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The Way

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The Butcher case....

The Butcher case.

Not entirely...

Not entirely satisfying, Frank thinks. It doesn't... quite...

It's an unfinished symphony, with themes dropped higgledy-piggledy and a climax in the wrong place. Entirely wrong for a man as fastidious as the Butcher. When another case arises, a strong case, an interesting case, he still can't refocus.

So he turns it down and retires. Stays in Miami, appropriately for a man his age. With Debra, inappropriately. They go ice fishing. She looks adorable in a parka. He cooks her dinner nightly. She puts on ten pounds and bitches about it while buying a new wardrobe. She looks good.

"Size fucking five. I have ass fat." She looks at her rear in the mirror. "I haven't been a size five since college. Freshman fifteen. Do you like these?"

"I do." He does. "Your legs look five miles long. And the fat in your ass is in all the right places."

She laughs. "You like my badonk? You better. You made it."

It's surprisingly easy with Debra. He expected more drama, if only because she's so high strung, but--no. She sleeps in his bed, she eats his food, she cusses a blue streak over work. She asks him if he's taking up fishing and isn't at all surprised when he piles up old case files instead.

"I should write a book," he tells her.

"The Zen of Finding Fucking Psychos," she says.

"The Fucking Tao of Fucking Crazies," he says.

He takes it slow. Lets it simmer.

(Blood slides. Doakes was military; father was a butcher; Doakes was an assassin; Doakes was a cop. Blood slides. Doakes was not a scientist. He would have expected ears, or swatches of skin. Blood-soaked clothing. Something external. Something visible. He has to chew on this, reconcile it.)

He has an old case, the Trinity case. He sets them side by side. No outward similarities--Trinity is a strict pattern killer (never caught, still killing a set of two women and a man, over and over) while the Butcher was more fluid, experimental--but...

Frank trusts his instincts. It's served him well so far. He lets his subconscious mind put the pieces together while he works on more pressing issues. Like dinner.

He's cooking steaks for Debra and her brother and his girlfriend and his girlfriend's kids--well, the kids are getting burgers early and spending the rest of the night on Debra's game console so the grownups can talk about boring things like work and rent. They're munching away while Dexter carefully mixes vinaigrette, Rita trims green beans, and Debra hacks up an onion, sniffling.

Debra mentions that Angel has been cleared of Lila Tournay's false accusation and Dexter looks shamefaced.

"Has she tried to contact you?" Rita asks.

Dexter shakes his head. "Not a word."

"Probably crawled back into her crypt. What did you see in her, anyway?"

Dexter has a distant expression. "She spoke to my bad side." He shakes it off and looks at Rita. "But as it turns out, I don't like my bad side very much. I prefer my bright side." He kisses Rita on the cheek and Rita smiles.

Dexter's smiles don't reach his eyes. He says the words, he's very good at words. But every so often, it's like a mask slips, and there's a frightened child underneath. Frank saw that reaction when he confronted Dexter with the files. He'd thought Dexter was cowed by authority, but...

Debra told him Dexter saved her from the Ice Truck Killer. Grabbed the knife from his hand. She said that Brian Moser was oddly interested in Dexter.

Moser, Tournay, Doakes. A pattern.

Or perhaps he's thinking in threes due to Trinity.

Either way, it's an observation he files away until much later, when he meets Miguel Prado and the man sets his teeth on edge. He feels like he should be surprised that sociopaths do so well in politics, but... no, he's not. The man's eyes are dead. He shakes Frank's hand and would as easily push him in the bay. Frank escapes as soon as he can.

"Debra," he says.

"I swear any second Dexter is going to get down on his knees and start sucking Prado's cock. What, baby?"

He smiles. He loves her mouth. "I love you. Should I be jealous of this Anton character I keep hearing about?"

"No!" Deb protests. "I mean. He flirts. But he's not as hot as you."

"Okay," Frank says.

Deb looks surprised. "What, that's it?"

"Sure," Frank says.

"God dammit, be jealous." She laughs. "He called me a skinny mean bitch. I think he might be in love."

Frank kisses her.

A little while later, Prado turns up dead. Another victim of the Skinner.

Something is niggling. At night, lying awake beside Debra, his brain supplies: Dexter is careful. Dexter is detached. Dexter is clinical. Dexter is a scientist. Dexter works with blood. If Dexter were a serial killer, he would have blood slides as his trophy.

In the dark, he plays out the scenario. Dexter works in the lab, giving him access to all cases. A minority of the cases belonged to Doakes.

Many of the bodies were from out of town. Strange criminals making Miami their final destination.

He wonders what he would find if he looked up Dexter's fingerprint searches.

He wonders what Debra would do if she could see the thoughts running through his head.

He empties his mind--the fucking Tao of fucking police work is getting to that quiet place--and sleeps.

Next morning, over breakfast, he asks Debra, "Dexter is adopted, isn't he?"

"Yeah, off a crime scene. He's actually about four months older than I am. I can't remember not having him there."

"I always think you resemble each other. Must be the expressions."

"We both spent our whole lives trying to be like Dad, so, yeah, probably."

"Does he talk about his previous family?"

"Closed book. Too young. Dexter is one big closed book." She grins. "Dude. I'm going to be a motherfucking aunt. That's all the best parts of being a mom and none of the shit. I think that calls for a fucking celebration."

"We already celebrated."

"And we'll keep on celebrating that it's not me getting fat," she says, and she climbs into his lap.

"You worry too much about your weight," he says.

He has a lot to think about. Debra is the least of his concerns.

Dexter can't be a serial killer, of course. Any more than Sergeant Doakes could. Serial killer cop. Contradiction in terms.

How many people, looking at the Butcher's list of victims, said they would like to shake his hand? The line isn't as clear as people would like it to be.

He lets it settle.

He looks up the Ice Truck Killer, the man who broke Deb's heart. He's been told she's much harder, stronger, more forceful than she used to be.

Brian Moser. Not a nice guy. But like most sociopaths, able to manipulate people into thinking that he was.

Grew up in a mental hospital...

Due to...

Huh.

Missing records.

But Frank used to be a fed. He digs deeper.

Hospitalized due to the murder of his mother. He was found...

Missing records. He digs deeper.

He was found at her crime scene. In Miami.

With.

No more missing files now.

With his baby brother, Dexter. Who was successfully adopted.

Frank isn't sure what to make of that. He would have to get a DNA test to be sure, and yet he's sure. But he doesn't know what to make of it. He's not FBI any more. Does he have an obligation to act? To break Debra's heart again?

They invite Dexter and Rita over. Rita is huge, glowing, happy. She giggles with Debra. Debra presents her with a pair of impossibly tiny baby socks.

Dexter is removed. When Frank looks carefully he can see the lack of microexpression surrounding the fixed, genial mask he wears. Frank's never met a sociopath trying so hard to be average. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that has ever tripped Debra up. She thinks her brother is impossibly boring. The depth of the disguise fascinates Frank. He must have been wearing it since he was a child.

Frank should be afraid of this man. Shouldn't he? He's increasingly convinced that this man has killed at least forty people.

Only bad people, of course. Except Doakes.

Except that Doakes wasn't killed in the Butcher's usual method, and without any of the Butcher's usual care and precision.

After dinner, Frank gives Dexter a beer and draws him out onto the balcony. He cooked. Debra is doing the dishes.

"I'd like to bounce a theory off you," Frank says.

"Wouldn't Deb be better for this? I'm just the lab guy."

"No."

Dexter looks blank, then uncomfortable.

"I don't think Doakes was the Butcher," Frank says.

"Even with all the evidence?"

"I think the Butcher leaped on the opportunity to frame him."

Dexter drinks, looking at him.

"But then, of course, Doakes died. Odd, don't you think?"

"I couldn't possibly fathom what's odd or not odd for a serial killer."

"I think someone else killed Doakes, sparing the Butcher a lot of ethical trouble."

"Ethical?" Dexter sounds surprised. Astonished.

"The Butcher is a very ethical man. He only kills the evil. He spares the good. Doakes was problematic but, I suspect, he fell on the side of good. I think Doakes knew who the Butcher was and the Butcher would have let him fall into our hands. Ethics is a bitch."

"I agree," Dexter says, sounding like a ghost. His voice is strangely high and light.

"Interestingly," Frank says, "your ex has a history of arson. Lila set fire to her boyfriend's house with him inside. Never proven, but... well."

"Yes. She told me. I tried to warn people. Angel." His voice is still ghostlike. "What's your conclusion?" Dexter must be keenly, vitally interested, but he sounds removed, almost bored.

"Oh, no conclusion," Frank says. "I just wanted to say it out loud. See how it sounded."

Dexter finishes his beer wordlessly.

Frank follows him back inside.

Dexter and Rita leave. Dexter looks over his shoulder, his face blank. Frank's always pitied sociopaths. They can't feel guilt, but neither can they feel love. Just hunger, satiated briefly by their thrill of choice. Dexter will never truly love his child. He doesn't truly love Rita. Frank hopes she doesn't know.

"What?" Deb says. She pokes him. "You look all weepy."

"Thinking about babies." He looks at her and smiles.

Deb crosses one finger over the other and backs up. "No. No way. No."

Frank smiles wider. "We would have adorable babies."

"Only if they are magically flying out of your ass!" Deb grabs a pillow and holds it in front of her abdomen.

Later, he takes a walk.

He's not really surprised to find Dexter sitting in his car a few houses down the street. Frank opens the passenger door and gets in.

Dexter doesn't lock the door, but he does drive. He opens his mouth but doesn't speak for half a mile; then he says: "You're not asking me why I'm here."

"No, I'm not."

"I just wanted to talk." Dexter drives. "I also have a theory about the Butcher," he says. "Although I hate that name."

"Is there one you prefer?"

Dexter slides a glance sideways.

"I thought... Hunter of Hunters," Frank says.

"Someone called him the Dark Defender. But yours is good, too."

"Because the butchery is just disposal. It's beside the point. The important cut is the cut to the cheek. The ritual ends there for... the Hunter."

"Yes," Dexter says, his voice again high and strange. "What's important is the hunt, and the catching, and the showing."

"Showing?"

"I have a theory that the Hunter shows his victims their crimes before he kills them." Dexter's eyes slide across to Frank again.

"Really. We never found a kill site--"

"You did, actually. But not the way they looked when the Hunter killed them."

"Of course, the train car."

"Yes. After the fake Butcher, of course. And the junkyard. And the Ice Truck Killer's home."

Frank sat up. "Moser didn't kill himself?"

"Of course not. He could have escaped. The entire spree was a game, right down to his choice of Deb."

Frank sees it as if he'd been there. "Killing the adoptive sister--the adoptive family--to rejoin the blood family."

"Blood is an excellent choice of words."

"The plastic--the Hunter uses plastic."

"Moser wrapped Deb up in the Hunter's preferred method. But missed the most important part."

"Deb hadn't committed any crime."

"Nothing more than littering and abuse of the comma," Dexter says. "Nothing to make her a legitimate target."

"Ethics," Frank says.

"A code."

"Ethics are a bitch."

Dexter pulls into a marina. He gets out and Frank follows him. He finds that Dexter's boat is called "The Slice of Life." If he'd known that, he would have suspected Dexter much earlier.

He feels absolutely no fear. Only curiosity.

They step into Dexter's boat. Frank smells bleach. "Clean," he comments.

"Spotless." Dexter catches his eyes. "Except for the rocks, of course. The Hunter really muffed that one. But you live and learn."

They speed out into the open water, the boat shining white against the midnight blue on black. Clouds cover the stars. The ripple of the black water looks like the ripple of a black plastic bag. This would be Dexter's victims' view if they were in a position to see.

They stop in the unmarked water. "We're over the Gulf Stream," Dexter says. He indicates his radar screen.

"The Hunter's new dump site?" Frank guesses.

"My new dump site," Dexter says. "Yes."

No more games, then. He sees Dexter lit red from below by the screen. He can't read Dexter's expression. If he has one.

"Do you mind if I fish?"

Dexter tilts his head. "Uh... sure." Off guard. Interesting.

Frank gears up by touch and casts into the water. His back is to Dexter. Dexter is very, very still. He must be a good hunter. "Did you hunt when you were younger?" Frank asks.

"Insects. Then mice. Then dogs. Then deer. Then boar."

"You couldn't hunt boar alone."

"I hunted with my father." Dexter's voice is on the other side now. Still behind Frank. "Harry knew what I was. Deb doesn't. I don't know... what would she think?"

"I don't know," Frank says. "I don't know what I think."

"Harry made a code. Only people who deserve it. I have to be sure. Sometimes I have to let them go when I don't want to. Not unlike police work."

"Not unlike. I do this work because I enjoy it too."

"But I break the code sometimes. I killed Oscar Prado. Accidentally, but that's worse. The code is there to prevent mistakes. Mistakes get you caught." Dexter's voice Dopplers behind Frank, one ear into the other. He sighs. "Regrettable."

"Regret?"

"Well, I say regret." Dexter leans on the seat. His voice is very close. "I caged Doakes for three days before he died. Because I'd never killed an innocent before, and I wasn't sure..." He walks around the the side of the seat and crosses his arms. There's a foot-long gutting knife in his hand. It glints red in the faint light from the radar screen. "Wasn't sure what would happen. But now I know. Nothing happens. Nothing at all."

"Disappointing, isn't it?" Frank asks. "The lack of divine retribution. All that's left is human retribution."

"Except that I need to stay free, because I have a fiancee and a baby on the way." Dexter pushes off the boat side.

"Are you sure you're the best thing for them?"

"I'm sure my exposure would be worse." He begins to hone the knife. Long strokes of the blade on the steel.

The sky begins to gray. Dawn is coming. Dexter is standing directly behind him, invisible unless he turns his head. He doesn't. He knows his this will end, and he thinks he feels a tug on the line.

He does feel a tug. A big one. He reels it in, wrestles it into the net and it jumps out onto the deck.

Dexter moves.

He stabs a knife overhand through the fish's head and into the wood. The fish flops once, twice, and is still. "Should be tasty," Dexter says.

Frank's phone rings. It's Deb. "Where the fuck are you?" she asks.

"Catching you breakfast."

"What? Like, fish? It's not even dawn, what the fuck?"

"I'm retired. Fishing before dawn is on the list of activities."

"I can't even," Deb says, and hangs up. Frank imagines her face falling back onto the pillow and smiles.

"You frighten me," Dexter says.

Frank looks at him. "I know."

"I'm never afraid of anyone I can kill."

"You have problems with uncertainty, don't you? You're patient but you need the outcome to be predictable."

"What's going to happen?" Dexter asks. His voice is very small.

"I don't know," Frank says.

Dexter looks away. "I can't live with that answer."

"I've been trying to come up with a better one, but time's up now. Deb needs her breakfast."

"I CAN'T--" Dexter's voice swells. He stands, looming over Frank; then he sits back down. "I have a very low threshold for frustration," he says, quiet again.

And threatening gets him nowhere. Frank didn't even flinch. "Shore," Frank says. He points.

Dexter steers them back. At the marina, he wraps Frank's catch in newspaper and deposits it in a plastic shopping bag. He wipes his knife and deck clean of fish blood lovingly.

The decision really shouldn't be this hard. The family of James Doakes; the law. But on the other hand, Deb. This would kill her.

Dexter drives him home. He clenches his knuckles on the steering wheel and takes the corners too sharply. "Twenty-four hours," Frank says, and Dexter lets his breath out. "If nothing happens, nothing will."

"Yes." Dexter smiles with his eyes. "I can hang on that long. Heck, I need a nap. I was up all night."

Dexter gives him a jaunty wave as he drives off.

Fish. Tea.

It's Saturday morning but Deb goes in anyway. The Skinner case is a bear. Frank sits at his desk, looking at his files. Brian Moser. Trinity killer. And in the middle, the Bay Harbor Butcher.

He makes a new label: Hunter of Hunters. Crosses out James Doakes with a wide black marker.

He considers. He drinks his tea. He finds his peaceful place. And he decides.

end.