Lauren didn’t like not having answers. She supposed that was an understatement, but things just weren’t adding up for her. As she began writing down what she knew and what she didn’t, the sticky notes began taking on a bizarre color scheme that only she could figure out. When Colin came into the office with her, she stood and started sticking them on the wall with the pictures that she’d hung up.
“Are these the people that you’ve been searching for?” She told him that the world was searching for them, it seemed. “Yes, well, whoever they are, they’re wanted in four countries, you told me, and that wasn’t even counting the countries that they’ve not been found out in.”
“Yes, well, I’m working on that one too. There are several deaths that I can have tagged to them, but nothing to stick so far.” She hung up the notes and then stepped back. “Things aren’t adding up in their usual fucking order like I like them to do.”
“Hawk was just here. He said to tell you that he’d be back in a couple of days. It’s too much for him. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean either.” She told him. “How can we be driving him insane when he doesn’t hang around us all that much now? I mean, he was in here for about two minutes before he took off again. How am I supposed to be driving him crazy?”
“You’re around. And don’t ask me questions if all you’re going to do is try and prove to me why I’m not right. We both know that I am, and the sooner you get that in your thick skull, the better off you’re going to be.” They both laughed. “What do you see when you look at this?”
He had helped her a few times when she’d had something staring her right in the face over the last few months. Mostly it was because he was fresh eyes and wasn’t tainted by her jadedness. And she knew that she was. Lauren didn’t trust anyone, and didn’t like people twice as much as her trust level was. Colin got up and looked over the board.
“The blue notes, what are they?” She told him they were facts. “And the yellow ones? I’m assuming you have this color coded. It’ll help me to figure it out if I know it all.”
“Yellow is for unknown factors. Such as I don’t know how the fuck they’re being funded. The blue ones are place markers. As you can see I’ve only put numbers on them. The questions are eluding me as well.” He nodded, and he continued to look over her board of pictures and notes. “The red ones are names that I know that they’ve killed. And as you can see, some of them are straddled between two names. So I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking at here.”
“Is it the same person that might have killed the ones you have straddled between two names?” She looked at the board and asked him what he meant. “The people that you have under two names. You think they might have been killed by two different people. Maybe it’s just one person that looks like two to throw you off. I mean, are you sure that they’re not one and the same murderer?”
“Why do you ask that? I’m not saying that you’re wrong, but I never thought of that yet.” She looked at the traits of both men and women on her list. They were similar, but not terribly so. But when Colin pointed out that the names were nearly the same, she then noticed a few other things about them as well.
“This one stays in the same type of hotel. High end and lots of room service. They always go out for drinks with their intended victim before taking them back to the room to murder them.” She took down the second picture but laid it aside. She didn’t know which one the right person was, but it was getting easier to see them now. “These two people always wear a wig that is made not from manmade hair, but of different animals. The only reason we know this is because the latest victim pulled out a lot of their hair when he was trying to defend himself. He had a lot of defensive wounds.”
“These two have the same initials as well.” She nodded and put the picture with the other one. “Don’t you think these are the same picture?”
“I thought that as well, but I’ve concluded that they’re not. Unless they’ve had some work done since the first one was taken.” She showed him the nose and how it was shaped, and the lips. “I guess they could have had collagen put in, but I don’t know how that affects the body as well as say, a doctor would. I’ve called Boyd over to look at them.”
Lauren was a mess working on this one. It was something that she’d pulled from the cold files at the police station. She wasn’t working for Jarvis as much right now—he was trying to close his end of being president right now. He still had two years to go, but he wasn’t running for reelection, so she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do now and when he was finished. She told Colin what she was thinking.
“I thought you were a lifer.” She said that she’d be a dead one if she didn’t have something to do soon. “Yeah, I figured that was why you asked for the files to be sent over. If you want, I can show you how to use a sander and you can help us out.”
“No thanks. I have all my fingers just where I want them.” She moved a few of the folders and sat down. “I’ve talked to Boyd about Sandy, and he said that she’s not his mate. They get along well but decided that they’re not going to be involved. I had no idea that he’d lost his mate years ago.”
“I didn’t know either until he told us at dinner a couple of weeks ago. He said that she was a student at the college when he was. But he’d had his head so buried in studying that he didn’t notice her until it was too late.” She asked him if there was a chance that he could have been wrong about the other woman. “No, I don’t think so. He knew it was her. Had the overwhelming need to be with her but knew that he had to study too. Then when he came out of his study session one night, she’d been killed by a hit and run driver. Mom took it very hard too, I think.”
Bea had too. And so had Rich. He must have told their son he was sorry a thousand times at dinner, then had to go out on the deck to get himself under control. Rich wanted his kids to be happy, and thought that having a mate, each of them, was the only way they were going to be. Anastasia had come to her last night and answered a few questions about mates, things that she hadn’t wanted to ask Colin about. Like could they get a second chance sometimes.
“Yes, anyone can. But I have a feeling that our young Boyd doesn’t care to look for it.” Lauren had asked her why. “He’s so set in his ways, don’t you think? I mean, it’s like he’s found her, she’s gone, and that’s all she wrote. The guy could be a poster child for anal retentive men.”
“I don’t think he’s that bad, but I do see your point.” Lauren thought of his office as compared to her own. “He puts me to shame every time he has to come here. He tisks at me like an old woman and tells me that I should have more respect for my things. I just put my gun on the table and tell him I do, for the ones that could save my life.”
When Colin left her to go back to his job of working with his brother and dad, she sat down at her desk and looked around her office. There wasn’t much more she could do on this, but she knew that sooner rather than later, she’d figure it out. Since she was working on several other things now, she thought about Christmas which was in two weeks.
There were decorations all over the house right now. A great many of them were where they should have been, gracing the staircase or hanging on the tree, but other things were still in boxes and hadn’t been put up. Lauren was excited to have a family Christmas. It would be her first one in a very long time.
The tree alone had her coming downstairs in the middle of the night and turning it on. The decorations on it, all of them, twinkled around the room like a sparkler on the Fourth. Then there were the packages, more every day, that were under it. She’d not gone snooping in them—she knew what they were…they were for their children. But she was just as excited as any child for this coming holiday.
They were going to have Christmas Eve at their own houses, with their own families, then on the big morning they were headed to Colin’s parents’ house, her parents too, to have a long, fun day with them. Then there was food all day, as well as massive amounts of football. She herself had fallen in love with the sport long before she knew that his entire family would schedule a meal around their favorite teams.
Looking at the time, she gathered up what she needed and waited for Boyd to come over. He and Mac were closing the clinic after today to take a much-needed vacation. Mac and Dustin were planning a nice getaway after the holiday, and she and Colin were going to spend a couple of days in Washington with Jarvis. She’d never spent a holiday with the president before and thought it might be fun. At least she wouldn’t be working the entire time.
Boyd showed up about half an hour later, saying that he’d just delivered his one hundredth baby. The man was a wonder, she’d give him that. One hundred babies brought into the world, and he acted like it was the first time every time. Smiling, she brought him into her office to work and loved that he didn’t disappoint her in pointing out what a slob she was. Boyd could make her laugh quicker than any of the McCullough men.
After Boyd and Lauren finished up his help to her, they sat at the big desk and looked over the work she was doing now. He couldn’t offer her any help on her notes and pictures, but he did tell her that the two people in the picture were one and the same. He said that she’d have to learn eyes. Not that she didn’t know a great deal about people, but the eyes never lied to you.
“I’ve been looking at houses. Dustin is helping me find something reasonable.” Lauren asked him if he was looking for big. “I wasn’t, but there isn’t much of a choice in the smaller houses that I was looking for. He said that bigger is better.”
“Yeah, he would. I was noticing the house that they’re working on now. That’s a little bitty thing, at least compared to all the houses that the rest of them own.” Boyd laughed with her. He told her that the house was sold already. “That was fast. I had no idea that it was even on the market yet.”
“It’s not, but they were working on it the day before yesterday and a couple came in to look around. Before they knew it, they were picking out carpet colors and paint colors for them. I guess they got a loan yesterday, and now they’re working with them to make it their home.”
“That’s good for them, I guess. Why smaller, if you don’t mind me asking?” Boyd had been telling his family that he wouldn’t have a mate coming his way. He had told his family so far, and decided that he might as well tell everyone else too. He mentioned it again to Lauren. “I’m sorry, Boyd. I never thought that you guys could just not take your mate. And you told us that she was killed too. That really sucks. But in talking with Anastasia, she said that there is always a chance that you could find another mate. It has happened before.”
“I know. I thought I had plenty of time. I guess I do now, but I no longer have anyone to spend it with.” He didn’t like feeling sorry for himself, and tried to think of something to talk about. Anything else but a mate. “I should get going. I know you have a lot of work going on here.”
“Actually, I’m just helping out on some cold cases for the moment. You and your brothers, you all have contributed something to the cause. I’m just biding my time until something comes along with Jarvis. But I have solved one of them so far.” He asked her about it. “They thought it was a robbery gone bad, but I found receipts in the man’s things that said that he’d sold off all his worldly goods then killed himself. A good job of it too, meaning that he did it in a way that really did point to murder.”
“And what does it matter? I’m not belittling your work—I think it’s fantastic. But what does it matter to the system if he’s murdered or killed himself?” She handed him a sheet of paper, and on it were the same names and dates. “I don’t understand this.”
“Insurance claims. They want his insurance, and if he was murdered, it would have been doubled. I was asked to figure out if I could find the murderer. Instead, I found that he killed himself. They’ll not get it now.” He told her that he thought that was sort of sad, and cruel too. “Yes, it is. And I agree with you that he fucked over his family. But that’s the truth of the matter, and that’s what I found. Now the case is closed, and no more man hours will be wasted on it.”
“Do you think that was his purpose in making it all neat and tidy?” Lauren nodded. “All right, I guess, but he must have had his reasons, that’s all I’m saying.”
“I’m sure that he did.” She shoved the file under the other files on her desk and Boyd stood up. “You want some help house hunting? I’m about done here, and I could use a break. And if you’re really nice to me, which I don’t know why you wouldn’t be, I’ll let you buy me lunch.”
“Sounds good to me.” They were out the door and in his car before he realized that he hadn’t been planning on house hunting today. “Dustin hasn’t lined up any houses for me to look at. I have nowhere to go.”
“I know. But you seemed sort of down and I needed to get out. We’ll wing it.” Boyd stared at his sister-in-law. “All right, all right, I know I don’t wing it well, but I really did need to get out of the house. So, where do we start? I’m thinking that we hit a realtor and go from there.”
The office of the only agent in town wasn’t busy, and he was able to get someone to give him a list rather than follow them around all afternoon. Boyd supposed that it was because of Lauren. She’d said no, they didn’t need the realtor to go with them, and no one disputed her claim that they had this. He was still laughing at the expression on the woman’s face when Lauren told her no. He’d bet few people told her that and got away with it. Much like Lauren.
They hit two houses before they stopped for lunch. The first one had too much work that needed to be done on it. And Dustin had already told him that he had five houses that he had to work on before summer, as they were homes for vets. Dustin and their family did that when they could, helped injured vets with homes that would suit their needs.
They were eating their lunch as they looked over the map they’d been given. Lauren crossed two of the dozen or so houses off the list right away. She said they were too far from the family for him to think about purchasing them.
“Perhaps I don’t want to live close to all of you.” She snorted at him. “You know, you’re not as pleasant to be around as you might think. I mean, I’ve had wild cats with more friendliness than you display all the time.”
“Yes, but I can save your ass if you need it, and you know that I will tell you the truth, even if you don’t want to hear it. But I can also lie right to your face and you’d never know.” He asked her how she thought that was a good thing. “It is. Like the shirt you have on. I could have said to you, Christ, Boyd, that’s a shirt an old man would wear. And you’d change. But I held my tongue.”
Boyd looked down at his polo and then back at her. “What’s wrong with this shirt? You have one on that is just the same. Only mine is blue and yours is black. By the way, do you own any other color than black?”
“No, I don’t. And you could use some color in your life too. I’m too set in my ways to change my style. But you, you should wear colors.” He pointed out that blue was a color. “Nah, it’s a mood. Blue is a mood. You should wear green or yellow. You’d look good in yellow.”
He didn’t even know what to say to her. There were times when he had no idea if she was giving him a hard time or not. Like her being able to lie to him and he wouldn’t know if she was telling him a lie or the truth. So instead of engaging with her, he ate his burger and fries. Before he was finishing off his malt, she had marked two more off the list and had circled four of them.
Paying for lunch, he looked around the diner. It was a place he’d been coming to since he’d been a kid. And it really hadn’t changed all that much. In two weeks the new owner, Reese, would close it down and have the entire place updated, expanded, as well as adding an ice cream area for the local kids. This was all done on the sly—she wouldn’t know it was hers until Christmas morning. Jon and Parker had bought it for her.
“You think they’ll keep the bar stools?” Lauren asked him why he’d want them. “I don’t know. It’s something that the six of us would sit on when my parents would bring us here for a treat. There used to be a soda fountain machine in here until it died with the old ways. I guess I’m a little nostalgic for my childhood.”
Lauren popped him in the back of the head. “Get over it. You need to focus on the here and now, my dear brother. And when you get a house, I expect to get full credit for you buying it. Even if you have to lie about it.”
They were still laughing as they made their way to the next house. He didn’t care for the neighborhood, but he was willing to give it a chance. But the closer they got to the place, the more uncomfortable he felt—like dread or the feeling of impending pain. When he sat in the car, just staring up at the house, Lauren asked him what was wrong.
“I don’t know. I can feel something here.” She asked if it was just what he’d been thinking, and he turned to her. “You feel it too then?”
“Yes. Like I’m going to open that door and sixty men with guns and knives are going to come out and fuck up my wonderful day. I hate having to kill someone before dinner. It gives me heartburn.” He asked her what she thought it did to the people she killed. “I never thought of that, not that I care, but I never thought of that. Thanks.”
Instead of moving on to the next house, they got out to see what was making them feel like that. As soon as they stepped up on the porch, the smell of fresh blood flooded his nose. He looked over at Lauren when she cursed. She pulled out her gun and he stood there as she took her booted foot and slammed it against the doorway.
The stronger smell hit his nostrils first. Blood and a great deal of it. Then he could feel something akin to sorrow. Boyd stayed by the door when he was told to and waited for her to tell him to move. But before he could reach out to his brothers, not even sure what they were going to be needed for, he saw the movement near the stairs and nearly ran toward it when Lauren stopped him.
“Do you know what stay here means?” He said that he did and pointed to what had moved. “It had better be something more than a dead rat or I’m kicking your ass all the way to the car. This is not how a person finds them a house.”
Not only wasn’t it a dead rat, though he had seen it move so that ruled it out right away, but it was a body. A man’s body that was still breathing, though barely so. As he told Lauren to go and get his medical bag out of his car, he started assessing the man for injuries. The blood was everywhere, and he seemed to be bleeding from every part of his body.
“What’s your name?” The man moaned and pointed to the stairs. Looking up, Boyd could see that he might have come through the railing. He didn’t tell him his name, and Boyd began searching for any kind of identification on him.
“What the fuck are you doing?” He told her that he was looking for alert bracelets or even a necklace that said maybe he had something else wrong with him. “Another thing I wouldn’t have thought of. But then, I don’t know that many people that I’d care enough about to check on that.”
He knew that she was kidding around. There were plenty of people in her life that she loved enough to check for things like this. And Boyd was pretty sure that he was one of them. When he found that the man was on a blood thinner, he tried his best to find the biggest source of blood loss. Even small cuts could make him bleed more than usual.
About the time he got the IV in, the paramedics showed up. Boyd knew that even though they’d gotten to him fast enough, he still might die from his injuries. He had a feeling that the man was lucky they’d not driven off and had stuck around to inspect the house. Boyd rode to the hospital with the man while Lauren talked to the police. The house, it seemed, wasn’t going to be one that he’d buy anytime soon, if ever.