Swept By The Highlander – Rebecca Preston

Elena Cross sighed, drumming her fingertips irritably on the table in the crowded downtown Baltimore coffee shop where she’d been waiting for the past twenty minutes. He was late. He was always late when they met up. He knew she only had an hour for lunch, knew that she was busy, knew that her boss always breathed down her neck when she took her break away from her desk instead of just eating over her paperwork like a good little detective… but her father knew all kinds of things that he didn’t let impact the way he lived his life. Like how bad whiskey was for his heart, for one thing. The doctor had been on at him for months to ease up on his drinking, and though he claimed he was doing his best, Elena had her doubts. Her father’s drinking was just one of the things she wanted to talk to him about. She had a list a mile long, actually — quite literally. With the hand that wasn’t drumming irritably on the table, she started scrolling through her phone, hunting for the note she kept… ah, here it was. When she was getting frazzled with her father — which, she had to admit, was more often than not nowadays — she would open this note and keep track of it all. At the top was a simple dot-pointed list of grievances — at the bottom was a more stream-of-consciousness approach. She knew she should delete some of the vitriol — it wasn’t super useful to keep around, even if venting it was a valuable exercise — but somehow she could never quite bring herself to hit backspace. After all, angry Elena made some fantastic points about what a bull-headed idiot her father was. Just when she’d decided he must have forgotten he was meeting her, the door clanged and in he came, all six foot two of him. Elena narrowed her eyes at him — he hadn’t seen her yet, as she’d taken a booth at an odd angle to the door, so she took the opportunity to give her father a thorough once-over.

He looked okay today. He definitely owned shabbier clothes — she’d seen him in them — and he’d had a haircut recently, so the graying (but still violently red) hair on his head was orderly. Interesting. He’d actually made an effort today. She wondered bitterly if the effort was for her benefit — or was he going to see one of her brothers later on? “Dad, over here,” she said, raising her voice to cut through the coffee shop. His head turned, as did the heads of six other people in the coffee shop. It was the cop thing, she thought irritably. She wasn’t in uniform, but she’d been a cop in this town for going on eight years now, and people tended to keep track of that kind of thing. Everyone had a different attitude — most business owners liked her coming by, felt it kept them safe, but the more unsavory types got pretty tense around cops. And who could blame them? It wasn’t like the force was free of corruption, even though it was a lot better than it had been in the old days.

Her father dropped into the booth opposite her, organizing his long legs under the table. She’d inherited a little of his height — not all of it, unfortunately, but she was tall enough to strike an imposing figure when she needed to (though she’d never quite cleared six foot — five eleven and a half, on a good day.) Of course, her brothers were all taller again than her father. Bunch of idiots, though. Elena alone had inherited her mother’s intelligence, her eye for detail, her gift for connecting dots and making connections… not that she was allowed to mention her mother around her father. Even the sound of her name was likely to send him into a fury, for all that it had been over a decade since she’d left. Some wounds never healed, Elena figured. It was frustrating that her dad couldn’t find it in himself to move on, but she’d long given up on trying to coach him through the breakup. That was a trap she’d fallen into when she was a kid, in the midst of the ugly divorce, trying to keep both parents happy… now, she had a stronger sense of what was and wasn’t her problem. “How you doing, kid?” He reached over to squeeze her hand, an odd gesture.

He’d never quite gotten the hang of expressing affection to his daughter, but she appreciated the attempt regardless. Elena had been the fifth child, the first and only girl, and something of a surprise arrival, from what she could figure out. Patrick Cross had not been ready for a daughter. He’d done his best, she supposed, feeling herself soften. God, that was frustrating. When she was away from him, she was all fire and rage. The minute they were sitting opposite each other drinking cheap coffee and he had those blue eyes of his on her, she turned into that eight-year-old girl again who just wanted her daddy to be proud of her. “Going fine.” She shrugged, sipping her coffee. “Working on this case.

Bunch of guys going missing.” “Guys, huh? Some angry ex-girlfriend out for revenge?” “Yeah, maybe. I’ll know more tomorrow, investigation’s in its preliminary stages for now.” She didn’t really want to talk shop. He always had advice for her, and it made her grind her teeth. He’d been a Baltimore cop for forty years of his life — but they’d been a very different forty years than the ones she was working in. Sometimes his advice was useful — most of the time, not so much. Besides, it always felt condescending. “How are you doing, Dad?” “Oh, you know, can’t complain.” “How’s the apartment?” He’d recently moved into a new place — her older brother David had gotten him a deal on the place, something he was still carrying on about as though David had personally flown to the moon to achieve the task, instead of making a couple of phone calls to his rich landlord friends.

“It’s great. I’ve got a new fridge, makes ice. Can you believe that?” “Sounds good,” she said, grinning a little. “It’ll come in handy when the weather gets hot.” “Oh, you know me. Whiskey on the rocks year-round.” He tipped her a roguish wink, but she wasn’t having it. Not today. Elena scowled, gathering herself for a fight. “Dad, how often are you drinking?” He spread his hands defensively.

“Doc didn’t say cut it out, she said cut it back —” “And what have you cut it back to?” “Couple a day.” Her frustration must have read on her face, because suddenly his ire was up. “What! I have a couple of pleasures remaining to me in this goddamn life and you want me to —” “I want you to not die of a heart attack at sixty-two, Dad, that’s all. But yeah, I’m the big villain. A couple a week would be fine, Dad, not a couple a day!” “A couple a week? You want me to go teetotal? Christ, Ellie, every time I see you it’s nag, nag, nag —” “I wouldn’t have to nag you if you actually took care of yourself,” Elena said irritably. “But fine. I’m done. Keep killing yourself with whiskey, whatever, I’ve said my piece.” “Great. Good to hear.

” He sipped his coffee, glaring balefully at her over the rim of the cup. She let the silence hang. “Heard from Jakey yesterday.” “Oh yeah?” Jacob was her youngest brother — a couple of years her senior, they’d always gotten on best out of the siblings. He lived in Washington now, so she didn’t see him as often as she’d have liked. “How’s government work treating him?” “Oh, he’s doing great. He’s gonna change the world, you wait and see.” The look that came across Patrick’s face when he talked about his sons… it made Elena feel torn. On the one hand, she was honestly delighted that his children brought him such joy. On the other… he never looked like that when they talked about her career, about what she was up to.

It was hard, knowing that he was far prouder of her brothers than he’d ever been of her… even though she’d gone into the same job as him. Sometimes she wondered if she’d become a cop to impress her father. It was a worrying thought — especially when it had been backed up by a few of the guys she’d dated casually. But it wasn’t true. She’d always wanted to be a cop, ever since she was little, watching TV shows about heroic cops bringing down the bad guys and keeping innocent people safe. The fact that it was what her dad did too, well that was just a bonus. And it had made the application process all the easier. She’d probably never been closer to her dad than when she’d been training for the entrance exam — he’d helped her get stronger and fitter, helped her learn what she needed to know, driven her to her test… But that wasn’t why she’d done it. It had taken some deep thinking, but she was sure of herself. The job was rough at the best of times, and anyone who wasn’t in it for a real reason quit pretty early on.

They didn’t make detective in their first few years on the force, that was for sure. He hadn’t been very impressed by that. Maybe it was jealousy. After all, he’d been a beat cop his whole life — not interested in climbing the ranks, he just wanted to be a rank-and-file policeman like his father before him. But Elena loved solving mysteries, finding clues, putting pieces together and putting away bad guys. Yes, she wished her father was prouder of her. But she was proud of herself, proud of her work, proud of what she did for the city she lived in. “Harry and the kids are doing great. Sends his love.” Elena nodded.

Harrison was the middle child — he’d gotten married to a woman he met at law school and they had a disgustingly nice little life out in the richer suburbs of Baltimore. He and his wife Sophia ran a practice together, specializing in real estate law, which was how they’d been able to find and afford such a gorgeous house. Their children all attended prestigious private schools and were almost insufferably polite. Elena liked her nieces and nephews fine, but she was always trying to shake off the suspicion that they were aliens sent in disguise to invade Earth. “Have you heard anything from Ben?” “Just some four a.m. texts, like usual,” Patrick chuckled. Ben was the eldest and would have been the black sheep of the family if he wasn’t so successful. He worked in music, something to do with production or marketing, and he was clearly pretty good at it. He was always being flown around the world to work with artists nobody had ever heard of — they only saw him at holidays, if then, and he always brought strange and exotic presents home.

Elena tried not to dwell on the fact that if she sent her father a text at four in the morning he was likely to block her number. They talked a little more before Elena had to get back to work. A pleasant enough conversation, if somewhat strained. Of course, he hadn’t cared about her big new case, she thought with a sigh. Why would he? She was just his youngest child, his only daughter. Maybe if she caught the guy and made the newspaper. Maybe he’d give a shit then. But somehow, she just couldn’t shake the idea that she was never going to impress her father. It wasn’t his fault, not really — she knew he loved her, in his way. He just wasn’t wired to find the achievements of women very interesting.

Not for the first time, Elena wished she’d been born a boy. Maybe then she could get a bit of respect for a change. E CHA PTE R 2 lena walked briskly back along the streets of Baltimore, headed for the station. It was a walk she’d done a thousand times at least — the coffee shop she visited with her father was one of her favorites, for the days when she could actually get out of the station long enough to eat by herself instead of cramming some junk food down while hunched over her desk. She tried to avoid that as much as possible. She led a pretty active life, and her genes were on her side — her dad and mother had both been tall and slim their whole lives — but she knew how easy it was for the extra pounds to start creeping on once your job became more paperwork-oriented. And boy, was it ever paperwork-oriented at the moment. It felt like she spent the majority of her life filling out paperwork these days. That was what her father just didn’t understand about the job anymore — there were so many records now, so many people keeping careful watch of what you said and did. You couldn’t just put unlawful pressure on a suspect to confess anymore — there were video recordings, you’d get the whole department shut down if you weren’t careful and let a possibly guilty guy go free.

In her father’s day, they got a hell of a lot more convictions, that was true… and something he consistently lorded over her. As though it was her fault, specifically, that policing had had to get more thorough and detailed as the years went on. She always bit her tongue on asking him how many of the arrests he bragged about so much were legitimate, and how many were based on some cop’s ‘instincts’ — which was regularly, if not always, code for prejudice. But this afternoon wasn’t paperwork. She’d been looking forward to this afternoon for a week, ever since the meeting had been scheduled. This afternoon she was being briefed on the biggest case she’d ever been put in charge of. A murder case, or at least it looked an awful lot like it. As ghoulish as it sounded — she was kind of excited. Obviously she would have preferred there to be no murders at all — pretty much every cop would have — but her detective side was overjoyed. This was what she’d joined the force for — this was what she’d dreamed about her whole life.

Catching bad guys. And what guys were more stereotypically, classically, universally bad than murderers? Billy was waiting for her when she got in, and she gave him a distracted grin as she extricated herself from her coat. It was spring, but the weather was still unpredictable — today was much colder than it should have been, sunshine or no sunshine. At least the snow had well and truly stopped. Elena loved snow more than anything, but the whole city ground to a halt when it was snowing, and her job turned into a traffic-control heavy nightmare — especially when they didn’t have enough beat cops to keep the streets safe. “You didn’t forget about the meeting, did you?” Billy asked. There was something about him that was just insultingly sweet, Elena thought — not for the first time — as she shook her head. Billy was one of those all-American cops who looked like he should be on the recruitment poster. He was a sweet young man, only a year or so older than her, with soft blond hair and big blue eyes and the gentlest smile you could imagine. Of course, there was a lot of steel hiding under that soft exterior — there’d have to be, or he’d never have made detective, never have made it past the first day on the job.

But he had the kind of face you could trust. People in the department often joked that he was the cop most likely to be asked to get a little girl’s kitten down from a tree. The accent didn’t help, either — he was from Texas originally, somewhere way out, and the Southern lilt had never left his voice. Altogether, the impression was … well, not dissimilar from Captain America, who was, of course, his all-time favorite superhero. He even had a poster of him from the recent movies stuck up in his cubicle — the guys teased him about it constantly, but somehow the ribbing just slid right off his back. But he was a sweet guy, overall. Shame he was married, Elena often thought — there was a tension between them that stopped just shy of making working together a problem. And who could blame her? He was sweet, gorgeous… and a good two inches taller than her, which she liked. But she also liked his wife, a curvy, vivacious young woman he’d met in Baltimore his first week in town. Mary was always sending unbelievably delicious baked goods along to the station with her husband — she was everyone’s favorite.

“This is a big one, huh?” Billy asked as they headed for the conference room to meet with the Captain and the Sergeant. “Serious bad guys, serious work.” “Serious paperwork,” Elena grumbled, her mind still on the tedious way she’d spent the morning. “But it’ll be good to do some proper investigation again.” “Totally. How’s your dad, by the way?” She smiled a little. Billy had an unerring knack for remembering every little thing he was told — she’d mentioned in passing that she was having lunch with her dad earlier that morning, so of course he was following up. “He’s fine.” She shrugged, not really wanting to get into the whole story of him not approving of her career nearly as much as she’d have liked him to. “He’s just moved into a new place, my brother got him the hook-up —” “Now which brother is that?” Billy interrupted.

She couldn’t help but grin. They’d been working together for five years now and he was still doing his level best to keep track of all her brothers. “Harrison’s the lawyer, so it’s… David who works in real estate? Is that right?” “Yep. Jakey’s the government guy and Ben’s the traveler,” Elena coached him, grinning a little at the way he punched the air in triumph. “One of these days I’ll meet ‘em.” “Yeah, don’t count on it. None of them spend much time in town. Jakey’s in DC now, Ben’s… last I checked he was in Tunisia, but don’t hold me to that one, David lives out of town, and Harrison… well, he and his wife are both lawyers, so…” They both wrinkled their faces in mock horror. But the conversation was quickly interrupted by the arrival of the Captain and the Sergeant. They both rose to their feet and saluted — it was a formal meeting, after all — before Captain Jacques and Sergeant Taylor took a seat opposite.

Captain Jacques had hired Elena, so she’d always have a soft spot for the intimidating woman. Nobody could figure out how old she was — she could be anything from her early 40s to her 70s. A very thin woman (she’d been a dancer as a young woman, the rumors went — not that anyone could get any concrete information about her whatsoever), she smoked like a chimney, and her face was a network of fine wrinkles that somehow made her piercing green eyes even more intimidating. But because she always looked intimidating, she never was… or at least, the effect had worn off the more Elena had gotten to know her. Because no matter how scary the Captain might have seemed, Elena had a sneaking suspicion that she liked her. Billy, unfortunately, had never gotten over his initial apprehension about their intense Captain. He got very nervous around her, often spilling whatever he was drinking or knocking things off desks in his effort to hide his discomfiture. Like a cat, Captain Jacques seemed to be drawn to this — she’d appear behind him unexpectedly, and if Elena didn’t know any better she’d swear the woman was doing it deliberately. Sergeant Taylor began briefing them in his no-nonsense way. The Sergeant was a blustery, gruff man in his early 30s, a stickler for rules and order with a profound disinterest in being liked by anyone around him.

Oddly enough, this made him incredibly likable. It was something to do with there being no agenda, with him — he just wanted to get his job done and done well. And he was always friendly enough to Elena, whose neat handwriting made her paperwork easy to read and process … that was the key to Captain Taylor’s heart. Nobody knew what he did outside of work — he never came to drinks, never hung out with anyone outside of work hours. Fair enough, too. Elena felt like she spent her whole life at work sometimes — she didn’t doubt it was worse for higher-ranked officers. Good on him for maintaining a work-life balance. The details of the case, no matter how matter-of-fact Taylor was trying to be, were deeply unsettling. There were two victims so far, which wasn’t usually enough to draw much of a connection — but they’d died in such an unusual way — and such a similar one — that they were being treated as connected. It didn’t help that both victims had lived on the same block, either.

.

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