"You've been avoiding me for weeks now, Paige Riley. I won't be put off any longer."
Paige sidestepped two men in business suits hurrying down the sidewalk like she was doing. She was late. And she was never late.
"Mother, what do you want me to say?"
"I want to know who that woman was in your apartment and why she was half-naked."
Paige stopped suddenly, pushing her sunglasses on top of her head. "First of all, she was not half-naked. She was all the way naked. And secondly . . . it's none of your business."
She ended the call quickly as she stared up into the cloudless sky.
Did I just out myself to my mother?
CJ Johnston had never been one to wear her feelings on her sleeve. But since she and Paige had returned from Hoganville—since they'd become lovers—she felt like Ice and Billy could see right through the aloof façade she tried to keep in place. While technically she was partners with Ice, not Paige, they were still all on the same team. If they went public with their affair . . . well, they didn't want to take a chance that Howley—or someone higher up—would break up the team. After Hoganville, after the dust settled, their team staying intact was questionable in itself. Whenever the FBI and mass suicide is mentioned in the same sentence, people, especially politicians, quickly distance themselves and begin pointing fingers.
While she and Paige got what amounted to a slap on the wrist, Howley got demoted. He was still their squad supervisor, but someone had to answer for the forty-four people who died in a synchronized suicide, not to mention the murder of fellow agent Avery, who was posing as the school's director, and Ella, the teacher at the school. It would still take months before DNA results were back on all the human remains found in the cave, but the fact that the senator's daughter—what was left of her—had been identified eased some of the apprehension from the end result. As she told Howley, if she had to do it over again, she wouldn't change a thing. Fiona had set things in motion. There was no other option. Even if CJ had known the rhyme Fiona taught her was a trigger phrase for a mass suicide, she'd still use it. After all, Belden, Ester Hogan's bodyguard, had had his meaty hands around her neck. She had no doubt he would have snapped her in two without a second thought.
She wasn't sure if anyone really believed their story of the "monster" or not, but she and Paige and Ice had all put the creature in their reports. For all the media coverage the raid on Hoganville garnered, though, there was never once a mention of any creature roaming the woods at night. And in the weeks since then, even with the excavation of the cave, there had been no sighting of it. Evidence that something had shredded and ripped bodies apart was there, obviously, but she had no clue as to how the medical examiners would explain it. And at this point, she didn't care. She knew what she saw, knew from what Don and Fiona had confided to them that the creature had always been there, and she knew without a doubt that she would never go back.
So after all of that, after Hoganville and after the run-in with Paige's mother—and Seth, Paige's supposed fiancé—she and Paige had agreed it was best to keep their relationship a secret. Which CJ was finding harder to pull off than she'd thought. She could see the questions in Ice's eyes sometimes, but she ignored them. She and Paige had perfected the art of flirting long before this. Their nights out for beer with the guys were just as they used to be—only now, their flirting was real. Billy didn't have a clue, she was certain, but Ice was watching them. He seemed to be more captivated with their flirting than curious. Or so she hoped. If he came right out and asked her, she was fairly certain she wouldn't lie to him. He was her partner, after all.
She took another inconspicuous glance at the elevator doors, then checked the clock. Paige was never late. And while they didn't see each other every night, last night was not one of them. She'd left Paige's bed before dawn, getting home in time for a quick run before showering and heading to the office. And in the last two months, she had never once beaten Paige to work.
Howley came out of his office, a thick folder in his hand. She, Ice and Billy all started shuffling papers and tapping on their keyboards.
"Quit pretending to be working. You've all already submitted your last report. I know you have nothing." His gaze went to the three of them before landing on the empty chair. "Where is Paige?" He then turned slowly to CJ, eyebrows raised. Since Hoganville, he'd treated them differently. Almost as if he knew they'd taken their undercover assignment to pose as girlfriends and made it real. And they, in turn, went out of their way to argue and tease as much as they always had. She matched his stare now, her own eyebrows arching.
CJ shrugged. "I don't know." She glanced at Billy. "Where's your partner?"
"I haven't heard from her," he said.
"It's unusual for her to be late. Someone call her. We've got a case," Howley said, holding up his folder.
They all looked at CJ expectantly, and she furrowed her brow in a frown. "You want me to call her?" CJ pointed at Billy. "You're her partner. You call her."
"I don't care who calls her. Find out where the hell she is."
Billy had just picked up his cell when the elevator doors opened. Paige hurried in, looking flustered. "I'm so sorry I'm late," she said, smiling apologetically at Howley. She slid her gaze to CJ, and CJ gave a quick, subtle raise of her eyebrows. Paige held up her phone. "My mother thought it would be a good morning for a chat," she explained.
CJ smirked. "Well, you're never late, Agent Riley. We thought maybe you had a hot date last night. Maybe they stayed late this morning?"
Paige leaned over her desk, a flirty smile on her lips. "Why does everything revolve around sex with you?"
CJ leaned her elbows on her desk. "Maybe I'm in a bit of a dry spell and I'm living through you."
Paige rolled her eyes. "Dry spell? You run out of bars to hit up, tiger?"
When CJ would have replied, Howley held his hand up. "We don't have time for your bickering this morning, ladies. We got a case. Conference room. Now."
"Got a young boy, Hispanic, estimated to be about five or six years old. He was found, possibly strangled, on the grounds of an old abandoned house," Howley said, sliding stapled papers to each of them. "Five days ago. Still unidentified. No one has reported him missing."
"Undocumented?" Paige asked.
"That's the assumption."
Ice flipped through the pages, wondering why the FBI would be involved with a case like this. "Why does this fall to us?" he asked, giving voice to his question.
"Because it's eerily similar to a case from fourteen years ago. Cold case," Howley clarified. He picked up the remote and pointed it at the monitor on the wall. An enlarged map of the Houston area appeared. He zoomed out to the northeast. "There's a little community here just southeast of Cleveland—Pecan Grove," he said, pointing with the laser. "Off of Morgan Cemetery Road, we have a mobile home park. Shady Pines. All four victims lived there."
Howley slid his gaze quickly to CJ, then away. Ice, too, glanced at her. She grew up in just such a community, although much closer to the city. It was something she never discussed. He knew about her old man, knew he used to beat her. But CJ never talked about it.
"Fourteen years ago, over a span of two months, four young boys from this community went missing. Two age seven, one age eight and one age nine," Howley said. "Mark Poole was the first boy to disappear. He was seven. Paul Canton disappeared eight days later. He was age seven also. Butch Renkie went missing two weeks later. He was age nine. And the last boy, Bradley Simon, age eight, went missing three weeks after that. Only one body was ever found. Paul Canton, the second to disappear." He punched the remote and a photo of an old three-story house popped up.
"Jesus, that's like something out of a horror movie," CJ said.
"The house has been vacant forty-some years. It's old," Howley said, glancing at his notes. "Built in 1915. Anyway, the house is only significant in that both bodies were found on the grounds." He brought up another photo, this one obviously dated. "This was Paul Canton at age six. His body was found four weeks after he disappeared, one day after Butch Renkie went missing. The house has a chain link fence around it, the windows are all boarded up on the first floor, it's locked up tight. There are a few breaks in the fence where someone could get in," he said. "Paul Canton was strangled. Body left on the grounds. The house was searched. Nothing. No leads. No witnesses to any of the abductions. And no subsequent boys went missing after Bradley Simon disappeared. Cold case."
"And now another body is dumped," Paige said.
"You think same killer?" Billy asked. "Fourteen years apart?"
"Or a copycat?" CJ offered.
"All of the forensic evidence is not back yet, but the ME's initial report says strangulation. The condition of the body is not identical, however. Our unidentified body has bruising and contusions on his pelvis and legs. ME hasn't posted cause of death yet."
"So you want us to poke around?"
"The locals are still working this new case, but they don't have jack," Howley said bluntly. "So yeah, you go poke around. The old case file, it's scanned. The file has been emailed to you. Read it. Get familiar with it. You've got two days."
"Two days?" CJ asked.
"Two days to see if the cases are linked. Two days to determine if we can work it or not." He shrugged. "If you find nothing, it stays a cold case. It's been fourteen years. I don't expect much, but you never know."
Ice tossed his papers down. "Two days isn't long," he said.
"It's long enough for me to foot your hotel bill." He flashed a quick smile. "Of course, it's Cleveland. Maybe we'll find a cheap motel for you to stay in."
"I've been through Cleveland before," Billy said. "It's a small town, sure, but it's not like it's just a dot on the map."
Howley slid them all another paper. "Those are your contacts. It's outside the city limits so the Sheriff's Department is working it right now. They know you're coming. Chuck Brady is who you need to contact."
"So there's not going to be a power play?"
"I think they'd hand it over to us in a second," he said. "Take the rest of the afternoon. Tie up whatever you need to. You leave in the morning."
They all pushed their chairs away from the table at once, Ice already making a mental list of what he had to do. They were following Howley out of the conference room when Howley stopped and turned back to them with a bit of a smirk on his face.
"By the way, with budgets as tight as they are, we've only booked two rooms. Buddy system."
"Oh, come on," Ice said. "Really?"
"Me and Ice?" Billy shook his head. "I've stayed with him before. He snores like a freight train."
Ice looked at the others, expecting more protests. He was shocked by the look that passed between CJ and Paige. The last few weeks—hell, a month or more—they'd been acting weird. Sometimes when he watched them, he'd swear there was an intimacy in their glances, but other times they were the same old bickering fools they'd always been. The look they shared now disappeared so quickly, he wasn't sure he'd actually seen it.
"Seriously? It hasn't been that long since Hoganville," CJ said. "I'm not sure I've recovered from that yet. She's a neat freak," CJ said, pointing at Paige. "She's got all these rules."
"Like you're a piece of cake to live with," Paige countered. "You're a slob."
"Did you or did you not leave your clothes on the floor by the bed?"
Ice watched as CJ opened her mouth to reply, then shut it just as quickly. He was again riveted by the look they shared. There was a familiarity in that look—a look he'd sworn he'd seen before with them—but maybe it was just the result of them having been through what they had in Hoganville. Dealing with everything they had, it had to have brought them closer together. But still . . .
Howley held up his hand. "Save your complaints. It's just one night. Come back with what you've got. We'll go from there." He paused again. "There's just one more thing. The old house where the body was found—the locals claim it's haunted. You might want to keep that in mind."
As soon as he was gone, CJ turned to them. "Is it just me or does it seem like we're getting all the shit cases lately?"
"I don't do haunted," Ice said as he shook his head. "No way I'm getting near that house."
"You think he's taking his demotion out on us?" Billy asked.
CJ rolled her eyes. "You think?"
Paige felt a wave of déjà vu as she folded clothes and placed them neatly into her large travel bag. It wasn't too many months ago that she had been doing this very thing, about to head off into the woods of East Texas with CJ and dreading the very prospect of it. But now? So much had changed between them that she was nearly giddy with anticipation. Not that they didn't spend most nights together anyway. Maybe it was the thrill of it. Maybe it was the fact that Ice and Billy would be there. Or maybe it was just the fact that they would be working a case together again. Since they'd been back from Hoganville, they'd worked cases together as a team, but she spent most of her time with Billy. She and CJ had taken it almost to the extreme of avoiding each other for fear the others would find out . . . find out that they were lovers.
She paused, closing her eyes for a second, still surprised that she and CJ had fallen into such a comfortable relationship. At first, she was afraid it was based too much on sex and that they would end up drifting apart when they ran out of things to talk about. So far, that wasn't the case at all. The sex between them was fabulous, yes, but their attachment went so much deeper than that. At least for her. But that was one thing they had yet to talk about.
She went back to her packing, wondering why they shied away from it. Both of them. While they'd talked about everything under the sun, from her privileged upbringing to CJ's horrific childhood, they never once broached the subject of where their relationship was headed or what either of them expected—wanted—from it. Perhaps they were afraid, afraid of what the other would say. Paige often wondered if what she was feeling was too much too soon. And she knew CJ's fear—that she wasn't good enough.
But still, she was afraid to go there. Was it lust? Certainly. But could she truly, honestly say that she'd fallen in love with CJ?
She took a quick breath, those words causing a tumultuous feeling in her stomach. She stared off into space, seeing CJ's face, these days almost always with a smile plastered on it. Had she fallen in love with her?
She laughed quietly, the sound loud in her empty apartment. What if she told CJ that? Would she freak out? Would she run? Or would she be relieved? Sometimes when they made love, it was all there in CJ's eyes. She didn't attempt to hide it. Paige sometimes thought she was reading too much into it. CJ had her past, her many, many one-night stands. Sometimes Paige was afraid of that, afraid CJ would drift back to that life. So she would look into CJ's eyes, looking for a sign that told her CJ loved her, cared about her. But when she found it, it frightened her. What if it really was too much too soon? And more importantly, what if it didn't last?
Well, now wasn't the time to contemplate it. The guys wanted to meet for beers before they were whisked out to the "boonies," as Ice called it. She knew CJ would have rather spent the evening alone—as would she—but they'd already missed last week's night out.
"Paige is coming, right?" Billy asked for a second time.
CJ flicked her eyes to the door then to her watch. "It's only ten after," she said.
Ice tipped his beer back, downing it. He loved this bar. Loved that practically everyone knew everybody, loved that the bartenders knew what beers they wanted and had them opened and on their way before they'd even sat down. He loved the atmosphere—cops talking about cases, who they busted and how, who saw what. He loved it all. Maybe because he was single and didn't have anyone to go home to, but he looked forward to their night out each and every week.
"Do you really snore like a freight train?" CJ asked.
Ice glared at Billy. "I do not."
"Do too, man. Which reminds me, I need to pick up some earplugs."
Ice tossed his coaster at Billy, hitting him square in the forehead. Billy scowled back at him, rubbing his forehead with two fingers.
"Is this how you two are going to be for the next two days?"
"Yeah, what's with that deadline anyway?" Billy asked.
Ice picked at the label on his empty beer bottle. "Cold case. They either match or they don't."
"Howley doesn't want us picking up this new case unless it's related," CJ added.
Ice slid his bottle to the middle of the table, the first dead soldier of the evening. He was about to order another round when Billy broke out in a grin.
"There's my beautiful partner now."
They all turned as the lovely Paige Riley headed their way. Ice didn't miss the quick look she gave CJ and again his curiosity was piqued. These next few days should prove to be interesting.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "I couldn't decide what to pack."
"It's just two days," CJ said as Paige sat across from her.
"Yes, but shoving jeans and black FBI T-shirts into a duffle bag isn't really my style."
"And what makes you think that's what I did?"
The corners of Paige's mouth lifted in a smile. "Isn't it?"
"Well, they weren't all black T-shirts."
"Another round?" Ice asked, already raising his hand toward the bar.
CJ slid her empty bottle to the middle, joining his. "Did anyone have a chance to read the old file yet?"
"I just glanced through it, that's all," Billy said.
"Me too," Paige said. "They interviewed people from the neighborhood, kids and teachers from the elementary school, that's about it. No one saw anything, there were no strangers hanging around, nothing suspicious," she said.
CJ nodded. "I skimmed through it pretty good," she said. "Since I didn't have much packing to do," she added with a grin. "The only thing of interest found was a smudge on his belt. It was chalk. White chalk. Also found some under his fingernails."
"Like you'd find in a classroom?"
"Yeah. Only the kid never made it to school that day."
"So it could have been from another day," Ice said.
"Not according to his mother. That was a belt he only wore to church. They were taking class pictures that day so his mother dressed him up. Anyway, he was found two weeks after he disappeared. The chalk under his nails was fresh."
Billy raised his eyebrows. "That's it? That's all the evidence they found?"
CJ nodded. "That's it."
The waitress stopped by with four bottles of beer. Ice was about to hand her a twenty when Paige beat him to it. He nodded his thanks at her.
"So the killer is someone who handled chalk or could have had the boy handle it," Paige said. "I did read where all the teachers were questioned."
"Yeah. No abnormalities in their routine, no one ever missing or had time unaccounted for. All squeaky clean," CJ said as she took a swallow from her beer.
"Do we know anyone who worked the original case?" Ice asked.
CJ shook her head. "The file listed three agents as leads. The only one still in the Houston area is Ronnie Duran, but I don't know him. Any of you heard of him?"
"No, but it wouldn't hurt to pay him a visit," Paige suggested.
"If we find out the cases are linked and we work it," Ice reminded them. "But cold cases are a bitch."
"It'll be nice to get out of the city, though," Billy said. "You guys spent all that time out in the woods during the summer. Me and Ice were still stuck here."
"Oh, yeah, we just had a blast," CJ said sarcastically. "I highly recommend spending time in Hoganville. As an added treat, maybe you'll get to be chased through the woods by a crazed unknown and unnamed monster."
Ice laughed with the others, but he remembered all too well running for his life as said monster chased them back to Hoganville. Which of course reminded him of something else he was scared of.
"Do you really think that house is haunted? Or was Howley just giving us shit?"
CJ shook her head. "The agents investigating the case never saw anything out of the ordinary, but they only checked it one time. It was locked up. No evidence of a breach anywhere. No evidence of activity inside."
"So where did Howley get that?"
"Some of the people they interviewed mentioned that it was haunted." CJ grinned. "Apparently there were some murders with an ax."
Ice's eyes widened. "Back in the day?"
"Hell, I don't know," CJ said. "That's just what one of the locals said when they interviewed her."
"Let's remember," Paige said, "it's not the house we're investigating. As Howley said, the only significance of the house is that the bodies were dumped on the grounds."
"Let me just say that me and haunted houses don't mix," Ice said, unconsciously rubbing his shaved head.
"What are you afraid of, baldy?" CJ asked. "It's just a house. Surely you don't believe in ghosts."
"Whether I believe in ghosts or not doesn't matter. I have a thing with haunted houses," he said. He downed the rest of his beer in one large gulp. "I had a bad experience as a kid."
"Halloween?" Paige guessed.
"Yeah. A group of us were going through one of those haunted houses they set up at Halloween every year. We got locked in a room with a guy and a chainsaw," he said with a shaky laugh. "The door jammed. The guy playing the murderer had us all peeing in our pants before they got the door opened again."
Billy laughed. "Really?"
"Yeah, really. And the dude thought it was funny as hell too. It took months before I was able to sleep with the lights off," he admitted.
"How old were you?" Paige asked.
"I guess that ruined Halloween for you."
"To say the least."
As they normally did, empty beer bottles got shoved to the center of the table. CJ raised her arm for another round.
"Anybody want nachos? I'm starving," she said.
"If you get beans only and leave off the cheese, I'll split an order with you," Paige offered.
"Are you still on that vegetarian kick?" Billy asked.
"It's not a kick and it's vegan," Paige said. "I've never felt better."
"I'll just stick with a burger."
"I'm going to have wings," Ice said.
"Thanks, guys," CJ said dryly. "Leave me with the vegan nachos then." She turned to April, their waiter. "Another round please. And I'll have black bean nachos. Cut the cheese."
"No cheese? What's wrong with you?" April asked as she scribbled her order.
"Paige is what's wrong with me," CJ said as she pointed across the table.
Ice and Billy placed their orders too and waited only a minute before she returned with another round of beer.
"We're taking two cars, right?" Billy asked.
"Yes," Paige said. "I'll drive." She looked at the others. "Who else?"
"I guess I can take my truck," Billy offered.
"Yeah, you and Ice take your truck. I'll ride in the Mercedes," CJ said.
"A black man should not be seen riding in a redneck truck," Ice said. "It's just wrong."
"Oh, hell, Ice, I bet my redneck truck will fit in a lot better in Pecan Grove than Paige's Mercedes will."
"I didn't think of that," Paige said, almost apologetically. She turned to CJ. "Maybe we should take yours."
CJ stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking up toward Paige's apartment. An involuntary smile lit her face, something that had been occurring more and more frequently. She'd changed so much since Hoganville; they both had. She knew the guys—especially Ice—had noticed. She no longer had to drag her ass in to work, smelling of tequila and wearing yesterday's clothes. There had been no trips to the bar, looking for a quick hookup. So yeah, surely they noticed. But neither had said a word about it.
She and Paige spent nearly every night together, mostly here, at Paige's. It was much nicer than her place and closer to work. In fact, the only time she went to her own apartment was to do laundry, pick up her mail and get fresh clothes. Of course, on those nights, she took the opportunity to grab a greasy burger or a pizza to take home with her, two things Paige had eliminated from her diet. She didn't really miss them—Paige was an excellent cook—but it was just habit.
She jogged up the stairs two at a time, pausing to catch her breath before knocking on the door. She heard Paige inside and again a smile formed as she waited.
When the door opened, she found herself pulled inside and pinned against the door, Paige's hands tugging her shirt from her jeans.
"What took you so long?" Paige murmured against her lips.
"Stopped to get gas," she said, her hands sneaking inside Paige's robe, finding her completely naked. She groaned in anticipation as their kisses turned fiery hot. They pulled apart long enough for Paige to slip CJ's shirt and bra off, then Paige's mouth was there again, letting CJ know who was in control.
Paige had CJ's hands clasped to her sides as she ducked her head, her hot mouth closing over one of her nipples, her tongue teasing it as CJ leaned her head back against the door, her breathing coming in quick bursts. She knew not to protest. Paige would take her sweet time, making her squirm, making her want to beg her to finish. And sometimes she couldn't wait that long, sometimes she would pull Paige's thigh between her legs, the contact making her come instantly.
Paige's mouth moved back to her lips, kissing her slowly now, drawing it out. She pulled away from her, and CJ rested against the door, her chest rising and falling as she drew deep breaths. Paige slowly untied her robe, letting it hang open. CJ's eyes took in her nakedness, the robe covering just enough of her breasts to leave her wanting more. She brought her gaze back to Paige's face, meeting her eyes, seeing desire and, God, so much more. Sometimes that frightened her—the look in Paige's eyes. And sometimes it made her heart melt, like it was doing now.
She reached for Paige, pulling her close again, the robe opening, their breasts touching as their mouths found each other once more. CJ's tongue drew Paige's inside. She moaned as Paige's hands seemed to be everywhere at once. They both paused in mid-kiss when Paige's phone rang out.
"God, I swear if that's my mother, I'm going to kill her," Paige said as she finished the kiss.
"You know most people just set ringtones, don't you?" CJ countered as she pulled Paige closer, only to feel Paige move away. She opened her eyes fully. "You're going to answer it? Now?"
Paige pointed at her. "Don't move."
CJ leaned her head back against the door, still breathing hard. "She's trying to kill me," she murmured. She glanced down her naked torso, finding her jeans unbuttoned...............