Horatio pulled up at the General Store of the small Appalachian town outside Washington DC. After the bustle of a city that never seemed to sleep, the town seemed an anachronism of a bygone age. He stepped out and shivered upon feeling a lower temperature than he was accustomed to from living so long in Miami. The scents were different too; a lack of car pollution and suntan oil, of the ocean just beyond, or the more pungent smell of the Everglades. This place was crisp and clean, smelling of fresh pine and wood. Gazing around, he felt the press of the tall trees that grew almost to the highway's edge, seeing no more than a few feet into the dense forest. It was almost dusk, and though the sun was still shining it did not have the ferocity of even the late Florida sun reflecting off glass and steel. Horatio didn't bother to pull on his shades and headed for the General Store.
The tinkle of the entrance bell heralded his arrival and a young woman stepped out from the back and smiled warmly.
"Hi! Can I help you?"
He moved to the counter and looked at her askance. "Lieutenant Caine." He showed her his badge. "I'm looking for...Mike Sheridan. You wouldn't happen to know where he lives?"
He saw her lips twitch in distaste, eyes narrowing a fraction. "Sheridan lives in the old miner's shack further into the forest. Hang a left about fifty feet up the road and keep going. You won't miss it."
"I get the impression that you don't like Mr. Sheridan very much?"
She shrugged tightly. "He's...creepy. Possessive."
Horatio nodded because that described his own impression of Mike Sheridan. He had met him while looking into a murder that occurred in the Everglades, and though Sheridan had not turned out to be the killer, his jealous and possessive behavior towards his then girlfriend, Julie Bryant, had filled Horatio with disgust. A short spell in prison on an arson charge had, fortunately, put an end to that abusive relationship--though it was Julie Bryant who had brought Horatio here to seek out Sheridan now.
"Thank you." He turned to leave but she called out just as he opened the door.
"Tell Frederick I sold a few more of his pieces."
She glanced towards the window display and Horatio followed her eyes, seeing the unusual but strangely beautiful, carved items on sale. He moved over and picked up one particular piece, turning it over in his hand and seeing the care and attention to detail put into the ornately carved table ornament.
"You know, I'll take this piece." He moved back and handed her his credit card, waiting patiently as she rung up the sale and carefully wrapped the ornament.
A few minutes later, he was turning up a track and heading deeper into the forest and feeling a sense of isolation as the rest of the world seemed to disappear far behind. Eventually, he saw the shack ahead, though the word didn't quite describe the place accurately. It was more of a wood cabin, with a veranda that stretched along the front, and with a love-seat, reminding him of old style westerns. The door opened as he drew up beside the cabin, and Horatio recognized the tense man immediately; he climbed out.
"What do you want?" Horatio raised an eyebrow but Sheridan had no reason to welcome his presence.
"Haven't seen that bitch in a few years."
Horatio caught movement directly behind Sheridan and saw another man's face peering around Sheridan's shoulder.
"May I come in?"
Sheridan looked as though he was going to refuse but after a moment he sighed heavily and stood back, allowing Horatio access. Horatio was surprised by the interior of the cabin, which was clean and well looked after. More of the unusual wood carvings adorned the few shelves and the TV sat on top of a beautifully crafted wooden cabinet. The TV looked new, and slightly out of place against the more worn and rustic appearance of the rest of the room. Horatio nodded respectfully at the other man, who had to be Frederick.
"The young lady at the store asked me to mention she had sold a few more of your carvings. They're very good."
"Really?" Frederick smiled shyly, looking to Sheridan for approval, and Horatio was surprised by the tenderness that crossed Sheridan's face.
"May I have a seat?"
"Knock yourself out," Sheridan replied and Horatio chose a single chair that looked nonthreatening, waiting until, with some reluctance, Sheridan sat down on the couch that was set at an angle to the chair.
"Do you want a drink? Coffee?" Frederick asked.
"Yes. Thank you."
Horatio noticed that both of them turned to watch Frederick move into the kitchen area but when Horatio looked back, Sheridan was watching him closely. It was apparent that Sheridan had transferred that unhealthy possessiveness onto a new recipient--and perhaps more surprising it was on a man rather than a woman.
"So what do you want to know about Julie?" Sheridan asked.
"Julie Bryant is wanted in connection to a man found dead in a hotel room in Miami three days ago."
"You think she murdered him?"
"And you thought she'd run here?"
"I thought she might run back to you."
"There's no place for her here." Sheridan glanced up as Frederick set three coffees on the low table within easy reach of both the chair and the couch.
"Julie? Was this the same Julie in Miami?" Frederick asked.
Horatio noticed that Frederick kept Sheridan between them at all times, and yet he did not act like an abused partner. He wasn't fawning over Sheridan, hanging onto his every word in some subconscious desire to keep Sheridan sweet, and he wasn't afraid to speak up and question Sheridan's past. However, he was afraid of the stranger in his home but confident that Sheridan would protect him. Years of seeing the best and worst of people in all different scenarios had given Horatio a front row seat to damaged personalities and this relationship almost appeared symbiotic, with Sheridan's possessiveness possibly being exactly what Frederick needed to armor himself against the world. In light of this, Horatio could understand why Sheridan had been so frustrated in his relationship with Julie for she'd been just as manipulative in her own way. Both Frederick and Julie used Sheridan for security and protection but, for Julie, it had been only until something better came along.
"Yeah," Sheridan answered, but his voice relayed no anger at being questioned by Frederick.
Horatio took out a recent photo of Julie and slid it across the coffee table towards Frederick, aware that Sheridan may not have any photos of the woman he once cared far too much about. Sheridan passed the photo to Frederick and Horatio saw him frown. He tapped the photo.
"She was in the store earlier today." He addressed his next words to Sheridan. "I didn't like the way she looked at me so I called you and came home."
Sheridan frowned. "I checked the store on my way back, and there was no one there...except for that sales girl." Horatio noticed the way Sheridan scrunched his face upon mentioning the sales assistant. Obviously, the bad feelings between them were mutual. "I figured it was some tourist who drove on."
Horatio leaned in. "Then she may still be here."
"You think she followed me?" Frederick looked uneasy.
Sheridan leaned in closer to Horatio with shoulders tense. "I know you always thought of me as the bad guy, but you really didn't know what Julie was capable of. If she's here thinking she can just start back up where we left off then she's in for a shock. And Julie never dealt well with shocks. I put up with her shit because I thought I loved her and thought she loved me. Even took the rap when she pissed off some guy and left me to deal with it."
"The dropped assault charge from a year earlier."
"I wasn't the only one messed up in that relationship."
Horatio didn't bother to mention that nothing seemed to have changed in that respect, with both of these men damaged in one way or another. Instead he pulled out his cellphone and stood up. "I need to make a call."
Frederick stood up too. "Reception's better on the porch."
Nodding, Horatio walked out the door and speed dialed his team, who were still working on a different angle back in Miami.
"She's here," he stated.
He discussed a few ideas, knowing Sheridan was right. At the time he had not known much about Julie, except for what he had gleaned from their problematic relationship, but after Sheridan was taken out of the equation, Julie had become more and more unstable. What Horatio hadn't mentioned was that the man had died in a frenzied knife attack, with more than twenty stab wounds, which meant she kept on stabbing long after he was dead. A check through the national crimes database had revealed several other unsolved murders of a similar nature, and Julie had been living in the vicinity of each. The only gap in a string of possible serial killings that could be attributed to her was while she was with Sheridan. What he now feared most was that she had taken a pathological dislike to the man who had replaced her in Sheridan's affection--and bed, because it was obvious from their body language that they were more than just two guys sharing a cabin.
"I believe Mr. Sheridan's new partner may be in grave danger. I need you to run a background check."
The file came through several minutes later and Horatio read it carefully, slowly understanding why Frederick would allow such a possessive relationship. Statutory Rape of a minor, though even the bartender had said the minor had flashed an ID card stating she was 18 going on 19. The conviction was bad enough but it appeared that the worst came later with an assault in prison, and several trips to the ER after he was released, including one accompanied by Sheridan after Frederick had been sexually assaulted and badly beaten. No charges were ever pressed, as if the Police didn't care what happened to a known sex offender, which was probably the case. It was little wonder that Frederick was so scared of other people, and why he relied so much on Sheridan for protection--and company--preferring the isolation in these mountains to the city. He'd probably felt isolated from the moment the pedophile charges were brought against him, with everyone turning their backs on him. It seemed that Sheridan had found someone who genuinely needed to belong to someone--with someone.
By now it was getting dark, especially within the forest where the trees blocked out the low-lying sun. Horatio moved back inside and found Frederick in the kitchen area with Sheridan, pulling together a meal. There was a motel a short distance away but Horatio knew he would more likely be spending the night in his car, keeping a watch on the cabin.
"Um. You're welcome to stay for dinner," Frederick offered, and Horatio knew the offer was genuine and with Sheridan's approval.
It was strange sitting down to eat with an over-possessive arsonist and a convicted pedophile, but Horatio had long discarded putting labels on the people he met as they often had the ability to surprise him. He discovered that in a relaxed setting, Sheridan was actually very charming and Frederick quite talkative, especially concerning his art.
"I bought one of your pieces from the store."
"Really?" Frederick flushed with pleasure. "About the only good thing that came out of being in prison."
"Not the only good thing," Sheridan stated warmly, looking at Frederick with love and pride. "You came out too."
After dinner was finished, Frederick made excuses to retire to his workshop--the second bedroom--leaving Horatio alone with Sheridan. Sheridan eyed him carefully before speaking.
"You think she's going to come after Frederick...because of me."
Horatio leaned in, clasping his hands in front of him. "Yes, I do. But I'm not going to let that happen. However, we may need to use Frederick as bait--"
"Until she is caught, she is a danger to both of you... especially Frederick."
Horatio could tell Sheridan didn't like it but it was more than just part of his jealous and over-possessive nature--he truly cared about Frederick, perhaps even loved him. Eventually Sheridan nodded, after Horatio assured him that he would do everything in his power to keep Frederick safe. By now the evening had worn on and it was pitch black outside, with no street lighting along the track leading back to the highway.
"The couch folds out into a bed," Sheridan stated unexpectedly. "I'll get you some blankets."
Horatio debated it for a moment before nodding his thanks.
Muffled moans brought Horatio awoke some hours later and he lay in the dark, listening to the obvious sounds of Sheridan and Frederick having sex in the room close by. In the silence of the cabin, Sheridan's voice carried a little and Horatio could make out the tender endearments that seemed out of place against the sharp slap of flesh on flesh. He didn't need to guess who was on top for Sheridan described the perfection of the body he was pounding into hard and fast. But there were no answering cries or moans of pain, only of pleasure, and perhaps that was another reason why their relationship seemed to work. Frederick was no smaller, more delicate woman. Eventually they finished and grew quiet, probably basking in the afterglow as Horatio forced his own erection under control by willpower alone.
Horatio realized he must have fallen back to sleep because the next time he awoke it was to a shaft of early morning sunlight finding a chink in the drawn curtain. Frederick padded through moments later, freezing like a deer caught in headlights when he realized Horatio was watching him. He pointed to the kitchen.
Horatio nodded. "Yes. Thank you."
An hour later, Horatio checked in with his team and called the local cops for back-up before giving Sheridan a nod. He watched as Sheridan turned Frederick to face him, grasping his biceps tightly.
"You know what to do." Sheridan squeezed Frederick's arms tightly. "Head straight down the track to the store. No short cuts."
"No short cuts," Frederick promised.
Horatio wanted Sheridan to stay behind in the cabin but recognized the futility in trying to make that an order so he let Sheridan tag along, both of them staying well back while simultaneously trying to keep Frederick within sight. The winding track with its thick canopy of trees made it harder and they lost sight of Frederick for a couple of minutes. Horatio heard Sheridan curse when they reached the bend in the track and saw Frederick had stopped ahead of them. A woman was with him, and she was moving towards him, one slow step at a time as she talked, but Horatio caught a reflection of light off of metal, held in the hand behind her back.
He raced forward quickly, gun drawn and aimed at Julie.
"Julie. Put down the knife and step back."
Horatio could sense Sheridan a little to the right and behind him, and he could feel the tension and fear in the air around him. He settled his firing posture as he moved carefully towards her, wary of his footing on the track.
"You don't understand," she argued, bringing the knife to the front; Frederick tensed but stayed perfectly still. "Mike loves me, and once he is out of the way, then Mike will want me back."
Sheridan snarled and took two fast steps forward and Horatio could easily guess his intentions knowing that whatever Sheridan had once felt for Julie was shallow compared the depth of his feelings for Frederick.
"Mike, stay where you are," Horatio ordered. "I won't let her hurt Frederick." He turned is full attention back on Julie. "I will shoot you, so put the knife down, Julie."
"Mike?" she softly begged, putting on her wounded-bird expression in the hope of rekindling the fiercely protective and possessive emotions that had lain between her and Mike in the past. But the genuine fear that had widened Frederick's blue eyes in a too-pale face tugged at even Horatio's heart. When she realized her defenseless wiles no longer worked on Sheridan, her eyes hardened and her grip on the knife tightened. Horatio fired as she drew back the knife to attack Frederick; the single shot sending her spinning backwards to sprawl over the track.
Frederick slowly edged back from Julie as Horatio and Sheridan moved forward, and this time Horatio didn't order Sheridan back as Sheridan quickly outstripped him to reach Frederick. Horatio kept his gun trained on Julie until he reached her body and could confirm she was no longer a threat. He holstered his gun and pulled out his radio
Horatio called into his radio, "I have her."
Back in the cabin, Horatio smiled as Frederick remained pressed against Sheridan's side, still a little in shock. It was easy to see how he could have been manipulated, even by a child pretending to be an adult, and the trauma since then had damaged him further. Sheridan simply needed someone to care for--someone to protect, cherish and hold, and he had found the perfect partner in Frederick. They needed each other. The local cops had taken statements and the coroner had taken away Julie's body, and there was nothing left to do now but say goodbye and return to Miami.
Horatio pushed to his feet and Sheridan--Mike--stood too, bringing Frederick to his feet beside him. Mike accepted the handshake and Horatio inclined his head to Frederick, knowing he wasn't ready for even the small intimacy of a handshake with someone who was still a stranger in his eyes.
Mike walked him to the door, followed by Frederick, watching as Horatio opened the car door.
"Lieutenant Caine. If you ever want a break from the sun, sand and sea then you'll be welcomed back."
As he drove away, Horatio glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw the two men standing on the track watching him go, their arms wrapped around each other. Maybe he would take up that offer one of these days.