s my way to say ‘Good morning’,” Lauren smiled, brushing away a strand of red hair from Maureen’s forehead. “And also my way of saying that I am sorry we can’t snuggle. We’ll have to leave as soon as we can.”

“I know,” Maureen nodded, reaching up and cupping Lauren’s cheeks, so she could pull her closer for yet another slow, deep kiss.

“This is my way of saying ‘Good Morning’,” she said, smiling at the dazed look in Lauren’s eyes.

“I like it,” the dark-haired woman smiled.

“I guess we need to hit the shower,” Maureen sighed, patting Lauren’s hip. “I’m sure we could be faster if we’d…”

“Shower together?” Lauren asked, with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Exactly,” Maureen grinned. “Besides, while we shower, you can brief me. How’s that?”

“I love your practical side,” Lauren laughed, getting up from her comfortable position on the bed and pulling Maureen with her. “Follow me, Agent Lawrence. Let’s conserve some water.”

#

Karen Donalds nervously wiped her sweaty palms on her scrub pants. The man who was driving the car had not said a word ever since they had left the hospital, even though she had asked him, numerous times, where he was taking her and the baby.

Karen Donalds’ husband worked for an oil-company and they had moved into Elk City just a few months ago. She was not particularly familiar with the surrounding area and it did not take long for her to feel disoriented. There was nothing she could see through the car window that looked remotely familiar. Her kidnapper had taken I-40, going East, but as soon as he had spotted a police cruiser about half a mile in front of him, he had left the Interstate and headed for one of the country roads.

“Where are you taking us?” Karen tried again, with a conscious effort to keep the strain out of her voice. If she managed to sound calm, he might be willing to talk.

“Someplace safe,” was the gruff answer.

“Safe for you, or safe for us?” Karen sighed.

“Listen, Lady,” the man responded , casting a glance in the rearview mirror. “I don’t have any intentions to hurt you, alright? We will all be safe and when the time is right, I will let you go. All I care about is getting my son.”

“What about his mother?” Karen asked. “She will be frantic. Don’t you care about that? This baby needs his mother.”

“His mother is dead,” was the mumbled answer and, for a brief moment, Karen Donalds froze. The unexpected words had thrown her for a loop and it took her a few moments to regain her composure. What did he mean, his mother is dead?

“This baby’s mother is in the hospital we just left,” she said slowly, keeping her eyes on her kidnapper’s face to be able to see his reaction. “She’s not dead. I talked to her about thirty minutes before you came in.”

The response was unexpected. Her kidnapper slammed the brakes of the car, throwing clouds of red dust into the air and as soon as the car had come to a stop he turned around and looked at her with a mixture of anger and shock.

“What?”

“This baby’s mother, I talked to her about thirty minutes before you came in,” Karen Donalds repeated softly.

“What’s her name?”

“Umm..I …don’t…”

“What is her name?” he repeated with so much venom, Karen swallowed hard and held the sleeping baby in her arms a little closer.

“Mary-Ann Johnson,” Karen answered in a hoarse voice, immediately seeing all color drain from her kidnapper’s face. “Look,” she continued, showing him the identification bracelet the baby was wearing.

The kidnapper mumbled something unintelligible that closely resembled a string of colorful curses and, unconsciously, Karen held the baby closer. Her heart slammed against her ribs in fear of what might be happening next. She hoped and prayed he would just open the door and put her and the baby out on the road. If he would, she could walk back in the hopes of flagging down a car and asking for help.

Her hopes were crushed when the man turned back into his seat and, without even looking over his shoulder, drove off, heading East, without speaking another word.

#

Morton Pitts parked his old, beat up truck in his driveway and slowly crawled out of the cab, silently cursing the damage years of arthritis had done to his bones. Sometimes he wished he had not lost the strength in his arms and legs, there were still so many things he wanted to do.

He glanced up at his house and there was sadness in his eyes. He and his wife had built it together, many years ago, before he lost her in child birth. He did not have the strength, nor the money to make the much needed repairs and it pained him to see the place fall apart.

Shaking his head, the old man walked toward the old shed behind his house and pulled out a key to open the padlock on the door.

“Come on, Morty, no time to dwell on the past,” he sighed, stepping inside the shed. It was dark inside, but he knew exactly what he was looking for and, after rummaging through some boxes he emerged with some pieces of metal. They seemed to be heavy and it was obvious it took the old man a lot of strength to carry his load away from the shed, toward the bottom of the hill.

“Punks,” he muttered to himself, glancing at the desolated road. “Stupid, young punks.”

Determined not to give into the pain that was limiting his movements, Morton Pitts, or Morty to his friends, placed the metal where he thought it would work out best and, as quickly as possible, made his way up the hill again, stopping at his truck to pull out his old shotgun.

“Better not leave it for anyone to find,” he mumbled to himself, while he climbed the stairs to the front door that was rarely used. It took some force and determination to open the door far enough to slip inside, but after he had done that, Morty looked at the road one more time and nodded his head in approval.

“That’ll do it,” he mumbled, closing the door behind him.

#

Karen Donalds was getting desperate. While the car she was in was speeding down the road, she was trying to hold on to the baby in her arms. Their kidnapper did not seem to be too concerned with the infant’s well-being. The road was bad, torn up after the long winter season and every time the car hit a pot-hole, Karen had to hold on for dear life. The baby was firmly held in one arm, while her other hand was clenched around the strap over the door. Her eyes were shooting daggers at the driver, every time he hit a hole in the road, violently shaking her and the baby.

“Why don’t you just let us go,” she managed to shout between clenched teeth. “Just stop and let us out of the car.”

“Shut up,” the man yelled back, jerking the steering wheel to the left to avoid a particularly large hole that could have easily punctured his tire.

With fear-filled eyes, Karen tried to look at the road that was stretched out in front of them. There were fields to her right and thick shrubs to her left, but there was no house in sight, except for an old, run-down ranch house on top of one of the hills.

The baby in her arms had started to cry and Karen held the infant a little closer, desperately trying to minimize the effect of the rough road, cradling him against her body so she could keep him from getting hurt.

Looking over her shoulder, Karen could only see a big cloud of red dust and dirt, kicked up by the speeding car. She could not tell if anybody was following them, although she hoped the red cloud could be seen for miles away. She was holding the strap over the door so tightly, a cramp in her left hand made her wince in pain, but she knew she could not let go. She needed to anchor herself in the speeding car, to prevent herself and the baby from getting injured.

They were rapidly approaching an intersection, Karen saw. She could tell by the road signs alongside the road and she closed her eyes, saying a silent prayer and wishing there would be no other car crossing their path. The feared impact did not come and just when Karen let out a sigh of relief, the sound of, what seemed to be a gunshot, filled the air and immediately the car started skidding toward the side of the road.

“What the…?’ the kidnapper cried in surprise.

He yanked the steering wheel to the left, hoping to keep the car on the road, but his speed had been too great and while Karen Donalds used her legs and one hand to brace herself, the kidnapper cried in frustration when the car’s tires hit the side of the road, heading straight for a dry, shallow ditch.

The car shook violently when its front dug into the ditch. The vehicle came to such an abrupt stop, the back tires came off the ground a few inches. As soon as the car landed back on all four tires, it rocked from side-to-side and Karen Donalds moaned when her head collided with the window. For a frightening moment she thought she would pass out, but her willpower kept her from fainting. She was holding a baby and no matter what would happen, she was determined to keep the infant boy safe.

Still dizzy from the blow to her head, Karen was vaguely aware of a door being opened and slammed shut again, but she did not pay much attention to the sound. She was focused on the baby in her arms, who was crying unhappily, his eyes squeezed shut and his face wrinkled and red.

“It’s alright, sweetie,” Karen whispered, aware of the shaking of her body. She let go of the strap over the door, feeling the muscles in her hand cramp. Stiffly she shifted the baby, holding him close to her chest and softly pressing her lips against his warm forehead.

“It’s alright, sweetie,” she whispered over and over again, reassuring the infant and herself. “It’s over. It’s over.”

Outside, the kidnapper had run away from the car as fast as he could. He was no fool and knew that the blowout of four tires had not been an accident. Somebody had put something on the road to stop him and had succeeded.

Heading for the field where he had noticed a forest of dense shrubs and trees, he ran on slightly wobbly legs, ignoring the blood that was dripping from a cut in his forehead, caused by the steering wheel when his head had slammed against it. From the corner of his eye he noticed a figure hurrying toward the car. It made him stop dead in his tracks and with a low growl he watched a tall, burly man open the back door of the car, talking to the nurse who was still inside.

Rage soared through his body as he watched the stranger stiffly kneel down next to the car, still talking to the woman inside. He was infuriated with the man for interfering with his plan that had been so carefully planned. Without thinking twice, he turned around and headed back to the car.

#

“Are you alright, ma’am?” Morty asked for the second time, worried about the dazed look the young woman gave him. He had noticed the large bump on the side of her head and wondered if she would have a concussion.

“I’m…I’m fine,” Karen Donalds replied in a tired voice, still struggling to focus on her surroundings. “I…hit my head and saw stars for a minute, but I’ll be fine,” she continued with a weak smile.

“I need you to come with me,” Morty continued. “It’s not a good idea to stay in the car. The driver ran off, but…”

“In your dreams,” he heard a voice behind him and inwardly Morty cursed. How could he have been so careless? He should have made sure the driver had disappeared into the woods, before turning his attention to the woman in the car. But when he had heard a baby cry, fear had grabbed his heart and he had wondered if, in his determination to stop the car, he had injured an innocent child.

Painfully slowly, Morty pushed himself into an upright position, making sure his body was in between the woman with the baby and the angry voice behind him. Carefully, he turned around, until he came face-to-face with a young man, who, at first glance, looked like a businessman with his clean shaven face and dark-grey suit. It was the expression in his eyes though that told the old man otherwise.

“You might want to point that gun at something else, son,” Morty drawled.

“I point it where I want to point it,” the young man answered. “Why did you blow out all my tires?”

“I did what?” Morty asked in an innocent voice. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, son. I was in the field when I heard a noise and I saw your car in the ditch. I was wond’ring if y’all needed some help.” Morty glanced at the weapon in the young man’s hand. “There’s no reason for that,” he added in a calm voice. “So, you might want to put it away.”

“I don’t think so,” was the hissed answer.

#

As soon as Maureen and Lauren stepped out of the helicopter, they were greeted by Sheriff Boswick and Deputy Henderson. The first one approached them with an outstretched hand. It was obvious the Sheriff was more than happy to see them again.

“What’s going on, Sheriff?” Lauren asked, giving the young Deputy a friendly nod.

“Your city boy caused chaos in my hospital,” Sheriff Boswick answered with a grim expression on his face. “He acted like a darn cowboy.”

“Did anybody get hurt?” Maureen asked, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. In their hurry to leave, she had not had time to do anything with her hair. It was hanging loosely around her face, which annoyed her to no end, but, every now and then she noticed the appreciative look Lauren sent her and inwardly she smiled, pleased with the effect she had on her lover.

“No, just some dented egos,” Sheriff Boswick answered, motioning the women to follow him to a waiting police cruiser. “Apparently he came barging into the nursery, waving a gun, looking for his son.”

“So he took the baby and a nurse,” Lauren sighed, taking a seat in the back of the cruiser, closely followed by Maureen.

“He sure did,” Sherif Boswick answered, while Deputy Henderson started the engine and drove toward the exit of the small airport. “It was the wrong one though.”

“What?” Lauren and Maureen responded simultaneously.

“He grabbed the wrong baby,” Sherif Boswick repeated, turning in his seat so he could look at the women on the backseat. “Instead of his own boy, he grabbed Karen Donalds, the nurse, and the baby she was taking care of at that moment; Frank and Mary-Ann Johnson’s baby boy, Derrick.”

Lauren mumbled something that closely resembled a curse, while Maureen shook her head, muttering under her breath.

“My reaction exactly,” Sheriff Boswick dryly responded. “This guy is nuts and I’m very concerned about the nurse and the baby’s safety when our city boy finds out he grabbed the wrong one.”

“Do you have any idea where he went?” Lauren asked, while her brain was already trying to come up with a plan.

“Some witnesses saw him hit the Interstate, going East, but when we sent out some cruisers, going both ways, we never managed to get a visual.”

“That’s because he’s not on the Interstate,” Lauren stated calmly.

“He’s not?” Deputy Henderson asked in surprise, looking in his rearview mirror.

Lauren cast a look at Maureen who stared back at her with a pensive expression. The redhead slowly nodded and sent her friend a small smile.

“That’s right,” she nodded, remembering what Morty had told them. “There’s a road, off the Interstate that we think is used by drug runners. I bet he took that one.”

“Did the kidnapping get announced immediately?” Lauren asked quickly.

“Amber alert, yes,” Sheriff Boswick answered.

Lauren smiled grimly when she tapped Deputy Henderson on his shoulder.

“Where are we right now? Geographically?”

“We’re driving East, toward I40,” Deputy Henderson answered.

“Perfect,” Lauren answered. “Keep going East on I40 and take the first exit. We need to get to E1120.”

“That’s no problem, ma’am,” Deputy Henderson replied. “Y’all better hang on, because this is going to be a fast ride.”

“Morty?” Maureen asked softly, noticing the worried look in the dark woman’s eyes.

“Yeah, Morty,” Lauren sighed, wincing when Deputy Henderson barely missed running into a car that did not move out of the way fast enough, even though the Deputy had switched on the sirens. “He has a CB radio and I am sure that’s how he stays in close contact with what is happening.”

“That’s how he knew about the baby and his mother,” Maureen nodded, remembering Morty had been aware of what had been going on, even though he lived pretty isolated from the rest of the town.

“Yes, that’s why,” Lauren nodded. “I’m pretty sure he would have been on the look out, after the Amber alert.”

“Do you think he would try something…stupid?” Maureen asked, knowing the answer when she looked at Lauren Darkwolf’s face. “He would, wouldn’t he?” she sighed, shaking her head. Even though she had been annoyed with the old man before, she did not want anything to happen to him.

“Let’s hope he used some common sense,” Lauren replied with a small smile.

“Knowing old Morty, that might be a little too much to ask for,” Sheriff Boswick muttered, searching through some paperwork. “Here. This came in after you two were airborne. It’s from your OSBI people.”

Lauren took the fax that was handed to her and her eyes quickly scanned the paper. A small smile appeared and she let out a soft chuckle when she offered the sheet to Maureen.

“Lee Ann Lawrence. Isn’t she your cousin?

“She sure is,” Maureen nodded, grabbing the paper and letting her eyes fly over the printed words. When she was finished, she looked up and sent Lauren a warm smile.

“That’s our Lally,” she remarked, not able to hide the pride in her voice.

“She did a great job,” Lauren admitted. “Smart woman.”

“Smart as a whip,” Maureen said. “Her dream is to join the OSBI.”

“Well, she’d be an asset,” Lauren replied. “She dug up a whole lot of information in a short period of time. At least we have a name now, Jacob Mannen.”

“If it’s the same one we’re after, he’s slick,” Maureen answered. “And also armed and dangerous. His wrap sheet is as long as my arm. Mostly drug possession and dealing. Armed robbery when he was barely twenty. He’s spent a lot of time in jail.”

“And when he goes back in, he might not come out until he’s old and grey,” Sheriff Boswick said with determination. “I do hope the only thing we’ll have to add is kidnapping. I’d hate to see something happen to Morty, or the to the nurse and baby.

#

“Son, you can still walk away from all this,” Morty sighed, deliberately keeping his voice calm, although he was very concerned about the woman and baby who were still in the car. “Just turn around and walk away. Or, better yet, I can give you the keys of my truck. Here take them,” he offered, stretching out his hand that was holding the keys. “ My truck is parked behind that bush over there. Go and leave the lady and child in peace.”

“I’m no fool,” the young man said angrily, wiping away a trickle of blood that still oozed from the cut in his head. “And stop calling me ‘son’ !”

“Well, I don’t know yer name,” Mort drawled, eyeing the young man with curious eyes. If only the young punk would lower the gun for one second, Morty knew he had a chance to grab the weapon. He knew he was older and not as fast, but he had a lot more strength than the slenderly built man in front of him.

“You don’t need to know my name,” was the angry answer.

“In that case, I’ll call you ‘son’,” Morty decided.

His remark had the desired effect, because the young man’s face became red with anger, while a vein in his forehead became clearly visible.

“My name is not ‘son’, it’s Jake, you old fool,” he spat, motioning Morty to step away from the car.

“I’m not moving, Jake,” Morty calmly answered. “You’re not going to touch this lady and baby.”

“I touch whoever I want to touch, old man. You hear me?” Jake yelled. “Can’t you see I’m holding a gun? I’m in power here. I am the boss.”

“Only in yer own little world,” Morty replied, outwardly still calm, although deep down inside he feared for the safety of the nurse and infant, who were still hunkered down in the car. He knew he was pushing the young man’s buttons and he could only hope and pray he would not push him too far too soon.

“Move…out…of…the…way,” Jake said through gritted teeth. “If you don’t, I will personally make sure you will never….ever get in anybody’s way again.”

From the corner of his eye, Morty had noticed a cloud of dust that was rapidly approaching. Jake had not seen it yet, since the road was behind him and Morty frantically tried to come up with a plan to stall a little longer. Just a few minutes would be enough.

“Where will you take them?” Morty asked, trying to look at the young man’s face and not at the road behind him.

“None of your business.”

“Actually, it is,” Morty sighed, rocking back and forth on his heels. “See, don’t let these coveralls fool you, my mama raised a gentleman and I can’t allow you to take this woman and this baby. I just can’t. You could take me,” he offered, almost cheerfully.

“Are you nuts?” Jake snapped. “I’m not taking you anywhere. Now, step out of the way, because I swear, I’ll use this,” he yelled, waving his gun. “I give you five seconds to move, old man, and if you haven’t, I’ll….”

Jake halted in mid-sentence when his eye caught the reflection of a movement in the car window.

“What the…?” he mumbled, turning his head so he could have a look at the road behind him, where, to his surprise and horror, a police cruiser came speeding into their direction.

That was the moment Morty had been waiting for. Without hesitation, he stepped forward, grabbing the hand that was holding the gun, pressing it down, so the weapon was pointed to the ground. He squeezed as hard as his arthritis plagued hands would allow him, inwardly cursing his physical condition.

After the initial shock of the older man grabbing his arm, Jake tried to pull himself free, but it was like his hand was caught in a vice. His strength surprised him and with a grunt he pulled again, using his other arm to try and push the older man away. If only he could get him off balance, he might be able to get away. It was only a matter of minutes before the police cruiser would catch up with him and Jake was determined not to get caught. His desperation gave him strength and with a loud yell he pulled himself free, at the same time hearing the deafening sound of a gun being fired.

“Oh, God,” he panted. “Damn.”

It took Jake a few seconds to regain his composure, but then his eyes fell on Morty’s truck keys that had ended up on the dusty gravel road. With a grunt he jumped forward, grabbed the keys and ran toward the area where Morty had told him he had parked his truck. It was right where the old man had told him and Jake almost cried in relief.

Before he opened the door of the beat-up old truck, he cast a look over his shoulder. The tension he was under had made him sick to his stomach and he wiped the perspiration from his forehead and eyes, aware of the nausea that had settled in the pit of his stomach.

“Stupid old fool,” he mumbled, before jumping into the dusty cabin and starting the engine.

Without looking back, Jake sped down the road, leaving Morty, Karen Donalds and the baby boy in an impressive cloud of dust. He knew the police cruiser was not far behind him, but he resisted the urge to look back. Instead, his eyes were on the road in front of him, while his hands were clenched around the steering wheel.

“Stupid old fool,” he kept mumbling to himself. “You should have listened to me. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Part 12

Lauren Darkwolf was the first one who jumped out of the car, even before it had come to a full stop, closely followed by Maureen. From a distance she had recognized the burly form of Morty, immediately fearing something had happened to the old man.

“Get after him,” she yelled at Deputy Henderson, aware of the truck that was speeding away from them. “And radio in an ambulance.”

Without waiting for an answer, Lauren and Maureen sprinted toward the side of the road, where Morton Pitts had collapsed. There was a rapidly growing stain on his denim coverall, just below his right hip. Kneeling next to him, Lauren was aware of the scrubs- clad woman in the car and, without looking up, she asked: “Ma’am, are you alright?”

“I am fine,” was the weak response from Karen Donalds, who was still a little dizzy after her head had collided with the side of the door. “I’m fine. I should have a look at this man, I…”

“Stay where you are,” Lauren advised, firm, but not unfriendly. “Help is on the way and I need you to hold on to that baby.”

“Oh…okay,” Karen Donalds answered softly, her voice still testimony to her dazed state. “It’s alright, sweetie,” she whispered to the baby who was fussing in her arms. “We’re safe now. It’s alright.”

“Can you find a pulse?” Lauren asked Maureen, who had her fingers pressed against the side of Morty’s neck. The old man was unconscious and it was hard to see if he was breathing.

Maureen tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and nodded.

“Very faint. We need to stop the bleeding.”

“I’m on it,” Lauren mumbled, pressing both her hands against Morty’s hip, which made him softly grunt. “I’m sorry if I hurt you, my friend,” she whispered. “But I want you to pull through.”

“I can only see one bloodstain,” Maureen spoke, while her eyes inspected the unconscious man. “I hope that was the only bullet. One bloodstain doesn’t mean a thing.”

“I know,” Lauren sighed, feeling the perspiration form on her forehead. It was another warm day and there was no breeze. The heated air hung over the road like a hovering blanket, suffocating the underlying grass and trees. The roar of the police cruiser’s engine became a distant rumble as Deputy Henderson and Sheriff Boswick chased Morton Pitts’ truck. Maureen coughed when the settling dust tickled her throat, sending Lauren a reassuring smile when the dark-haired woman shot her a worried look.

“I’ll call 911, just to make sure,” Maureen mumbled, feeling helpless. She quickly dialed the number, hoping she would have a signal. With a small sigh of relief, her call was immediately answered.

Lauren heard her lover talk on the phone, but the words did not register. Her thoughts were with the old man who was bleeding profusely and with the people who loved him. Raising her dark eyes to the sky, she sent up a silent prayer to anyone who would be willing to listen. A hawk was silhouetted against the blue of the sky, using the moving layers of air to paint lazy circles. He was big and powerful and, in spite of the situation, Lauren took a moment to admire the beauty of the majestic bird.

“They’re on the way,” she heard Maureen’s voice interrupt her thoughts and she quietly nodded.

“Are you alright? Do you want me to take over for a while?” the redhead asked, eager to do something, anything.

“I’m fine,” Lauren answered with a small smile. “Why don’t you check on the nurse and baby?”

Maureen nodded and opened the door of the car, inwardly sighing. She was so not in the mood to deal with an hysterical person and crying baby.

“Hi. My name is Maureen Lawrence and I am with the OSBI. The lady outside with Morty is my partner Lauren Darkwolf. Are you alright?”

“ I am fine,” Karen Donalds sighed. “Just some rattled nerves. Derrick here is a trooper, he’s back asleep already,” the nurse added with a smile.

“Did you or the baby get hurt?” Maureen asked, admiring the nurse’s spirit. She had been kidnaped by a madman who had taken her on a wild ride in a stolen car, that had violently ended in a ditch and she was still able to smile.

“I hit my head, but that’s all,” Karen answered. “Derrick is fine, just in need of a bottle and a diaper change.”

“Let me look at your head,” Maureen offered, scrutinizing the bump on the side of Karen’s head. “I guess you’ll need to have that checked out. Did you lose consciousness?”

“Nope, I just saw a lot of stars,” Karen answered with a wry smile.

“Did the baby…?”

“I was making sure he didn’t,” Karen interrupted. “If his skin does show bruises later on, it’s because I was holding him too tight.”

“Sounds to me you kept him from getting hurt,” Maureen smiled. “I’m sure his parents won’t mind a bruise or two.”

“I sure hope not,” Karen sighed. “Have you seen his daddy?” When Maureen shook her head, she chuckled. “He’s 6’6″ and weighs three hundred pounds, on a light day. I don’t want to make him mad.”

“He won’t be,” Maureen laughed, looking up when she heard the tell-tale sounds of approaching emergency vehicles. “Here are the medics,” she said. “Stay here, alright?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Karen promised. “My legs are too wobbly to stand up anyway,” she mumbled, looking in the direction of the sound and noticing the growing cloud of dust in the air.

Rapidly approaching were two police-cruisers and an ambulance. Even though the sound of their sirens could not be really heard yet, the flashing lights on the vehicle could be seen for miles.

“Hang in there, Morty,” Lauren muttered, increasing pressure on the wound in the old man’s hip. The veins in her forearm stood out vividly as her muscles tensed.

Unexpectedly, the old man grunted and, when a surprised Lauren looked at his face, she could see he was struggling to open his eyes.

“Hey, there,” she almost choked with relief. “Morty. Can you hear me?”

“I might be old, but I’m not deaf,” was the barely audible answer. “Whatcha doin’ there, young lady?”

“Stopping you from bleeding all over the road,” Lauren quipped with a half-smile. “You got shot.”

“Damn young fool,” Morty coughed, wincing when the pressure on his hip increased. “Are you tryin’ to kill me, too?”

“I probably should,” Lauren answered. “What were you thinking, putting those spikes on the road?”

“Home made stop sticks, ” Morty sighed, closing his eyes against the bright light of the sky. “Are they alright?” he added in a whisper.

“They’re fine,” Lauren nodded, while her dark eyes were glued to the ambulance that was almost a few more seconds away. “Hang in there, my friend,” she encouraged the old man again. “You’ll be fine. Let the EMT’s do their job.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but don’t let any of those young girls pull down my britches!”

###

“What do you mean they lost him?” Maureen asked impatiently, looking at the police officer in front of her with stormy green eyes.

“I don’t know for sure, ma’am,” was the immediate answer. “They trailed him all the way to Cordell, but then they lost track of him. They did find the car, but it was empty. They’re doing a search right now, with dogs.”

“That’s probably going to be useless,” Maureen sighed, pushing a strand of hair away from her forehead. “If we are right, this guy is one of the head cheeses of a gang of drug-runners. I bet he had one of his buddies waiting for him to pick him up and right now they’re on their way back to the city.”

“We’re all over I-40, ma’am,” the police officer replied.

“He won’t be taking I-40,” Maureen muttered. “He’s too smart for that. He’s taking one of the many back roads and will disappear in Oklahoma City.”

“With all due respect, ma’am. We will still keep an eye out on I-40.”

“Of course,” Maureen sighed again. “Thanks, anyway. And who knows, we might get lucky,” she added, not believing her own words. With an impatient sigh she reached for her buzzing cell phone, briefly wondering how on earth she managed to receive a signal in the middle of nowhere.

“Hey, cousin,” a cheerful voice greeted her and immediately Maureen smiled.

“Hey, Lally! What a nice surprise. How are you doing? Have you caught any more bad guys lately?”

“As a matter of fact, that’s why I’m calling you,” Lee Ann Lawrence answered. “We arrested a guy last night who was stalking your friends, Rachel Kendrick and Hannah Jensen.”

“Are they alright?” Maureen quickly asked, unconsciously pressing the phone closer to her ear.

“They’re fine,” Lee Ann reassured her cousin. “In fact, they were the ones who brought the guy straight to the hospital’s security officer. It was funny. I’d never heard of such a thing before.”

“Rachel and Hannah are pretty level-headed,” Maureen agreed. “So, tell me about this guy. I have the feeling your guy has something to do with the guy we’re chasing.”

“Oh, cousin, there’s a reason you do what you do,” Lee Ann teased. “But, you’re right. According to our guy, Benjamin Nunn, Jacob Mannen, your guy, was willing to donate a substantial amount of drugs in exchange for Hannah Jensen’s address.”

“Really?” Maureen drawled, surprised by the information. “Did he tell you why?”

“Nope, Ben had no clue. He’s a real drug-addict and was in desperate need for a fix. Jacob Mannen only told him to write down the address and drop it off somewhere underneath an overpass. The drugs would be waiting for him there.”

“I take it somebody is keeping an eye on that overpass now?” Maureen asked.

“Oh, ouch, Maureen, that hurts,” Lee Ann laughed. “Of course we’re keeping an eye on it.”

“I’m sorry. I had to ask, just to…” Maureen mumbled, but her cousin interrupted her with a laugh.

“Don’t worry about it. If I’d been you, I’d have asked the same thing. So, any clue as to why Hannah Jensen is involved in all this?”

“I do have an idea,” Maureen sighed, raking her fingers through her hair. “She’s a nurse.”

There was a brief silence and Maureen could almost hear Lee Ann think. She gave her cousin the opportunity to process the information and draw her own conclusions. She did not get disappointed.

“Weren’t you called out because of a kidnapped baby?”

“Yup,” Maureen answered with a smile.

“He wanted a nurse to take care of his baby,” Lee Ann spoke slowly. “Am I right?”

“I’m not a hundred percent sure,” Maureen admitted with a smile. “But I am pretty sure that’s the case though.”

“Where’s the baby?”

“Right here,” Maureen answered. “Jacob Mannen was stopped by a local. He shot him and took off in the poor old guy’s truck. The nurse and baby are fine, they’re all back with their family.”

“Where are you now?”

“Hospital in Elk City,” Maureen explained. “Lauren is not happy with our local fellow law enforcers. They were supposed to keep an eye on I-40, just in case our guy would take it to head back to the city. Instead, there were three guys keeping an eye on one and the same back road.”

“Oops,” Lee Ann winced. “Not good.”

“Not good,” Maureen agreed. “The chance of him taking I-40 was slim, but this stunt gave him all the opportunity he needed to get away unseen. He can be anywhere right now.’

“So, is Lauren yelling at them?”

“No, that’s not her style,” Maureen sighed. “I would have, you know that. No, Lauren tells them quietly, but very clearly. When I passed them on my way outside, just a few minutes ago, I saw a few of the guys squirm and look really, really uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that, when Lauren is finished with them, their boss will have a go at it. I hope to be out of here by then.”

“So, the two of you will be coming back to the city today?”

“Hopefully,” Maureen sighed. “I’m sure Lauren will like to be back as soon as we can. She’s determined to catch this guy, especially after he kidnapped the nurse and baby and shot Morty.”

“Will he be alright?”

“The doctors say he’ll be fine. He’s a tough old man. You’d like him.”

Maureen told her cousin how Morty had successfully stopped Jacob Mannen and heard her cousin chuckle.

“He sounds like a character,” Lee Ann laughed. “I certainly hope he’ll be fine. He deserves a medal for what he did.”

“That’s what the people of this town already have decided,” Maureen smiled, remembering the clusters of people outside the hospital’s entrance, talking about their local hero. “They asked Lauren if there was anything they could do for him and she told them they could give him a hand repairing his roof.”

“And I’m sure they will,” Lee Ann replied. “Listen, Maureen, I’ve got to run. We’re heading for the overpass, just in case. Although I do have a feeling he might not show up.”

“You never know. He’s desperate and most likely pretty pissed off. If he’s determined to get his son back, he might do some crazy things. Is anybody keeping an eye on Hannah and Rachel?”

“Yeah, don’t worry. They don’t like it, but the chief didn’t leave them a choice. Everybody here remembers what happened last year and nobody wants a repeat.”

“I’m glad to hear that, thanks, Lally.”

“No problem, cousin. I need to go now. I’ll see you later, I’m sure. Be careful.”

“You too, Lee Ann. Watch your back.”

“Always,” was the promise, before the line went dead.

With a sigh, Maureen put the phone away and tilted her head toward the sun, enjoying the warmth in her face. She was tired and wished she could go to sleep, but knew that would not be an option. Not for a while. Her thoughts were torn between the case she and Lauren were working on and the memories of the previous night – the wonder and awe she felt every time she remembered the hours she and Lauren had spent in each other’s arms. It had been so amazing.

“Penny for your thoughts,” a familiar voice sounded in her ear and Maureen could not help smiling.

“Oh, dangerous,” she answered, lazily opening her eyes to be able to look at the woman next to her.

“Really?” Lauren inquired in a serious voice, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.

“Oh, yeah,” Maureen nodded, resisting the urge to stretch out a hand and stroke Lauren Darkwolf’s cheek. “I was trying to direct my thoughts to the case, but I was being distracted by some very nice memories.”

“I am glad,” Lauren answered with a smile. “That they’re nice, I mean.”

“They are,” Maureen nodded. “Although I wonder how come you’re so certain about my memories. Unless you think you’re part of them.”

“Oh, but I know I am part of them,” Lauren smiled. “Do you want to know why?”

“Please, enlighten me,” Maureen teased.

“Your skin was flushed and I know it wasn’t the sun, because the smile on your face was so much like the one I saw yesterday. The one I saw over and over and over again,” Lauren added in a deep voice, chuckling when Maureen’s skin erupted in goose bumps. “Am I right?”

“Completely,” the red-head admitted, fascinated by her body’s response to Lauren’s close presence. If they would not have been standing in front of the hospital, with police officers walking in-and-out, she would have thrown herself in Lauren’s arms and would have kissed her passionately.

“Hold that thought,” Lauren spoke, her dark eyes reflecting the love and desire she felt for the other woman. “This case will be over soon and I promise you I’ll take you on a vacation, somewhere quiet. Just you and me.”

“I’d like that,” Maureen whispered. “Where will you take me?”

“The Ozarks,” Lauren smiled. “I know just the right cabin. It has a great view, a big fridge and a huge bed.”

“Oh, just what the Doctor ordered,” Maureen sighed, reluctantly straightening her body, ready to go wherever their job would take them. “Please, let it be soon,” she added softly.

“It will be,” Lauren promised. “We’re closing in on this guy. We have his baby, his name, his face on the security tape, his meth lab, two of his buddies and witnesses.”

“You saw the tape?” Maureen asked with interest.

“Not the whole tape, just a couple of pictures they showed me. He’s the slickly dressed guy we saw at the hospital that day, after the tornado.”

“I know,” Maureen nodded. “I just got off the phone with Lee Ann.” She quickly told Lauren what her cousin had told her and the dark-haired woman listened intently.

“I’m sorry to hear Rachel and Hannah are somehow involved, but I’m glad to know he was either desperate or just plain stupid to get this Benjamin Nunn involved,” Lauren sighed. “He must be quite desperate, though. There’s a tiny chance he’ll show up at the overpass.”

“Do you really think so?” Maureen asked.

“Yeah, I do,” Lauren nodded. “He doesn’t know Nunn has been arrested, but he does realize his entire safety net is falling away. He’ll be desperate. He might be tempted to get hold of Hannah in order to get his baby. Or maybe he wants to talk to Nunn to give him another job to do. Fact is, he needs support and he doesn’t have a lot left.”

“He has his drug-running buddies.”

“That’s true,” Lauren admitted. “But his face will be all over the news tonight. Nobody will want to be seen with him. He’s destined to make a mistake. All we have to do is keep our ears and eyes open. And try to be around when he does mess up.” There was a determined, almost grim expression on Lauren’s face. “I’m determined to get to this guy and get the punk off the streets. I can’t wait to read him his rights.”

###

The uneventful ride back to Oklahoma City had restored some of Jacob Mannen’s self-confidence. He had expected the roads to have been crowded with police, but expect for the one cruiser along the interstate, whose officer was ticketing somebody for speeding, the coast had been absolutely clear.

By the time he reached the city limits, his anxiety had almost completely left him and he felt calmer than he had been since he had set foot inside Elk City hospital. He felt safe enough to try and come up with a plan . He knew there was no chance of him going back to the lab on Tenth Street. The place had been raided by the police and going back there would certainly mean being arrested.

Jacob Mannen, also known as ‘Musk’, was well-respected by his friends and ‘business associates’. He had earned their respect for his ability to get himself out of trouble. Numerous times he had escaped the police and he was very proud of his talent to elude the law. Nobody had ever tried to tell on him, because they all knew he could be ruthless. He had proven that not long ago.

Jacob’s thoughts went back to the day he walked into his livingroom, happy to be home, so he could be with his newborn son, finding his girlfriend, the mother of his child, holding his notebook. At first, he had just been surprised, thinking he must have left it on the table that morning, but then he remembered he had tucked it away safely, like he always did.

His girlfriend had not been able to come up with a good excuse for going through his business administration and right then and there he had decided she needed to go. That’s when he had called Ape and Squid to tell them he had a job for them.

With a sigh, Jacob shook his head. Who knew they would have screwed up so badly? Their stupidity had cost him the biggest part of his business and in the end they had left him no choice and he had to get rid of them also. What a mess.

“Well, it’s just you now, Jake,” he spoke aloud. “You need to come up with a plan to get your son and get out of town. Start over somewhere else. New Mexico, maybe, or Arizona.” Jacob Mannen turned the car he had borrowed from a friend into the parking lot of a sad looking apartment complex. As soon as he had stopped the car, a small group of teenage boys, dressed in the colors of their gang, approached the car.

With a chuckle, Jacob Mannen squared his shoulders and sought eye contact with what appeared to be the leader.

“What’s up?” he asked in a calm voice.

“”S’ what I was going to ask you, dude,” the teenager responded. “You’re on our turf.”

“I know,” Jacob grinned. “I’m looking for Mesh.”

“We don’t know nobody with that name,” was the response.

“Yes, you do,” Jacob nodded, stepping closer to the teen as a sign he was neither impressed nor scared.

“Mesh is the leader of the ‘Razors’. He’s your boss and you’d better go find him and tell him Musk wants to see him.”

“Musk,” the teenager repeated, his dark-brown eyes scanning Jacob’s face. “Who that?”

“You know who,” Jacob sneered. “Musk is the one providing all of you with the candy each week. I need to talk to Mesh, so you’d better call him for me. He won’t be happy if you don’t get a move on.”

Almost imperceptibly, the tall, lanky teenager nodded to one of his friends, who seemed to have been waiting for his signal. He whipped out a cell phone and speed-dialed a number. Less than five seconds later, he handed the phone to Jake.

“Mesh,” is all he said and a pleased smile appeared on Jacob Mannen’s face.

###

“Do you really think he’ll come?” David Hargrove sighed, glancing aside at his partner.

“I’ve got no idea,” Lee Ann Lawrence answered. “But we’ve just got here, Dave. Are you getting impatient already?”

“Yes, and hungry,” he muttered.

“You just ate a turkey sandwich,” Lee Ann replied, looking at him with a frown.

“I can’t help it,” David shrugged. “I’m hungry.”

“I need to talk to Ellen. I want to know if she lets you eat that much at home,” Lee Ann mumbled.

“Are you kidding me?” was David’s response. “She’s on a diet! All I get is salad and fish. Look at me. I’m six foot six. I can’t live on salad and fish.”

Lee Ann chuckled and gave her partner and friend a pat on the back.

“Poor guy. I’d feel sorry for you, if I didn’t know you had a cheeseburger and fries for lunch and also wolfed down two cupcakes at Starbucks. It’s a mystery where you put all that stuff,” she muttered, eying his tall frame.

“I use it to maintain my frame,” was the answer and Lee Ann laughed.

“Your artery- clogged frame,” Lee Ann replied. “It might not show, yet, but all that greasy stuff has to go somewhere.”

“I burn it,” David grinned, patting his stomach.

“You won’t do that forever,” Lee Ann remarked, staring at the overpass through a pair of binoculars. “Wait until you hit your late thirties, early forties. All those burgers will start to stick to you.”

Unconsciously leaning forward, Lee Ann squinted her eyes and immediately David had forgotten about his hunger.

“What? Do you see anything?”

“Do you remember the name of that prostitute we arrested a while ago? The one with the gold tooth and the tattoo of…”

“The virgin Mary,” David added. “Yes, I remember. Why?”

“It looks like she’s working the overpass tonight,” Lee Ann answered, handing her partner the binoculars and leaning back into her chair, grabbing her mug and taking a sip of tea.

“Her name is Sheila,” David relayed. “But on the streets she’s known as Mottled Mary.”

“That’s the one,” Lee Ann chuckled. “Do you have any idea why she’d be so far away from her regular corner?”

“I’ve got no clue,” David mumbled. “Maybe she had a client who picked her up and dropped her off here?”

“Maybe,” Lee Ann answered slowly. “Although that seems very unlikely. She must be pretty sure to get a ride back to her own side of town to have done something like that.”

“Unless someone asked her to be here?” David spoke, voicing Lee Ann’s thoughts and his partner nodded.

“Could be,” she admitted. “Am I going too far in my desire to be a hot-shot investigator when I launch the hypothesis that Mary dear has been asked to show up here tonight?”

“Not really,” David shrugged. “The question would be ‘why’ though.”

“Diversion,” Lee Ann immediately answered, having expected a question like that. “Most of us know Mary and we’d all be tempted to take her to the station when we see her work a corner. You know how she always throws a major fit when she gets taken in. It would be a great distraction for someone else to get underneath the overpass and get the package, or whatever the heck it is.”

“You might be on to something,” David nodded, glancing sideways. “You’ll make a great Agent, Lee Ann.”

“So will you,” she replied with a sunny smile, surprised to see him shake his head. “What do you mean?” she asked curiously.

“Being OSBI is not for me,” he explained, avoiding her eyes. “I’m not that smart. The only reason I am here tonight, instead of cruising the street is because I am your partner. I guess the boss didn’t want to split us up.”

“That’s crazy talk, Dave,” Lee Ann snorted. “You’re a smart guy and you’re a good cop. The OSBI would be lucky to get you.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know so,” Lee Ann nodded. “What has you down like that tonight?”

“Ellen and I have been talking about kids and I guess we’re both ready. I’d love to be a dad, you know that. But I want to be a good one, in all aspects. I sometimes wonder if being a cop will get us the income we need to raise a couple of kids. Lately I’ve been thinking if I should change careers, or something.”

“Have you talked to Ellen about that?” Lee Ann asked, understanding her friend’s doubts.

“Not yet,” he sighed. “I don’t want to worry her. Besides, I’m not sure yet, about changing careers, I mean. I love what I do.”

“Talk to Ellen,” Lee Ann repeated. “Your wife adores you and she’d want to know what you’re struggling with. Besides, she’s one of the most sensible people I know, even though she married you,” she added with a grin.

David chuckled and threw a wadded up paper napkin at his partner, who ducked and felt the soft tissue bounce off the window and roll onto the floor of the car. Before she could respond to his playful attack though, he was leaning forward, over the steering wheel, staring at the overpass.

“Lee Ann, look,” he said in an excited voice.

As soon as his partner looked at the overpass, she felt the adrenaline rush through her body.

“What the…?”

“The ‘Razors’,” David spoke, knowing full well Lee Ann had recognized the group as well. “They’re far away from their territory. Oh, man, I hope there won’t be a gang war. Not tonight.”

“Although that might be exactly what they’re here for,” Lee Ann responded, wordlessly counting the group of teenagers that had showed up. “There are twenty-three of them. No one in their right mind would even come close to the overpass now. Except Mary. Look at her, Dave. It’s like she knew they’d show up.”

David mumbled an expletive and reached for his cell phone.

“They must know we’re here, Lee Ann. We either need to get out of here, or call for back up. I don’t know what the plan is, but this could get ugly. Especially if the ‘Perros’ make an appearance. They so don’t like their turf being invaded.”

“I know,” his partner answered, flipping over her own cell phone. “Who are you calling?”

“Chief,” was David’s short answer.

“Good. I’ll call Pete and Gary. They should be at the other side of the overpass.”

“Tell them to use their cell phones and to stay off the radio,” David urged. “We know the ‘Razors’ always manage to intercept us.”

“I’ll tell ‘em,” Lee Ann nodded, the expression on her face worried and tense.

She dialed the number of Pete Christopoulos’ cell phone, but before it could ring, there was a knock on the window. Startled, she turned her head to look straight into her cousin’s face.

“Open the door,” Maureen gestured and immediately Lee Ann obeyed. With a dry click the car unlocked and simultaneously the doors in the back were opened when Maureen Lawrence and Lauren Darkwolf stepped inside.

“You guys are sticking out like a band-aid on a sore thumb,” Maureen started before anyone could utter a word. “You’ll need to get off those cell phones, right now, and back out of here. Lee Ann, we could spot you and David from a mile away. This car screams ‘stake out’.”

“Nice to see you, too, cousin,” Lee Ann muttered, casting her cousin a dark glance.

“Hi, Lee Ann,” Lauren smiled. “We’ll exchange pleasantries later. Maureen is right, we need to get out of here. There’s going to be major trouble.”

“Only if the ‘Perros’ find out the ‘Ra…’” David started, but he was interrupted by a hand on his shoulder.

“Look behind you,” Lauren’s voice was soft, but there was a level of tension in it he had not noticed before. “Do you see all those small groups of kids hanging out? Don’t you think there are more now than, say, thirty minutes ago?” Lauren added after David nodded. “Those are the ‘Perros’ and they have been steadily filling the street for the last forty-five minutes. All they need is a signal from their leaders and they’ll be under the overpass before you can make a phone call.”

Lauren looked around and shook her head.

“Haven’t you noticed that store across the street closing its doors? They know what’s going to happen.”

“Forty-five minutes?” Lee Ann echoed. “Have you guys been here all that time?”

“Oh, yes, we have,” Maureen answered. “We’ll explain later. Come on, Dave, let’s get out of here.”

“Where are we going?” David asked, after he had started the engine.

“Hannah and Rachel,” Lauren answered with a grim expression on her face. “If our guy is so desperate to get the two biggest rival gangs in the city involved, he’s crazy enough to try and get to Hannah.”

Part 13

“This is Sandra Collins with breaking news: About ten minutes ago the Oklahoma City Department police force and the SWAT team have cordoned off an area around 10th street where, according to a local source, two rival gangs are involved in a stand-off. Shots have been heard and there seems to be a car on fire close to the overpass. We have a team on the spot and will hear from them what exactly is going on. Jessica, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Sandra, I hear you loud and clear.”

“Alright. Go ahead, Jessica.”

“I am standing on the corner of 10th street and Reno and behind me you can see the lights of at least ten police cruisers. This is as close as we’re allowed to be, but I can tell you that one of the deputies we were able to speak with, confirms that a lot of members of both the ‘Perros’ and the “Razors’ are gathered in the area that has been sealed off. Officers of the SWAT team have positioned themselves on several roofs and word is that the two gangs are ready for battle.”

“With each other or with the police, Jessica?”

“That’s a good question, Sandra. We’re not sure about that. A few minutes ago shots were heard, but it’s unclear who fired them. There are two police helicopters in the air, as you can see behind me, but our own chopper is not allowed in the airspace directly over the scene. Right now, I cannot tell you more than that it seems like the ‘Perros’ and the ‘Razors’ are involved in a deadly confrontation. But as soon as new information becomes available, we will let you know.”

“Okay, Jessica. One more question for now: have you any information about whether the police were informed about this gathering of the two gangs?”

“I don’t know that yet, Sandra, but it is a question that is on a lot of people’s minds. Hopefully we will be able to get an answer to that soon.”

“Keep us informed. Thank, you, Jessica, and be careful. That was Jessica Baker for KFOR news, live at the scene on 10th street. We will continue our scheduled program, but as soon as new information reached us, we will give you an update. Stay tuned with KFOR, for your local breaking news…”

“Well, who would have thought?” Rachel mumbled, turning the volume of the television down. “I hope this won’t turn into a shoot-out.”

“They’ll call you back in if it does,” Hannah sighed, snuggling closer into the warm body beside her.

“They might,” Rachel nodded, dropping a kiss on Hannah’s blond hair. “I guess it would all depend on what happens. It’s pretty strange though. Those two gangs have their territory on opposite parts of town. As far as I know they do fight occasionally, but I never would have thought they’d have a confrontation like this, with the ‘Razors’ invading ‘Perro’ territory.”

“Have you treated any of them lately?” Hannah asked, glancing up at her partner, who was pensively staring at the muted tv.

“Just last week,” Rachel answered. “It was a kid with a superficial stab wound. Nothing too serious. He had been taunting a Razor member, who had come after him. I guess if there had been a serious conflict, things would have been worse.”

“I guess they…” Hannah started to reply, when the phone rang. With a groan, the blonde reached out to pick up the receiver, hoping it was not the hospital calling in Rachel.

“Hannah?” a familiar voice sounded.

“Hey, Maureen,” Hannah smiled. “That’s a surprise! How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Maureen answered, sounding stressed. “Are you at home? Is Rachel there with you?”

“Yes, to both questions,” Hannah replied with a frown. “What’s going on, Maureen?”

“I can’t tell you right now, but I will soon. We’re on the way.”

There was a brief moment of silence in which Hannah could hear the humming noise of a car engine.

“On the way…to where?” the blonde asked.

“To your house,” was the short reply.

Hannah waited a few seconds, hoping to get some more information, but Maureen was silent. Her blue eyes sought Rachel’s brown ones and she shrugged her shoulders.

“Maureen,” she started with a sigh. “If you’re on your way here, there’s something going on that, apparently, involves us. I’d like to know what.”

“It’s a long story, Hannah. I’ll tell you when we get there.”

“And when will that be?”

“A few minutes.”

“Maureen Lawrence, you’re as clear as mud,” Hannah could not help chuckling. “Alright, tell me this: are we in some kind of danger? Do I need to get my gun?” she added jokingly.

“Just don’t open the door for anyone, except us,” was Maureen’s serious answer.

The words ‘danger’ and ‘gun’ had attracted Rachel’s attention and with a dark expression on her face, the doctor leaned in closer in the hope of hearing some of Maureen’s comments.

“You’re scaring me,” Hannah spoke softly, vividly remembering the day when Nathan Kendrick had tried to kidnap her.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to,” Maureen apologized. “Hannah, we’re a few blocks away from your house, so we’ll be there shortly. Don’t open the door for anyone and make sure all your doors and windows are locked.”

“Maureen…”

“Hannah! Please!” Maureen pleaded and for the first time the blonde could detect something in her friend’s voice she had never heard before: fear. All of a sudden, her throat felt dry and she swallowed hard.

“Alright, alright,” Hannah answered in a strangled voice. “We’ll check all the doors and windows.”

“Now,” Maureen urged and Hannah nodded.

“Now,” she promised.

“Thank you, Hannah. We’re less than five minutes away. I’ll answer all your questions once we get there.”

“You’d better,” Hannah sighed. “Okay, drive carefully. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”

“Hannah! No! Don’t hang up,” Maureen yelled, stopping the blonde from severing the connection.

“Maureen, you’re scaring the heck out of me,” Hannah replied with a raised voice, aware of the cold shiver of fear that ran down her spine.

“I know, I am sorry,” was the curt reply. “I’ll explain soon, just don’t put the phone down until we’re there. Please.”

#

Jacob Mannen had changed into a pair of jeans and a navy blue sweatshirt, leaving his expensive suit behind in the small, dirty motel room. He did not think he would need it again any time soon. Jacob was a smart young man, who knew that, by now an accurate description of him would be in the possession of every law officer in the entire state. So, he rented a motel room, just for a few hours, paying cash, changed his clothes and dyed his hair. He was platinum blonde now, which he actually liked, because it set off his tan. He had managed to borrow an old, red Mustang from Mesh, the leader of the ‘Razors’, knowing he would now easily blend into a crowd.

With a grin, Jacob cast a look in the rearview mirror, admiring his new look. He doubted his own mother would recognize him at first glance. The disguise was not perfect, but hopefully it would hold up long enough for him to get what he needed and head out of the state, with his son.

Content with himself and his plan, Jacob left the cheap motel behind him, setting course to the address he had found in the phone book, confident it was the right one. It would not be long now, before he would be having his son with him and they could start a new life, somewhere else.

Again, Jacob cast a look in the mirror, smoothing down his light-colored hair. He winked at himself and chuckled, pleased with the way things had turned out. Who knew it had been that easy to convince Mesh? What a brilliant idea had it been to get him involved in a distraction of enormous proportions.

Jacob let out a happy sigh. It was so satisfying to be smarter than anyone else.

##

“Turn left here,” Maureen instructed David Hargrove, who was driving the car, into the quiet neighborhood where Rachel and Hannah lived. Except for Maureen’s voice, talking to Hannah on the phone, the occupants of the car had been very quiet. The expression on all four faces showed a different variety of tension and anxiety, with Lauren Darkwolf’s being the most calm, but unreadable.

“Keep your eye out for anything out of the ordinary,” Lauren suddenly spoke, her voice soft, but clear. “This guy is very slick.”

“We’ re almost there, Hannah,” Maureen spoke in the phone. “Have you closed all the windows and doors?”

The red-head nodded when Hannah answered her, but then visibly stiffened.

“You what?” she asked in a voice that was pitched a little higher than usual.

“Dammit, Hannah. Tell her to leave it alone. We’ll be there in a minute.”

“What?” Lee Ann and David asked simultaneously.

“Someone in the back yard,” Maureen answered through gritted teeth. “And Rachel is wondering whether she should check it out or not.”

“Stop the car, David,” Lauren’s voice commanded and the younger man immediately slowed down the car. Even before he had come to a full stop, Lauren had opened the door and was already halfway out of the vehicle. Before anyone could ask what she thought she was doing, Lauren was out of the car. For a split second, her dark eyes found Maureen and she gave her lover an almost imperceptible nod, before shutting the door, turning around and sprinting to a narrow path that lead between two houses.

“What the…?” Lee Ann started, but Maureen interrupted her cousin.

“Keep going, Dave. Fast,” she added, knowing Lauren could easily beat them to their destination.

Without asking any further questions, David Hargrove revved the engine and continued to drive down the street. One more block, he knew, and then they would be there. Deep down inside he hoped Lauren and Maureen would be wrong and Jacob Mannen would not show up that evening, but he also knew that Lauren Darkwolf was an excellent Agent, who often went with her instincts and hardly ever was wrong.

“It’s the house in the middle of the cul-de-sac,” Maureen explained when they turned the very last corner. “Hannah, where are you and Rachel?…Okay, we’re there. I’ll be hanging up now. Open the door.”

Maureen tucked her cell phone in the pocket of her jacket and reached for the holster underneath it.

“Other than Hannah and Rachel, there are an elderly lady and a toddler in the house,” she warned her companions. “Don’t flash any hardware around, unless you really have to.”

“Got it,” Lee Ann mumbled, feeling for her gun, making sure it was easy to get to, just in case she needed it and David silently nodded.

“Let’s go,” Maureen said in a tense voice as soon as David had stopped the car in front of the driveway. “And be careful.”

##

“What is it with you and young, male criminals, sweetie?” Gertrude asked her granddaughter, while following her to the front of the house, with Rachel right behind her.

“I have no idea, Granny,” Hannah sighed. “But I can assure you I’m not enjoying it.”

“I know,” Gertrude answered, putting a hand on the blonde’s shoulder and giving it a loving squeeze. She smiled at the sleepy-eyed toddler in her granddaughter’s arms and received a half-grin in return.

“Besides, who says he’s after me?” Hannah spoke over her shoulder. “For all we know he could be interested in Rachel.”

“You’re cuter, though,” Rachel quipped, which earned her a chuckle from both women in front of her.

“And you’re biased,” Gertrude spoke.

“Does that mean I’m not cuter?” Hannah asked with a smile. She was enjoying the gentle banter. It distracted her from the reality, which consisted of someone with bad intentions hiding behind their house.

“You’re beautiful,” Gertrude assured the blonde. “Now, shall I open the door to let the posse in?”

Without waiting for an answer, Gertrude opened the front door and immediately faced three officers of the law with serious expressions on their faces.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she greeted Maureen with a smile. “Where’s Lauren?”

“Backyard,” the red-head answered, stepping passed the elderly woman into the house. “Lee Ann, stay with them, Dave, follow me.”

“I guess we’ll chat later,” Gertrude mumbled.

“She doesn’t mean to be rude, ma’am,” Lee Ann apologized on behalf of her cousin, who was already on her way to the back of the house. “It’s just that…”

“I know, dear,” Gertrude nodded. “I understand. So, where do you want us to go?”

Lee Ann looked at the three women and toddler in front of her and could not help but smile. They were all dressed in different styles of night clothing and had the situation not been so serious, their appearance would have made a great picture for the family album. Especially Gertrude with her powder-blue robe and pink, fuzzy slippers and Nicky in her yellow Dora the Explorer pajamas.

“Anywhere, as long as we’re not facing the back yard,” Lee Ann answered.

##

Lauren Darkwolf had slowed down the moment her eyes scanned Hannah’s and Rachel’s back yard and had noticed a movement around the tiny shed on the side of the house. She knew her friends did not have a dog, so she was very aware of the fact that the slowly moving shadow could be Jacob Mannen. To be sure, she needed to get closer and Lauren took a few seconds to weigh her options. Allowing her eyes to get used to the surrounding darkness, she leaned against a tree, making sure she could not be seen by whoever, or whatever, it was that was sneaking around the house.

Unmovable, she stood next to the tree, blending in with the shadows around her. Her breathing was slow and deep and the only thing moving were her eyes, as they slowly swept the area in front of her, looking for any kind of movement. In spite of the rapid beating of her heart, her breathing was slow and controlled. Lauren could hear a car stop in front of the house and she knew Maureen, LeeAnn and David had arrived. It made her feel better to know her friends inside were protected. For a brief moment, she allowed herself to relax and she slowly rolled her shoulders, aware of the tension that had made them feel stiff and uncomfortable. But, as soon as her ears picked up a soft rustling sound to her left, her body immediately went back into full alert. While consciously taking slow and deep breaths, Lauren turned into the direction of the soft, barely audible noise and patiently waited for it to come closer. Her face held no expression as she noticed a tall figure, dressed in dark clothes, carefully making its way to the back of the house, heading for the back door.

Silently, Lauren moved closer. The many years of blending in with nature, taught to her and her brothers by her grandfather and father, gave her the skills she needed to approach the intruder undetected. Her feet carefully choose a path across the grass and it seemed as if her graceful movements never even disturbed a blade of grass. While the dark-clad stranger was creeping toward the backdoor, Lauren moved closer and closer, until she could almost feel the warmth his body radiated. Her eyes never left the figure in front of her that was only a few feet away. They registered every move the intruder made and when he reached inside a pocket of his black jeans, Lauren’s fingers deliberately tightened around the gun she was holding. Before the stranger could make another move, Lauren’s voice sounded through the quiet, dark evening; low and controlled.

“OSBI, put your hands in the air,” she spoke quietly, but loud enough for the person in front of her to hear her.

Immediately, two hands slowly rose in the air and Lauren took a careful step back.

“Turn around,” she ordered. “Slowly.”

“How do I know you are who you say you are?” a male voice answered with defiance.

“Keep your hands up, turn around slowly, and I’ll show you my badge.”

The man did as he was told and slowly turned, until he was facing Lauren, who, without moving her gun, had used her other hand to pull her badge out of her back pocket and had flipped open the leather holder.

“I can’t see. It’s too dark,” the voice taunted and Lauren sent him a smile that never reached her eyes.

“You’ll have to trust me then and wait until we do have some light.”

“I’ll file a complaint against you and…”

“You’ll have to get in line,” Lauren interrupted with a shrug. “Now, take a few steps toward me, away from that door.”

Again, the man did as he was told, apparently not willing to take the risk of forcing Lauren to use her weapon.

“Keep your hands above your head and kneel down,” Lauren spoke calmly.

“I can’t. I have bad knees,” the man mocked.

“You didn’t when I saw you crouching underneath the window, on your way to the door,” Lauren responded coolly. “Now, kneel down, keep your hands above your head where I can see them.”

“Or what?”

“Or I’ll help you,” Lauren promised in an even voice.

All of a sudden the backdoor was opened and the familiar silhouette of Maureen appeared in the doorway. Her gun was drawn and her eyes quickly took in the scene in front of her.

“Wow, you’re on a roll,” she complimented Lauren, who did not respond, although there was a smile tugging on the corner of her mouth.

“I’m turning a light on. Hang on.”

Knowing the light would probably blind her for a couple of seconds, Lauren instinctively relied on her partner to make sure the intruder would not do anything foolish. As soon as the red-head flipped a switch inside the house, the backyard was flooded with bright light.

“Don’t even think about it,” Lauren heard Maureen say and inwardly she chuckled.

The dark-clad intruder muttered a curse and sank to his knees, realizing there was a second gun pointed at him.

“Smart choice,” Maureen commented and, from the corner of her eyes, Lauren noticed her friend stepping out into the yard, followed by Lee Ann Lawrence and David Hargrove.

“Pat him down, Dave,” Lauren said and the tall policeman stepped closer, making sure to stay out of Lauren’s and Maureen’s line of fire. He expertly cuffed the kneeling figure, before pulling him back to his feet. He quickly, but carefully patted him down and, mumbling softly, pulled a gun from underneath the man’s clothes and a knife out of his boot.

“Nice weapon,” his muttered. “I’m sure you have a license for this somewhere?”

The intruder let out a curse, followed by a few expletives and David chuckled.

“I didn’t think so,” he said dryly, opening the wallet he had pulled from the man’s inside pocket. His fingers worked their way through a few credit cards, silently taking in the names on them, until he finally found what he was looking for. In the bright illumination of the patio lights, he read the name on the driver’s license.

“Jeremy Arthur Mannen,” he read and both Lauren and Maureen stiffened.

“Jeremy Mannen?” Lauren asked, her voice not betraying the mixture of confusion and excitement she felt. “Are you, by any chance related to Jacob Mannen?” she asked casually, already knowing the answer, just by looking at the man in front of her.

Maybe it was the look in Lauren’s eyes, but when Jeremy opened his mouth to deny the family connection, he shut it again and let out a deep sigh.

“He’s my little brother,” he answered reluctantly.

“Thank you for being honest,” Lauren nodded. “Why did he send you here?”

“He said it had something to do with his kid,” Jeremy shrugged. “Something about some chick being his temporary foster parent and not willing to give him up. Jake asked me if I could look and see if his boy was still here.”

“Well, he’s not,” Maureen answered, stepping closer.

“I figured that when I heard ‘OSBI’,” Jeremy chuckled humorlessly.

“Do you know where your brother is?” Lauren asked.

“Nope,” Jeremy answered and when he saw the inquisitive look in Lauren’s eyes, he shook his head.

“Honest,” he spoke, while his eyes widened and looked straight into Lauren’s. “I talked to him on the phone and he told me what he did and then gave me this address.”

“Did he also tell you to bring a gun?” Maureen asked coolly.

“Yes, he did,” Jeremy nodded. “He told me there’s a crazy guy living here and I’d better be ready to defend myself.”

“You could be making all this up,” David muttered.

‘I could,” Jeremy answered, glancing over his shoulder. “But I didn’t.”

“I guess we’ll be discussing all this at the station,” David decided. “Shall I take him downtown?”

“Can I see his cell phone, please?” Lauren asked David, having seen how he had pulled the small device from Jeremy’s belt. Jacob’s brother let out a soft groan and hung his head, mumbling something like: ‘Jake’s gonna kill me.’

Nobody responded to Jeremy’s words; instead, David silently handed Lauren the phone, wondering why he had not thought about that option before.

Lauren flipped open the phone and quickly opened the ‘received calls’ menu. Her eyes scanned the row that popped up on the screen and when she raised her head to look at Jeremy her dark eyes were pensive.

“Maureen, would you mind calling headquarters and ask them if they can trace a call? I think it’s time to call our friend to see where he is and what he’s up to. Here’s the number,” Lauren said, handing Maureen the phone.

With a grin, the red-head took the phone and used her own device to make the call Lauren had requested. While Maureen was softly taking to the person who had answered the call, Lauren turned back to Jeremy and sent him an inquisitive glance.

“Is there anything you feel you need to share with us?” she asked. “It’s not too late to tell us where we can find your brother. We will figure it out on our own, of course, but helping us out here will dramatically improve the way the judge will look at you.”

Jeremy gave Lauren a hard stare, but she looked back at him without flinching, not saying a word, but just waiting for him to respond. Slowly, the expression on his face changed from hard and defiant to doubtful and insecure. After a long silence, Jacob Mannen’s brother cast down his eyes and all of a sudden he looked very uncomfortable. Still, Lauren did not speak.

David Hargrove looked from Jeremy to Lauren and back again. He was impressed by the Agent’s demeanor and mentally he was taking notes. Lauren Darkwolf was known by most of the law enforcement officers. Her reputation was almost legendary and he decided that everything he had heard about her must have been true – Lauren Darkwolf should never be underestimated.

“He told me to meet him after,” Jeremy finally spoke.

“Where?” Lauren asked calmly, aware of David’s close attention.

“Downtown. Near the Botanical Gardens.”

“Not good enough, Jeremy,” Lauren spoke softly. “Try again.”

“There’s a bench, behind the stop or the trolley. It’s next to the entrance to the Gardens. He wants to meet me there.”

“Why?”

“I dunno,” Jeremy answered, a little too fast.

“Try again,” Lauren replied with a deceptively calm voice.

“I really don’t,” Jeremy muttered, but he stared at the grass, not able to look Lauren in the eyes.

“Let me help you, Jeremy,” Lauren started in an almost friendly tone. “Your brother knew there is no baby in this house. He used you as a diversion. But, since he wants to see you, there must have been something he wanted you to do. Your brother is a lot of things, but he’s not stupid.” Lauren paused for a moment. “Tell me, Jeremy.”

“He’ll kill me,” Jeremy answered, still staring at the ground, but this time the fear in his voice was obvious.

“Not if we’ll be able to catch him tonight,” Lauren stated. “It’s amazing how a sentence can be influenced by cooperation, although, it’s your choice, of course.”

“Have you ever been in prison?” David asked casually, immediately seeing Jeremy stiffen.

“Once,” Jacob’s brother admitted. “For drug possession,” he quickly added, before anyone could get the wrong idea.

“Are you clean now?” David continued.

“Not really,” Jeremy admitted and David nodded.

“Did Jacob threaten you?” Lauren asked.

“Badly,” Jeremy nodded. “He said I’d better make sure to do it right, or I’d regret the day I was born. He was laughing when he said it,” Jeremy added bitterly.

“What did he want you to do?” Lauren pressed. Her gutt-feeling was telling her Jacob Mannen had not just sent his brother to Rachel’s and Hannah’s house to distract the police. The distraction had been the war between the Razors and the Perro’s, Jeremy’s had been on a mission Jacob had been reluctant to do himself.

“I was supposed to get the blonde,” Jeremy finally sighed. “He gave me this address and told me to get the blonde.”

Maureen, who had finished her conversation on the phone, stepped a little closer and looked at Jeremy with barely concealed anger. Only the barely noticeable hand gesture from Lauren made her swallow her words. Mentally, she scolder herself. They needed information from Jeremy and getting on his bad side would not be helpful.

Maureen rubbed her eyes, realizing how incredibly tired she was.

“You came here to ‘get the blonde’,” Lauren repeated. “Then what?”

“He told me to…make it look like an accident,”Jeremy mumbled, clearly uncomfortable with the task his brother had given him.

“Make what look like an accident” Lauren asked patiently, but inwardly her anger was rising.

“Get the blonde, set the house on fire to get rid of any evidence. I was supposed to take her into the van and then go see Jake, downtown, to give him the car keys.”

“Did he tell you who are in this house?” Lauren inquired.

“The blonde and this… crazy guy he was talking about,” Jeremy answered.

“The blonde, her partner, who, by no means is a crazy guy but a well-respected physician, an elderly lady, and a toddler,” Lauren spoke.

“W..what?” Jeremy stammered. “There’s…he never said…I…a toddler?” he croaked, suddenly looking very pale in the artificial light.

“You heard me,” Lauren replied, relieved to have been able to stop Jeremy in carrying out his brother’s orders, but also burning with anger by the casual way Jacob Mannen regarded human life.

“I didn’t know,” Jeremy said in a hoarse voice. “I didn’t know. A kid in the house…” He lifted his head and Lauren saw the naked rage in his eyes. “I’m going to snap his damned, worthless neck,” Jeremy spat. “God, I’m an idiot. I should have let him shoot me!”

“Wow, that’s the best self-evaluation I’ve heard in a long time,” David muttered, but Jeremy did not hear him.

Lauren glanced at Maureen and, for a brief moment a silent conversation took place. David saw the exchange and waited with anticipation until one of the women would speak again. He did not have to wait long.

Lauren turned to Jeremy and studied the honest anger, defeat and shame on his face. What she was about to suggest was not without risk, but her instincts were telling her it was their best option.

“Do you want to help us catch your brother?” she asked.

Part 14

“The boss isn’t happy, but he agrees it’s our best chance of nailing this guy,” Lauren spoke, shutting off her cell phone. “He also said I’d better be sure about this, or he’ll have me directing traffic,” she added dryly.

“You’ll be fine,” Maureen answered.”You know he considers you to be the best Agent ever.”

“I know,” Lauren smiled. “I’m not worried. I know he is, though.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Lee Ann asked, excited to be able to work together with her cousin and Lauren Darkwolf. It was a rare opportunity and she knew that most of her coworkers would envy her and David.

“We’ll wait a few more minutes to make sure our technicians are absolutely ready to trace the call Jeremy is going to make to his brother. I want to be absolutely sure Jacob Mannen is where his brother thinks he’ll be. This guy doesn’t give a cent for anyone else’s life but his own and I want to make sure all our bases are covered. As soon as we have confirmation about his whereabouts, we’ll go ahead with his plan.”

“Hannah isn’t going anywhere,” Rachel, who had been listening in the background, spoke up and the tone of her voice did not leave anything open for discussion.

“No, she isn’t,” Lauren reassured her friend. “We’ll be pretending. Jeremy will be driving the van and Maureen and I will be in the back. David and Lee Ann will not follow us, but they’ll go ahead and stake out the rendez-vous. They will be our back up.”

“Do you really think that’s enough?” Rachel asked doubtfully. “I mean, I don’t know anything about police work, but…” Rachel’s brown eyes found Lauren’s and she sent her friend a small smile. “It sounds a little risky, my friend.”

“I know it does,” Lauren answered with a smile of her own. “But if we don’t act fast, this guy is going to slip through our fingers again and I am tired of chasing him across the State and back. I want to lock him up and go on a vacation,” she added with a twinkle in her eyes.

“That I understand,” Rachel chuckled. “I’m sure you’re more than ready for a break.” The Doctor’s eyes traveled to Maureen and saw the wistful look on the red-head’s face. She had noticed small changes in the interactions between Lauren and Maureen and she hoped her friends had acknowledged the mutual attraction between them.

“Is there anything you want or need me to do?” Rachel asked, glancing at Hannah who came walking back into the room. The blonde looked tense and there were dark circles underneath her eyes.

“All I need you and Hannah to do, is to take Nicky and Gertrude and stay at a hotel tonight,” Lauren answered. “Just in case he slips through our fingers and tries to make his way over here,” she added, smiling at Hannah who wrapped her arm around Rachel’s waist and leaned her head against her slightly taller partner.

“I just packed an overnight bag,” she announced, suppressing a yawn. “We’ll be staying at the Marriott tonight.”

“Good,” Lauren nodded, sending the blonde a warm smile. “I’ll let the boss know.”

“Why?” Rachel frowned.

“Humor us, Rachel, please?” was Maureen’s response. “After what happened with Nathan, the boss wants to make sure everybody will stay safe and that means there will be a couple of officers around the hotel.”

“Alright, alright,” Rachel sighed, too tired to argue with her friends. Besides, deep down inside she knew that if Lauren Darkwolf had made up her mind, there would be nothing Rachel could say or do to make her change that. “I guess we’ll be leaving then?” she asked, turning to look at her lover.

Hannah nodded and sent both Maureen and Lauren a long, serious look.

“Be careful,” she said softly.

“We will be,” Lauren promised.

“Call us when it’s all over,” Rachel urged.

“I promise,” Lauren answered. “You and Hannah will be the first ones to know.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Hannah spoke, stepping forward to hug her tall friend. “And make sure Maureen here doesn’t jump in front of another bullet.”

“Oh, I’ll make sure,” Lauren smiled, reaching out a hand and gently tugging a strand of the redhead’s long hair. “I’ll keep her safe.”

Maureen glanced aside and for a very brief moment her eyes were caught by a pair of very dark ones. They held a promise and Maureen, who had experienced an increasing feeling of nervousness, all of a sudden felt a little better. The thought of a shootout alone made her nauseated. The memory of getting shot was still fresh in her mind and, unconsciously, Maureen rubbed her leg, where she knew her scar was covered by a thin layer of denim.

Lauren had noticed the gesture and the dark women was aching to reach out and pull the redhead into her arms, to hold her close and keep her safe. But now was not the moment. They had a job to do. Only after they had successfully finished their assignment, would she be able to give into the desires that, for now, had to take a backseat to work.

“Will you be alright?” she asked softly when Maureen stepped a little closer.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Maureen nodded, but Lauren noticed the tension in her voice.

“I could ask for someone else to…”

“No way. I’ll be there and I am ready to do my job. If this clown has planned anything funny, we’ll just have to beat him to the punch line.”

Lauren smiled at the determination and passion in Maureen’s voice and gently squeezed the other woman’s shoulder.

“Let’s go then.”

##

“For crying out loud, Lee Ann, stop making that noise,” David Hargrove snapped at his partner whose fingers were methodically pulling apart an empty styrofoam cup.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, tossing the mutilated cup in the backseat of the car. “I guess I’m a little tense.”

“A little?” David mumbled, staring at his watch for the sixth time within the last minute. “I feel like puking,” he confessed, which earned him a chuckle from his partner.

“You’re such an honest, non-macho guy, Dave,” Lee Ann sighed. “It’s great to work with you.”

“It is?” David asked, glancing aside to the red- haired woman next to him.

“Well, yeah,” Lee Ann nodded, not taking her eyes off the park across the street. “I know you’re not the type who’d run into trouble head first. That makes me feel better. There are lots of guys at the station who’d never admit to be nervous or scared.”

“Then they’re stupid,” David grumbled. “I’d like to stay in one piece.”

“I second that,” Lee Ann nodded. “Ellen is a lucky woman, Dave,” she added with a smile.

“It’s a good thing I know you really do like me for my personality and nothing else,” David grinned. “Ellen has nothing to worry about when the two of us are sitting in a small car for hours on end.”

“Nope,” Lee Ann shook her head. “Now, if it were Ellen and I in a car…”she added, not finishing her sentence because David started laughing.

“Wrong tree, partner,” he chuckled.

“I know,” Lee Ann admitted. “Besides, she only has eyes for you anyway.”

“Maybe Agent Darkwolf has a sister, or a cousin,” David suggested helpfully, but there was a twinkle in his eyes.

“I wish,” Lee Ann sighed. “So, you’ve noticed it as well.”

“Hard to miss,” David shrugged. “Every time they look at each other there is…something more.” He glanced aside and smiled. “Don’t worry, my lips are sealed.”

“I know,” Lee Ann responded. “I repeat: you’re a great guy. I’m sure they’ll find a way to be involved and not let it interfere with work.”

“Oh, you know they will,” David nodded. “They’re both extremely professional. I wonder how they’re doing though. They should be here any moment.”

##

Lauren cast a quick look at Maureen, who was trying to keep her balance in the back of the van, while Jeremy navigated his way through downtown Oklahoma City. The redhead’s lips were pursed and every time the driver slammed his brakes or hit a pothole she muttered something under her breath. In spite of the situation, Lauren bit back a grin. She could tell the other woman was extremely annoyed by Jeremy’s unsophisticated driving style.

“Someone should take his license away,” Lauren heard Maureen mumble, sending a dark look at the small, tinted window between the dark cargo area of the van and the cabin, where Jeremy Mannen was controlling the car, or, at least, attempting to control it. “I need to get in touch with Angela DiFranco, she’s a State Trooper, see if there’s anything on his driving record.”

Lauren chuckled and stretched out a hand, so she could give Maureen’s shoulder a squeeze. A pair of stormy green eyes looked up at her and she smiled.

“I agree he’s a lousy driver,” she admitted with a quick grin. “But we’re almost there and hopefully he won’t crash this…car before we actually get there.”

“You call this a car?” Maureen softly snorted. “It’s a piece of junk! You know, we really should have some sort of inspection system when it comes to cars. This one is a death trap.”

“It’s okay, honey,” Lauren spoke, immediately noticing the effect of her soft spoken term of endearment. For a moment, the tension left Maureen’s face and the smile she sent the dark woman was warm and gentle.

“I’m a little high-strung right now, aren’t I?” Maureen sighed.

“A little,” Lauren admitted in all honesty. “But that’s understandable.”

“Do you really think he’ll be there?” Maureen asked, referring to Jacob Mannen.

“Yes, he will be there,” Lauren answered in a confident voice. “In a few minutes we’ll be so close, we will actually be able to nail him. And then…”

“Paperwork,” Maureen grumbled.

“Yes,” Lauren laughed. “But after we’re finished with that, we’re going on a little trip, you and I.”

“A real, honest vacation,” Maureen sighed. “I need one, Lauren.”

“I do too,” the dark skinned women replied. “No phones, no pagers, no bad guys, no bad cars, just you and I, a cabin, a lake and lots of trees.”

Maureen’s eyes lit up when they looked at Lauren and she smiled happily.

“It sounds to me you know exactly where we’ll be going,” she said. “You know, normally I’d frown on one-sided decisions like that,” she added in a teasing voice. “But since I am in such a desperate need for some rest and relaxation, I’ll let it slip this time.”

“That’s big of you,” Lauren answered with a twinkle in her eyes.

“I have my moments,” Maureen chuckled. “I will even throw in a…”

What exactly Maureen would throw in would have to wait to be discussed, because her cell phone buzzed and she quickly answered it.

“Lee Ann? Are you and David in position?”

###

“Hey, cousin,” Lee Ann greeted Maureen after her call had been answered. “Yes, we’re here.”

“Do you have a visual?”

“I’m not sure,” Lee Ann answered, her eyes never leaving the lone figure on the bench, underneath the tree in front of the botanical gardens. “We’re keeping an eye on a guy who is sitting on the bench, reading a magazine. Not very exciting, I know,” she added with a touch of dry humor. “But, he didn’t hop on the trolley bus, so it could be our guy.”

“What does he look like?” Maureen asked. “I mean, his build. I’m not interested in the color of his hair, or his clothes because that’s all easy to change.”

“He’s about my height, about five – eight, ” Lee Ann answered. “Athletic build and short hair. He’s constantly tapping his foot and within the last five minutes he must have looked at his watch at least fifteen times.”

“A little nervous, huh?” Maureen concluded. “It sounds like he could be the one. Don’t lose sight of him. We’re on Reno avenue now and we’ll be in his sight within the next minute or so. Tell me what his response is when he sees the van.”

“Okay.”

There was a silence, in which the only sound Lee Ann could hear was the engine of the car her cousin was riding in. Her tension grew with leaps and bounds and she was aware of her sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat. Unconsciously, she moistened her dry lips, while her eyes rapidly flicked from the figure on the bench to the street where she knew she could expect the van at any minute.

“Keep an eye on him,” she whispered at David, who silently nodded, slightly leaning forward in his seat to get a better view.

“Here they are,” he suddenly whispered.

As soon as the van came into view, both Lee Ann and David saw the man on the bench jump up and then quickly take his seat again, while wiping his hands at his jeans.

“Jumpy fellow,” David muttered, while Lee Ann told Maureen what they had witnessed.

“Tell them to stay put,” she heard Lauren mumble in the background and in a soft voice she repeated those words to David.

“We’re staying put,” Lee Ann acknowledged.

###

Jeremy Mannen’s hands were clenched around the steering wheel so tightly, his knuckles had turned white. He was gnawing his bottom lip and had to do his utmost not to wipe the perspiration from his forehead. He knew his brother was looking at him and he did not want to look too anxious. They had briefly talked on the phone, when he had called him to tell him he had picked up the load and was headed his way. Jacob’s reaction had been cool, but pleased and Jeremy was hoping he had sounded convincing enough to let his brother take the bait. He was still upset about the fact that he almost had carried out Jacob’s orders to the letter, which would have cost at least three people their lives. One of them being a toddler.

“Rat bastard,” he muttered through gritted teeth.

“Take it easy, Jeremy,” he could hear Lauren’s voice from the back. “I know you’re still very angry with him, but don’t blow this, alright? I really would like to drag his sorry carcass off to jail tonight.”

“I won’t stand in your way,” Jeremy responded, slowly driving into the lot of the huge car dealership across the road from the botanical gardens. Jacob had told him to drive into the lot, turn around and park the van facing the exit, so he could jump in, take over the steering wheel from his brother and drive off.

As soon as he drove into the lot, David and Lee Ann, out of Jacob’s line of vision, exited the car and casually strolled down the sidewalk, arm-in-arm, looking at the cars on the lot, every now and pointing at one or pausing, while seemingly discussing all the different choices in front of them. They seemed oblivious to the man who was hastily crossing the street, while in fact they knew exactly where he was, because Maureen’s voice sounded clearly through Lee Ann’s Bluetooth which she had firmly planted in her ear.

“He’s about fifteen yards away from us now,” her cousin’s voice sounded like Maureen was standing right next to her. “Stop and look at a car. He saw you guys and slowed down….okay, okay, he stopped and he looks hesitant. Make it believable, Lally,” Maureen whispered in an urgent voice.

“Oh, come on, honey,” Lee Ann laughed, pulling David’s arm, stepping closer to a shiny red SUV. “You know this one looks a lot better than the one your brother has. I think you should get it, just to show off. That’ll teach your sister-in-law to keep flashing that diamond into my face every time I see her!”

“Jeez, where do you get that stuff?” Maureen whispered, half-amused and half in awe, admiring her cousin’s ability to think on her feet like that. “Okay, Lally, he bought it. He’s heading over here. Stand by.”

Jacob Mannen cast another look at the car shopping couple and started moving again. His steps had slowed down a little though and both Lauren and Maureen followed his progress with nervous anticipation. He was close enough now for them to see his face and they noticed how his eyes nervously scanned his environment. The fingers of his left hand were twitching, while his right hand was inside his coat pocket.

“He’s extremely nervous and he’s got a gun,” Lauren whispered, not daring to take her eyes off the man. Her own hand was holding a OSBI issued handgun and even though, at first glance, the long, slender fingers seemed relaxed around the steel, anyone looking closer would be able to notice the visible tension in the small muscles and tendons.

“Are you ready?” she whispered, barely audible and Maureen’s answer was an equally quiet: ‘Yes.’.

###

“Come one, Dave,” Lee Ann mumbled, glancing at their target from the corner of her eye. “Let’s walk a couple of more yards, before we start a fight.”

“Start a what?” David asked, sending his partner a puzzled look.

“A fight,” she repeated with a nervous chuckle. “I really want that red SUV, honey. Why can’t we buy it?”

A small smile tugged on the corner of David’s mouth and he sent his partner an admiring look.

“Like I have said before; you’ll make a great secret Agent,” he complimented her.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Lee Ann grinned. “A secret Agent, huh? Well, if I ever make it that far, I promise to stay away from storage areas, basements and moths.”

A glance at David’s face showed her he had no clue what she was referring to and she smiled.

“Silence of the lambs, honey,” she elaborated, giving him a friendly pat on the back. “Let’s go.”

###

Jeremy Mannen concentrated on breathing, trying very hard not to hyperventilate. His brother was next to the van and already had his hand on the doorhandle, ready to step inside. With the sound of crunching metal the dented door opened and immediately Jacob’s voice filled the cabin.

“Move over, Jer.”

Silently, Jeremy scooted to the passenger seat, making room for his brother to get in, which he promptly did, slamming the door shut behind him.

“Did you get the stuff done?” he asked, glancing aside.

Jeremy just nodded, not trusting his voice. The anger he felt toward his brother had steadily grown and he felt that, at any minute, the boiling rage inside would become too much for him to handle. But he had promised Lauren Darkwolf to help them, so he had to stay calm and focused.

“Was it a good fire?” Jacob chuckled.

“I didn’t wait around to enjoy the show,” Jeremy answered in a soft voice. He could not show his brother his distress, because if he did, Jacob would know Jeremy had found out about his lies and the whole plan could go sour in a matter of seconds.

“We’ll watch it on the news tonight, I’m sure,” Jacob laughed and for the first time in his life, Jeremy really started to believe his older brother was insane.

“Where are we going?” Jeremy asked, staring at the couple who were standing in front of the lot’s only exit, seemingly involved in some sort of discussion.

“Friends, first,” Jacob answered. “Then we’ll use the cute nurse in the back as a bargain chip to get my son.”

“How is he doing?” Jeremy asked, trying to make conversation and to distract his brother.

“I have no idea,” Jacob mumbled, frowning at the couple in the middle of the exit. “Come on, move!” he added with a raised voice.

“How is Jess?” Jeremy asked, trying to distract his brother.

“What do you care?” Jacob snapped. “We broke up and she took my kid with her. She’s a loser,” he added with venom.

“But if she has the baby, then how will you….?”

“Shut up, Jer,” Jacob almost yelled. “Jess is dead. She took an overdose and she died, okay? No loss there.”

Jeremy cringed at the coldness in his brother’s words and voice, but he was very aware of the Agents’ presence in the back of the van and knew that, in order to help them, he needed to try and push for some more information.

“You mean she used?” Jeremy asked in genuine surprise. “Are you sure? I mean, I didn’t know her all that well, but I never had the impression she used anything. I remember…”

“Shut up!” Jacob cried out, banging his fist on the steering wheel. “For God’s sake, shut up, Jer. She’s dead, okay?” he yelled, so loud that David and Lee Ann could hear him from where they had their mock argument. “And, no, she didn’t use, you’re right. I wouldn’t have let her, because it would have damaged my son. Do you think I’m stupid?” Jacob Mannen glanced at his brother, who swallowed hard when he saw the rage in his brother’s eyes. A cold fear crept inside his body and he had to suppress the urge to open the door, jump out of the car and make a run for it. He was frantically trying to come up with something to say, or ask, but his brother, not noticing his discomfort, continued.

“Jess is dead because Ape and Squid took her out West and gave her something.”

“Gave her something?” Jeremy echoed, feeling his fear subside and his anger taking over. “What do you mean ‘gave her something?’. What happened, Jake?”

“She was snooping around in my stuff and I knew she would be running to one of her friends. It was only a matter of time before the police would find out.” Jacob sent another look at his brother and this time there was more than rage and madness in his eyes, to Jeremy it looked like a mixture of remorse and fear. “I had to get rid of her, man, don’t you understand?”

“You mean…you did…? I thought you just said that Ape and Squid…”

“They’re too stupid to think of something like that,” Jacob snorted with contempt. “I always had to tell them what to do. They were supposed to take her some place remote. Hell, there are tons of places along our runs, they knew that. They ran those roads a couple of times a week to deliver goods. But what did they do? They dumped her in front of someone’s house. Idiots.”

“You mean, you told them to…to…” Jeremy swallowed hard. “You told them to kill her?”

“It was painless, okay?” Jacob snarled. “I didn’t want her to suffer, man. Are you nuts? I just wanted her to go away.”

“And that’s how you took care of that?” Jeremy answered with raised voice. “You had her killed? The mother of your child? Are you freaking insane? What kind of person are you, Jake?” Jeremy’s voice had risen in volume and Jacob cringed. “You know, brother, I am no saint and God knows I’ve done a lot of stupid things so far, but at least I can honestly say I haven’t hurt anybody like that.”

Jacob’s head snapped up and in the back of the van both Maureen and Lauren whispered a shocked ‘Oh, shit’ and breathlessly waited for Jeremy’s reply.

“You just torched a house with people in it,” Jacob spoke and his voice was eerily soft and cool. He squinted his eyes a little when he stared at his brother, who tried not to squirm in his seat. “Or did you?” he added in a whisper, moistening his lips, while his eyes never left Jeremy’s face.

Jeremy’s heart was pounding in his chest. He knew the moment the words had left his mouth, he had made a huge mistake and he realized he only had one chance to get himself out of the sticky situation he had landed in.

“I did,” he snapped back, letting his frustration and fear fuel his anger. “But those were…were…just people I don’t know,” he tried. “I didn’t order anyone to kill my son’s mother. There’s a difference, you know.” Jeremy took a deep breath and met Jacob’s eyes unflinching. “Besides, right now I’m starting to wonder who were in that house, because after what you’ve just told me, I’m pretty sure you lied to me.”

Jeremy’s strategy of turning the tables seemed to work, because Jacob chuckled and sent his brother an appreciative smile.

“No matter what people say, you’re not that stupid, Jer.”

In the back of the van, Lauren and Maureen let out a shaky breath. The red head glanced at her partner and raised her eyebrows, silently asking a question that Lauren seem to understand, because she nodded and increased the grip on her weapon.

Turning away from the small, dark window between the cabin and the back of the van, Maureen whispered in her microphone.

“Lee Ann, we’re ready.”

###

“Come on, Dave, it’s time,” Lee Ann spoke softly to her tall companion, grabbing his arm and pulling him into the car lot. He made a half-hearted attempt to struggle, but then quietly followed her lead. He seemed to be an annoyed husband, who rolled his eyes at his temperamental wife, obediently following her to avoid an ever bigger argument, while in reality he was in full police mode. He pretended to scan the lot for cars, but his focus was on the dirty, dented van they were rapidly approaching.

Lee Ann could feel her heart rate increase and she knew the palms of her hands were sweaty, but she tried to ignore the physical effects of her tension, because she needed to focus. She and David had basically fallen into an assignment that was, not yet, part of their jobs. She knew Lauren and Maureen had faith in them and she wanted to prove them right. Now was not a time for hesitation or mistakes.

“Alright, I’ll ask them,” she called over her shoulder, making sure her voice was loud enough for the men in the van to hear. Without hesitation she stepped toward the vehicle and, with determination, she tapped on the window at the driver’s side.

“What the hell?” Jacob muttered, aware of the rising tension in his body.

“What’s going on here?”

“Who knows,” Jeremy mumbled. “Maybe they just need directions, or something.”

“I don’t know, man,” Jacob hesitated.

“Just roll down the window and see what they want,” Jeremy sighed. “Besides, we can’t just run him over,” he added, pointing at David who was standing a couple of feet behind Lee Ann, right in the path of the van.

Without a word, Jacob rolled down the window to look at Lee Ann, who was sending him a grateful smile.

“I’m so sorry to bother, y’all,” the police officer smiled. “But my husband and I are having a difference of opinion and if you don’t mind, I’d like the opinion of you two gentlemen. Do you know anything about cars?” she drawled.

“Just a little,” Jeremy mumbled, but Jacob, who was openly appraising the red head, flashed her a smile and nodded his head.

“Actually, I do,” he answered.

“I knew it!” Lee Ann beamed. “I’m pretty sure this is not your only vehicle, is it?” she asked, eyeing the van.

“Oh, no,” Jacob laughed. “I’ve got a classier one. This one is just for…running errands.”

“So, you drive one of these?” Lee Ann asked, gesturing at the neatly lined up cars behind her.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” Jacob smiled. “I usually drive a foreign car.”

“Really?” Lee Ann replied with surprise. “How interesting! A Toyota? I have heard that those are…”

“No, a Volkswagen,” Jacob interrupted her.

“Ooh, that’s one of those German engineering ones, isn’t it?” Lee Ann responded with admiration, playing her part really well.

“It sure is,” Jacob nodded, leaning his left elbow on the rolled down window and raking the fingers of his right hand through his hair. “They are excellent cars.”

“I’ve always liked those,” Lee Ann admitted. She cast a look over her shoulder at David and lowered her voice. “My husband doesn’t like them, he says it’s un-American to drive such a car. Personally, I love them, especially when they’re red.”

“I prefer darker colors,” Jacob replied with an indulgent smile. He had a great time, chatting with this attractive woman while her husband stood only a few feet back, watching them with a sour expression on his face. With a wink, he leaned a little closer.

“You know, it’s a pity I’m in this car right now, if I would have had my Jetta, I could have taken you for a drive,” he said in a soft and seductive voice.

“That would have been great,” Lee Ann sighed. “Maybe some other time. I did wonder though, those Jetta’s, are they very expensive?”

###

While Lee Ann was chatting with Jacob Mannen, asking him question after question, Lauren and Maureen had inched their way to the back of the van. Before they had gotten in, Lauren had inspected the cargo area meticulously, making sure they would be able to open the doors from the inside without a problem. She had gone as far as spraying the handle and hinges with WD-40, to make sure the doors would open without too much noise. Her strategy had worked, because the barely audible sound of metal on metal the door made when it was opened, was drowned by Lee Ann’s voice. Only when both Agents slowly and carefully stepped out of the back, the van moved a little because of the loss of weight in the back and the changing pressure on the van’s axles and frame.

Jacob immediately noticed the movement and for a split second his face became tense, losing the smile he had sported while flirting with Lee Ann.

“Oh, you’ve got a dog in there?” the police officer quickly asked, sending the young man another admiring look.

“Um…yes, yes, I do,” Jacob grinned, counting himself lucky that this woman believed every word he said.

From the corner of her eyes, Lee Ann noticed that Lauren and Maureen had exited the van and she knew they were crouched down, trying to stay out of sight.

“I guess I’d better be going,” Lee Ann said with a sigh. She cast a look at David, who pointedly looked at his watch. “It was nice talking with you and I’m really happy with your help,” she smiled. “Maybe we’ll meet again sometime,” she added hopefully.

“I sure hope so,” Jacob chuckled.

“Well, bye then,” Lee Ann winked at him and turned around, bumping the mirror with her arm. “Ooops, sorry,” she laughed. “I can fix that for you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jacob spoke, too charmed by the red head to be annoyed. “Your husband is a lucky man.”

“I’ll make sure to tell him that,” Lee Ann smiled.

The moment Lee Ann had bumped into the mirror, making sure Jacob could not see the side of the van, Lauren pressed herself to the side of the vehicle, waiting for Maureen’s cousin to step away. She took a deep breath, casting a look at David who was standing with his left hand on his hip and his right hand in his back pocket, or so it seemed. Lauren knew he had his hand on his gun, ready to pull it into view if needed.

Lauren’s dark eyes were focused on Lee Ann, who sent Jacob another sweet smile and a wave, before turning around and stepping away from the van. She waited a second or two and when Jacob Mannen’s hand appeared through the window to adjust the mirror, she stepped forward, pushing his arm down against the side of the door with her left hand, while pointing her gun at him with her right hand.

“Police,” she identified herself. “Don’t move, leave your hands where I can see them,” she ordered.

“What the…?” Jacob started, completely dumbfounded by the turn of events. His right had twitched, but before he could pull away from the steering wheel, somebody had jumped in the van, bypassing Jeremy, slapping a cold, metal handcuff around his wrist and pulling his arm backwards.

“Son of a…” Jacob cursed, not able to finish his sentence, because Maureen, who had cuffed his right hand, had also opened the door so Lauren could pull the slender young man out of the van, pushing him face down on the sun-warmed concrete, while Maureen, brought his left arm behind his back, expertly cuffing that one as well.

“Shit, shit. Damn you,” Jacob yelled. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Lauren did not immediately answer, but effortlessly pulled the young man to his feet, whirled him around so he had to face her and pushed him back against the van.

“Lauren Darkwolf, OSBI,” she said with a smile that never reached her eyes. “Jacob Mannen, you are under arrest for murder, attempted murder, the unlawful possession of a deadly weapon, the distribution of illegal drugs, kidnapping , child neglect and breaking and entering. Did I miss anything?” she added in a calm voice.

“Car theft,” Maureen added helpfully. “And I’m sure there will be more.”

“You’re crazy,” Jacob spat. “I haven’t done anything illegal. I am innocent and this is police brutality. I want to talk to a lawyer.”

“You’ll need one,” David spoke, good-naturedly.

“You! You’re a cop,” Jacob breathed, sending David a hate-filled look. He saw Lee Ann pulling her badge out of her back pocket, pinning it to her belt. “And you…” he hissed. “You filthy, deceiving slut. You wait until…”

He didn’t get any further, because David had stepped closer, using his considerable height to intimidate the ranting man.

“That’s enough,” David spoke softly, but with so much authority, Jacob fell silent.

“You’ve got nothing on me,” he continued, a little calmer this time.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Maureen spoke, pointing at Lauren who was holding a small voice recorder in the palm of her hand. The dark woman held up the device and pressed a button. Immediately, Jacob’s voice pierced the silence.

“Did you get the stuff done? ……Was it a good fire?….”

Lauren pressed another button, stopping the tape and looked at Jacob with a raised eyebrow.

“You were saying?” she encouraged him to speak.

“I’m not going to say anything,” Jacob mumbled. “Not without my lawyer.”

“Good choice,” David agreed, grabbing the younger man by his cuffed arms. “Let’s go. It’s time to introduce you to our dedicated staff at the county jail.”

All of a sudden, Jacob’s head shot up and he looked around, searching for his brother.

“Jer? Where’s Jeremy?” he asked.

“Looking out for your little brother?” Maureen asked, knowing Jeremy was behind the van, out of Jacob’s sight. “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of him.”

“He’s the one you want,” Jacob spoke, producing a laugh that almost sounded hysterical. “He’s the one. I was only doing what he told me to. He burned down a house tonight. He killed three people.”

“So much for brotherly love,” Lee Ann muttered, waving at a police cruiser that turned into the lot. “Here’s our ride, guys.”

Jacob’s eyes traveled from the cruiser, to the van and then to Lauren.

“This is all planned,” he whispered, finally starting to realize his arrest was real and solid.

“Welcome to my trap,” Lauren smiled. “Goodbye, Jacob. We will see you later. Take him away, Dave,” she spoke, leaning against the side of the van, with her hands inside her pockets. To Jacob, she looked infuriatingly calm and collected.

“You bitch,” he spat. “I’ll get you for this. You wait.”

“You’re not doing yourself a favor here, pal,” David said, pulling the handcuffed man with him. “You might consider keeping your mouth shut.”

“I don’t care,” Jacob yelled, consumed by rage. His face was red and the veins on his forehead were bulging. “I’ll get out soon enough and believe me, I know where to find you. And you,” he added, looking at Maureen.

“Take him away, David,” Lauren’s voice sounded controlled, but cool.

David nodded and pulled the handcuffed Jacob Mannen with him to the waiting police cruiser. The uniformed officer had stepped out and had opened the door in the back, so all David had to do was push the struggling man on the backseat. He closed the door securely and stepped in the front, knowing his partner would follow in the unmarked car.

“Good job, Lee Ann,” Lauren complimented the younger woman. “Very good job.”

“You’re a star, Lally,” Maureen agreed, walking up to her cousin to give her a quick hug. “You were absolutely awesome.”

“I guess those drama classes in school were good for something,” Lee Ann smiled, pleased with the praise of the other women. “I’m glad we pulled it off without a hitch. Nobody got hurt.”

“Not during the arrest, no,” Lauren agreed. “But the trail of damage this guy is responsible for, is astounding. And I’m pretty sure we’ve only heard half of it.”

###

Tall trees surrounded the simple log cabin, providing shelter for the many birds and shade for the small building below. The wind gently moved the branches, rustling the leaves, creating a whisper in the warm, summer evening.

The sky was still blue, but soon the sun would start its descent, painting the western sky in hues of orange and purple. The silhouette of the mountains was clear against the sky, like a giant hand had drawn the lines against a background of liquid blue, but soon the ancient old formations would be swallowed by the darkness, only to be reborn in the cool light of the morning.

The beauty of the surroundings went unnoticed by the occupants of the cabin, who were seated at a simple, round table, made out of pinewood, enjoying a meal and a glass of wine.

“I’m glad I won that bet,” Lauren Darkwolf smiled, taking a sip from the ruby red liquid in her glass. “That was the best chicken I’ve had in a long time.”

“That’s what you said to Gertrude just a few weeks ago,” Maureen countered with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Yes, and it was true, until today,” Lauren chuckled.

“You’d better not say that to Gertrude,” Maureen teased.

“She can handle it,” Lauren shrugged. “Besides, she is thrilled we finally made it out of the city.”

“She’s not the only one,” Maureen sighed, leaning back in her chair and sipping her wine while staring at the woman who was sitting across from her at the table. Lauren Darkwolf looked tired, but relaxed. They had left Oklahoma City that morning and traveled most of the day to reach Lauren’s cabin in the Northeasterly part of the state, where it was tucked away between tall trees, close to a lake, on ten acres of private land.

“I wouldn’t mind if we’d never had to go back,” Maureen continued pensively, staring at the wine in her glass.

“That’s how I feel right now,” Lauren admitted. “I feel like I’ve been on a roller coaster those last few months. Right now, I’ve got enough of bad guys, mountains of paperwork and court cases.”

“Amen to that,” Maureen nodded, lifting her glass in salute and taking another sip of her wine, enjoying the well-rounded flavor. “But, I do believe we have a rock solid case against Mister Mannen.”

“We do,” Lauren agreed with a smile. “He should be going in for life.”

“And he deserves it,” Maureen spoke. “I have to admit, he’s one of the worst ones I’ve ever dealt with. I knew he was bad news, but I was surprised when we found out he was actually the brain behind a gigantic drug-imperium.” Maureen took another sip of wine, feeling her tired body relax and reveling in the sensation. “It’s great we were able to close down an additional eight labs.”

“There are still a lot more out there, though,” Lauren sighed.

“Yes, but not tonight,” Maureen spoke, slightly leaning forward in her chair as to emphasize her words. “And not tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after…”

“Not for the next week or so. Got it,” Lauren laughed.

“And maybe I’ll like it here so much, I want to become a fishing guide. Or a writer. Or…or whatever,” she said with a happy sigh.

“Living off the land,” Maureen mused, sending her partner a mock-insulted look when she laughed.

“You want to hunt down your food and grow your own veggies?” Lauren chuckled.

“Nope, I’ll grow veggies, you hunt,” Maureen replied. “If I remember correctly, your brothers made sure to tell me you’re a descendant from a long line of warriors.”

“They lied,” Lauren answered lazily. “My dad is a teacher, my granddad ran the country store and my great-granddad had a little farm and worked as a deputy sheriff.”

“Oh, well, I’d like to believe they were warriors, because it sounds more romantic.”

“Sure, honey. If that’s what you want to believe,” Lauren smiled.

“Thank you,” Maureen smiled, suppressing a yawn. There was a brief, comfortable silence and she looked around the simple, rustic cabin, enjoying the warm earth tones of the wooden walls and stone fireplace. Here and there a colorful painting or other piece of art adorned the walls.

“I like this place,” she said softly when she met Lauren’s eyes again.

“Thank you,” the other woman replied, equally soft. “Even though it’s my place, I feel I don’t come here often enough, because work is usually so busy. And whenever I visit, it’s just easier to stay with my parents, or one of my brothers.”

“I think it’s pretty awesome your whole family lives around here. It feels so secluded. If I didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t know your parents are just a few minutes down the road.”

“It’s nice,” Lauren nodded. “And handy, too, because the brothers keep an eye on my place and whenever they know I’ll be staying here, they make sure it’s clean and well-stocked.”

“When was the last time you were here, in your cabin, I mean?’ Maureen asked.

“About a year ago,” Lauren answered. “Too long.”

“Way too long,” Maureen agreed. “Did…” she hesitated for a moment. “Were you alone?”

Lauren’s dark eyes were warm when they caught Maureen’s green ones and with a smile she nodded.

“I was,” she admitted. She reached out and covered Maureen’s hand with her own.

“To tell you the truth, you’re the first non-family member I have brought here. Ever,” she said.

“Really?” Maureen breathed.

“Really,” Lauren smiled.

“I…I like that idea,” the red head confessed. “I mean, I don’t want to sound presumptuous or anything, but…I am very…much in love with you and…”

“And you’re glad there are no memories of previous loves here,” Lauren finished the sentence for her and Maureen nodded, relieved that Lauren seemed to understand.

“That means we’ll have the chance to create a lot of them, memories that is,” Lauren continued. “No cell phones, no pagers, no bad guys.”

Without breaking eye contact, Lauren got up from her chair and stepped around the table, reaching out a hand and pulling Maureen off her chair, into her arms.

“And I am very much in love with you as well,” she whispered, before her lips descended on the other woman’s. She kissed Maureen slow, deep and deliberate. They were both very tired and she knew the only thing her body really wanted was to go to sleep. For days. But her fatigue could not eradicate her desire to be physically close to Maureen, to kiss her and run her hands over her warm, soft skin.

“You’re such a great kisser,” Maureen whispered after a long time, resting her head on Lauren’s shoulders and enjoying the feel of the other woman’s arms around her. “You’re great at a lot of things,” she added dreamily, feeling Lauren chuckle.

“Thank you, I think,” the dark haired woman spoke, kissing the red head’s forehead, her temple and cheek.

“You’re welcome,” Maureen smiled, lifting her head so she could look into the dark eyes she loved so much. “I am tired and my body is telling me it really, really wants to lay down and go to sleep.”

“I understand. Mine is telling me the same thing,” Lauren replied, dropping a kiss on the top of Maureen’s head.

“But still, it’s also craving your touch,” Maureen whispered, tracing one of Lauren’s eyebrows with the tip of her finger. “I love the way you touch me, I love your kisses, I love to feel your skin against mine,” she continued, smiling when Lauren’s eyes went impossibly dark. “I love you,” Maureen said. “And I so want to make love with you, right now. Does that sound like I’m a total sex addict?” she asked, a little worried.

“Oh, God, no,” Lauren answered with a soft laugh. “If you are, then I am too. I am so tired, but all day I’ve been wanting you. I kept remembering how your body feels, the little noises you make, how you move against me and I want that, more and again. I want you too.” Lauren bent her head and captured Maureen’s lips in another passionate kiss. The redhead let out a soft moan when the kiss was deepened and she pressed her body closer to that of Lauren, feeling the heat roll off her body in waves.

“Take me to bed,” she whispered.

“Oh, yes,” was the heated answer. They continued to kiss each other and while Maureen’s hands boldly slid underneath Lauren’s cotton shirt, they made it to the bedroom, where Lauren gently pushed Maureen on the bed, immediately busying herself with unbuttoning Maureen’s shirt. Lauren let out a soft gasp when the fabric was pushed away, revealing soft, creamy skin and a pair of firm breasts, covered in a simple, white bra. With impatient fingers Lauren removed the shirt and the bra, moaning when she buried her face against Maureen’s chest, feeling the silky skin against her lips and face.

“You’re so beautiful,” she whispered, creating a path of kisses from Maureen’s breasts to her neck and back again.

Maureen arched into the touch and tugged Lauren’s shirt, demanding it to be taken off. The dark- haired woman complied so quickly, that before Maureen knew what was happening, she felt Lauren’s naked body pressed against her own.

“This feels so good,” she sighed, letting her hands travel down Lauren’s back, lifting up her hips to help Lauren get rid of the remaining clothes.

“You make me feel like I’m on fire,” she whispered against the dark woman’s lips, unconsciously moving her hips in rhythm with the other woman’s body. “You make me feel alive.”

“I want to make you feel much more than that,” Lauren breathed in Maureen’s ear, gently biting the lobe, before nipping and sucking the skin of her neck and shoulders.

“You do,” Maureen gasped when her nipple was engulfed by a wet mouth and a pair of strong lips. “Oh, Lauren, you do,” she whispered. “I…I..”

Whatever Maureen wanted to say was forever lost when Lauren kissed and licked a path from her breasts, down to her belly, to the top of her thighs.

All conscious thoughts were lost, while she let herself willingly drown in the flood wave of feeling and sensations. Until there was nothing else, but the heated hunger of her body, centered around the touch of her lover, a breathless hunger for relief.
The End

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