1st Shock – Misty Evans, Adrienne Giordano

My name is Megan Eleanor Schock and I rebuild the dead. I’m not being dramatic either. As we speak, I’m contemplating Emily, a woman who sits in the corner of my office where I greet her every morning and promise justice. She’s young. Probably a teenager, tossed away like trash and left to the utter warfare imposed on a human body when animals and Mother Nature feast on it. I’m not even sure Emily is her name. All I know is when they come to me, usually via a law enforcement official trying to solve a cold case, I need to give them life. An identity someone stole from them. My sister, Charlie, thinks I’m obsessed. I damn well might be. Ask if I care. We formed a private investigation firm and share equal partnership in it. Charlie, a forensic psychologist and one hell of a profiler, does most of the investigating while I do the sculpting. Forensic sculpting is one of my specialties and I, unfortunately, have a steady stream of subjects to further hone my skills on. One of those is Joseph—at least, that’s the name I’ve given him.

He was brought to me by a sheriff from Louisiana. It’s yet another cold case that needs to be solved so I’ve volunteered my services to see if we can get this man identified. Maybe find his killer. I peel my gaze from Emily and focus on Joseph. The chime of the back door sounds. Only staff and a certain other few come through it so this must be Matt, an investigator we hired to help with our caseload. Our only other employee is Haley, the receptionist, and I can hear her fielding calls at her desk near the front. A second later, JJ Carrington, steps into my doorway. As usual, he’s dressed to kill in an expensive gray suit, a crisp white shirt, and blue print tie. His dark hair is neatly combed and the artist in me itches to sketch him, to capture the perfect lines of his cheekbones and jaw.

At least until my eye snaps to the plastic shopping bag he’s holding. “Swear to God, JJ, if that’s what I think it is, I’ll stab you.” Unruffled by my threat—he’s dealt with far worse than me—the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, aka the Emperor of Cold Cases, steps to the worktable beside Joseph and clears a small space amongst my sculpting tools. He gingerly sets it down and I know, without a doubt, he’s brought me yet another victim. In a goddamned shopping bag. For that alone I should maim him. Who am I kidding? JJ only brings me the ones investigators are absolutely stumped on. Or that are possibly related to another case.

A case like the one from when I was in sixth grade and nine—I remember the number quite clearly—other sixth graders in the area went missing. My mother cried every time a child vanished and I spent the whole of my sixth grade paranoid I’d disappear too. That turmoil still sticks. No matter how old I get, it sticks. To this day, none of those children have been discovered. Not one. I guess I keep hoping someday one of their skulls will come my way, and I’ll be able to help give them justice. That case has made me a freak about my loved ones and the idea of a family having to live with the heartbreak of a missing person. Add to that my artistic talent and watching my older sister immerse herself into the justice system and here I am. Ready, willing and completely able to help.

I can’t say it’s fun, but it satisfies something in me. Makes me feel as if I’m doing my part in some small way. JJ points to the bag. “Found eighteen months ago in Rock Creek park. Zero leads. If we don’t come up with something, the case will go unsolved. There’s some public safety group making noise about the area being unsafe.” “Crimes happen in plenty of parks.” “Tell me about it. We’re getting pressure from the National Park Service who doesn’t want this case used for propaganda.

” I peek inside and see a cast of a human skull. When it comes to my work, I’m only ever brought duplicates made from molds taken of the actual victims. “And you put him in a shopping bag?” “I didn’t say it’s a him.” I like JJ, but his years as a prosecutor have gobbled up the last of his sensitivity. “Well, I’m not calling him—or her—it so until I determine a gender, he’s a him.” I peel back the sides and, using both hands lift him, studying the eye sockets and teeth. It’s small and I immediately question myself. A woman then, perhaps. Just like Emily, who has sat in my office, each day reminding me her killer is still out there. Her case has suffered dead end after dead end, each lead fizzling and leaving investigators at a loss.

For that reason, I can’t let her go. Or give up on her. Maybe because she’s young and pretty and deserved an ending far better than the one she got. All I know is I’m determined to help her. “Small head,” I comment. “A child?” “I didn’t say that. Maybe a woman. We’ll see.” I set Avery—a nice, gender neutral name—back on the table and walk to the narrow storage closet where I keep extra sculpting stands. “Tell me about her,” I say as I place the skull on one.

“Do we have the rest of her?” “Not all, but some. ME has them.” “Animals got to her?” JJ shrugs. “I’m guessing. They searched the area around the body, but we’re still missing twenty-five percent of the bones.” Like I said, the wrath of the elements. “Cause of death?” “Based on fractures in the neck area, ME says asphyxiation.” Interesting. “Can I see what you have?” I have a process and part of it is seeing all the bones, getting the measurements and figuring out the person’s height and age. JJ nods.

Of course. He knows I’m good. The myriad of awards hanging in our reception area attest to it. Plus, this isn’t his first rodeo. I circle the stand, examining the back, running one hand over the smoothness. I reach the front, my fingers lightly touching Avery’s cheek and lower jaw and something inside me fires. “JJ.” At the sound of my sister’s voice, I glance at the doorway where Charlie’s gaze is glued to the Emperor. He smiles at her and the energy in the room changes. Charlie and JJ have a…thing.

Insane chemistry that crackles between them every time they get within ten feet of each other. I’d like to tell them to get a room, but their relationship is complicated. He’s in the process of a divorce and my sister doesn’t screw married men. He’s been separated over a year, but until he works out his marital issues, Charlie has deemed him untouchable. Even so, I’m a little jealous. I haven’t felt that kind of passion in a long time and I miss the buzz that comes with it. Unfortunately, I have too many victims parading in and out of my life to focus on any living, breathing man that might spark something. Like I said, Charlie thinks I’m obsessed. As the stare down between them continues, she leans against the doorjamb and crosses her legs. She’s wearing one of those fitted pencil skirts she likes and a blouse straight out of Vogue.

Me? I play with paints all day. I’m a ripped jeans and T-shirt girl. Charlie appears relaxed, but inside she’s seething. I sense it in her slightly puckered and expertly lipsticked mouth. “If you’ve brought her that skull,” Charlie says, “I’ll kill you.” Poor JJ. First I threaten to stab him and now Charlie will kill him. Our threats come for two very different reasons. I’m pissed about the shopping bag. Charlie the skull.

JJ holds up both hands. “We need help with this one.” “I’m sure.” Charlie nudges her chin at me. “But look at her, she’s already bonding.” “I’m fine,” I say. My sister rolls her eyes. She knows me. Understands the second I put my hands on someone, they become part of me. I look back at Avery.

“This is Avery. She’ll be staying for a bit. JJ tell the ME I’d like to come by in the morning. After that, I need to finish Joseph.” I point to the other skull. “Once I’m done with him, I’ll work on Avery.” Charlie straightens and points at JJ. “You. In my office.” I 2 CHARLIE ‘m worried about my sister.

I’m pissed at the man in front of me. Story of my life. “What do you think you’re doing?” I ask JJ as I lean on my desk, crossing my arms under my chest and giving him my best glare. I’ve practiced it for hours in the mirror, getting it just right to make men cower under it. Women too, if they get in my way. JJ meets my stare with the crooked grin that irritates the crap out of me. His eyes start at my three-inch Louboutins and creep up my legs to my hips, the grin growing wider when he stops at my generous rack. I hold perfectly still, ignoring the way my pulse trips all over itself. Breathe, dammit. Do not let him get to you.

Fat chance that. Finally, his gaze moves to my lips then locks with mine. “What do you mean, Charlize?” JJ Carrington III knows exactly what I mean. He’s always pushing me, taunting me, teasing me. Just like using my full name. He tells me it’s so much sexier than the gender confusing Charlie. “Why did you come in the back door?” His eyes spark, ready for a sparring match. “The two measly spots out front were taken.” I’m a forensic psychologist, a former FBI profiler. I’m loyal to a fault but I’m a born skeptic.

I question everything, including everyone’s motives. “Correction, you deliberately parked in the rear lot and came in that way so you could avoid my office, and this very discussion, before talking to Meg. You brought the skull in a plastic shopping bag.” He lifts his hands, palms up, supplicating. Pretending not to know what the big deal is. “Walking around in broad daylight with a human skull tends to freak people out.” “You knew she’d be incensed and immediately champion for the person it represents. Which would lead to her bonding with the damn skull and offering her services, because that’s what she does. You know that and took advantage.” The U.

S. Attorney for the District of Columbia handles local and federal cases. He oozes confidence, power, and control. I have a thing for powerful, sexy men…and this one? Off. The. Charts. He takes a slow, deliberate step toward me, staying just out of my personal space. Teasing once again. “You and I both know there is no one on God’s green earth that can manipulate either of the Schock sisters. If Meg didn’t want to do it, she would have said no.

” “When was the last time Meg said no to a cold case?” “When was the last time you did?” Damn him. I talk a good game, but I’m just as obsessed as Meg, and he knows it. One of the reasons I left the FBI was all the red tape. Things move too slowly with them, there were too many rules. I’m all for them, but swift resolution is equally important. Families deserve closure, victims retribution. “The local PD doesn’t have it in the budget to get a reconstruction done,” JJ finally admits, then rattles some other excuse about a public service group and the National Park Service giving his office grief. We are not getting paid. Again. I reach over and tap a stack of files on my desk.

“These are all paying clients. They deserve to come first, and since I’m not only the lead investigator around here, but also the accountant, I can tell you we don’t have it in ours either.” “Give the paying clients to Mad Dog. He can handle them.” The other reason I left the FBI was to take care of Meg. Then Matt came along, and it was like we expanded our family. He became our younger brother. I have a responsibility to them to keep Schock Sister Investigations successful. Profitable. To watch out for them and our receptionist, Haley.

JJ inches toward me, officially crossing the boundary of my personal space. My pulse, already wonky, goes Code Red. “I need you on this too, Charlize. I don’t think reconstructing the skull will be enough.” Another step. “I need someone familiar with cold cases, murder cases. Come on, say you’ll do it.” “You think murder is involved?” Dumb question, of course he does. Most bodies don’t end up buried in a park. “Never mind.

The answer is still no.” My sister doesn’t know about this—no one but JJ and I do—but we slept together last year at a crime and evidence conference in Milwaukee. I didn’t even know he was going to be there. I’d been asked to sit on a panel and had been enjoying myself in the thick of what I do best. Worrying too much about Meg and Matt took a backseat. Then, as I looked over the group attending our session, I saw a familiar six-foot-four, dark haired man in a flashy Brioni suit. He gave me a wolfish grin and asked a question— I forget now what it was—and later, I drank too much brandy and ended up seducing him. It was the easiest seduction ever. Yes, he’d been separated from his wife for nearly a year, but that was no excuse. I never should’ve done it.

I’ve tried to wipe it from my mind. But when he’s this close? When I smell his aftershave that reminds me of the ocean and see the blue flecks in his gray eyes? I remember every moment of our night. The way he touched me, licked me, made me moan. The way we made love over and over again, as if we knew it was a one-time gig. We had to suck every ounce of pleasure from that weekend. And we did. Worse? I want to do it again. I lick my lips, having already forgotten JJ’s question. His gaze drops to my mouth. The grin appears.

He’s spontaneous and fun, like sex was in Milwaukee, and I wish I could be that way too. But I’m not. I promise myself no matter how my pulse is going wild and I desperately want a repeat of Milwaukee, I will not sleep with this man again until he’s free. “I brought you a present,” JJ says, reaching into his inside breast pocket. He pulls out an envelope. I open it to find a picture with a phone number. The woman staring back at me is of mixed heritage, her tawny skin decorated with freckles, her bright green eyes in contrast to her dark corkscrew curls. “Who is she?” What I’m really thinking is, how is this a gift? “Juanita Jones, works in my office. Adopted right after birth. She was recently diagnosed with stage four lymphoma and it’s metastasized.

She wants to find her birth parents before she dies, and it appears she’s located the mother.” I’m a genealogist in my spare time. People hire me to find lost relatives or create family trees. Back in the day before the Internet, my dad loved to work on our family tree. When he was on leave from the Army, we often spent Saturday afternoons in the basement at the local library, going through their genealogy collection. Not a big library, but one of the best in the area for tracking down your ancestors. Dad’s love of personal history inspired my own. I’ve taken what he started and expanded it to include multiple trees and thousands of records. Once in a while Dad and I still go to the library and spend the afternoon working on other people’s. “She found her mom, so what’s the problem?” I ask.

“The birth mother is German and claims the father is Polish.” I glance at the photo, Juanita’s skin and hair telling a different DNA story. “People lie all the time about these things. Or block out memories they don’t want, like being raped or the fact they slept around and don’t actually know who the father is. No name listed on the birth certificate, I take it?” He shakes his head. “What do you want me to do about it?” “Juanita’s willing to pay a lot to get this resolved. Time is an issue, of course. Thought you might be interested. She wants answers, whether you find them through that ancestry website you use, or you help her mom remember the truth.” JJ is good.

He knows I love a mystery, and I’m as much of a sucker for helping people as my sister. “I’ll give her a call and see what I can do.” He reaches out, touches my cheek. “Next time, I promise to come through the front and check in with you before I talk to Meg, okay?” Who’s being manipulated now? JJ knows how to negotiate, make concessions, and get what he wants. It’s how he landed the job he has. If only he could get his wife to let him go. He doesn’t wait for my answer. I watch him leave my office and take a deep breath, forcing my pulse to slow. I miss him already. Tossing Juanita’s picture on the desktop, I stare at it for a moment, wondering what secrets her mother is keeping, if I’ll be able to get the answers she seeks.

“Who’s that?” Meg is in my doorway, no doubt checking on me after JJ’s departure. She points at the photo on my desk. “Another person who needs our help.” The haunted look in my sister’s eyes reflects my own. “There are too many, Charlie.” This I know. It’s what drives me to get out of bed every morning. “Matt can handle these.” I tap the stack of folders. “I’ll help with Avery, okay?” She gives me a tiny smile before heading back to her office.

I see the look in her eyes, the one that says we’re not so different under the clothes and attitudes. We’re both on a mission. And maybe we’re both a little obsessed with it. I 3 MEG stand in the hallway next to the Medical Examiner’s office waiting for Dr. Janelle Gentry, deputy chief of the Death Investigations unit, to usher me into her lair. The place where all the action happens. I close my eyes for a second, grounding myself. Even in a morgue, I can do a quick meditation. A moment or two where I release any anxiety about murder victims and facing them day in and day out. Soon, I’ll be shown Avery’s bones.

Minus, of course, the twenty-five percent of her that’s still scattered among the trees in Rock Creek Park. The idea of her flesh being torn apart by animals burns inside me, tears right through my stomach. I want all of her. Every bit that can be given a proper burial once we discover who she is and why she left this earth. Yes, I’m determined. And hopeful. It’s morning and the day hasn’t had a chance to wear me down. Yet. I like to do these meetings early for just that reason. My mind is sharper and I’m less emotional.

So many victims. So little time. Breathe. I inhale and focus on my mantra. On letting my thoughts go. Time passes, I’m not sure how much. Maybe three minutes, could be ten. All I know is I’m coming out of my meditation. My mind is clear, my previously jittery nerves calm and I’m ready for the task ahead. Slowly, I open my eyes.

I’ve learned if I come out of this too fast, my body will rebel. I’ll feel…off…for the rest of the day. Fatigue, headache, tension. It’ll all be there, dragging me down. Another few minutes pass and I let out a final deep breath as the swish of a door sounds. Dr. Gentry, a woman in her forties with rich auburn hair—probably not her natural color given the wisps of gray popping up—and a penchant for pantsuits stands in the doorway. “Good morning, Meg.” As usual, her smile is warm, lighting up her angular face. Like me, she still has hope for the day.

We’ve worked together on cases before, most notably Simon Worth, the twelve-yearold who’d gone missing in 1979. Eight months ago his remains were found buried under a building that’d been knocked down in preparation for a new strip mall. One of the workers stepped off the backhoe and—whoopsie—there’s a skull. Talk about a crappy morning. “Hi. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.” She waves it off. “No problem at all. JJ is all over me on this one.” “He brought me the skull yesterday.

” “Name?” I smile. My habits are well-known amongst the ME’s staff. “Avery.” We move through another set of doors and walk past a room with a silver metal plate that says, “Body Storage.” I haven’t seen the inside of that room, but I’m told it can hold around two hundred corpses. I don’t want to think about that number of bodies stacked up, most more than likely in terrible shape from a tragic death. We move into one of the autopsy rooms—surgical suites—as Dr. Gentry calls them. It’s spotless with the sharp antiseptic scent of a recent scrubbing. Lining the wall to my right is a long sink holding various metal and plastic containers, all apparently cleaned and neatly placed upside down on a draining tray.

In the center of the room is a shiny metal table holding the skeletal remains of who I have to assume is Avery. I’ll get you home. “This,” Dr. Gentry says, “is your Avery.” My guess is, before my visit, the bones were removed from a carefully labeled cardboard box that sits on the lab’s top shelf with all the others of unidentified remains. That’s what they do with them. Shove ‘em on a shelf until the case is solved or their family claims them. I glance up and see more than a dozen. Random people who could be anyone’s mother, brother, sister. Child.

I can’t think about it. Can’t. I shake it off and focus on Avery. Starting at her head, I walk around, making sure to keep my hands at my sides and take my time analyzing the bones and reconstruction of them. “Petite,” I say. “We’re estimating around five-one. Caucasian female.” I was right. This gives me a small sense of satisfaction since I originally doubted my instincts and went with the gender neutral name. “Age?” “Late teens to early twenties.

Her teeth are in good shape.” Meaning vital DNA can be garnered from them and later tested for any possible matches. Something tells me that’d be too easy. I study the teeth, my artist’s eye narrowing in on the perfectly even top row. “Straight.” “Yes. No cavities either. She could afford dental work.” I retrieve my phone from my back pocket and make a note of it. Why this detail stands out, I’m not sure, but something down deep compels me to record it.

“Clothing?” “A tank top, sports bra, and running shorts. All Nike and still on her body. She also wore a fitness watch. We found it on her wrist, but with the elements, it’s dead.” Avery wasn’t found naked, so either rape wasn’t the intent, or she fought him off. Good for you. “So, I’m going to assume, based on the clothing, watch, and dental work, she had money. Or at least wasn’t destitute or homeless.” Dr. Gentry shrugs.

“It’s not a stretch.” Charlie would have to deal with that angle, but it gives us a starting point. Right about now, she’d be schmoozing detectives to turn over their notes. Knowing my sister, she has all this information already. She’s good. Really good. Together, we are, in fact, remarkable. I move my gaze to Avery’s head where I see no cracks or holes from a bludgeoning or gunshot. The cast JJ brought me didn’t show any signs of trauma either, but seeing the actual skull confirms it for me. “What else?” I ask.

“JJ said something about neck fractures.” I meet her eye and she points to Avery’s neck. “Yes. The left arm of the hyoid has a fracture. It’s about an eighth of an inch from the tip.” I peek at the top of her neck at the u-shaped bone and see the crooked left side. “I see it. Are you thinking strangulation? Maybe a rope or something?” I’m anxious, ready to know the particulars of Avery’s death so we can find her killer. “Hyoid fractures are more common in ligature and manual strangulation as opposed to hanging. We’re going with manual.

” She wraps her thumb and forefinger around her own neck. “The force of the hand covers a wider area and causes direct stress on the hyoid.” The demonstration allows me to visualize Avery with someone’s hand—or hands— squeezing her throat. Stealing her air and cutting off all that vital blood supply. Breaking a bone. My stomach burns again and the sensation shoots in all directions, searing the underside of my skin. I refocus. My job here is not to get emotional. Charlie reminds me of this often. Still, there is part of me that rejects it.

Always. I’m an artist. Tapping into my emotions makes me good at my job. And if I can’t get pissed about a young woman being strangled and tossed away like garbage, well, what would it take? I picture my sister in front of me, shaking her head. What would I do without her? I just…no. Can’t go there. I breathe in. Breathe out. “All right. What else?” “Nothing remarkable,” Dr. Gentry says, as if this whole Godforsaken thing is mundane. In her world, maybe it is so I stay quiet while she continues. “The rest of her, aside from a surgical screw in her knee, is free of injury.” Knee surgery. On the table in front of me are the skeletal remains of a young woman, possibly late teens to early twenties, with good teeth, found dressed in what some might consider fairly expensive athletic clothes and a fitness watch. “My thought is she’s a runner. Maybe not wealthy, but not poor either. A college student or millennial, out for a run. She’s targeted by someone, more than likely a man— or very strong woman—who had enough strength to break a bone in her neck.” “That about sums it up.” “Which means,” I say, “we only have to narrow her down from the other seventy thousand white, college-aged females in the D.C. area.” No wonder JJ, the Emperor of Cold Cases, brought Avery to us. A 4 CHARLIE pproximately four thousand unidentified bodies are recovered each year in the United States. Of those, one-fourth remain so after a year. Today, when I check NamUs—the National Missing and Unidentified Missing Persons database—there are over twelve thousand cases. The numbers are staggering and it’s only getting worse. JJ has already entered the new UIP case into the federal system, populating NGI, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification database, as well as UNT, the Texas University whose lab specializes in DNA analysis, along with a dozen more. Not surprisingly, no matches have been found. In my head, I hear Meg say, “It’s too new. Give it another twenty-four hours. Something will pop up.” Wish I had her optimism. I sent a DNA collection kit with Meg to give Dr. Gentry. At least those are free, thanks to funding from the National Institute of Justice. It’s a big if, but if I can get the Center for Human Identification at UNT to bump this case to the forefront, they’ll run an analysis and confirm cause of death, which could help us solve the case. Of course, they’ll need a reason to put it ahead of all the others, but I have JJ in my back pocket. He didn’t bring us that skull to see it end up in a closet somewhere. What I need is a good lead, evidence that makes this high-profile. My first call of the morning goes to the detective in charge of the case. The victim is UI and we’re assuming it was a homicide. It goes to voicemail and I leave a message, offering lunch in exchange for information. No doubt, he has plenty of open cases stacked on his desk, crimes, homicides, and a lovely assortment of crap, demanding his constant attention. I know Ritter loves food though since I’ve worked with him before. He isn’t one to turn down a free meal. I pull out a red folder and label it Case UIP281. Organization is important, especially in this office where there are too many open files, and multiple people working each one. I attach a sheet on the left side, and another, similar to a chain of custody for evidence, on the other. The latter tracks communication, rather than physical evidence, between all the parties and reminds me who is responsible for what as we proceed. I already have five players: JJ, Meg, Detective Ritter, Dr. Gentry, and myself. From the outer office comes the sound of the fax machine spitting something out. Methodically, I work through our standard intake form for new clients, inserting JJ as the contact person, and UNKNOWN for the name of our vic. I know more about the U.S. district attorney than the girl; her demographic data—age, height, weight, etc., remains a solid wall of blanks. Matt breezes in my door, carrying a large white coffee cup from my favorite shop and a paper from the fax machine. He’s dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with a casual dark blue jacket. His hair is a couple weeks past needing a trim and light brown bangs fall across his forehead. He sets the cup on my desk and drops into the chair, ready for our meeting. “Three shots of espresso, one cream, just the way you like it.” I thank him and peel off the lid, scanning the fax. Detective Ritter has sent me a hand-written detail sheet, probably because I dropped JJ’s name in my voicemail, or maybe his wife has him on a new diet. Unfortunately, the details are circumstantial and slim. Late teens/early twenties, clothing intact, neck fracture. A watch was found with the victim. If it was a robbery gone bad, why didn’t they take that? I realize this will slide to the bottom of the detective’s cases, if it hasn’t already. The smell of coffee is so good I close my eyes for a second and inhale deeply before blowing on the liquid and taking a sip. I tuck the paper into the folder. Once Meg returns and I find out what she discovered at the coroner’s, I’ll add those tidbits of info into the national database entry. “Did you buy the ring?” Matt shoots me his trademark “Mad Dog” grin, his eyes peering from under the bangs. “I’m going to let her pick her own. Safer that way.” He keeps finding excuses not to propose to his girlfriend, Taylor. “Chicken.” The grin fades and he throws up his hands in exasperation. “I don’t know what she’d like, and I don’t want to get it wrong. She’s…you know…” The coffee makes me feel halfway alive. I sip more. “Picky?” “Choosy,” he amends. “This is, like, the biggest thing I’ve ever done, Charlie. Call me chicken all you want, but I have a good reason to be scared of this woman. She’s even more of a hardass than you.” So he believes. I understand where he’s coming from. Taylor is an FBI agent, and a damn good one. Missing Persons is her jam, just like mine and Meg’s. “Two carats minimum, square cut, platinum band. It’s not that hard, Matt.” “Square? I was thinking pear-shaped. Or maybe round.” I wiggle the pink topaz on my left hand. It’s not an engagement ring, and I really shouldn’t wear it, but I was feeling a bit sappy this morning after a sleepless night, thanks to dreams about JJ. Just talking about proposals and marriage makes me squirm. I try not to glance at the square gemstone—the only thing JJ’s ever given me—but my sappiness betrays me, and I find my gaze slipping to the ring. It’s a promise things will work out for me, for us. Most days, I don’t believe JJ will ever make good on it. Dammit. I need more coffee. I need to throw the ring away. “Taylor wears a square diamond pendant necklace when she dresses up.” I clear my throat, set down the coffee. “The diamond studs she never takes out of her ears are also square.” Squares and cubes are solid, balanced. Often, people who’ve been through trauma are drawn to that type of geometry. It is a foundation, a structure, support. Something you can lean on, build a relationship on. “I’ve never seen her wear much else in jewelry, so you want to keep it clean, no extra diamonds on the band or anything froufrou. Keep it understated and classy. Let the diamond be big and do the talking.” He is pensive for a moment, then the grin appears once more. “How about you go with me to pick it out? I have to meet with the Hughes family at two, probably take an hour or so. We could go after that. You need a break from the office. Meg too. You should both come.” Matt is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a little brother, and I’d love to help with this, but neither of us will be free this afternoon. I reach over and pick up the stack of folders. “After you meet with them, I need you to dig into these clients. I’ve worked on the preliminaries for all three cases, so the initial research is done.” His bangs jump as his eyebrows lift, a silent question as to why I’m suddenly doubling his caseload. “Our favorite U.S. district attorney brought us a new UIP,” I explain. “I have to help Meg.” His question multiplies, the bangs jumping again. “I thought you swore off Carrington.” Personally, yes. “It is not in the best interest of the firm for me to turn down a direct request from the Justice Department.” Even though I damn well tried. “I’m not worried about the firm. I’m worried about you, Charlie.” This is why I think of Matt as my kid brother. He has a protective streak as long and as wide as my dad. I should call him tonight. Get him started tracking down Juanita Jones’ father. “Meg is the one you should worry about. JJ brought her a replica of a skull.” Matt sinks low in his chair, his gaze shifting skyward. “Shit. Has she named it?” “It is a girl.” Meg appears in the doorway, looking excited. The coroner’s office offered a clue, I can see it on her face. “Her name is Avery.” Gentry clearly confirmed the sex of the victim. Matt and I exchange a look. He stands and grabs the new cases, waving at us as he leaves. I open the red folder and grab my favorite pen. “I started a file. The number is UIP281. What did you learn?” My hand is poised to write the details Meg uncovered. “Avery is not a case number. She’s a person.” Meg never gives up, whether it’s identifying one of her girls in the basement, as she refers to them, or reminding me to be human and embrace empathy. But Meg likes to dive deep into emotions. If I did that, I’d never make it back up for air. The ghosts of the dead would haunt me night and day. I have to maintain some distance, a certain level of detachment. “Ritter’s notes show a fractured neck. Did Gentry confirm cause of death?” “They’re going with strangulation. She’s sending out the kit today. Avery had straight teeth and no cavities. She could afford dental work. Also, Dr. Gentry doesn’t suspect rape.” I can see this makes Meg happy. I note the details, confirming the same assumption Detective Ritter listed in his notes—sexual assault was unlikely. So she wasn’t killed during an act of rape, and most likely not in a robbery scenario. Meg continues talking, pacing as well. Knowing my sister, she’ll start with a sketch then move to the skull. She uses it as a guide while she sculpts. It keeps her focused. As if that were ever an issue. She holds up a finger. “Emily was found twenty miles from Avery. Same basic facts. Decent clothes, gold earrings. No evidence of rape. My gut tells me there’s a connection. We need to look for crossover. A pattern.” Emily. Avery. A trickle of fear worms its way around my stomach. Meg is bright, creative, talented, and so driven, but some days, I feel like I’m losing her to these dead girls. Dead girls. I hide my internal shudder. The neck fracture, the lack of rape…it reminds me of my last case as an FBI agent—one that still gives me nightmares. Mickey was such a loser, but a damn clever one. Bastard’s in prison now, but his reign of terror still haunts me. I call up the NamUs log and fill in a few more blanks with our inconclusive evidence. It’s not much, but it’s more than we had a few minutes ago. “I’ll work on cross-matching strangulation cases in the local area.” We don’t know if Emily was strangled—she’s another ghost with no obvious COD, but it’ll make Meg happy if I at least act like I’m looking for a connection. “Off topic, Matt needs help picking out a ring for Taylor. Wanted to know if you could go with him later today and offer your wise counsel.” This gets a smile out of her, but it’s short-lived when Haley buzzes my phone. “You have a visitor. A Ms. Juanita Jones? She doesn’t have an appointment.” Haley’s voice lowers a fraction. “She said Mr. Carrington sent her.” Oh boy. This gal doesn’t mess around. Guess I wouldn’t either in her position. “Send her back,” I tell Haley. Meg heads for the door, more than ready to escape to her studio. Before she disappears, I lay on some guilt. “Matt needs help, Meg, no lie. He was going to buy her a pear-shaped diamond.” Her head snaps up and she shoots me a look. “Please, no. She would hate that.” “We need to take care of this, steer him in the right direction.” “I’ll talk to him.” In the hall, I hear her soft voice greet our visitor, then Juanita steps into my office. One hand shoots out and I rise to shake it across the desk. Her bracelets jangle. “Thank you for seeing me. I should’ve made an appointment, but… JJ said you wouldn’t mind.” While beautiful, her skin has a gray cast to it, the brackets around her mouth are deep with concern. She wears a brightly colored scarf around her head, the corkscrew curls in the picture JJ gave me long gone. “Please have a seat.” I motion her into the chair Matt vacated, making a mental note to castrate JJ later. “Can I get you something? Water? Tea?” “A shot of vodka?” She laughs, letting me know she’s kidding. Sort of. “I have brandy stashed in the bottom drawer.” She waves me off with a strained smile. “I’m not usually this pushy, please understand, but if you can’t help me in the next few days, I need to know so I can find someone who can.” Something has changed with her prognosis. I can see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice. How long does she have? A few weeks? Days? What am I supposed to say–you’ve caught me at a bad time? When could be worse than knowing you’re standing at death’s door? “Have you taken a DNA test?” “Yes, with Family Ties, the local outfit in D.C. I sent one in several weeks ago after I found my birth mother and she claimed my father isn’t black. I thought it’d give me a starting point, to prove at least where mine originates from, but the results aren’t in yet.” Picking up my phone, I dial my friend at FT. “I may be able to expedite it, hang on.” Within minutes, I have confirmation from Jeri that Juanita’s test results will be in her inbox by the next morning. If there are any matches in their database, she’ll get notification of those too. My hope is that a distant cousin on her father’s side will show up and we’ll have a strong starting point to track down the man who shares his genes with Juanita. If I can get a name, I can check public records—birth certificates, marriage licenses, obituaries. I take down her mother’s name and number and promise to speak with her as I show Juanita out. Hours later, I’m still thinking about how to pose my questions to the birth mom when my mind circles back to Mickey Wilson, dead girls, and what Meg said right before she left my office this morning. A pattern. I love patterns almost as much as I do squares. Sitting at my computer, I start crossmatching local UIP cases that match the late teens/early twenties profile with possible strangulation and no signs of rape. Dinner time whizzes by as I delve into result after result. Eventually, I jump from my chair and head to Meg’s studio, ready to bear hug my sister at her brilliance.

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