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In a Heartbeat

By Ruby

 

**WARNING** Adult situations and violence!

*The NO-7 AU was created by Ruby. This is the first in a series and tells how the seven united during the capture of a serial killer, known as the Red-Light Killer.

 

()o()o()o()o()

 

What if your fears and dreams existed in the same place?

What if everything you'd ever wanted cost you everything you'd ever earned?
What if to reach Heaven, you had to endure living hell first?
Would you still do it?
 
<><><><><><><>

 

The night was hot and sticky, the air thick as molasses causing the grey t-shirt he wore to cling to his chest.  The blonde reached over to pour another shot of whiskey into his glass.  His shaking hand brought the amber liquid to his lips and he tried to calm his nerves as he poured the cheap concoction down his throat.  He looked over at the picture of his family on the table beside the futon couch and as always, the vision of his wife and son's mutilated and murdered bodies came back into focus.  He slammed the glass down onto the oak table sending shards of glass Gattling across the room. 

 

Chris Larabee watched the blood from the cut on his hand slowly stream down his wrist.  He was entranced by the red flow now making its way from his forearm to his elbow.  He welcomed the pain from the sharp cut; a symbol of cleansing that helped him in his self-inflicted haze to feel alive.

 

The knock on the door didn't pull him from the study of the cut, nor did the southern drawl that came from the man who had entered the apartment.  Chris didn't know anyone was there until the figure was perched over the futon looking down on him.  The full moon's rays streaming in through the undraped windows sketched the intruder's outline.

 

"Chris?" asked the worried drawl.

 

"Ezra… ever heard of knocking?" Chris asked, irritated at the break in his silent reverie.

 

"I did knock, Chris.  I was concerned when you didn't answer."

 

'I'm fine," Chris said as he struggled to pull himself up from his prone position.

 

Ezra watched as his friend and partner attempted to right himself.  After a moment he reached over the rise of the futon, grabbed Chris under his upper arms and drew the stubborn man to a sitting position. 

 

Chris, embarrassed by the help, turned and sat forward in the futon, his bare feet on the warm wooden floor of his studio apartment that he rented in the Warehouse District of New Orleans. 

 

"What's up?" Chris asked without looking towards Ezra.

 

Ezra inhaled deeply before delivering the news that he feared would tear the small and final thread of his friend's existence to shreds.  "I just received a call… seems there's been a murder in the Red-Light District."  Ezra paused and watched as Chris' back stiffened, but the hard as steel man never flinched or turned towards Ezra.  "It's the same MO as the Red-Light Killer."

 

"Prostitute?" Larabee asked in a hoarse whisper.

 

"Her name was Daisy," Ezra said, waiting for recognition to register with his partner that the young woman was one of their former clients.

 

Chris closed his burning eyes, to contain the tears of anger that welled up in them.  It was only seconds that passed, but it felt like minutes before he finally turned towards Ezra and spoke.  "Take me to the scene."

 

Ezra nodded.  "That's why I'm here."

 

Chris smirked, thankful for the ex-FBI agent's forethought in this situation.  Chris didn't know how Ezra became privy to this information, but he had his hunches.  He went into his bedroom and changed his dingy t-shirt for a cleaner black one.  He proceeded to the bathroom to splash water on his face in an attempt to sober up, and then returned to the main room of his apartment.  Larabee tucked his weapon in the back of his black jeans out of habit.

 

"Didn't pay the electric again?" Ezra asked as he tried the light in the kitchen.

 

"Nope," was the only answer Chris gave.

 

Ezra just nodded his head in understanding and then followed his partner out the door and to the street where his Jaguar was parked.  Ezra unlocked the doors as he went around to the driver's side to let himself in and started the car.  Per usual, Chris immediately changed the channel on the radio from Ezra's soft soothing jazz station, to a classic rock station.

 

Ezra smirked and continued to keep his eyes on the road.  It had taken months, almost years to get used to the man sitting beside him and his ways, but in the end they had turned out to be a private investigative team to be reckoned with.  What had started out as an ex-New Orleans detective and an ex-FBI agent attempting to keep their heads above water after the bungle of the first investigation of the Red-Light Killer, had turned into a partnership and business that had brought a few criminals to their knees that not even their former employers had been able to touch.

 

Chris laid his head against the headrest and listened to song playing over the expensive radio.  He loved how music sounded in Ezra's car, but of course, would never have admitted it.  He leaned over and adjusted the volume allowing Credence Clearwater Revival to tell him of a bad moon rising.  Chris opened his eyes and looked out the window, watching the full moon that every so often peeked at him between passing buildings and warehouses.  Chris studied the moon and listened to the song.  He knew there was trouble on the rise; the feeling had seeped into his bones and consumed him.  Chris knew the killer had resurfaced.  He had never left; just hid.  The danger he would bring back to the city was hiding in wait, just like the dark side of the moon, it was always out of sight, but always there.

 

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Tara laid on her bed completely absorbed by the song on the radio.  It spoke to her.  She turned onto her side and watched as moths and June bugs swarmed around the porch light, slamming with a kamikaze force against the window of her bedroom.  She continued to observe the display as the song ended.  The moment of silence between the songs was cut short by the shrill ringing of her phone.  She lifted her head to look at the clock and frowned at the hour of the late night call.  She sat up in protest to her stiff, hard worked muscles and reached for the phone.

 

"Hello."  There was silence on the other end.  "Hello," she said again nervously.

 

"Tara?" said a soft timid voice.

 

"Nessa," Tara replied worriedly into the phone.

 

"He's back, Tara.  Daisy was killed tonight.  I'm ready…  I'm ready to go now.  Please come and get me… get me out of here," the woman begged tearfully.

 

"Who's back?" Tara asked.

 

"The Red-Light Killer.  The police are at her apartment right now.  She's tore up, Tara," Nessa wailed into the phone.

 

"Stay put, Nessa.  I'm leaving tonight.  I'll be there in a couple of days.  No more working; you stay inside and I'll be there for you."

 

"Okay," Nessa sniffled.  "Hurry," she pled.

 

"Fast as lightning I'll be," Tara answered into a dead phone, as her best friend was already gone.

 

<><><><><><><><><>

 

Vin Tanner sat on the bed in his roach-invested motel room studying the picture of a long time past.  A time when he and his new bride were happy, completely contented with the love they shared and the freedom they had once they were able to escape the horrible foster care system in which they had both been raised and the street life Nessa had fallen prey to for a short time.

 

Vanessa had been beautiful with waist long light-brown hair and big brown eyes that Vin had gotten lost in every time he looked at her.  But the wedded bliss hadn't lasted long.  In search of a better life for them, he had enlisted with the Marines.  Boot camp had been rough and almost tore him to pieces, but he always had the picture of his love in the back of his mind… she was what had kept him sane. 

 

Letters from Vanessa had poured in the first few months, but eventually they dwindled off until there was no word at all from her.  When his basic training was over, he returned to New Orleans and searched for her, finally finding her working for Cletus Fowler, the city's biggest pimp and peddler of flesh.  Vin had begged Vanessa to leave the profession that they had fought so hard together to pull her from, but they both knew deep in their hearts, he would never accept what she had become again, whether it had been to survive or not.

 

Vin left that same night, returning early from his thirty-day leave and went back to duty.  He asked for an assignment that would take him eighteen months from the states and the woman he loved.  Though deeply involved in the operation, Vanessa often crept into his mind and when the thoughts would turn to what she was probably doing at that moment, Vin would banish her from his thoughts and turn back into the soldier he'd been trained to be. 

 

Coming back to the present, Vin wiped the single tear that streamed down his cheek and placed the picture of he and his bride face down on the bed.  It was over and had been for years, but being back here in the city in which they had met and fallen in love… it suddenly had become more then he could bear.

 

<><><><><><><><><><><>

 

Detective Buck Wilmington looked one last time at the unnervingly mutilated body of the prostitute and then turned to leave the tiny apartment.  He stepped out onto the warped terrace that overlooked the unkempt courtyard and moss covered fountain. 

 

"Need to get that yellow-bellied partner of yours in line," a laughing officer said pointing over his shoulder.

 

Buck looked to find his young partner hurling over the banister.  He looked at the uniformed officer and then sidestepped him making his way to his young partner.

 

"Okay?" Buck asked slapping the young detective on his shoulder.

 

"Yeah, just never saw anything like that before," JD Dunne said swiping the cuff of his shirt over his mouth.

 

Buck placed his forearms on the wrought-iron banister and looked over to the swarm of police entering and exiting the dead girl's apartment.  He sucked in a breath and then turned back to the new recruit.  "Never gets easy, but you'll learn to see past the gore and get the job done."

 

JD looked into the face of his partner and saw sadness; it was a new kind of grief.  He'd been on a few homicides with Wilmington since making detective, but this one… it showed on the veteran's face how much it affected him.  JD was about to ask why, when two men made their way up the rickety iron steps, causing Wilmington to straighten and almost smile.

 

Buck cautiously went to the stair landing and waited on his ex-partner and best friend.  He didn't expect to be greeted with open arms and he wasn't disappointed.

 

Chris looked up past Ezra and saw Buck waiting on him.  He knew the chances of Buck being here were good, but he wasn't in the mood for one of Buck's 'I was just doing my job' speeches.

 

"Detective Wilmington," Ezra said wearily.

 

"Ezra," Buck answered, knowing Ezra better then the ex-FBI agent liked to admit.

 

Not wanting to wait through the awkward pleasantries, Chris stood between the two men and looked his old friend and partner in the eye.  "I want to see the girl."

 

"Can't do that, Chris; you know that," Buck said regretfully.

 

"Like hell you can't, Buck.  You’re the senior detective on this.  You can take us in."

 

Buck looked over his shoulder at his still green detective and sighed.  "Can't do it, Chris, Chief Spikes is inside."

 

"Spikes!" Chris said through gritted teeth.  "His lard ass only shows up when it's a touchy case."

 

Ezra's face blanched at Chris' words and stepped to his side looking at Buck.  "It appears to me, detective that the word on the street is indeed correct then.  We are dealing with the Red-Light Killer."

 

Buck wanted to smirk; he had always liked Ezra Standish, former FBI agent, but he was unable to allow their access to the scene, as much as he desperately wanted both men's expertise.  "No comment."

 

"No comment!" Chris snarled.  "No comment my ass, Buck!  You know I was right.  Right in there lays the truth.  You caught the wrong man… fried the wrong man last week."

 

"Calm down now, Chris," Buck said placing his hand on Chris' shoulder and then having it shrugged off aggressively.

 

"Vasquez didn't commit those murders three years ago and in there lies the proof!  Question is… what are you gonna do about it?" Chris challenged as he watched the young man over Buck's shoulder slowly come to stand behind his tall lanky partner.

 

"Copycat, Chris… that's all this is," Buck said remorsefully.

 

Chris squinted at Buck and then turned to Ezra.  "We need to get in there," he said under his breath, as Ezra nodded agreeing.

 

Ezra quickly looked around at the crowd of authorities and then finally spotted the one person he'd been waiting anxiously to see… the one who had given him the tip.  He excused himself from the two old friends that were still squaring off and made his way to his object of interest.  He stood and stared for a few seconds at the woman before approaching her.  It had been two years since they had last spoken and even though she had been his contact, Ezra wasn't sure how she would treat him once face to face.

 

"Agent Belmont," he said very businesslike.

 

Special Agent Elena Belmont turned, knowing the voice of her former lover very well, but wearing a look on her face that covered that knowledge.  "Yes."

 

Ezra smirked at her need for inconspicuousness and extended his hand.  "Ezra Standish, I believe we spoke on the phone earlier."

 

Elena looked at his well-groomed hand and reined in the urge to touch him… to beg him to take her in his arms.  Instead she smiled discretely, causing Ezra to remember how controlled his former lover had been.  Fires could be raging out of control inside her, but damned if she would show it, except in her eyes.  He could always see how she felt in her eyes and he saw it tonight.  She still wanted him.  His smile grew.

 

"Mr. Standish, yes.  How can I help you?" Elena asked naively.

 

Ezra took a few steps toward his ex-lover and licked his lower lip.  He then looked up and met with her enchanting violet eyes once more.  "My associate and I need a glimpse at the crime scene.  The victim is a client."

 

Elena breathed in quietly and leveled her eyes at Ezra's, refusing to give in to his seduction.  "Former client," she said with a smirk.

 

Ezra wasn't shocked Elena had done her homework.  It was just one of the many things that made her a great agent, but he knew she would eventually cave and allow them access.  Why else would she have called him with the tip?

 

"Agent Belmont, I need not remind you why it is imperative that Mr. Larabee and I are allowed access to this heinous crime scene?"

 

Hearing Chris' name sent shock waves through Elena.  It was unfair that Ezra played that card, but he now held a full hand and they both knew it.  "I'll speak with Spikes… give me a few moments."

 

Ezra nodded his thanks and even before he could make his way back to Chris who was still speaking harshly to Buck, Elena returned to the terrace and to the group of men.

 

"Chris," she said with a slight smile and then looked at Buck.  "Detective Wilmington, you are to escort Mr. Larabee and Mr. Standish inside."  Buck looked at Elena as if she was crazy and she smiled wider.  "Per Chief Spikes, of course."

 

Buck looked at Chris and then back to Elena.  He tipped an imaginary hat as he motioned for a pale JD to follow and started for the entrance of the apartment.  As Ezra began to follow the other three men, he turned to Elena and winked causing her body to ignite with desire and that infuriated her.

 

"Still gets to you, I see," a gruff voice said from behind her.

 

"No."  Elena turned to face her partner who knew her, at times, better than she even knew herself.

 

Josiah just chuckled and placed a large gentle hand on her shoulder.  "How can I believe that response when even you don't?"

 

Elena just turned back around ignoring the comment and watched Ezra disappear when he entered the apartment of the dead prostitute.  Her heart pounded at what they would witness inside, surely opening old wounds and what that meant for her former lover and friends.

 

<><><><><><><><><><><><><>

 

It was as if Chris were in an out of body experience when he stood at the foot of the bed.  There before him was the young beauty that only months before had come to he and Ezra in need of help to find her parents.  She had wanted out of the life on the streets and didn't know how to contact her parents who had moved from the home that she had run from years ago.  The agents had done their best and found her parents, but as it now looked, the reunion must not have gone as the young woman had hoped.

 

Chris looked at the unrecognizable woman on the bed.  Her face was cut up into shreds and her innards had been cut out.  The piercing at the base of her neck told him all he needed to know.  It was the Red-Light Killer.  His one unmistakable mark had always been to insert a sharpened tool of some kind into the carotid artery, causing her to bleed out slowly as he disfigured and mutilated her, a most heinous and excruciatingly painful death.   

 

Chris turned from the woman only to come face to face with Chief Bob Spikes, the one man he didn't want to deal with, especially now.

 

"Larabee, forget what you see here," Spikes warned.

 

Chris slowly raised his head to meet Spikes' warning gaze.  The look in his eyes indicated his boiling anger.  "You got a problem here Spikes?  Are you going to handle it this time or blame another innocent man to calm the public and get yourself another raise?"

 

"You know we got the right man, Larabee.  Copycat is all this is.  I wanted you to see that for yourself," Spikes answered through clenched teeth.

 

Ezra, who had been listening to the repartee, stepped in on his friend's behalf.  "Certain details of the murders were not relayed to the public three years ago, Chief Spikes.  The piercing to the neck was one of them.  I believe this is the same killer."

 

Spikes hated the FBI's involvement and it irked him to no end, especially the ex-FBI arrogant SOB Standish.  "Leaks happen."

 

"Explain then, why this murder took place a week after Eduardo Vasquez was put to death.  He's toying with us, Spikes and you know it!" Chris bellowed.

 

Spikes knew the room full of police detectives were watching as to how he handled this and he leaned in so only Larabee could hear him.  "Your family's killer was found.  Get over it, Larabee and get out of my crime scene.  Show up again and I'll have you and your partner arrested for impeding our investigation."

 

Chris pulled back as if Spikes breath had scalded him.  He looked at Buck, who was watching on in remorse, wanting to step in, but the need for him to set an example to his new recruit superseded his actions to intervene.  Chris felt Ezra pulling on his arm and his stunned anger allowed the Southerner to extricate him from the scene and out of the prostitute's apartment.  It was Elena that pulled him from his stupor.

 

"It wasn't Vasquez was it?  The killer's back," she stated carefully.

 

Chris slowly looked over to find Elena standing with her partner, Josiah Sanchez.  They were the two people that had been instrumental in helping him in the first investigation of the Red-Light Killer three years ago.  Both had professed profusely that the NOPD had the wrong guy, but the only one that would listen had been Chris and it had cost him his job.

 

"You were right," Chris said as he stomped down the iron steps into the courtyard.

 

Elena looked over her shoulder towards Josiah and grimaced.

 

Josiah voiced what they were all thinking.  "So it begins… again."

 

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

 

Two days later Chris tramped down the dark and shadowed hallways of the morgue.  It was an eerie place, but one he knew all too well.  In the days and weeks after the first Red- Light killing spree, he had been here almost daily.  Then when his precious Sarah and Adam had become victims, he was here for weeks on end.  In that time, he had become close with the Medical Examiner, Nathan Jackson.  He was one of the few people he trusted to tell him if the murder of Emily Madison, street named Daisy, was linked to the murders three years ago.

 

He slowly opened the glass door to the exam room where she lay.  Chris slowly made his way to her and looked down.  The feeling that he had let her down in some way completely overwhelmed him. 

 

"Nothing you could have done, Chris," Nathan said from behind him.

 

"She came to us for help, Nate.  I should have checked up on her.  Might have saved her life," Chris said so quietly that Nathan had to move closer to his friend to hear the response.

 

Nathan lowered his head and placed his hand on his friend's shoulder.  "No one knew he would return."

 

Chris whipped around and looked at the medical examiner anxiously.  "So it's him?"

 

"Tool marks… everything is consistent with the murders three years ago.  The killer knows just where to puncture, just below the jaw line, slow and painful," Nathan answered quietly.

 

Chris blew out a breath and then looked over again at the girl lying on the slab.  "Police are going to cover this up, Nate.  Aren't going to want it getting out that they put to death the wrong man last week," Chris said solemnly.

 

"I'll get what proof I can from the victim.  Evidence can't be silenced."

 

Chris turned to his friend and placed a hand on his arm.  "I know you'll do your best."

 

Larabee turned to leave and then glanced back over his shoulder.  "You'll be in touch with what you find?"

 

Nathan smirked.  "Off the record."

 

Chris grinned as well.  "Of course.  Thanks."

 

With that Chris Larabee left the morgue and roamed the streets of New Orleans.  His mind reeled with what the development meant that the Red-Light Killer was back, the same man the police claimed had killed his wife and son in a park at midnight three years ago.  Chris still didn't believe the same man that killed the prostitutes was his family's killer, that and the fact he believed the police had charged the wrong man for all the murders, had cost him his detective's badge. 

 

Being reduced to a beat cop, Chris had told the force where to stuff it and went to wallow at his home.  Three months after his family's murder and not making the mortgage payments, led to his current residence in the warehouse district. 

 

A few months later, needing a drink one night, he had wandered into a bar on Canal Street, and a chance meeting with an Agent Standish that had worked the Red-Light case with him.  Agent Standish had believed the evidence, as most did at the time, which caused a rift between him and Larabee at the end.  But after explaining his exile from the FBI at the hands of corrupt agents to Chris and also his own investigation into the case months later, had lead Ezra to believe Chris had been right.  Ezra, in his unique fashion, had won over an inebriated Chris and the two out-of-work men became friends and eventually formed a business…  Bourbon St. Investigations. 

 

What had been formed out of the desperation of two men needing a purpose in the world, while still investigating the murders that had cost them their jobs, the two exiled men found a bond… found a friendship.  It would never replace the one Chris had with Buck; it was different completely, but nonetheless it was one that had saved Chris from putting a gun to his head and ending his life.

 

<><><><><><>><><>

 

Tara stood outside of the motel room pacing for at least ten minutes.  She knew she could trust him, but would he care?  "He had too," she thought.

 

Tara walked to the door, quickly knocked twice and then waited.  After two seconds she decided this was a bad idea.  She turned on her heels and started for the steps that led to the parking lot just as the door whipped open.

 

"Yeah," said a voice with a Texas twang.

 

Tara stood stunned.  It was him.  She backed up off of the steps and then slowly turned to look at her old friend and smiled in recognition. 

 

"Vin," she said.

 

"Tara?" he asked looking her over.

 

The two former foster kids looked at each other for a few more seconds before they each rushed for the other and pulled the other in a full embrace holding on for dear life.  After a long pause, Tara pulled back and looked around as if she were being watched.  She then looked into Vin's eyes.  "We need to talk… inside."

 

Tara paced back and forth at the end of the bed for awhile knowing Vin was giving her the time she needed before finally giving him a reason for tracking him down after all this time.  Tara spotted the picture face down on the bed and then looked up at Vin.  She knew the picture was of him and Nessa on their wedding day.  She knew it was because she had given them the frame as a wedding gift.  Tara knew Vin still loved Nessa, just as much as her best friend still loved him.  Tara sighed at the tragedy of this couple's fate.  If there were two people that belonged together, it was Vin and Nessa.

 

"She's missing Vin.  I need your help to find her before it's too late," Tara said while trying to stay as calm as she could under the circumstances.

 

Vin didn't have to ask whom; he knew.  There was only one person on this planet that could have gotten Tara to leave her hiding to return to New Orleans and that was Nessa.  "How long?" he asked just barely above a whisper.

 

"I asked around.  Her neighbor hasn't seen her since the night Daisy was killed," Tara answered as she watched the small grimace appear on Vin's face.

 

"The dead prostitute?" he asked through clenched teeth.

 

"Vin, Nessa was getting out.  She was going to come with me.  Get out of this life once and for all."  Tara's tone begged him to believe her.

 

"Probably changed her mind is all," he said as he turned away from Tara.  He parted the heavy drapes with his finger and looked out onto the street.

 

"No!" Tara shouted as she went to Vin and grabbed his arm, forcefully turning him to look at her again.  "Listen to me, Vin.  I heard it in her voice.  Nessa was frightened and she meant what she said.  She's in trouble…  I feel it.  We have to find her."

 

Vin paced the room while stealing glances over to the bed where the overturned picture still lay and then turned to Tara.  "She's been missing for two days; that ain't good.  Best get us some help on this."

 

Tara shook her head.  "I tried the cops already.  They don't give a damn about a missing working girl.  Hell, they don't even care they're getting killed."

 

There it was again.  Vin's reminder of what his beautiful wife had become staring him right in the face.  She was still his wife; he'd never had the heart to end it.  He assumed Nessa never went through with it because she couldn't find him.  He made sure of that by never staying put in one place too long.  It angered him that she had taken to peddling her body for money, but under the surface he was angry with himself.  He felt as if he'd let her down by not taking care of her or making enough money,  so that she'd never have had to resort to that measure. 

 

Vin had tried not to judge her when he found out, but he couldn't bear to look at her at the time.  She had become a victim of the streets again.  The dysfunctional foster care system that they had been raised in together had forced her into it before they had been married.  That's where they had met, Tara, too.  They were young teenagers that held onto to one another, becoming each other's family and sharing their dreams for the future.  That was why Vin left Vanessa, not so much because she had sold her body, but because she had given up.  She'd just stopped believing in their dreams...believing in him.

 

"Vin?" Tara asked while she gently touched his arm.

 

Vin looked up from his study of the stained bright orange shag carpet and met with Tara's worried gaze.  "We're wasting time; let's go."

 

"I told you, Vin.  The cops won't help."

 

Vin looked over his shoulder as he reached into a drawer to get his weapon.  "These two will help us.  I worked with them a few times in the past."

 

"You're a cop?" Tara asked in wide-eyed amazement.

 

"Nah, they helped me on a bounty."

 

"Oh," Tara said almost relieved.  She was not too sure why she didn't trust the police.  Maybe it was all the years working on the streets.

 

The ride over to Bourbon Street allowed Tara to find out what had brought Vin back to town.  He was chasing after a man that skipped bail in Memphis a few days back.  The trail had led Vin here and in a matter of hours, he'd had his man who was now on his way back to Memphis.  Why Vin had stuck around after the seize didn't need to be verbalized, both knew the answer.

 

When they pulled up to the front of the small office building, Tara read the name on the door.  She turned to Vin.  "Thought you said we were meeting with cops?"

 

Vin smirked.  "Ex-cops." 

 

"Once a cop, always a cop," Tara said under her breath and then reached for the handle slipping out of Vin's old truck.  She followed him to the entrance of the building.

 

As soon as Tara stepped into the building behind Vin, they were immediately greeted by a pretty Mexican woman who was standing before a filing cabinet.

 

"Vin," Inez said with a smile as she moved towards them.  She extended her hand and Vin took it in his.

 

Tara watched the exchange for a moment, uncomfortable with how friendly the two were with one another.  When the pretty woman that she now knew as Inez, turned her friendly eyes on Tara, she couldn't help but like the feisty woman. 

 

"Tara Willis," she said extending her hand to Inez.

 

"I assume you’re here on business?" Inez asked looking from Tara and back to Vin again.

 

Vin nodded.  "I was hoping to catch either Chris or Ezra."

 

"You're in luck," Inez said with smile.  "They're both in right now."

 

Vin and Tara followed Inez down a short hallway to the back of the building where a fairly large office was located.  On either side of the room were large mahogany desks and behind each sat a man.  With a glance at each desk, one stacked with papers and files, the other completely clean and organized, Tara knew instantaneously that these men were as different as night and day.

 

The man in the suit with the orderly desk was the first to greet them.  Tara stood a silently and watched the man with the southern drawl interact with Vin.  She smiled at the man's extensive vocabulary; it suited him to a tee.  The other man was a mystery and she almost jumped out of her skin when she turned to him and found that he was studying her intensely. 

 

Her heart began to race and it was as if she was standing on that street corner again.  His glare took her right back there and she didn't like it.  She swallowed and ran her suddenly sweating palms up and down the butt of her jeans. 

 

"Tara?" Vin asked over her shoulder.

 

Tara blinked a few times and then turned back to Vin.  In a hushed voice spoken only for his ears, she said, "I don't think this was such a good idea."

 

Vin looked over at Chris, who was leaning back in his chair with Ezra now standing behind him.  Both men waited for their guests to join them and share their reason for the visit.  Vin looked down at Tara and held her gaze for a second, telling her with his eyes to trust him, which of course, she did and silently followed him to the two leather chairs in front of the desk that belonged to the  blonde man with the intense eyes.

 

Chris extended his hand across the desk to his friend and smirked, then fixed his eyes once again on the exotic beauty who was now seated directly across from him.

 

"Chris, this here is an old friend, Tara Willis…  Chris Larabee."

 

Chris extended his hand to her, which she was slow in taking, because Tara now knew who the man was.  He had been back when she and Nessa had first taken to the streets as working girl's.  He was a feared narcotics and vice cop.  Every girl on the street had known the name Detective Chris Larabee… the cop who always got his man or in many cases, woman.

 

"Have we met before?" Chris asked as she pulled back her hand and placed them both between her knees, not wanting the former cop to know how he was affecting her.

 

"No… never," Tara answered truthfully.

 

Chris looked from Tara to Vin and spoke.  "What can we do for you, Vin?"

 

"Need some help finding someone," Vin answered.

 

"I was under the impression you had collected Lucas James earlier in the week?" Ezra asked from his standing position behind Chris.

 

Vin grinned at how these two former law enforcement officials were still on top of things.  "Yeah, I caught him over at the Titty Twister on Canal Street Tuesday."

 

Ezra's eyebrow rose at the establishment mentioned and Chris just snorted.  Tara's nerves tensed even more and bolting out the door was looking like a better choice with each passing minute.

 

Chris looked between Tara and Vin, trying to figure out if the two were a couple.  Why he cared, he wasn't sure.  He shrugged the thought off and focused back on his friend.  "So Vin… who is it you're trying to find then?"

 

Vin wasn't sure how to answer that, but he knew the two men across from him were top notch in their field and it would only be a matter of time before they uncovered that Nessa was Vin's wife.  "Vanessa Tanner," Vin said candidly. 

 

The last name registered and Chris looked up at Ezra, whose only sign that he found this interesting was one raised eyebrow.  Chris looked back at Vin and asked his next question.  "I'm guessing she is a relation to you."

 

Vin nodded.  "She's my wife."

 

That was the comment that piqued Ezra's interest.  He had always prided himself on reading people, but Vin Tanner was now a mystery to the ex-agent.  Ezra had always taken Vin for a loner.  To hear the bounty hunter had a wife, truly stunned him.

 

Chris looked towards Tara wondering how she fit into all this and posed his question to her.

 

Tara wiggled in her seat for a moment.  Those eyes… green intense orbs that seemed to cut right through her psyche to her very soul.  Vin nudged her with his elbow and Tara decided to focus on Ezra when she spoke.  He didn't permeate her senses the way his partner did. 

 

"Nessa called me two nights ago.  She was frantic about Daisy's death, saying the killer was back and it wasn't safe again on the streets.  I told her to stay put and I would come for her.  I got here this morning and she wasn't home when I arrived.  I spoke with her neighbor who hadn't seen Nessa since the night Daisy was found."

 

Chris placed his elbows on the desk and steepled his hands, obviously contemplating how to phrase the next question in order not to offend Vin.  Chris sighed and plunged forward; the only way to find Vin's wife was to have all the facts.  The bounty hunter knew this and Chris hoped for the best as the words left his lips.  "Was… is Vanessa a working girl?"

 

It wasn't Vin that became enraged, but to everyone's surprise, it was Tara.  "So because she knew Daisy, you automatically assume she's a prostitute!" Tara spat as she stood up from her seat.  Her hands trembled visibly, but she didn't care, for now they were shaking out of anger.  "Nessa is a good person and she's all the family Vin and I have.  That's what should matter here."

 

Vin hung his head for a moment in shame and then reached up and grabbed her arm.  He tried to coax her back into her seat, but she fought Vin's tugging.  Tara finally sat on her own after he released her arm.

 

Chris waited until he was sure her outburst was over and then calmly spoke.  It was clear that had it not been for Vin, he probably would have given the lady a piece of his mind.  "What matters here, Miss Willis is that your friend is living in the Red-Light district.  The same maniac who killed all those prostitutes three years ago killed a woman two nights ago.  She's in danger, Miss Willis and the only way to find her is to know EVERYTHING about her."

 

Ezra cleared his throat and looked at Tara and then Vin.  "I believe the first place to start would be with a description of Mrs. Tanner."

 

Vin could feel his face redden and dropped his head once again in shame.  It had been more then four years since he had last set eyes on his wife.  He wondered if she still had the luxurious long hair or if she had cut it, something she never did when they were together, because he had loved it so much.  He was saved from having to share that information, at least for the moment, when Tara slapped a picture down on the desk.  To his surprise, Nessa was now a redhead, but the long flowing hair still remained.

 

"Nessa sent this to me a few months ago.  Her street name is Ginger," Tara said looking at Ezra, who waited for Chris to take a look and then passed it over his shoulder to him.

 

Ezra smiled slightly at the beauty in the picture.  It showed in the woman's eyes how the years working the streets had worn on her, but her face was still youthful, a definite target for the Red-Light Killer.  That realization sent a shiver down his back, almost as if cold fingers had just been raked down his spine.

 

Chris searched his disorderly desk a moment until he found a pad and pen and placed it on the desk between Tara and Vin.  "I need her address, the addresses of any friends, the name of her pimp and any regular Johns you might know of.  If she had a bar she frequented, I want that too.  Anywhere she that goes on a daily basis is what I need from you."

 

Tara wrote down what she knew.  She filled almost a whole page with information, knowing that over the years since she'd been gone, Nessa had pretty much stayed on schedule.  When she was finished, she passed the paper across to Chris who wasn't a bit surprised that she didn't offer it to Vin.  Chris hadn't missed the longing in his friend's expression when Tara placed the picture of Vanessa on the desk.  Vin had sat forward and looked at the woman in the picture with as much interest as he and Ezra had done.  Chris wondered how long it had been since they last saw each other.  Something told him that it had been quite awhile.

 

Chris looked over the addresses and names.  A sense of loathing crept through him at finding out that Cletus Fowler was Vanessa's pimp.  It disgusted him, but didn't surprise him.  Fowler had been in the city when Chris had worked vice and try as he might, Fowler was the one man that had eluded him.  He was a slick man, always careful and staying just under the radar.  Fowler took good care of his girls as long as they brought him a profit and they in turn refused to give him up, but Chris was sure Fowler had some of the city's finest in his deep back pocket.

 

After agreeing that time was of the essence in finding Nessa, Vin decided to accompany Ezra out onto the streets as Chris went back to Nessa's apartment with Tara to look for any clues as to where the frightened woman may have fled. 

 

Tara watched as Vin left the office with the fancy dresser, extremely uncomfortable being left with Larabee, but she knew Vin was best suited out on the streets.  If anyone could find Nessa, she knew it would be him.  She just hoped they weren't too late.

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

He walked around the mattress that lay on the cold cement floor, taking in his victim as if he were a lion preparing for the kill.  She blinked trying to hold back the tears, not wanting him to see her fear, but the wicked smile he wore told her that he knew.  She wanted to scream, but the tape over her mouth prevented the much-needed release. 

 

After what seemed like endless minutes, he straddled her and stood above her, turning the knife in his hand.  The long, jagged blade glistened in the tiny bit of sun streaming in the only dirt-covered window.  She didn't know where she was, but she was sure this was the last time she would ever feel the sun.  She turned her face towards it and closed her eyes, taking her mind somewhere else - somewhere six years ago when she had lived only for one man and allowed his image to flood her mind.  Then the tears came; they were unavoidable as she felt the blade on her neck.  She knew she would never get a chance to tell Vin how sorry she was for having given up.  He'd never know.

 

<><><><><><>

 

Sunset in the city brought little relief from the day's hot sun and humidity.  Special Agent Josiah Sanchez looked out onto the streets as the sounds coming from the bars began to come to life for the evening.  There were drunken shouts from a bum on the street and the distant sound of a street musician's soulful saxophone filled the air.  The sounds all lent a haunting loneliness to the night.  There was a reason Anne Rice set her novels in New Orleans.  It was, indeed, the city of lost souls.

 

"Lost souls everywhere," he sighed.

 

Elena Belmont heard Josiah's whispered comment, but chose not to interrupt his deep reverie.  She and Josiah had been partners going on four years now and she knew better than anyone did what this new development was doing to him.  It was going to require the profiler to once again get back in the head of one of the most monstrous serial killers he had crossed in his twenty-three years as an agent. 

 

It wasn't going to be easy for any of the agents and police officers that had been involved in the first case.  Friendships had been forged and others had been torn to shreds.  She thought about Buck and Chris and the bond between those two men had been tested time and again after Sara and Adam had been killed.  Buck had followed the evidence, where Chris had followed his gut.  Unfortunately, Buck had been wrong.  The killer was back… or maybe he had never left… just waiting.  The thought caused Elena to shiver. 

 

Elena was pulled from her thoughts when she realized they had reached their destination.  The Voodoo Lounge was a local bar where only those with badges frequented.  After a long day of paper work and reading through what little the Medical Examiner could give them so far, the two were ready to unwind before retreating home to their empty houses. 

 

As they walked up the brick sidewalk Elena was the first to spot Buck's old red truck.  It was an unmistakable make.  She looked over at Josiah, who had just spotted it as well.  It was rare for Detectives and Agents to get along, but get they had with Buck and Chris back in the day.  The four had become close friends during the first investigation into the Red-Light Killer that is until Chris' family had been slaughtered.  Then those ties were slowly severed until they drifted apart as if they had never met. 

 

That had been a trying time, but Elena missed the long days working with Chris and Buck, and the nights here at the lounge where they would unwind.  She was just one of the guys.  Another part of that time had been the affair with Ezra.  She smiled thinking of him and the attraction that was clearly still there for both of them the other night.  She had cared about Ezra.  Hell, who was she kidding?  She had loved him and she thought that at times, he had loved her.  But after he lost his job with the feds, he pushed her away and she could only fight for him for so long.  Eventually, she had to choose between the fight to prove she thought nonetheless of him or her sanity.  No man had ever turned her world completely upside down as Ezra had, good and bad, but there came a time when she needed to walk away and allow him the time to heal.  It appeared to her the other night outside of the dead woman's apartment that Ezra was indeed healing.  But as with Chris, Buck and Josiah, she still worried what the recent events would have in store for them.  They all had fought so hard to heal after Eduardo Vasquez had been tried and convicted of the killings and the murders had abruptly stopped. 

 

Elena quietly entered the bar, giving a reassuring smile to Josiah, whom she knew had been intently watching her.  She knew he had wanted to ask about Ezra, but after being partnered for over four years, Josiah knew when to give Elena her personal space and in time she would open up to him.

 

The partners headed to the bar and ordered.  They turned to find a table and there was Buck waving them over.  Elena smiled warmly to her old friend and then looked towards Josiah.  He seemed fine with joining him, as well. 

 

"Special Agent Elena Belmont and Special Agent Josiah Sanchez, I'd like you to meet my new partner, JD Dunne," Buck cheerfully said as they approached the table.

 

Elena extended her hand and gave JD a warm smile, as did Josiah.  Both were taken back by the baby face the young detective had, but knew that with Buck as a mentor, it would be only a matter of time until the kid turned out to be one hell of a detective.

 

Once everyone was seated and comfortable, Buck looked at his friends with a warm smile and said, "Haven't seen you two in here for quite awhile."

 

Elena looked at Josiah and then Buck.  "Has been a long two days; we needed to unwind."

 

Buck smile grew and showed on his face that he knew exactly what they meant.  The killings starting back up were nerve racking for everyone.

 

After an hour of small talk and getting to know one another, JD's name came up for the pool table.  He turned to Buck and pointed to the table to see if he was still interested and Buck looked towards Elena.  "I'll sit this game out, JD.  I need to talk with Elena for a few minutes."

 

Josiah had a feeling he knew what about and smacked his hands on his thighs.  "I'll play ya, Son."  Josiah stood, removed his suit jacket and placed it on the back of his chair before he followed the young detective to the pool table.

 

Buck waited until they were clear of the table and then he turned back to Elena.  He played with the label on his beer bottle as he spoke.  "How's Chris doing… really?"

 

"Really… I don't honestly know, Buck.  It's been almost two years since I saw Chris last," she answered openly, meeting his shocked expression.

 

"You and Ezra…"

 

"Have been over for quite some time now," she said studying the amber liquid in her glass.

 

Buck reached across the table and took her hand.  "Elena, I'm sorry.  I didn't know… I just assumed you had been the one that tipped Chris and Ezra off the other night."

 

"I was, but it's the first contact we've had in a long time.  I knew he worked with Chris now and I didn't want Chris finding out through the wires.  He had a right to know what was going on," she said looking up and seeing Buck's kind eyes again.

 

"It's none of my business, El, but I'm going to say it anyway."  This won himself a knowing smile from the female agent.  "Well, hell… next to Sarah and Chris I've never seen two people more in love than you and Ezra.  When the two of you were in the same room… what you felt for each other… it just sort of radiated off of you.  You were good together."

 

Elena cleared her throat, trying to get rid of the ball that was tightening in it before she spoke.  "Love isn't always enough, Buck."

 

"Don't give me that, Elena.  This is Buck you're talkin' to now.  Whatever it was, fix it.  Life's too damn short.  Hell, you know that.  We both see it everyday; life can change in a heartbeat, in an instant, in the time it takes to make a right decision… or a wrong one."  Buck meant that comment more than anyone, but pushed his regret aside and continued, "But you gotta grab onto what's important and fight with all you got to hold onto it."

 

"I did fight, Buck!" Elena answered with conviction.  "But Ezra…"

 

"Ezra's complicated," Buck finished for her.  "I know the smooth talkin' dandy better than he'd ever like to admit and I know he kicks himself everyday for letting you walk out of his life.  Trust me," Buck added with a sincere smile and squeezed her hand one last time before he pulled it back.  Just as Elena was about to speak, Buck's phone went off.  He excused himself and left the table to go outside so he could hear better, leaving Elena to her thoughts.

 

She knew Buck was right.  In their profession, they witnessed horrible travesties every day, families ripped apart by the loss of a loved one.  Elena wanted to bolt from her seat that minute and go to Ezra, but she wouldn't allow herself, not now.  The only thing she wanted to focus on now was catching the twisted bastard that had resurfaced.  The maniac she knew would have them all once again dancing on a wire before this was all over.

 

Elena was suddenly filled with a bad feeling and looked up to find Buck had reentered the bar.  The look he wore on his face made Elena's blood run ice cold.

 

"There's been another killing hasn't there?" she asked just as her phone that was clipped to the waist of her skirt went off.  Buck nodded as he turned to where JD and Josiah were playing pool and slowly, mechanically made his way to them.  They had a crime scene to get to.

 

<><><><><><><><><><>

 

Chris walked around the small apartment one last time, hoping upon hope there would be something he had missed, something that would tell him that his worst fears weren't correct, but the more he searched Vanessa Tanner's apartment, the clearer it became that she hadn't simply packed a bag and ran.  Her sudden disappearance had not been planned; she had just… vanished.

 

"Everything… everything near and dear to Nessa is still here," Tara said leaning up against the bedroom doorframe, a small wooden box held lovingly to her chest.

 

Chris blew out a breath and placed his hands on his hips.  He turned around giving the room one more intense study."  If she left, then she took nothing with her."

 

"She didn't leave… how many times do I have to say this?  Nessa was frightened.  She wouldn't have stepped one foot out that door until I arrived.  Someone took her."  Tara's voice wavered with the last remark, as if she didn't want to believe it.

 

"There's no sign of a struggle, nothing overturned.  The door wasn't forced open.  If she was taken involuntarily, then it happened quickly and Vanessa never saw it comin'," Chris said bluntly, knowing the woman before him wanted… no, expected nothing but the truth and he planned on giving it to her.  There was no reason to sugar coat what had probably happened to her friend.  Then he thought of Vin and blew out another frustrated sigh at what this meant for his friend.

 

Tara just looked around the apartment as fear began to build in her for Nessa.  She knew Larabee was right.  "Now what?" she asked.

 

"Now we hope that Ezra and Vin can find a lead out on the streets," Chris answered.

 

Tara shook her head in agreement and then sat on the couch, suddenly feeling the fatigue of the long, hurried drive to get here and the emotional state Nessa's disappearance added.  She closed her eyes for a few minutes, and when she opened them she realized she was alone.

 

"Larabee!" she yelled into the room.  No response.

 

Tara rose from the couch and peeked into the bedroom.  "Larabee, you in here?"

 

She walked back to the center of the living room just as a pot slid in the sink causing her to jump and bolt for the door.  She abruptly slammed into a solid body.  "Get the hell off of me!" Tara screamed as she tried to break free, but whoever had her, had quite a grip on her upper arms.  Her body was pulled too close to his to use her legs, which she was trying to swing violently.

 

"Calm down, damn it!" the familiar voice shouted. 

 

Tara slowly stopped the flailing of her legs and pulled her head back.  "Larabee!  What the hell did you leave me for and why didn't you tell me?"

 

Chris looked down into her wide blue eyes and was distracted for a minute.  There was something there beside the momentary panic at her assumed assault.  There was a mirror image of himself, one that had stared back at him everyday for the last three years.  Lost… she was a lost soul just as he was, both of them trying to find their way in the world, find where they belonged again.

 

"Larabee?" Tara asked, a bit taken aback by the look in his eyes.  They were intense, just like when they were in his office, except this time it was different.  He wasn't trying to read her.  This time there was understanding and acceptance.  "Yeah right!"  She told herself.  "This man… this ex-cop, would never understand and accept her if he knew she was an ex-hooker.  But he had to have figured it out by now?"

 

Chris realized what the closeness with Tara was doing to him.  He released her arms and stepped back, almost taking himself out of the apartment.  "I thought you were sleeping, so I went to see if I could get any of the neighbors to talk to me."

 

"And?" Tara asked while backing up, allowing Chris to step further into the apartment and shut the front door.

 

"Nothing," he said with an exasperated sigh. 

 

"You may not be a cop anymore, Larabee, but you still look and act like one.  They aren't going to talk to you," Tara said, while turning to retrieve the wooden box off of the sofa that she had held earlier.

 

Chris brought a hand up to his neck and rubbed it.  The lack of sleep and the dead lead at the apartment was causing him to become tense.  "Let's get back to the office.  I want to run a few of the names you gave me.  We can order in a bite to eat and wait to hear from Ezra and Vin."

 

"What if Nessa comes back; shouldn't someone stay here just in case?"

 

Chris shook his head, no.  "Not you, that's for sure.  It's not safe." 

 

Tara backed up farther into the apartment and planted her feet in defiance.  "Someone needs to be here in case she returns and I'm not a child, Larabee.  I can take care of myself just fine thank you."

 

Chris raked his hands through his hair in frustration and searched the ceiling for patience.  When he was sure he could speak to her without anger in his voice, he made eye contact.  "I realize you’re a resourceful woman, but now is not the time for a battle of wills.  This isn't a game.  There is a killer out there stalking woman in this neighborhood.  You can't stay here.  We'll leave Vanessa a message at my office and on my cell phone number.  If she comes back, she'll know where to call.  Clear?"

 

"Crystal," she said sarcastically and went to the message board on the refrigerator and scrawled a quick note.  She glared at Larabee and waited for him to sound off his numbers, which he did through gritted teeth.

 

After scrawling the last digit, Tara let the marker on the string fall from her hand and breezed past Larabee.  She started for the steps that led to the street.  Chris looked one last time into the apartment and then pulled the door closed behind him.  He realized Tara was nowhere to be seen.  He cursed under his breath about being a damn babysitter now and headed towards his truck.

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

Ezra and Vin drove in silence down the main street of the Red-Light district, which flanked the Mississippi River.  They were going deeper into the black heart of the area in search of their last lead for the day.  Both were deep in thought over the disappointing day.  Every time they thought they had a lead, it turned out to be just another dead end.

 

"There," Vin said pointing to the shabby building that in it's prime back in the 50's, had probably been a beautiful building, but as with every apartment complex in this district, it had been neglected until it no longer resembled what it had once been.  It was a bitter irony as it was the same for the majority of its tenants who had all at one time been beautiful young woman with their whole lives ahead of them.

 

Ezra swerved to the right and parked in front of the building.  He lowered his expensive shades to the end of his nose and leaned across Vin to get a better look at the derelict building.  "This monstrosity should be condemned," he said disgusted.

 

"Better then livin' on the streets, Ezra," Vin said right before he exited his friend's expensive Jaguar.

 

Ezra thought on his friend's words a moment, knowing of Vin's past and that he unfortunately spoke from experience.  Standish followed Vin through the gate of the apartment complex and back down a dark passageway that led to the open courtyard.  He took one look at the wobbly set of stairs that led to the upper floors and said a silent thank you that the woman they sought lived on solid ground. 

 

They walked along the breezeway until they reached apartment A-7 and knocked several times before a very strung out face appeared in the crack of the doorway.  "Ain't workin' today," she mumbled.

 

"Angel?" Vin asked.

 

The woman's one eye opened as she attempted to focus on Vin and Ezra.  She looked back and forth between the two for a second, settling on Ezra and smiled.  "'Bout time you two got here," she said as excitedly as she could muster and shut the door on them.

 

Ezra and Vin looked at each other for a second until they heard her fiddling with the chain lock.  After a few cuss words that caused Ezra's eyebrows to rise, the door was reopened and she stumbled back allowing them entrance. 

 

Once inside with the door closed, the repugnant smell that hit Ezra almost made him gag and excuse himself, but he sucked it up and turned towards the woman, wanting to get the questioning over as quickly as possible.  "Angel?" he asked again.

 

"Yeah, been waitin' on you two all afternoon.  What the hell took so long?  I'm hurtin' real bad," she said as she attempted to light a cigarette with a shaky hand.

 

Vin lifted his hand and put it over hers to help steady hers.  Once her cigarette was lit, Ezra gave her the bad news.  "We aren't here with a delivery Angel.  We're here to question you about Ginger."

 

"Shit!" she said backing up with wide eyes.  "Are you cops?"

 

"No," Ezra answered as he reached into the breast pocket of his suit coat and pulled out a business card.  He handed it to the strung out prostitute. 

 

Angel looked it over and then looked at Ezra and Vin, then back to the card.  "Ginger.  What about her?" she asked annoyance clearly in her voice.

 

"She's been missing goin' on two nights now.  We were wonderin' if you knew where she might be?" Vin asked, doubtful the woman before them even really knew where she was, let alone Nessa.

 

Angel looked at the floor as if it were going to give her the answer.  She looked back up at them and spoke directly to Ezra, most likely because he looked like the one with the money.  "Might think straighter if you got me a fix."

 

Ezra looked her over.  The track marks was clearly visible on her arms and her dry crusty collagen-puffed lips made her look as if she'd just taken a deep suck off a green persimmon.  She was obviously very sick.  He'd be surprised if she weighted 90 pounds.  This certainly wasn't one of the girls Fowler took care of.  Most likely she was one of his throwaways which explained her lack of money at the moment to make her own score.  He pitied her; he knew what drove many of these women to the life they led.  For most it started as teenagers without any adult guidance or supervision to tell them they were worth a damn, worth more than any of their Johns would ever pay. 

 

Ezra reined in his anger, not at Angel, but at men like Fowler who took advantage of these young women.  He gently placed his hands on Angel's upper arms and led her to the dirty sofa to sit before she literally fell over.  Having her attention, or the most he figured he would get from her, Ezra spoke gently.  "Angel, darlin'… we really need your help to find Ginger.  She's missing and we were told that you were the last person to see her two nights ago.  Do you have any idea where she might be?"

 

Vin stood back and watched Ezra work his magic on Angel.  It was at moments like this that he was glad Ezra was with him, because his anger at the addicted whore would have gotten him nowhere.

 

"She, uh…"  Angel said ringing her hands.  "Ginger came by all uptight a of couple nights ago.  I can't remember what night.  She wanted me to leave with her and said Raven was coming to get her out."  Angel looked at Ezra and he smiled at her.

 

"What happened next?" Vin asked impatiently.

 

"Ginger kept looking at the door as if she was worried or something.  She got tired of waitin' on me to answer and left.  She told me to come to her apartment in the next day or so if I changed my mind."

 

"And did you… go to her apartment?" Ezra asked.

 

Angel shook her head, no.

 

"And that's the last you saw her?" Vin asked as he paced near the front door.

 

Angel nodded and looked again at Ezra.  "Got any money you can spare, please?" she begged.

 

Ezra knew if he gave her money where it would go, so he thought for a moment and stood.  "Allow us take to you to get you a bite to eat, Angel."

 

Angel shook her head violently.  "Not what I need now, please…  I hurt so much."

 

Ezra sighed and walked to the front door that Vin had already exited through and turned back to Angel.  "If you change your mind, I can be reached at the number on the card I gave you."

 

"Don't feel bad Ezra.  Ain't nothin' you can do for her," Vin said, as Ezra left the apartment and closed the door.

 

Ezra looked to the setting sun and then towards Vin.  He knew Vin was almost numb to the sights of this neighborhood and people the likes of Angel, but for Ezra it cut him deep every time.  He didn't think he'd ever be numb to such disregard for human life. 

 

As if Vin could read his mind, he spoke softly to Ezra.  "Never is easy; seeing what happens to girls like Angel… just doesn't surprise me anymore."

 

Ezra hit the button to turn off his car alarm and a 'tweak' sounded.  He climbed in, as did Vin in the passenger seat.  Ezra started the car, but sat there for a moment and then turned to Vin.  "This 'Raven' that Angel mentioned… its Ms. Willis, is it not?"

 

Vin looked straight ahead out of the front window and answered with a single word, "Yep."

 

<><><><><><><><><><>

 

"Thanks so much for the help!" Chris barked into the phone right before he slammed the phone receiver back onto the cradle.

 

"Could it possibly be your social skills that are not winning you friends and influencing people?" Tara asked goading him from her seat on the leather couch in the corner near Ezra's tidy desk.

 

Chris looked at her menacingly.  "Don't start with me… you sound like Ezra."

 

Tara smiled.  "I like Ezra… he seems like a nice person."

 

"Well thank you, Miss Willis," Ezra said with a cheeky grin as he entered the office from the hallway with Vin right behind him.

 

"Anything?" Vin asked Chris as he walked over and slumped back into the leather seat he had occupied earlier in the day.

 

"Not a damn thing," Chris answered through a long sigh.  "Any luck with this Angel woman?"

 

"Nope," Vin replied.  He picked up a pen from the desk and began to twirl it between his fingers. 

 

"Miss Angel had other things on her mind at the time of our arrival," Ezra added as he took the seat behind his desk.

 

Chris looked at Vin and the bounty hunter nodded to confirm what Chris was thinking.

 

"Angel is sick?" Tara asked sitting up straighter on the couch.

 

"Nothing a shot of heroin wouldn't fix," Vin answered over his shoulder.

 

Tara shook her head in disbelief.  Angel had been a good kid back before she left New Orleans.  Tara knew what happened to her… the life happened to her.  Some of the women were strong enough to handle the life on the streets; others needed help forgetting at the end of a long night.

 

"So… now what?" Tara asked looking from one man to the other.  We can't just sit here.  Nessa is out there somewhere."

 

Chris ignored Tara much to her annoyance and focused on Vin. "I think Vanessa was taken, Vin."

 

Vin met his friend's gaze and nodded his agreement with Chris.  From what they had turned up on both ends, it seemed as though Nessa vanished sometime after the call placed to Tara.

 

"I believe gentleman… and lady," Ezra said looking at Tara to acknowledge her, "That Vanessa was taken after leaving Angel's apartment.  Her neighbor remembers speaking with her as she was leaving her apartment.  She was probably in a hurry to see Angel and then return, but said neighbor does not remember seeing Vanessa return."

 

 

Tara stood and began to pace, frantically running her hands through her unruly jet-black hair.  Vin stood and went to her.  He tried to stop her and whispered things to her that neither Chris nor Ezra could make out.  Chris watched as she nodded and allowed Vin to take her in his arms and something he hadn't felt in years washed over him… complete and utter jealously.  He wanted to hold Tara and comfort her.  Tell her he would do everything in his power to bring her friend home safely, but he couldn't.  He wouldn't allow himself to go to her; he had to keep his distance.  It was best for both of them.

 

<><><><><><><><><><>

 

"So this is it?" Josiah asked from the passenger side, still trying to catch his breath after the NASCAR style driving Elena had put them through on the way here from the crime scene.

 

"Yes," she said with a slight smile.  "What he did with his healing."

 

"Ezra or Chris?" Josiah asked.

 

Elena pulled her gaze from the door of the business and looked at Josiah and smiled.

 

"You ready for this?" he asked her.

 

"Honestly… no, but I owe it to them to tell them what's happened."

 

Josiah took Elena's hand in his.  "Elena, what happened three years ago wasn't your fault.  You were a friend to both of them, just as you are being now.  Ezra and Chris know this.  Don't doubt that."

 

"I know," she said looking out her side window.  "Let's go and get this bad news over with."

 

Josiah exited the vehicle and waited at the door for Elena to join him.  He pounded a few times on the door to make their presence known.

 

"What the hell?" Chris asked looking towards the dark hallway that led to the outer office and the front door.

 

Instinctively each man in the room reached for their weapon and slowly made their way to the enclosed glass front door. 

 

Elena could see first Chris and then a man with longer hair she didn't know emerge from the hallway and she could tell they were alarmed.  "It's Elena, Chris.  Elena Belmont and I have Josiah Sanchez with me."

 

Ezra heard the name and smiled from his dark spot in the hallway.  He turned and retreated to his desk and took a seat.

 

"Who is that?" Tara asked.

 

"Just some old friends," Ezra said with a smirk.

 

Tara turned towards the hallway and waited for the group to make their way back to the office.

 

Chris led the way back down the hallway to the lit office and waited for Josiah, Elena and Vin to join him before he turned and looked at the two FBI agents.  "I'd like to say it's good to see you but…"

 

"We do not come bearing good news," Josiah said, noticing a raven-haired woman standing behind Ezra.

 

"Maybe we should talk outside," Elena said, feeling Ezra's eyes all over her.  He was taking her in and she knew he could sense her sorrow without even looking at him.

 

"They're safe," Chris said.

 

Elena nodded and then spoke.  "It appears there's been another murder in the Red-Light district.  No identity has been made, but the apartment belonged to a Felicity Carmichael."

 

Chris backed up and leaned onto his desk for support as Tara let out a wail.  "That's Nessa's neighbor!"

 

"Who?" Elena asked looking at Ezra, who was running his hand over his mouth in grief, but his green eyes linked with her violet ones.

 

"Vanessa Tanner, we've been searching the streets for her all day.  She was Felicity's neighbor," Chris said over his shoulder.  He leaned both hands on the desk and then turned standing in front of Josiah and Elena.  "Why didn't we get a tip like two nights ago?"

 

"We thought it best to wait, with Chief Spikes' threat the other night and…"

 

"I don't give a damn about Chief Spikes!" Chris bellowed, but Elena just blinked and stood her ground. 

 

"Chris, Agent Belmont was just…," Ezra said as he came around his desk to intervene.

 

"Go to hell, Ezra!  You wouldn't say a word except that she's your lover," Chris yelled even louder.

 

"Former," Elena corrected him calmly.

 

Chris was about to give a rebuttal, but was stopped by a voice from the hallway.  "Just like old times, eh Chris?  Lash out at those that care the most about you," Buck said emerging from the darkness.  "Don't yell at Elena.  Hell, she used to be your friend.  Remember that?"

 

"Hell, yes, I remember, Buck!  I also remember you stabbing me in the back!"

 

"Wasn't like that Chris and you know it.  I was wrong…  I admit that now," Buck answered taking a step towards Chris.

 

"It's a little late for regrets, Buck.  That maniac is back.  Two more women are dead and my wife and son's killer is still walking free!"

 

Buck took Elena's arm gently pulling her behind him and then stood before Chris.  "What do you want to do, Chris?  Hit me?  Would that make you feel better?  Come on."  Buck waved his hands to tell Chris to bring it on, but no one, not even Buck, was ready for the attack.  As quick as lightning, Chris' fist came up and connected with Buck's chin sending him sideways and onto the floor in front of Elena.

 

Tara looked up at Vin with furrowed brows.  "He's nuts!"  Vin just smirked.

 

Elena dropped on her knees and checked on Buck as Josiah stood before Chris.  He was not about to let him get another punch in.  Ezra went behind his desk to retrieve some ice from his small refrigerator under his desk.

 

Buck just smiled when Elena fussed over him and turned from his side to a sitting position on the floor.  He was certainly not prepared for what came next.  Chris said something to Josiah that only the large man could hear.  He stepped aside as Chris came to stand over Buck and extended his hand to his old friend.  Buck looked up for a minute and then smirked as he took Chris' hand.

 

Once Buck was on his feet, Ezra handed him the ice wrapped in a towel.  Buck nodded his thanks and after a brief moment of silence, Chris spoke.  "What are you doing here, Buck?"

 

"Thought it was time we got the old crew back together and put this SOB away for good this time."

 

"You want our help?" Chris asked motioning to Ezra and then himself.

 

Buck nodded and then looked over at Vin.  "Heard Tanner's not so bad out on the streets either."

 

Chris smirked and folded his arms across his chest.  "What about your partner?"

 

"JD," Buck said with a smile.  "The kid's good.  I don't doubt his ability, but I want this killer off the streets.  The chief is too busy worrying about it leaking out, that the wrong man fried last week, to really give a damn that these girls are dying.  I need your help, Chris."

 

"Getting us involved could mean your badge, Buck."

 

"So be it," Buck answered.

 

Chris turned to Elena and Josiah and silently waited for what they thought. 

 

Elena looked up to Josiah and they silently came to an agreement.  She looked back at Chris.  "We'll see this to the end."

 

Ezra watched silently from his position behind his desk at the ease and connection between Josiah and Elena.  They had always had a special bond, but it seemed to have grown over the last few years.  He wondered if there was more to it.  He silently berated himself for the thought.  If Elena moved on, it was her right.  He had pushed her away and the last thing he wanted was for her to be as alone as he was.  Ezra shook off the thoughts for the moment and focused back on the matter at hand.

 

The group stood in silence for a minute and then with one phrase the long night before them began.  "Let's get to work," Chris said seating himself behind his desk.

 

<><><><><><><><><><><>

 

Tara stood back and watched as the group, that was obviously comfortable with one another, situated themselves around the room.  They broke off into pairs as they got to work, but it infuriated her and she stood in front of Chris, who was getting briefed by Buck.

 

"What about Nessa?" she asked.  Her hands were on her hips.

 

"Who's Nessa?" Buck asked, looking the striking woman over with a smile of approval.

 

Chris ignored Buck for a moment and looked at Tara.  "I know you don't want to hear this, but there's nothing more we can do tonight.  We've exhausted every lead we have right now, unless there is something more you can give me."

 

Tara turned her back on Chris and searched out Vin, who was talking with Ezra.  She stalked across the room and grabbed Vin by the upper arm to gain his attention.  "We have to go, Vin.  Now!  They aren't going to help us find Nessa."

 

Vin looked at Ezra and then gently took Tara by the arm.  He led her to the outer office before he spoke.  "Tara, I'm just as worried as you are."

 

"You have a funny way of showing it, Vin.  You're jumping right into this case with them and not giving a second thought to Nessa.  She needs us, damn it!"

 

Vin closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them.  "I think he has her, Tara."

 

"Who?  Let's go," she said starting for the door, but her arm was caught by Vin.

 

Vin held her by the shoulders and forced her to look at him.  "The killer, I think he has Nessa."

 

"No," Tara breathed as her legs gave out.  Vin caught her before she hit the floor.

 

"Tara, if we find him, then we find Nessa.  I haven't given up on her yet…  I promise you.  I want her back, too…  God, I want her back."

 

Chris watched the intense moment between the couple and allowed them their time before he cleared his throat and made his presence known.  Tara pulled out of Vin's arms and wiped the tears away as she took a step towards Chris.  "And what do you think, Larabee?  Does he have Nessa?"

 

Chris looked at Vin, having overheard that Vin had shared their thoughts with Tara.  "Yes.  Yes, I do, Tara."

 

"Well then, why the hell did he kill Felicity and not Nessa?"

 

"I don't know, Tara, but if it's him, he'll be returning to Vanessa's apartment.  His MO is to kill the women in their homes.  Buck has officers outside her apartment as we speak.  If it's him that has her, he'll get caught when he attempts to bring her back for the finale," Chris said compassionately.

 

"You better hope so, Larabee or her blood is on your hands," Tara said sidestepping him and heading for the bathroom off of the darkened hallway.

 

The two men shared a look and then Vin passed Chris whispering, "I hope you're right, Larabee.  I want my wife back in one piece."

 

Chris raked his hand through his hair and rejoined the group.  He wanted this bastard found so he could get back to his self-imposed purgatory that he called his life.

 

<><><><><><><><><><><><><>

 

Vanessa Tanner groaned and slowly opened her one good eye.  The other was swollen shut from the assault that her captor had inflicted on her earlier.  The small space she was being kept in was now completely dark, which told her that night had fallen while she had been unconscious.  She listened to the silence of the room and feeling that she was alone, sighed in relief. 

 

She had no idea how long she had been here, but she took it as a sign that she was safe for the night, but her reprieve was quickly terminated as the door to her prison was slid open.  She closed her left eye and tried to keep herself from shaking in fear, in hopes he would think she was sleeping.

 

She could sense the glow, as he had lit a few candles and she listened as his movements indicated that he was undressing.  Tears welled in her eyes when she realized that this meant another round of his abuse and again taking what little dignity she had left.  She listened and waited, but he never came to her.

 

"I know you're awake, my sweet," he said maliciously from the end of the mattress.

 

Vanessa kept playing possum, not wanting to see the wicked smile she knew he wore.

 

"I want to tell you about my night.  Open those pretty doe eyes of yours," he said as he slowly came around the mattress. 

 

When he was positioned beside her, he bent down and ran his hands through her hair, his fingers getting caught in the caked blood near the base of her neck.  "I'll have to clean that for you tomorrow.  You deserve the best… that is, until it is your time.  I rather enjoy your company.  So much will to live… so much life.  I want to savor you and enjoy it as I break that spirit of yours." 

 

He stood and Vanessa let out the breath she'd been holding.  He wasn't going to kill her yet.  Time... there was still time.

 

"But I must tell you that the excitement you instill in me has caused an unfortunate incident, one which your friend Crystal paid dearly for."  His smile grew when Vanessa released a sob, and opened her eye in horror."  I knew that would get your attention, my pet."

 

Vanessa could see that he was naked and saw the bloody clothes only a few feet from him.  She knew he told the truth and there was no stopping the tears that came.

 

"I'm sure you're wondering why.  Why, why, why.  Surely, I must be crazy.  That's what the police say and the FBI profiler who thinks he knows me."  Swift as a cat, he was seated beside her on the mattress again, his face inches from hers.  "I'm not crazy, darling.  I'm rather in control of what I do, or should I say until I took you.  That's why, in time, I will have to destroy you," he whispered as he ran his tongue over her ear.  "But we will have such fun until then."

 

Vanessa went to that safe place in her mind and blocked out what was to come next.  Time… she still had time.

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

Elena wasn't exactly sure how she'd been persuaded to take Ezra up on his offer of a warm shower and a bite to eat.  She glanced at him, as he stood in front of her opening the door to his turn-of-the-century brownstone, located only a few blocks from where he and Chris had opened their business.  She knew Josiah would tell her what she already knew, that this was what she subconsciously had wanted since she'd laid eyes on her ex-lover three nights ago.

 

Ezra turned and flashed a cheeky grin as he held the door open for her.  Elena entered the foyer and knew instantly that he'd renovated the house as he had planned to do all those years ago when he had bought it.  She was hit with the memories of making love in the sitting room to her left and afterwards lying in each other's arms as he told her of all the plans he had for the house. 

 

"It's beautiful."

 

"Thank you.  I'm glad you approve," Ezra answered Elena, who hadn't realized she'd spoken her critique out loud.

 

She turned at the waist and looked at him.  She was not able to keep from returning his smile and she instantly knew as their eyes met, that coming here to save time from having to run across the city to her own home, had been a very bad idea.

 

Ezra's smile turned to a lascivious grin as if he were reading her mind and placed his hand gently on her lower back.  "Would you like to see the rest of the improvements?"

 

Elena broke the eye contact and nodded her head, hoping the tour wouldn't lead to the bedroom. 

 

They chatted lightly as Ezra gave her the grand tour of the lavish first floor that left Elena in awe.  She turned a few times in the huge kitchen, circling to take everything in and then stopped looking at Ezra with a wide smile.  "I can't believe what you've done with the place.  It's more then you ever dreamed."

 

Ezra watched her from the entrance of the kitchen.  After all the restless nights he had lain awake, aching to see her and here she was before him, as if in a dream.  He drank in the sight of her, absorbing everything about her, as if it were the first time he had laid eyes on her.  If it were a dream, then he wanted to study every beautiful detail before she vanished.  He fought the urge to go to her and run his hands through her silky shoulder length blonde hair that had just a small highlight of copper streaming through it… to caress her delicate rose-colored cheeks and mouth, to undress her and touch every inch of her perfect porcelain skin and her eyes… the violet eyes that he had never tired of getting lost in.

 

"Ezra," Elena said hesitantly, knowing he was studying her.  "I don't have much time; I assume the bathroom upstairs is still where I remember it?"

 

"Come with me," Ezra said as he pushed off of the doorjamb and started down the hall that led to the elegantly renovated staircase. 

 

Elena followed him at a safe distance, admiring the intricate detail of the railing that Ezra had obviously made sure was restored to perfection.  When they reached the top of the stairs, he went to the right and entered the room she remembered to be his bedroom.  She waited at the entrance of the room, unsure of his intentions. 

 

She watched as he disappeared into the newly added walk-in closet and took that opportunity to scan the bedroom.  She appreciated how the lavish décor, with the vibrantly rich colors suited him perfectly.  She closed her eyes and took in the smell as it assaulted her senses.  It smelled of cleaning products, but underneath, it smelled of Ezra.  It held his all too familiar scent.

 

She was about to bolt down the stairs and out the door from the feelings that were stirring in her.  They were suddenly all too memorable and frightening.  It had taken painstaking effort to walk away from Ezra all those years ago and in a matter of hours, all the old feelings for him came flooding back.  She was afraid they would drown her.

 

"This was an item you left behind…"  Ezra broke off his comment as he saw the look on her face.  She appeared paler than her usual color and he placed the garment on the large bed and went to her.  "Elena?" he asked with clear concern.

 

She looked up from her study of the hard wood floor, meeting his eyes and started to back away.  "I shouldn't have come here, Ezra.  I need to be focusing on work and you're too distracting.  I… have to go," she said as she turned and started for the stairs.  She never made it as Ezra grabbed her upper arms gently from behind and pulled her back to him.  He embraced her tightly.  "Please, don't," she whispered through tears she refused to shed.

 

Ezra held her tighter and spoke softly in her ear.  "I'm sorry, Elena.  Every day I regret the pain I caused on you."

 

Elena listened; she wanted to believe him with every fiber of her being.  She wanted to believe his words, believe there was still a chance, but the fleeting hopes only brought anger.  Here she was ready to dive back into the chaotic world that Ezra led, letting her in only as much as be could bare, not giving a damn how much that tore her to pieces.  With all her strength she pulled away from him and turned.  "How dare you, now, after all this time; after I've almost erased you from my soul.  Do you have any idea how hard it was to get over you?  I can't do it again, Ezra…  I won't!"

 

The pain Ezra saw in her eyes sobered him.  It hit him, truthfully for the first time, how much he had hurt her.  He had been so absorbed in his out of control life at the time to see what effects it had had on Elena.  He had been completely closed off to her and she had pushed to save the love they had shared.  He just turned his back on her; too ashamed to accept the help and accept the love he believed he was no longer worthy of. 

 

"Elena, I was a fool.  Please believe me when I say that if I could take back all the pain, I would," he begged pleaded.

 

Ezra watched as Elena squared her shoulders.  He knew she was hurting.  He could see it in her eyes, but the slip of anger and hurt emotions she had unwillingly allowed only moments ago, were gone and replaced now with the calm and collected Agent Belmont - the woman who always seemed to have it together… under control.  Ezra knew she took it as a weakness to show vulnerability.  He had picked up on that the first time they had met so long ago.  He knew all too well about keeping up the strong veneer for the entire world to see and ironically had helped Elena to slowly break that cycle.  Both finding in the end that it had only left her exposed for when he unintentionally broke her heart.  He was a bastard!  Ezra knew it then and he knew it this very moment as she stood before him trying so hard to be tough and fight the whirlwind of emotions that were brewing below the surface. 

 

 "I have to go," she whispered and turned, bounding down the stairs before she lost all her reserve and the tears fell.

 

Ezra realized at that moment, standing silently at the top of the stairs… silent, that was what had driven her away before, but what he wanted to tell her wouldn't come out.  The words simply wouldn't form on his lips.  He feared them, as much as the intense feelings.  He loved her still, possibly more than he ever had.  It was amazing what time could do to a person, hindsight leading to regrets.  Ezra had many misgivings that found their way to him in his dark and lonely hours, but none more than those surrounding the events that had led to Elena leaving.  All she had wanted was to help him through the ordeal of loosing his position with the FBI… for him to let her shoulder some of his burden and grief, but he had closed her out completely.  He understood now that he had been unable to grant Elena what he had asked of her… to let the walls down, strip away the mask and reveal the emotions, no matter how good or bad. 

 

Ezra willingly allowed the memories in to many of the things he had refused to think on for years.  They all hit him at once and had opened his eyes, but none was more profound than finally admitting to himself how he much he loved and needed one person.  After all his years of looking out for number one, never fully letting anyone in for fear of what they would see in him.  All his insecurities that kept the walls up and his heart protected, but now those walls were gone and he accepted that he needed and loved one person so much so, that her absence physically pained him. 

 

The realization of all Ezra had lost the day Elena left him, pushed through him like a heavy rain, the grief draining him of energy as he sat down on the top step and shed the long overdue tears for the pain he had inflicted on the only person who had ever wanted nothing but to love him and be loved in return.  He shed tears for the woman who he had, for the second time, let walk out the door.  Never saying what she deserved to hear... the three words that may have brought her back into his arms.

 

"I love you," he whispered at last into an empty house. 

 

<><><><><><><><><>

 

"Have you seen the paper?" Inez asked as she slapped the Times Picayune down in front of Chris.

 

Chris tiredly looked over from his computer screen that he was studying and glanced at the newspaper page.  "Right there," Inez pointed out.

 

Larabee read the tiny article that made no mention of the two prostitute's murders being linked, or any of the gruesome details that would have given hint to the Red-Light killer's return.  "Son of a…"  He tore the paper off his desk and stood.

 

"What is it?" Vin asked as he hung up the phone he was using from Ezra's desk.

 

"Damn cover up is what's up," Chris growled as he paced.

 

Vin took the paper in his hands and scanned it until he found what had Chris so upset.  He read it quickly and then looked up at his friend just as the phone on Chris's desk rang.  Inez answered it and then turned to Chris.  "It's Detective Wilmington, Chris."

 

Chris snatched the receiver out of Inez's hand and let Buck have it.  "What the hell is going on, Buck?"

 

Buck sighed into the phone and spoke in a hushed voice.  "Chief Spikes and the DA spoke to the press last night after I left the scene.  I just read the article a few minutes ago.  I'm sorry…"

 

"Sorry!  Damn it, Buck!  They are just going to sweep this under the rug."

 

"Chris, I told ya last night I would do what I could."

 

"Not good enough, Buck," Chris yelled into the receiver and then hung up.  He walked around his desk and stomped down the hallway.

 

"Chris?" Vin asked as he followed.

 

"When Ezra shows up, tell him to call Josiah and get what he can from him.  I'll be back."  And with that he was out the door.

 

Chris was about to pull away from the curb when a knock came to his passenger side window.  It was Elena.  He motioned for her to get in and then took off down the street.

 

"Where to?" she asked.

 

"DA's office," he answered.

 

Elena nodded in agreement and buckled up for the turbulent ride.

 

Ten minutes later Chris was pulling up to the courthouse and parked illegally.  At this time of day it was that or several blocks away.  His anger caused him to not care about the ticket he would most likely receive. 

 

Elena followed discreetly at his heels as she attempted to smooth out her skirt and jacket, since she was still in the same suit as yesterday.  She followed Chris off of the elevator as he breezed past the reception area of the DA's office.

 

"Hey, you can't go in there," the plump secretary called after them.

 

Neither Chris, nor Elena heeded the woman's call as Chris swung the door open and went to the front of the large desk which protected a not so shocked DA.

 

 "What the hell is going on, Martin!" Chris bellowed.

 

"Nice to see you, too, little brother," Martin Larabee answered with a wily smile. 

 

"I expected more from you, Martin than covering these murders up to save having to admit the fact you prosecuted the wrong man.  Hell, it's low even for you."

 

The tone Chris was using had begun to bring spectators outside of Martin's office.  The DA wound around his desk and went to the door to close it.  He gave Elena a saccharin-sweet smile and welcomed her as if he hadn't heard Chris' outburst.

 

"DA Larabee, Special Agent Elena Belmont, FBI.  I must say, Sir that I share your brother's concerns.  I believe it's time the public was made aware of the threat."

 

"Agent Belmont…"  Martin tapped his chin with his finger as if he were searching for a specific memory.  "Ah, yes."  His face beamed.  "You worked the Red-Light killings the first time around.  Good work, I might add.  You made the case against Vasquez quite easy for me."

 

"That wasn't me, Sir.  I sided with Detective Larabee that the wrong man was accused.  My colleague, Agent Standish was the one instrumental in helping you, but if you were to speak with him in regards to the current killings, I trust you would find he no longer believes Eduardo Vasquez was guilty either," she answered.

 

Martin Larabee gave her an incredulous look and then the crafty smile returned to his face.  It was the smile that made Elena want to throttle him.

 

"I thought Mr. Standish worked with you now, Chris?" he asked looking at a fuming Chris.  "I thought he had that nasty incident in Jackson Square a few years back that cost him his career." 

 

That was it.  Elena had had her fill of men for the day. 

 

It appeared Chris had all he could take as well.  He strode up to within a few inches of Martin's face and spoke through clenched teeth.  "What the hell happened to you?  I remember a time when we shared the same ideals of justice and bringing the criminal element in this city to its knees."

 

"I still believe in justice, little brother," Martin answered, his arrogance slowly diminishing.

 

"Like hell you do, Martin.  Your only concern in all this is covering your own ass!"  Chris turned to whip open the door to his brother's office and exited as quickly as he had entered.

 

Elena watched Chris leave and then spoke to Martin.  "I believe it's time for the truth, DA Larabee.  The FBI will be conducting their own press conference this afternoon and I assure you, the facts will not be altered to save you or Chief Spikes from embarrassment.  If you wish to recant your statements made last evening, then I suggest you do so before the six o'clock news airs." 

 

Elena smugly left the DA's office and joined Chris, who was waiting at the elevator.  They stood side by side awaiting the elevator and Chris spoke without moving a muscle.  "It's good to have you back in my corner, El."

 

"Never left it," she answered as she entered the elevator.

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

Tara paced the length of Larabee's small apartment repeatedly, biting on her nails, waiting to hear from Vin that they had found a lead.  She hated being shuffled off here like she was a burden, but Vin and Chris had both insisted she get some rest and took her to Chris's apartment.  They definitely didn't want her at Nessa's apartment and Vin's motel room wasn't exactly in the best part of the city either. 

 

Tara had given in and went along with it.  She knew she was in the way at the investigative offices, but she felt helpless and useless just being penned up here when Nessa was out there somewhere alone and in trouble.  She could feel it with every fiber of her being. 

 

She looked one last time around the apartment and went to the table beside the futon and picked up the picture.  She sat down and studied the family in the photo, remembering the mention in the heat of the argument between Buck and Chris last night that Larabee's family had been killed a few years back.  The suspected killer had been the Red-Light killer, but Chris didn't believe that. 

 

Tara sat back on the futon and then placed the picture back where she had found it.  Her defensive wall was down for a moment and her heart ached for Larabee.  She couldn't imagine what it would be like to lose your whole world so violently, but if Nessa weren't found in one piece, Tara knew she would come as close to feeling the likes of Larabee's pain as she'd ever get.  With that thought she stood and began her nervous pacing again, except this time she took in the apartment and the chaos it was in. 

 

Weeks worth of newspapers were on the kitchen table, piled so high it was obvious Chris never ate there.  There were dirty dishes in the sink, empty beer bottles and Wild Turkey bottles throughout the apartment, most likely in the very spot where Larabee had drained them.  She wandered into the compact bedroom and pulled the blind up, letting the morning's rays in.  Tara turned around to find clothes strewn everywhere and that's where she began the task that kept her occupied for the day.

 

Tara was folding the last of the clean laundry when she heard the turn of the key in the lock.  Her heart pounded for a minute and instinct took over as she hid between the door in the bedroom and the wall.  She held breath until her name was called.  Realizing the voice belonged to Larabee, she stepped out from her hiding place and almost ran into him coming into the bedroom.

 

"Why the hell were you hiding from me?" he asked with raised eyebrows.  "And what the hell have you done with my apartment?" he added as he scanned his clean room that smelled like clean clothes straight from the dryer.

 

Tara tucked her hands in her back pockets, palms out and smiled, obviously pleased with her day's work.  "I cleaned this pigsty that you call home.  Really, Chris… what do the ladies think when you bring them back for a little lovin'?"

 

Chris scowled at her.  "I don't bring any 'ladies' back here and I sure as hell liked my apartment the way it was."

 

Tara shrugged her shoulders and zipped past him, their bodies barely grazing one another, as she headed for the living room where she gathered her jean jacket and big leather satchel.  "No sweat off of my back, Larabee.  It kept me busy and my mind off of Nessa.  I'm sure you'll have it back to its bachelor pad state in no time."

 

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Chris asked, skewering her with his gaze.

 

Tara twisted around looking over her shoulder.  "I'm going to find Vin.  It's obvious I've worn out my welcome here."  And with that she swung the door open and started down the hallway to the steps.

 

Chris cursed a wild streak and then ran after her, catching Tara right as she was about to descend the stairs.  "Look, damn it, I promised Vin I would keep an eye on you tonight.  He's out combing the streets again and he wants to know that you're safe… one less worry that he needs right now."

 

Tara sighed deeply, turned on her heels and made her way back to the apartment.  Without a word, she crossed the room, dropping her satchel on the futon, and went to the large bay window that looked out over the warehouse district. 

 

Chris silently reentered the apartment and closed the door.  He stood there for a moment watching her.  For the first time since meeting Tara, he thought she looked defeated, as if she was throwing in the towel.  It was a hard scene for Chris to witness.  The last thing he needed in his life at the moment was for his heart to bleed for another.  He didn't want the connection he was feeling to Tara, but it was undeniable as he found himself crossing the room until he was standing behind her.

 

Tara could feel his presence behind her and she closed her eyes, blocking out the surge of passion that erupted inside her.  She could feel the heat radiating off his body and before anything further could happen, she quelled the situation before it turned to something she knew neither was ready for… emotionally, at least.

 

"She's still alive, Larabee.  I can feel it," Tara whispered. 

 

Chris heard the pain in her voice and he did what went against his better judgment and he reached out placing a gentle hand on Tara's shoulder.  "Tell me about her."

 

Tara smiled, forgetting for a moment the thrill of passion inside her and the starburst of sensation deep in her tummy that was caused by Chris' mere touch on her shoulder.

 

"Nessa…"  Tara sucked in a breath in an attempt to rein in her emotions.  "Nessa is the warmest person I have ever met.  She gives and gives of herself until there's almost nothing left and then she gives some more.  We met in foster care at the age of ten.  She was so full of life back then; she taught me how to trust… how to love."  Tara wiped away the lonely tear running down her cheek with the end of her jean jacket.

 

Chris had removed his hand from her shoulder and Tara turned to find he was lighting several candles around the apartment.  He looked up at her as he finished lighting the last one and then slowly went to her.  He looked down with a guilty smile.  "My electric is out."

 

Tara chuckled.  "I know.  I found that out when I went to do your laundry.  I was forced to go down into that dungeon you call a laundry room."

 

Chris lost his smile and it replaced by a frown.  "It's not safe down there, Tara."

 

Tara shrugged her shoulders.  "I've been to worse places, Larabee and lived to tell about it."

 

In lighting speed, Chris reached out grabbing Tara by the shoulders and shook her a few times.  "What the hell is the matter with you?  Do you want to become one of those girls found all carved up?"

 

Tara could feel his anger and frustration vibrating through the suddenly hot and stuffy air of the apartment.  She turned her face away from his eyes and focused on the cars passing by on the street below.  "Fear, Larabee…  I've lived with it all my life.  It's almost a catalyst that keeps me feeling alive.  Do I fear death?" she asked meeting his intense stare.  "No…  I don't fear the act of dying.  I fear dying alone.  That no one will even care that Tara Willis, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, bit the dust."

 

Chris searched her eyes and once again there was the connection he had had with her back in Nessa's apartment yesterday.  Lost, both completely lost and void… their souls waiting for a reason to be awakened.  He reached out and gently stroked her face with his thumb as his fingers cupped along her neck, the ends dipping into her ebony silken hair.

 

Tara closed her eyes and welcomed the contact.  It gave her comfort, like something cool against a burn and she took a step closer to Chris, wanting to feel his hard body against hers.  She leaned her head back allowing a whimper to escape her mouth as he kneaded the fingers of one hand on her shoulder as the other ran through her hair.  Tara knew this was the last thing she needed… to go to bed with a man that she obviously felt a connection with, but there was no future.  She knew Chris was still hung up on his dead wife, a woman she couldn't, wouldn't try to replace.  She knew, as the man that was now kissing his way up her neck, inching towards her mouth, that this was just one night, a  night they both needed to relieve the strain of the last couple days.

 

Chris knew what was happening was wrong, at least in his mind, but then why did it feel so damn right?  He had wanted this woman since the first moment she had walked into his office.  There had been an undeniable bond and that's what made this so wrong; knowing he could never follow through after this night was over… knowing that at this moment, heaven was losing himself completely in this woman, but hell, hell was knowing he couldn't stay.

 

"I want you, Tara," Chris whispered into her ear as he ran his hands along her lower back pulling her bottom into him.  He pressed his erection into her belly, as hard as granite and as tempting as sin. 

 

Tara arched against it wantonly, reacting without any further thought as to what may happen after this tryst and let out another small moan as Chris rolled his hips against her. 

 

In a matter of moments the couple had each other unclothed.  Chris once again wound his hands around Tara's waist and slid them to her bottom.  He grasped her hard as he lifted her so that she was straddling his waist and he walked that way to the bedroom.  He gently lowered her onto the bed and then pulled back from nipping at her erect breast.  "It was nice of you to put clean sheets on."

 

Tara giggled and retorted playfully.  "I like when you smile Larabee.  In fact smile more often and you may even make it to human."

 

Chris didn't take offense, but played along.  "Animal is what I feel like at the moment."

 

Tara smiled wickedly and reached between their bodies and stroked his engorged member.  "By all means… let me see your bestial side."

 

Chris didn't need to be asked twice and took her, no foreplay, and no sweet nothings whispered in her ear.  He entered her and took her savagely.  The excitement she brought out in him was like nothing he had ever experienced before.  She made him feel like a man again, almost whole.  As they climaxed together and their bodies heaved and slapped together, one would have taken the event for pure unadulterated sex, but both knew it was more then sex, more then anything either could have imagined.

 

After a second time of ravaging each other, Tara fell asleep.  Knowing Chris had been there watching over her had given Tara, for the first time, a moment's peace from the nightmares that haunted her sleep. 

 

Chris watched over her and once sure Tara was asleep, he slid carefully from the bed and made for the large bay window in the living room.  He opened the window, the smell of the promise of rain assaulted his senses and a memory hit him.  It was one of three years past and the smell of rain on the horizon, as he looked down on his wife and child who had been slaughtered.  Chris slammed the heel of his wrist into the wall beside the window and hung his head.  So many emotions were tearing through him that he couldn't make sense of any of them. 

 

He raised his head and looked out into the night sky as thunder rumbled in the distance.  It was an appropriate accompaniment to everything that was going on inside him and around him; a portent of a coming storm within and without.

 

<><><><><><><><><><><>

 

Vin stood along the water of the Mississippi watching as the lights of a tugboat winked on the horizon.  The sounds of thunder boomed in the night's sky like the sound of cannon fire.  This was where he had ended up; back in their spot… the very spot he had proposed.  It seemed like another lifetime ago to him.  Everything had been so simple then, so right.  How it went so wrong, he would never know. 

 

He blamed himself for leaving Nessa and joining the military, but it had been in the hopes of providing a stepping-stone for their future and the dreams they had woven together.  The hurt at her betrayal of returning to the streets and back into the life he had shown her she was better than, cut him like a knife all over again.  He wanted to forgive her.  He had hoped one day to get past it, go to her and make it all right, but it seemed with every passing minute that the chance to make it right was slipping through his fingers.

 

He tried not to think on what would come if she was never found, or found dead.  Which would hurt him the most he wondered, but he knew the choice wasn't up to him, but the monster that had Nessa.  The maniac was the puppet master and he was pulling all the strings.  They had only to wait until he made his next move, which Vin prayed was to make an attempt to return Nessa to her apartment for the finale and be snagged by the FBI in the process. 

 

Vin thought on many things standing there along the waterway and as tears of frustration and regret streamed down his face, the heavens opened, almost as if they were joining in his weeping.  Vin lifted his face up to the dark sky, allowing the rain to slap his face until there was no difference between his teardrops and the rain.

 

<><><><><><><>

 

He sat and watched the 11 o'clock news, totally focused on the reddish-blonde FBI agent giving her statement to the swarm of media in front of the Federal building. 

 

He was enthralled with her control… such control.  "What fun it would to break her."  He smiled. 

 

Then a picture of his Ginger flashed across the television screen and his smile widened, as he knew then what he must do.

 

<><><><><><><>

 

Tara was standing at the counter in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal when Chris walked from the bedroom, clad in black jeans and a black t-shirt that hugged his chest like a coat of paint.  She sucked in a breath of arousal and focused on her raisin bran. 

 

"Elena will be by this afternoon," he said to her as he gathered his gun and keys off the now bare kitchen table.

 

Tara raised an eyebrow.  "I don't need to be babysat, Larabee.  I told you I would stay put and I will."

 

Chris turned from his path of leaving the apartment and looked at her.  "She's coming by to get information on Vanessa.  She put an APB out for her yesterday.  It aired on the news last night.  She needs some information from you."

 

Thoughts of last night surged into her mind as she remembered that she and Chris had been in the thralls of ecstasy at that moment.  She shook herself from the memory and focused on what Chris had just said.  "An APB… well it's about time."

 

Chris nodded in agreement.  "Elena is good at her job, Tara.  She cares what happens to Vanessa; give her what she needs."  He didn't miss the look on Tara's face and added a hesitant.  "Please."

 

"Well since you asked so nicely," Tara said with a half smile.

 

"I'll be back tonight.  My numbers are on the fridge if you need anything."  And with that Chris was gone.

 

Tara wasn't sure if she was relieved Chris left without any acknowledgment of last night or peeved that he acted as if it never happened.  She sighed and put her bowl of cereal in the sink suddenly not hungry.  She looked around the apartment and sighed… another day locked up like a prisoner, but at least the boredom would be interrupted by the visit from Elena.

 

At four o'clock sharp there was a knock on the door, saving Tara from rearranging Larabee's eclectic book collection another time.  She went to the door and whipped it open without asking who was on the other side.

 

"Chris wouldn't be happy," Elena said with a playful smile.  "I could have been a maniac out to make you my sex slave."

 

Tara immediately liked the FBI Agent.  They hadn't had much contact the night when they first met at the Investigative office, but Tara knew instantly they would get on just fine and excitedly invited Elena in.

 

"Can I get you anything?" Tara asked over her shoulder as she made for the kitchen.

 

"Honestly.  I could use a good stiff drink," Elena answered bringing an even larger smile to Tara's face.

 

"I can only offer you Wild Turkey.  It's all Larabee has on hand."  Tara answered as she bent down and retrieved a bottle from under the sink.

 

"Ugh, he still drinks that?" Elena asked as she came into the kitchen.

 

Tara looked at the woman and wondered exactly what the relationship was between Chris and the female agent.

 

As if Elena had read her mind, she went to the drying rack and retrieved two clean glasses holding them out for Tara to fill, which she did.  After both women had a glass of the amber liquid, Elena answered the unvoiced question.  "Chris and I go back four years.  I met him when the FBI was called in for the first investigation into the Red-Light Killer.  It was long hours and it was hard not to get to know each other.  Chris is a good man.  He's been through more then any human being should ever have to endure.  We're friends… nothing more."

 

Tara smiled and held up her glass.  Elena joined hers in a toast and then the women downed their drinks.  Tara figured since the women were being so candid with one another, that she would ask Elena one more thing before she dropped the subject of Chris.  "Did you ever meet his wife?"

 

Elena smiled, but one that was filled with sadness.  "Sara… yeah.  She was one hell of a lady.  I met her a few times before she was…"  Elena trailed off and held out her glass to Tara again who obliged both glasses with whiskey.  "Sara and Adam were Chris' world.  It ripped him apart when they were killed.  Chris lost so much at that time, but I get the feeling he may be healing," Elena said as she looked up and met Tara's gaze with a smile.

 

Tara just looked at the woman, who appeared to be reading her and for the first time, other than with Ness, she felt a connection with another woman and decided to speak openly.  "I don't think he's ready to move on just yet."

 

Elena swirled the liquid in her glass and then downed it, placing the glass on the counter.  "Chris is… well he's complicated, but he's not beyond repair, Tara.  Give him time."

 

Tara took in the comment and stored it away for further pondering.  She finished the last of her drink as well and slid off the counter on which she had been sitting.  "So… you're here about Nessa?"

 

Elena nodded and followed Tara to the futon couch where they became comfortable.  Elena intently listened to Tara speak of her lost friend and the more she listened, the more determined Elena was to bring Nessa back safe and in one piece.

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

JD watched from across the desks, which were adjacent so the two Detectives could face one another, as Buck slammed his phone down and wheeled his chair over to the fax machine… the fourth time in the last half hour. 

 

"What's up Buck?" the young detective asked.

 

"Nothin' and that's the problem," Buck mumbled back.

 

JD looked around the homicide room to see it had pretty much cleared out for the day.  There were a few stragglers finishing up with paperwork, but he and Buck were the only ones it appeared that had any intentions of working through the night.  When JD glanced back over the desks, he realized Buck was standing and reaching in his drawer for his keys.

 

"I'll be back in an hour, JD.  I'll bring dinner with me," Buck said without meeting his partner's curious gaze.

 

"You're going to see Chris Larabee again aren'tcha?"

 

Buck looked up shocked at first, but then the expression dissipated and a smirk curled up at the ends of his mouth.  He silently told himself that he was stupid to think JD wouldn't pick up on where he'd been disappearing to and with whom.  The young detective was much smarter than most gave him credit for. 

 

"Yeah," Buck answered, peering around to see if anyone left had picked up on JD's question.

 

"Take me with ya, Buck.  I want to help," JD said anxiously.

 

Buck shook his head.  "No way.  Last thing you need this early in your career is to be caught cavorting with the enemy."

 

"The enemy?" JD asked astounded.  "Chris Larabee is a legend.  He ain't the enemy."

 

Buck smiled at that, glad to know there were still those that thought of Chris that way.  Buck knew his old friend sure deserved the praise.  Many forgot the great cop Chris had been.  They only remembered the one thing that they knew in their minds made him the enemy and that was going renegade when his family was killed.

 

"I agree, JD, but not many in the department think on Chris the way you and I do, 'specially the Chief.  Now, you stay here and cover for me.  Will ya do that?"

 

"Buck, you're the one that ground into me from the moment I set foot in this department that we work for the victim.  They can't speak for themselves, so it's our job to speak for them.  I know what this could cost me.  I'm comin' with ya, but it's a chance I'm willing to take if it means stopping us from having another victim to answer for."

 

Buck sighed knowing the kid was right.  "Grab the file Nathan sent up and let's get goin' then."

 

JD beamed and grabbed his sports jacket from the back of his chair and followed his mentor and friend to the elevator.

 

<><><><><><><><><><>

 

The sun was setting and the nightlife of Bourbon Street in the Big Easy was starting to come alive.  Buck grinned at the girls they passed, dressed in something that would barely pass for a bathing suit standing out in front of several of the more upscale gentleman's clubs.  They were passing out flyers with sneak peeks of what the men would be paying to see. 

 

"Know any of them?" JD asked with curiosity.

 

Buck smirked and turned to JD as he took a left off of Bourbon Street.  He wanted to park discretely in the back of the Investigative building.

 

"Well," JD needled.

 

"I know a few of the dancers… sure.  Nice gals," Buck answered as his smile grew.

 

JD laughed, knowing one of Buck's stories of conquest was about to be told, one's that made the younger man wonder if they were fabrications or truths.

 

"Well there's this dancer… goes by the name Starlight and she…"

 

"Buck what the hell are you doin'?" Chris asked coming up beside the vehicle and rapping on the driver side window.

 

Buck's smile shrunk a bit knowing that Chris wasn't questioning why he was just sitting in the car, but that he wasn't alone.  Buck grabbed the keys from the ignition and exited the vehicle, the whole time his gaze locked with Chris'.

 

"Now, Chris, JD came on his own.  He wants to help and I think another pair of eyes would be handy," Buck answered the Larabee glare.

 

Chris looked past Buck to the very young looking detective that he'd seen that night outside Daisy's apartment, the first victim.  He spoke in a clear and concise manner.  "Go back to the station, Kid.  You just got that detective's badge; shame if you lost it just as fast as you got it."

 

JD came around the car and stood toe-to-toe with Larabee.  He looked up at the ex-NOPD detective and said with all sincerity, "I appreciate the concern, Sir, but I'm not going to miss out the chance to work with Chris Larabee.  You, Sir, are the reason I busted my tail to make detective."

 

Chris didn't show any emotion at the young man's obvious outpour of admiration, but Buck could tell it made Chris uncomfortable.  Even when Chris still owned his badge, he never liked the 'legend' status that he had been branded with over the years, but behind the unreadable façade, Buck knew it affected Chris in another way, too.  It reminded Chris of the man he had been and could be again in time, if he allowed himself to heal.

 

"You can stay.  Just so you understand what you're getting yourself into," Chris said, completely disregarding JD's uncomfortable praise.

 

Chris threw down the expensive cigar he had been smoking and stamped it out as he headed for the back door into the office.  Buck looked at JD with a smile and then jogged a bit to catch up with Chris.  Buck leaned down and said to Chris, "JD's the youngest detective in 35 years."

 

"All the more reason he shouldn't be putting his career on the line, Buck," Chris shot over his shoulder as he pulled the door open.

 

"He's good, Chris.  Damn good!  He'll be an asset.  I'm sure of it."

 

"Just so long as he knows the risks he's takin'.  Spikes finds out either of you have been working with me, you know you'll be out on your asses."

 

"I made sure on the way here JD understood."

 

Chris stopped and looked at Buck.  "Good."  He then turned and focused on JD, who was coming in the door.  "JD, you're working with me tonight."

 

Buck couldn't contain the laugh that escaped his lips at the excited look on JD's face.  He almost reminded Buck of a kid on Christmas morning who found that one gift he'd been prayin' for all year tucked under the Christmas tree.

 

Buck smacked JD on the shoulder as he passed him and leaned in to say," Show him what you're made of, Kid."

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

Josiah had taken it upon himself to revisit the crime scenes from three years ago, which still included the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee.  He was trying to distinguish what, if anything, the killer was doing differently than the first killing spree.  The profiler was looking for anything that deviated from the first killings.  The only differences between any of the murders, which now totaled eleven between three years ago and the present, were the Larabee murders.

 

Josiah rubbed his hand over his forehead in grief and frustration and then forced himself to open the folder to look at the grisly crime scene photos.  He and Elena had been to the scene and had seen the morbid site first hand, but it still stung the older man's heart.  He'd been to the Larabee home a few times, enjoyed lively conversations with Sarah, played games with Adam and the picture before him is not how any man should have to remember his family, yet Chris lived with this sight everyday.

 

Josiah looked over to where Chris was talking with JD and smiled.  It appeared as much as Chris would never admit it; he was enjoying the young man's zeal for the job at hand. 

 

Chris felt eyes on him and looked up meeting Josiah's gaze.  The widower knew what the older man had been working on and there was something on his old friend's face that said he was pondering something.  Chris excused himself from JD for a moment and crossed the room to join Josiah, who at the moment was occupying Ezra's desk.  Standish was out in the front office making phone calls and calling in what few favors he still had left in a futile attempt to prove what they already knew… that Nessa hadn't left the city, not by normal means of transportation, at least.

 

Josiah watched Chris sink into a seat across from him, having already casually closed the file on Chris's family.

 

"What's on your mind Josiah?"  Chris asked while rubbing his pointer finger over his top lip.

 

Josiah sat back in the chair and sighed, hating to bring up the night that had changed Chris Larabee's world forever. 

 

"Been thinking Chris… there's something that's always bothered me, but I never realized just how much until I'm sitting here looking over each individual murder again."

 

"And what is it that bothers you, Josiah?" Chris asked, knowing by the tone in Josiah's voice that he wasn't going to like the answer.

 

Josiah sat forward again and folded his hands on the desk.  "I've always wondered what Sarah was doing in the park so late the night she and Adam…"

 

"Were killed," Chris finished harshly for him.  "What are you trying to say Josiah?"

 

"Doesn't the time of night strike you as odd, especially for Sarah, to be in the park, or anywhere for that matter?"

 

"Are you insinuating my wife was having an affair?" Chris yelled and slammed his fist down on the desk.

 

Everyone in the room became quiet and looked to where Chris and Josiah were locked in a very intense gaze.

 

"No, that's not what I am suggesting Chris," Josiah answered very calmly, as if he hadn't heard Chris's outburst.  "I believe she was there at that time of night for a reason.  A phone call possibly, someone asking her to meet them there."

 

Chris blinked and sat back in his chair pondering what Josiah was suggesting.  It was quiet for a few moments and then Chris looked to Josiah again.  "The killer called her."

 

Josiah looked at Chris and smiled slightly.  "It was someone she knew, Chris.  I don't take Sarah for a woman that would have left the safety of her home in the middle of night, with Adam no less.  It was someone she knew; someone she trusted."

 

The realization of Josiah's implication scared the hell out of Chris, because he knew the profiler was right.  He knew Sarah hadn't been cheating on him; that wasn't even an option, but the latter… he knew was the answer.  "But who?" Chris asked aloud.

 

"If I recall, Chris, phone records were never subpoenaed.  It was assumed from the get go that your family was killed by the same man that had killed all those women.  I think it's time we get those phone records," Josiah said reaching for the phone to call Elena.

 

Chris was lost in his thoughts.  Of all the people in their lives at the time, none had struck him as killers and certainly not capable of the heinous acts that had been demonstrated on his family or those women.  This led him back to the belief that his family's killer was not the same man who was butchering the prostitutes.  But the lingering thought still was there…  Sarah had been treated in the exact same fashion as the prostitutes.  The only difference was that she was found in the park where as all the other women where found in the beds of their very own apartments.

 

"Chris, we have a problem," Josiah said, breaking through Chris's thoughts.

 

"What?" Chris asked.

 

"No one is picking up at your apartment and Elena isn't answering her cell phone or pager."

 

"Shit!" Chris said standing.  "I told Tara to stay put."

 

"To my knowledge, Elena was going to hold up at your apartment and make phone calls based on what she could pull from Tara.  Elena wouldn't have left your apartment without notifying me where she was going," Josiah said very worriedly.  He noticed that Ezra, who had been standing at the entrance of the hallway, was gone as soon as he had gotten that last statement out.

 

"Let's go," Buck said grabbing his car keys off of Chris's desk.

 

Chris nodded and looked at Vin, who was a hard read, but Chris knew his friend's worry had just reached its limit.

 

"Josiah, scrawl a note for Elena in case they are on their way here.  Everyone else… my apartment.  We each take a different route to there.  Buck, JD, Decatur Street.  Josiah-"

 

"And Nathan," came a voice from the hallway.

 

Chris turned and smiled.  He welcomed Nathan's arrival; however, he had a bad feeling that before the night was over, Nathan's former skills as a paramedic might be needed.

 

"Nathan and Josiah by way of Bourbon," he finished.

 

Knowing Ezra was already gone, Chris knew it was he and Vin that would be taking the small alley from Bourbon that ran diagonal to his apartment.  He nodded to Vin and followed the others that had already left and were headed for their prospective vehicles.

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

Elena tapped her fingers on the steering wheel of her car.  She knew something didn't feel right about this, but then reminded herself that there was an agent stationed outside of Nessa's apartment.

 

Tara looked over at the female agent, who she would go so far as to call a friend after spending several hours together at Chris's house, deep in conversation.  It was rare for Tara to open up to people the way she had with Elena and she felt she knew the woman across from her enough to conclude that though she was calm on the outside, she was not so on the inside. 

 

"If you want to call your partner, Elena…  I understand," Tara said.

 

Elena looked at Tara and reached for her phone.  She looked toward the road and then back to the phone.  "No, if I call him, then they'll have us wait and insist on coming... and for what?"  Elena shrugged her shoulders.  "I don't think there's anything there and by now the smell…"

 

Tara shot Elena a look telling the agent not to finish her statement.

 

"I'm sorry, Tara, but it's a fact.  If Nessa were in this crawl space that you say she has, well, after this amount of time, there would be signs," Elena said as carefully as she could.

 

Tara knew Elena was right, but she needed to see for herself.  Talking all afternoon with Elena and sharing stories of her time on the streets while working for Fowler, she had told Elena of the safe rooms, or basically crawl spaces he had built into the apartments of his 'special girls'.  It was more a way of taking care of his property than saving a prostitute's life, but unfortunately the girls that had them used them often when a john would get out of line.  Tara had forgotten to check it the day she and Chris had gone through it and she doubted the FBI had found it when they did their walk through.  Nessa's was very well hidden in the bathroom.  Even Tara, who knew where it was, had trouble spotting it. 

 

Elena pulled up to the apartments and parked.  Looking one last time at her cell phone, she almost called Josiah, but she hated to bother any of them at the moment.  She knew they were working hard and this was probably a dead end, but she wanted to help Tara's mind rest at ease that her friend's body hadn't been dumped in this safe room.  "Besides, there's an agent stationed outside Vanessa's apartment," she reassured herself again in silence.

 

Elena pulled her badge from the pocket of her navy blazer and flashed it for the young blonde agent guarding the front door of Vanessa Tanner's apartment. 

 

"Evening Special Agent Belmont.  What can I help you with?" the agent guarding the door asked.

 

Elena looked the agent over.  He was dressed in a tailored Armani suit and she shook her head.  He stood out in this neighborhood like a scuba diver in the desert.  Elena knew that if there was any chance that the killer would try to return to Nessa's to finish her off in the apartment, it was lost with this fool standing watch.  "Where's your partner Agent…"

 

"Agent Mosley, Rafe Mosley," he said in a snide manner.  It was very clear that he didn't care for Elena as a superior.  She was a woman and he detested that she was above him.

 

"Where is your partner Agent Mosley?" she asked again, ignoring his attitude.

 

Mosley nodded to the courtyard below and Elena went to the railing.  She looked over, only to find another agent, dressed similarly as his partner, pacing the overgrown cobblestone walkway around the unusable fountain.  Elena shook her head and turned back to Mosley. 

 

"We need a few moments in the apartment."

 

Mosley raised an eyebrow and looked Tara over, but the comment he was about to make was cut off by Elena.  "Sometime today, Agent."

 

Mosley took the key from his pocket that he obviously obtained from the super and opened the door for them.  Just as he was about to rudely go before the women, Elena spoke.  "Didn't your mother ever teach you any manners, Agent?"

 

Mosley turned with a disdainful look on his face and said through gritted teeth, "Of course, after you."

 

Elena looked at Tara.  The corners of her mouth were turned up slightly in a smirk and then she entered the apartment.  Having never been there before, Elena followed Tara through the living room and back through the bedroom and the bathroom off of the bedroom to the left. 

 

Once in the bathroom Elena sighed heavily, noticing that there was no ominous odor to detect Nessa's body was somewhere in this wall, but then again, she wondered if it were sealed fairly well…

 

"Found it," Tara said as she slid the hand towels on a rack beside the shower over.  Elena offered to do the deed, but Tara shook her head no and yanked the door open. 

 

No foul smell; there was nothing and relief washed over both women.  But the feeling of relief didn't last long as the hair on the back of Elena's neck stood on end and she realized the annoying shouts from Agent Mosley had stopped.  It had taken Tara several minutes to remember exactly where the crawlspace entrance was hidden in the bathroom and in those few moments Mosley had popped his curious head in several times asking how much longer. 

 

"Stay here," Elena said to Tara as she pulled her weapon from its holster at the side of her waist.

 

Tara's eyes widened in fear and looked from the gun to Elena.  "What is it?"

 

"Probably nothing, but you stay here and lock the door behind me," Elena said as she made her way along the wall of the bathroom.  Just as she was about to turn and enter the bedroom, a face appeared reflecting in the mirror of the bathroom.  It was directly across from the bathroom entrance and she lowered her weapon.

 

"What are you doing here?" Elena asked as she exited the bathroom looking towards Tara and nodding that it was okay to follow.

 

Getting no answer, Elena pressed him again.  "Why are you here?  This apartment is under watch by the FBI."  She looked out into the living room to find it was empty and started to turn to ask her next question.  "Where is Agent Mosley?"

 

"I'll take your questions later," he said smiling, as he brought his hand, that had been tucked discretely behind his back, around and that's when Elena realized her mistake.

 

<><><><><><><><><><>

 

It took only a matter of moments for the seven men to make it to Chris' door.  Josiah tried Elena's cell phone one last time as Chris attempted to call from the phone in his apartment, neither getting a response other than voice mail.

 

Chris gave strict instructions to each of the men… half taking the front of the apartment and the others, the back entrance.  They would all meet in the hall outside Chris's apartment.

 

Chris gave a silent nod towards Buck, who in turn tried the door and found it was locked.  He stood back as Josiah put all his weight behind a kick, sending the door splintering into the room. 

 

With guns drawn and shouts for Elena and Tara, it only took moments for the seven to realize the apartment was empty and no foul play seemed to be behind it.

 

"Chris," Buck yelled from the kitchen, drawing each man's attention.  He exited the room holding up a yellow piece of tablet paper.  "It's from Elena; says they went to Vanessa's apartment and not to worry, the agents are still on lookout."

 

Each man wanted to feel safe in the knowledge that they had located the whereabouts of the women, but something was still wrong.  The gradual awareness that the awful night was only beginning caused the room to almost vibrate with dark anticipation. 

 

"Try Elena again, Josiah," Ezra said from his position near the doorway.

 

Josiah did as he was instructed, but hung up when Elena's serious voice came over the line.  Josiah slammed his phone shut, as it was just her voicemail, once again. 

 

"I'm going over there," Ezra announced, not getting any rebuttal from any of the men.  They quickly vacated the apartment and climbed back into their vehicles. 

 

On the way to the French Quarter, Josiah called in and double-checked that there were still agents stationed outside of Nessa's apartment.  He was informed that the agents were ten minutes overdue with their last check-in.

 

"Step on it!" Josiah said to Nathan, who did as he was requested, not missing the urgency in Josiah's voice.

 

Ezra was the first out of his vehicle and stealthily made his way to the breezeway under Vanessa's apartment.  That's when he noticed the body in the bushes.  He stopped and knelt down, feeling for what he knew he would find in the breast pocket of the man's blazer.

 

"What is it?" Chris whispered from behind Ezra. 

 

Ezra turned and even in the pale light that illuminated Ezra's face, Chris could see his friend's face had become suddenly colorless.

 

Chris looked at the FBI identification in his hands and turned towards Buck.  "It's time to call in the cavalry."  Buck nodded and went to his car as Chris stepped in front of Ezra and led the rest of the way up the rusty iron steps.  He attempted to keep them from squeaking the best he could.  Once at Vanessa's door, the remaining six men split into two groups, each taking a side of the apartment door.  Chris reached out and tried the door, finding it open. 

 

Chris looked up at Vin across from him and mouthed 1…2…3 and then they were bursting through the door.  They split up quickly.  Nathan found a dead agent in the kitchen and then he heard a blood curdling scream come from what he assumed was the bedroom. 

 

Nathan pushed his way through the crowd of men.  He saw Chris cradling a woman in his arms and Vin was bending over checking for a pulse. 

 

"Let me see her," Nathan said kneeling before Larabee, who looked up with pleading eyes.  "She has a pulse, but she needs to get to the hospital."

 

And almost on cue the distant sirens could be heard as a result of the call Buck had placed from his radio.

 

"Hold on, Tara.  Damn it, you hold on!" Chris yelled.

 

Ezra paced the room having found no sign of Elena except for her gun that was lying at the end of the bed.  She could be out there in the bushes or somewhere laying dead.  The thought caused him to almost loose it and he went to stand behind Vin. 

 

"Ask her where Elena is," he said to Vin.

 

"She's unconscious Ezra," Vin said leaning in a bit towards Tara protectively.

 

"Chris?" Ezra said.

 

Chris looked up into Ezra's eyes and pulled himself from horror of seeing Tara lying on the floor bleeding.  "We'll find her, Ezra… we'll find her."

 

"You have to find her," came a moan from Tara.

 

"Tara, it's okay.  You're going to be fine," Chris said with a smile.

 

Tara opened her eyes and looked around at the heads congregated above her and licked her lips.  She swallowed before speaking.  "He took her… where Nessa is."

 

"Who, Tara?" Chris asked in a whisper.

 

"She knew him," Tara answered, her voice slowly fading.

 

"Get out of the way; move… let us through, " said the paramedic's voice who was trying to get to Tara.

 

The men all backed away and allowed the EMT's the room they needed to take care of the woman who had two bullet holes in her chest.  Right before she was about to be wheeled out, she looked at Chris and spoke in an almost hysterical voice.  "He looked like you Chris… he looked like you."

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

Elena lay in silence with her eyes closed.  She could feel that her hands were tied tightly behind her back and her head… she let out a moan that she didn't mean to, drawing attention to herself.

 

"Ah, Ginger, darling, your replacement has arisen.  I do apologize for the bump on the head, Agent Belmont, but I feared you wouldn't come willingly."

 

Elena balanced herself up on her elbow the best she could and glared at him in an attempt to show that she felt no fear of him.

 

"Just as I had hoped you'd be, calm and collected.  I will have such fun breaking you in.  Ginger has become quite boring and I needed a new toy."

 

Hearing Ginger's name, Elena looked over beside her and there lying on a mattress, was a woman.  Elena's vision had not cleared fully from the knock on the head, but she could make out the red hair and breathed a sigh of relief that she was still alive.

 

"Vanessa, we've been looking everywhere for you.  Vin has been beside himself," Elena spoke to the form beside her.

 

"Vin," Nessa whimpered. 

 

"Yes, he's been forefront in the search for you," Elena answered.

 

"Enough!  You only talk to me, Elena."

 

Elena turned to him as her vision became clearer and that's when she remembered his identity.  She sucked in a breath while a shiver ran down her spine.

 

"Why?" she asked.

 

"Oh, you can come up with a better question then that, Elena; after all, you are an agent with an impeccable record.  Come on… ask something more interesting."

 

Elena ran her tongue over her lip and fought the waves of nausea that hit her suddenly.  After a minute, she met his eyes and spoke.  " Did you kill your brother's family?"

 

"Ah, there we go; I like that one."  Martin Larabee, DA of New Orleans, paced in front of Elena for a short period of time and then turned back to her, his smug smile in place.  "It was quite simple, you see.  I needed to take from my brother what he had denied me."

 

Elena looked at him quizzically causing him to continue, "My wife's undying love.  Ella wed me only because she couldn't have her first choice."

 

"Chris," Elena answered.

 

"I loved Ella.  I cherished her as no woman has ever deserved and she spat in my face time and again.  Her heart has always lain with that brother of mine and I needed to make him suffer… suffer and feel some of the heartache that he had caused me.

 

"Why Adam?" Elena asked holding back the tears, knowing that Adam had probably looked up into his uncle's eyes with trust and love before his tiny life had been snuffed out.

 

 "I hadn't planned on taking Adam's life, you must understand, but Sarah had insisted on bringing him.  He woke up and saw me…  I had no choice."

 

"No, I'll never see, Martin.  You're a monster and will pay for your crimes.  Your brother and his friends will see to it."

 

Martin laughed and then knelt down in front of her.  "My brother doesn't have what it takes anymore.  He'll probably kill himself over this," he said as he waved a knife motioning towards Elena.  "I know the two of you are close friends and that whore back in the apartment, too.  I believe he cared for her, as well.  That's good… he'll suffer and finally do what he should have done years ago.  He's a waste to the world, just like all the whores I've doused from this earth.  They won't be missed."

 

Elena looked over at Ginger who was quietly sobbing and then glanced back at him.  "You're wrong, Martin."

 

"Silly girl… I'm never wrong," he said touching her cheek with the blade of his knife, pressing just enough to draw blood.

 

Elena closed her eyes and braced herself for him to drag it down her neck, but it never came.

 

"You must want to know more, Elena.  Ask me another question," he said proudly.

 

Elena didn't want to talk to him, but she knew the more she talked, the more time she was giving to Chris and the others to find them.  She knew by now they had to have checked in at Chris's apartment and found her note leading them to Vanessa's apartment.

 

"Eduardo Vasquez… did you set him up for the murders?"

 

"Ah, that was just pure luck.  Poor man was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I waited until he had his fun with the whore and then I had my fun with her.  The dumb shmuck didn't use a condom and his DNA was found on her.  Worked out perfectly," he said very proud of himself.

 

"An innocent man died, Martin.  You're sick!"

 

Martin let out a chuckle and then grabbed her chin roughly, flashing a smile that would have given Satan the chills.  "I know that's what your partner thinks, but I assure you that I'm perfectly sane.  I think that scares you more than if I were crazy.  Sorry to disappoint you."

 

"Something had to have set you off, Martin.  Don't tell me it was Chris.  That's a copout," she said goading.

 

"My, you are brave.  Do you know how easily I could snuff the life out of you?" he asked with a sinister grin.

 

"But you won't, Martin; you take pleasure in the suffering," she countered.

 

"Ahh yes, you've gotten me right again, Elena."

 

"You enjoy the control over your victims… the control you lack with your wife.  Is that it, Martin?  Your wife will not only give you her love, but she won't get between the sheets with you either," Elena said with a wily smile of her own.  She knew she hit her mark when his smile disappeared off of his face.

 

"You're babbling like that partner of yours," he said with annoyance.

 

"What's the problem, Martin?  Did her constant dissatisfaction bruise your masculinity?"

 

"That's enough!  Just shut up!" he roared and backhanded her across the cheek.

 

Elena lay on her side and watched him pace for a few minutes and then he knelt down in front of her.  "The interrogation is over, Agent Belmont.  You've made me angry and it's Ginger that will pay dearly for your unpleasant commentary."

 

"No!" Elena screamed.

 

<><><><><><><>

 

Chris stood and watched the ambulance pull away.  The feeling that he let Tara down overwhelmed him.

 

"We best get out of here before the NOPD and Feds show up.  I called the EMT's before headquarters, but it won't be much longer.  Won't do Elena any good if we get caught here answering questions," Buck said while laying a hand on Chris's shoulder in a show of support.

 

Chris nodded and followed Buck to where Nathan and Josiah were parked and the others were also waiting.  Chris noticed the color in Ezra's face hadn't returned.  Chris wanted to give his friend and business partner a pep talk, but nothing seemed appropriate.  He knew some of the hell Ezra was going through right now and knew there was nothing he could possibly say that would comfort the man.

 

"You hear that, Chris?" Buck asked, breaking into Chris's thoughts.

 

"I showed up at your office this evening with the CSU's report on the last two victim's apartments.  They found a substance near the bed of both victims that is consistent with food preservatives."  Nathan looked around at the men and saw the confused looks on their faces.  "I looked into it before I came to your office; this specific chemical is found mostly in meat packing plants.  There are ten in the warehouse district, three of which are newly vacated buildings."

 

Josiah slapped Nathan on the back in a gesture of a job well done.  "You wouldn't by any chance have the addresses of these buildings?"

 

Nathan smiled, pulling out a list from his pocket and handed it over to Josiah.

 

"Start with the vacant warehouses… split up," Chris ordered and took one of the addresses that Nathan handed to him.  He nodded his head in thanks and left for his truck.

 

The drive to the warehouse that was on their list only took moments, but Chris couldn't help the thoughts that were bombarding him.  He didn't want to believe it, but he saw the fear in Tara's eyes.  He kept telling himself it wasn't Martin.  It couldn't be his brother.  They had been best friends as kids.  Was this the same brother he shared a room with as a child?  It just couldn’t be.

 

But Chris knew the moment he saw his brother's Lincoln parked under a poorly lit street lamp in front of the address Nathan had given to him, that it was true and his gut churned at the realization.

 

"Stop!" he shouted to Vin who had taken over the wheel. 

 

Vin looked at the car and then towards Chris.  He was immediately on his phone to pass on the location to the others, who were only a few blocks away. 

 

Chris didn't waste any time jumping from the truck and sprinting to the side of the abandoned warehouse.  His gun in hand, he turned to find Vin right behind him.  With a nod they entered the building together and it didn't take them long to ascertain the location of the occupants, as they heard a female voice pleading with someone to "Stop."

 

Vin and Chris had started through the labyrinth of meat hooks hanging from the ceiling when they were joined from behind by the rest of the team.  Chris found it odd that he momentarily thought of these men and himself as a team, but it was true.  They had worked together and hopefully would save lives together tonight. 

 

Once clear of the large hooks, Chris spotted a dim light coming from an old meat locker.  The door was ajar.  He turned to the six men, telling them that he would go in first.  The closer Chris got to the slightly opened sliding door, the more his mind reeled with the realization that he may have to kill his brother tonight.  Could he kill his brother… his own flesh and blood?  How would he explain all this to their parents and Ella, who all had such high hopes for Martin's rising political career?  But then Chris thought on the women and their mutilated bodies and then about Sarah and Adam… something finally clicked.

 

"Someone she trusted..," Josiah's words played back in his mind sending waves of rage through him, the likes of which he had never felt before.  Without thought, he raised his gun and slid through the crack in the door.

 

Elena was kneeling down before Martin, but made no hint that she had seen Chris enter the room.

 

"You are ruining the fun, my dear," Martin said while looking down on Elena.  "I expected tears and wailing as I cut up the whore and you aren't playing along.  I do find it stimulating; however… this composure you are able to sustain.  I wonder what would break you… hmmm."  He tapped his finger on his chin.

 

Elena watched as Chris slowly made his way up behind Martin.  He was careful as Martin was holding a gun and if he was made aware of the danger, he probably would have used Elena as a shield.  She sat perfectly still and looking back up at Martin she hoped to distract him.  She could see Chris was ready to pounce.

 

"Children, Martin.  Hurting a child is the lowest a man can go.  Scum… even hell is too good for men like you.  You disgust me!"

 

Martin laughed, thinking he had finally broken her, not knowing it was an act.  The arms that were suddenly wrapped tightly around his neck from behind and squeezing off his oxygen intake cut off his laughter. 

 

Elena scooted back against the wall of the meat locker and watched as the two men became a tangle of arms and legs.  They fought lethally to take the other out.  It killed her to see this.  She had never known Chris when he and Martin had been close, but she had heard stories and seen the pictures of them together as children in Chris's home on her visits when Sarah and Adam were still among the living.  Elena wondered where it had all gone wrong.  Ella came to mind, but she had a feeling that Martin's jealousy of his brother had started long before Ella ever walked into the picture.  She just happened to fan the slow burning fire in Martin. 

 

"Elena!"

 

Elena looked up to see more figures filter into the meat locker.  She wasn't able to make out how many for Chris and Martin were still in the throws of their melee.

 

"Elena, thank God!  I thought I had lost you," Ezra said as he bent down and pulled her to her feet and into his arms.  He held her so tight that she almost couldn't breath, but she refused to complain.  His embrace was a welcomed relief.

 

Elena tucked her head under Ezra's chin and let the tears come that she had refused to shed through the whole nightmare.  She cried for so many people at that moment, but not for herself.  The extent of her ordeal with Martin Larabee didn't even begin to compare to what others were facing... the families of the victims, the victims themselves and Chris, the man who had begun to heal.  Elena wondered if this revelation would bring the peace he needed, knowing who had killed his family or turn his heart completely black.

 

A shot rang out and Elena pulled from her embrace with Ezra.  She looked at the blood-soaked chest and then up at Chris who was standing over Martin. 

 

"Why?" Chris whispered winning him a disgusting cackle from Martin.

 

"You and Agent Belmont must really work… on… your… interrogation skills," Martin choked out as his lungs filled with blood.

 

Chris leaned down, grabbing his brother's shirt into his balled fists and pulled him up off the ground at eye level.  "Tell me why you killed my family," he said through gritted teeth.

 

Martin smirked and rolled his head over to look at Elena, then back toward Chris.  "Agent Belmont will fill you in on all the details of the why, but I think you already have an idea… don't you, little brother?"

 

"I want to hear it from you!  I want to know how you got Sarah out there in the park that night!" Chris bellowed.

 

"Quite easy, actually.  Sarah was always such a trusting soul.  I made her believe you were in danger and that I couldn't explain it over the phone.  She was to meet me."  Martin's smile grew.  "And she rushed to the park right away.  Like a moth to a flame."

 

Chris could see his brother was fading and turned to find Nathan who was working to save Vanessa's life.  Chris turned back around to look at his brother.  His amber irises were fast becoming eclipsed by his expanding pupils and hazing over… death had come  calling for Martin Larabee. 

 

Chris shook him violently a few times, telling him to wake up, he needed to know more, but Buck came up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  "He's gone, Chris."

 

Chris hung his head, but there were no tears left in him.  When the time finally came when Chris could mourn his brother, it wouldn't be for the man lying before him that had viciously taken so many lives, but for the brother he had grown up playing Cowboys and Indians with under the canopy of magnolia trees in the backyard of their childhood home.  That's who Chris would mourn, not the monster lying in his arms. 

 

<><><><><><><>

 

Vin had waited outside the meat locker as patiently as he could, but once Larabee had slipped through the door, he was right on his friend's heels.  He knew Chris could handle his own and scanned the room until his eyes settled on a bloody form lying on a mattress in the far left corner.  He ran to the mattress and dropped to his knees, ignoring the pain at them slamming into the concrete. 

 

"Nessa," he whispered as he reached out and touched her cheek that was stained with dried blood.

 

"Vin?" she asked as her one good eye fluttered open.  "Am I in heaven?" she asked.

 

Vin smiled and shook his head.  "No, you’re here with me and I'm not gonna let you out of my sight… never again."

 

Vanessa's body started to shake as the emotions flooded through her.  "Vin, I am so sorry.  I'm so very sorry."

 

"Shh, I'm the one that's sorry, Nessa.  I should have come back sooner.  I should have made things right, but I'm here now and I aim on making it right between us."

 

Nessa smiled and Vin wiped away the tears on her cheeks. 

 

"I'm dying, Vin," she whispered.

 

"Don't you say that!  Hear those sirens?  Help's comin'.  We'll get you to a hospital and fix you right up," Vin said through tears.

 

"I love you, Vin.  I never stopped.  Don't let this ruin your life.  Find a good woman, start a family… you deserve it."

 

"Stop talking like that, Nessa.  You ain't gonna die!"

 

Nessa motioned with her head down over her body and Vin slowly looked down to her chest, to her stomach and the puddle of blood beneath her.  He turned to Nathan who had already taken in the obvious wounds, silently unbeknownst to Vin and shook his head.

 

Vin turned back to Nessa and leaned in to place a kiss on her lips, not caring about the blood; he wanted to feel them beneath his one last time.  He pulled back and whispered, "I love you Vanessa Tanner and I always will."

 

There was a smile on Vanessa's lips as her eyes closed for the last time and Vin placed his head on her chest and wept silently.

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

ONE MONTH LATER

 

Chris stood in silence beside his friend and looked out over the ancient moss –stained crypt that resembled something from an Anne Rice novel, but kept that thought to himself.  He had never known the woman lying in the burial chamber, but it didn't make the heartache for his friend and all he lost that night in the warehouse, any less painful. 

 

They stood there for several more minutes in silence until Vin broke it.  "I'm headed out after this."

 

"Where to?" Chris asked, knowing this was coming.

 

"Don't know just yet, but I can't stay here," Vin answered looking over at Chris who's eyes were covered with dark shades.  Vin knew the pain that was hidden behind them, the same pain that was consuming him now.

 

Chris understood the need to get away; he probably should have done that after he lost Sarah and Adam, but the need for the justice his family had deserved kept him here, and now he had the business with Ezra that he couldn't make himself walk away from. 

 

Vin started for the motorcycle that he'd purchased after selling his truck to pay for Vanessa's burial and climbed on.  He looked back at Chris and extended his arm which Chris clasped elbow to wrist. 

 

"Take care, Larabee," Vin said as he retrieved his hand and put on his helmet.

 

Vin revved the engine and was off down the winding road of the cemetery and Chris stood and watched his friend go until he was almost out of sight.

 

"It's good he's getting away," came a soft voice from behind Chris.

 

He turned to find Tara standing there, the light breeze blowing her wild main of raven hair around her face.  He smiled, but didn't know what to say to her.  He had stood an around the clock vigil until she had stabilized and been moved out of ICU.  After that he hadn't been to see her.

 

Tara looked over to the mausoleum where Vanessa was buried.  "I have to go, too Larabee.  Too many ghosts here for me."

 

Chris had hoped that after Fowler's arrest and she was safe from his threat to kill her for running away all those years ago, that she would stay, but he knew she wouldn't and it was for the best.  Neither was ready for what they had started that night in his apartment.  Both had a long road ahead before they would be ready to open up their hearts and lives to another.

 

"Did you know I was an ex-hooker when you slept with me?" Tara asked looking back at Chris.

 

"I knew; didn't make me look on you any different," he answered honestly.

 

Tara looked at him, confused for a second and then smiled.  "You are one in a million, Larabee.  Don't get me wrong… you're still the most cantankerous man I've ever met, but you're unique," she said as she stretched out her hand to lightly touch his cheek.

 

Chris took her hand in his, pulled her to him and into a hug.  No matter where things went from here, even if he never saw her again, Chris would never forget the one night with Tara when for a few brief hours she had taken away the coldness, chased back the darkness in his heart and made him feel alive instead of caught in some bleak plane of existence.

 

She had helped Chris to see that there was hope that some day he would have some semblance of a life.  He would always be thankful for that; always be thankful for her presence, even if it was only for a little while.  But it had been enough to make him realize that everybody's got something to live for, if it's nothing except to see another sunrise.  Just when one thought there was no hope, life would throw you a life line and you just had to tie a knot and hang on.

 

<><><><><><><><>

 

4 Months after the Warehouse

 

Orin Travis, newspaper mogul, looked up from the dossiers he'd been reading through for the fifth time and glanced at his secretary who had just entered his office.

 

"They're here, Mr. Travis," she spoke.

 

Orin took off his glasses.  "All of them?" he asked.

 

"Yes sir.  All seven."

 

"Well by all means, send them in," he said standing.

 

She nodded and turned back to the lavish reception area and spoke.  "He'll see you now, gentlemen."

 

Orin watched as the men filtered into his office and could put names to faces immediately from the pictures in each man's individual file that were sitting on his large mahogany desk.  He stood and extended his hand to each man, welcoming him by name.

 

After introductions were made, Orin offered each of the men a chair and he retreated back to his own.  The summoned men waited for him to explain this meeting.

 

"I'm sure you gentleman are curious as to why I have asked you to join me today and I won't keep you in suspense any longer," he said with a smile.  "I would like to hire you."

 

The statement caused each man to look at one another and then back to Travis with confused faces.  It was Ezra that spoke first.  "As charming as that offer is, Mr. Travis, and I can only speak on my own behalf, but journalism isn't exactly my forte, or an interest I wish to pursue."

 

Travis chuckled at Ezra's response and answered, "I am well aware of that, Mr. Standish and it is not the job in which I wish to hire you gentleman for."

 

Travis looked each man in the eye and then continued, "I have followed the story of your valiant efforts in catching the Red-Light Killer several months ago and I wanted to commend you on the capture.  This city is truly indebted to you."

 

"That's why you called us here?" Vin asked a bit annoyed.

 

"Not exactly, Mr. Tanner.  I do apologize for bringing you all this way; it was indeed tricky finding you, by the way."  Orin smiled.

 

Orin waited a moment and then continued, "It was brought to my attention recently that the organization in which I plan on instituting would suite you gentleman perfectly, and after reading, in depth, of your teamwork in catching the killer, it appears that my source was correct.  You are indeed the right men for the job. 

 

"And this job?" Chris asked.

 

"Ah, yes.  One year ago my son Steven was found in his home murdered.  The killer has yet to be apprehended."  Travis sighed and looked towards Buck and JD who were seated beside one another.  "I don't blame the department gentleman, but this is something that I would like resolution to.  I am getting on in years and would like to see the man who took my son's life behind bars before I pass on.  I want to hire you gentleman on for a special team that I am funding with my own money.  And I would like my son's case to be the first you tackle."

 

"A cold case investigative team?" Josiah asked intrigued.

 

"Of sorts, yes," Travis answered.  "I would of course set you gentleman up in a proper office that would have state of the art equipment at your disposal and I would pay you handsomely."

 

That perked Ezra's interest more then it was already and he looked over to his current business partner, wondering what Chris was thinking.  For Ezra, this looked like a golden opportunity, but not one he would embark on without Chris. 

 

"I understand that several of you unfortunately were rewarded with your valor in catching the killer by being released from your duties, certainly a loss to the prospective departments in which you gave so much."

 

JD looked at Buck and gave his friend a small smile out of the corner of his mouth.  JD had missed working with Buck since his untimely departure from the NOPD.  JD had loudly protested that he had not been under duress or any such thing when he involved himself with the six men surrounding him, but he had only received a slap on the wrist whereas Buck had been unkindly let go.  If taking this position meant leaving the NOPD where he had watched good men… good cops let go for fighting so hard for the truth, then by God he was going to take the opportunity presented.

 

Josiah had been put on suspension, then desk duty, which had split he and Elena up as partners with no chance of them being partnered up again in the near future.  He was contemplating this offer with high spirits.  The chance to do some good… bring some closure to people's lives that had been ripped apart at the seams by another was what the profiler had enjoyed most about his position with the FBI.  He'd been stripped of his rank and given a post that not only was boring beyond comprehension, but also didn't bring him satisfaction at the end of the day, nor allowed him to exercise his strengths as a profiler.  This position offered by Travis would bring life back into the career he loved.

 

Nathan looked at Travis and wondered how his skills would benefit the group, and almost as if Travis had read his thoughts, he turned to Nathan and smiled. 

 

"Mr. Jackson, your skills will be the most important.  You, Sir, have the eye for finding what other ME's overlook.  Your gift, I believe, would shed much light on many of the unsolved cases I have in store for you and unfortunately with the brutality in this world of ours, undoubtedly there will be others that make their way to us.  I do hope you consider my offer." 

 

Travis scanned the room and looked each man in the eye again.  "All of you...  I believe the success of this organization depends upon all of you signing on.  I trust you will give it serious thought and get back to me."

 

Chris stared at the older man for a moment.  He thought about on Travis and the need that the man felt to bring justice to the dead and the closure to the families that neither the NOPD, nor the FBI had been able to give them.  The chance to give these families what he had obtained with the help of the six men seated around him, was an opportunity he wanted to take... he had to take.  He looked over at Ezra, who could see the conclusion that Chris had come to and nodded his head that he would follow his partner into this new vocation.

 

Chris turned back to Travis and spoke.  "I accept your offer, Sir."

 

Travis smiled and extended his hand across the desk, which Chris took firmly in his. 

 

As if in a domino affect, each man in the room stood one by one and signed on with a verbal agreement and a handshake.  Vin was the last to give an answer.  It took him a few minutes of sorting through his hesitation of returning to New Orleans, but decided the best way to finally put things to rest was to face the demons heads on.  He was a Tanner and Tanner's didn't run away.

 

"I accept, too," Vin said standing and shook Orin's hand.

 

Orin stood back and looked at each man again as a wide grin spread across his face.  He wasn't as sure as his niece had been that each man would sign on, but he was not surprised that his niece had been correct.

 

"Gentleman," Orin said handing out small business cards.  "This is the address where your office will be located.  It is discretely located on the third floor."

 

Ezra looked at the address and his eyebrows went up.  He knew the office building well.  It was an exquisite building located in the Garden District.  He looked forward to seeing the office and the amenities.  

 

"If you gentleman are up to it, I would like to meet you there tomorrow afternoon.  Give you the keys, introduce you to the scant staff, and let you get a feel for your office.  Mr. Larabee, Mr. Standish, I understand you have an employee under you, a Miss Recillios.  I have no qualms if you wish to bring her on board."

 

Chris nodded his thanks.

 

"Well then, until tomorrow afternoon, gentlemen."

 

Ezra slowly waited until his six new business partners vacated the office and then he turned to Travis. 

 

Orin had been waiting for the man's questions.  He sat patiently and waited.

 

Ezra came to stand before the newspaperman's desk and asked the question that had seared the inside of his head since he had arrived in this office.  "How is Elena?"

 

"My niece is doing better.  The much needed leave of absence she took from the Bureau did her wonders," Orin answered.

 

Ezra nodded.  "Thank you, Sir."  And with that he turned and started for the exit of the office.

 

"Ezra," Orin called after him.

 

Ezra turned, not shocked the man he had met on several occasions had called him by his first name.  "Yes, Mr. Travis."

 

"Go and see her."

 

Ezra took the man's advice into consideration, then nodded his thanks and exited the office.  He thought about Elena the whole way down the elevator and to his car.  She asked for time after the incident with Martin and Ezra had granted her the space.  He wondered now if it had been the right decision. 

 

He drove through the city and ended up as he often had over the last four months parked in front of her home.  He never went to the door; he just sat and observed as lights went out for the night and watched over her for another hour or so before heading to his empty home. 

 

Tonight was no different as he sat there and watched as her bedroom light was extinguished and he whispered into the night.

 

 "Good-night, Elena."

 

<><><><><><><><><>

 

Orin Travis waited at the elevator for each member of his new elite team to arrive.  Once the last man was standing in the discreet reception area, Orin handed each one a keycard.

 

"Don't loose this, gentlemen; it's the only thing that opens these doors," he said pointing behind him to the elegant, yet thick wooden double doors. 

 

Travis inserted his keycard into the lock underneath the handle of the right door and was rewarded with a click.  He turned to the men smiling ear to ear and then pulled the heavy doors open, entering the spacious office. 

 

As each of the seven men entered, they all wore a look of wonder as they scanned the glass-enclosed maze that was to be their offices and most likely their home as they delved into cases.

 

"As you can see, each of you will have your own space, each equipped with a PC and other equipment that I'm sure you will find useful when the need arises."  Orin smiled back at them, pleased to find them happy with the office.  He walked down the hallway that led from the double-door entrance and then took a left where the bullpen was located.  There were several desks, yet unoccupied.  From the bullpen there were entrances into each of the seven offices that would eventually be occupied by each of the men. 

 

Orin looked towards the empty desks in the bullpen and then to the seven.  "I have several staff members already on board, mostly the computer whizzes that programmed your systems and will be here on a daily basis until you are familiar with the ins and outs of the system.  The empty desks before you, I shall leave for you to fill.  I want the staff that works under you to be to your liking and specifications.  I am a newspaper man, not an enforcer of the law and I trust you know what type of staff you have in mind."

 

Several of the men nodded in approval at being allowed to hand pick their staff. 

 

"All I ask, gentleman, when recruiting, that you choose those trusted to secrecy.  You see this Firm is not a… how shall I put this?"  Travis pondered his own question.

 

"On the level," Buck said.

 

Travis smiled.  "You could say that, Mr. Wilmington.  I have, over the years, made many friends in the government; many of whom owe me favors.  This is a hush-hush organization.  I have funded it and oversee it, with the promise to these select officials that we will act in the safety and respect of the city and its residents."

 

"No interference from these officials?" Josiah asked skeptically.

 

"They don't want interaction with us anymore then we want from them,"  Travis assured.  "Now, let me show you the rest of the space.  Follow me," he said, returning to the main hallway and taking the first right. 

 

"The conference room, gentleman," Orin waved his hand.

 

This was the room that impressed Ezra the most.  The large cherry wood conference table that stood in the middle of the room was elegant and looked to have history, but was well taken care of. 

 

"I am glad you approve, Mr. Standish," Orin said.

 

The next room had a very large cooking area with all the amenities of a full size kitchen and several tables to eat on and plants all over the room that gave it a homely feel.

 

"My niece's idea," Orin said

 

After the kitchen, the hallway went to the right and there were several computer rooms that Travis showed them, as well as a large file room.  Each man looked at one another in wonder, as if the large amount of files already in the room were cases awaiting them.  As if reading their minds, Travis chuckled and proceeded down the hall where four more doors were located.

 

Two belonged to public bathrooms for any clients they may have in the future.  When Travis opened the next room, each man looked on in awe as before them were four beds off to the left of the large room.  In the middle were several couches and a TV, and off to the right were two bathrooms, complete with showers.

 

Orin smiled at the looks on the men's faces and answered them.  "It is my understanding that once in a case; you men live and breathe it.  I want you as comfortable as possible during those long days and nights.  Now, there is one room left," he said exiting the living quarters to the last room at the end of the hallway. 

 

Orin knocked first and then entered; turning to make sure the men were following. 

 

Ezra was the last to enter and stopped in his tracks at the woman behind the table.

 

"Afternoon uncle," Elena said standing.  She went to Orin and planted a kiss on her uncle's cheek.  She turned to the men, some wore smiles and others were hard reads.  "I told Uncle Orin that you would accept the position and it appears I was correct," said the woman with a smile.

 

"Elena will be your liaison with the NOPD and the FBI.  Anything you are unable to obtain through the exceptional computer programs she will get for you," Orin added. 

 

"I'm not your boss by any means, I work for you.  Anything you need or I can be of assistance with, is what I'm here for only," she stressed meeting Chris's gaze.

 

"Elena is a discreet part of this operation, gentlemen.  Her office is located in the back for that reason.  It is imperative that her position here not be revealed or the information she is able to obtain for us will be lost."  Orin paused a moment, pleased to see a smile on Larabee's face at seeing Elena.  "Now that the tour is over, why don't you get more acquainted with the offices?  Tomorrow I will be by and give you the files on your first case." 

 

Each of the men stopped and gave a personal greeting to Elena.  The only one having seen Elena since she left the hospital had been Josiah, who along with Ezra and Orin stayed behind as the others filtered back out to the main office.

 

"Well, I must be going," Orin said to Elena.  "I trust I will see you tomorrow, as well?"

 

"Yes," she answered desperately trying to avoid Ezra's intense gaze.

 

"Good," Orin said, then leaned down and placed a kiss on his niece's forehead and left her with Josiah and Ezra.

 

"How have you been?" Josiah asked her.

 

"Very well, Josiah.  I was sorry to hear about the demotion when I returned.  It was unfair," she answered.

 

"But expected," he said with a wry smile.

 

"I suppose.  I'm glad to see you took my uncle up on his offer.  It will be good to work with you again," her smile widening.

 

"Yes, yes it will."  Josiah knew Ezra was waiting his turn and he bid Elena good-bye and joined the others.

 

Elena stood and waited for Ezra to fill the silence that stretched out between them, but he just continued to study her with out any expression on his face. 

 

The silence was becoming unbearable and Elena spoke.  "I'm sorry you had to find out this way, Ezra.  I was going to call you, but I wanted you to accept my uncle's proposal.  I feared..."

 

"That if I knew you were apart of this organization, it may have influenced my decision," he finished for her.

 

"Yes," she answered quietly.

 

Ezra smiled and took a few steps closer to her before he spoke again.  "You were correct in that assumption, Elena.  It seems many of the things I've done over the last few months have been as a result of our tempestuous ending."

 

Elena watched as he closed the distance between them and lightly brushed her cheek with the back of his hand.  "I've wanted to seek you out on many occasions, but I wanted to respect your request.  Though now, standing here, I may not be able to control all that I feel for you… all that I want to do."

 

Elena closed her eyes as Ezra ran his fingers along her jaw line and then cupped her cheek with his hand.  Her eyes fluttered open and his gaze captured hers.  "What do you feel, Ezra?"

 

Ezra swallowed, and gave her a dimpled grin, his eyes filling with emotion.  "I love you, Elena.  I always have.  It took you walking out of my life to accept it, and now I embrace it."

 

Elena tried to hold back the tears and Ezra saw her inner struggle.  "Let them go, Elena.  I promise this time, I won't betray you." 

 

Elena believed him, God help her… she believed him.  She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and brought her lips to his, sealing his confession with a searing kiss.  When they pulled apart Elena placed her hand over his heart and smiled. 

 

"Life can change in a heartbeat," she whispered.

 

The End