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The Devil, You Know

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The first warning sign should have been Astor showing up on my doorstep.

Again.

She was standing outside my apartment door as I stood in the doorway. The house had finally been sold. The house I once shared with her mother. The house where her mother was murdered. Of course the rest of the family would always blame me, and the real tragedy was that they would never know how right they were. My fault, my murder. Homicide by hubris; committed by proxy. My only passion in life had destroyed the only thing I ever loved.

"Are you still shoplifting?"

A cool stare regards me from the rings of goth eyeliner. "Are you still seeing your tenant?"

There's an edge of disrespect to that last word that makes my hackles rise. "She's gone."

"Oh -- right." The tension increases around the corners of her eyes and mouth. "She was nice."

She doesn't say, but I can tell she's sorry. I survey her thin and shivering form. It's a cold night for a Miami summer, and a track sweatshirt and loose jeans doesn't offer much protection. At least the running shoes are practical. As is the small rucksack slung over one shoulder, her normally loose and rather long hair tied back in a ponytail. She's not quite fidgeting; like she wants to look over her shoulder and won't if I'm watching.

"Can I come in?"

I nod and step back, keeping my hands where she can see them. "Where's Cody?"

"Still with Grandma and Grandpa." She wears a look of relief as she crosses the threshold. "I told them I was coming here. You can call and ask."

"I will. First things first." I shut the door and direct her to sit on one of the kitchen stools. "Can I see the bag?"

Slowly, she pulls the strap from her shoulder and holds it out. I accept with an internally raised eyebrow, but things only grow more mysterious as I check the contents. A few days change of clothes. A metal water bottle; a handful of jerky and granola bars.

"Is anyone following you?"

"No --" She looks away, frustrated. "I don't know."

"Would anyone have a reason to?"

That gets a hint of anger, but she remains calm. "Not that I know."

"Do I need to see anything else you might be carrying?"

I can't tell if her anger is actually directed at me. One of the downsides of a lack of humanity. But she stands and empties the pockets of her jeans, not looking at me. A debit card from deep in the oversized watch pocket. A knife in the front -- regular folding model, fit for hunters, decent quality. I notice again how baggy the jeans are compared to current styles; not falling off the hips, but loose enough to allow freedom of movement. And pockets deep enough to hold rather large items.

Like the object Astor is pulling from her back pocket and setting on the counter with a wooden clunk.

That's a joke. Which is odd, for downbeat deliberate Dexter. And because said object is literally made of wood: A smooth, hand-whittled cylinder about ten inches long and three across, honed at one end to a distinctive and deadly point.

"I know what this looks like," she says.

"Not yet." I hold up one hand and try for a serious look without intimidating. It seems to have the desired effect as I cross the kitchen to the phone on the wall. Trust, but verify.

The call itself is awkward as always, but sufficient to assuage any worries I might have had about the veracity of her story. Especially when Astor steps forward and asks to speak with her grandmother, without a shade of deception in her eyes. I pretend not to listen as she goes from standoffish to outright affectionate, then to complete adoration when her little brother comes on the line. I think I feel a pang at the thought of Cody, and the next thing I know I'm out in the living room, staring up at the vent on the wall behind which lies my treasured trophy case of blood slides.

"He wanted to talk to you." Astor's voice comes from behind me. "I convinced him you were still really broken up over Mom."

"That was..." Somehow I realize thoughtful may not be the best choice of words. "Kind of you."

A dry and humorless laugh is her only response. I turn around to see in her eyes all the lingering anger and depression I'd expect from a girl her age, in her damn near disastrous debacle of dire circumstance. Which causes a thought to occur.

"How'd you convince them to let a teenage girl stay alone with a grown man and no supervision?"

I'm not sure if I'm expecting her to explode with offense and outrage. Instead, the corner of her mouth tweaks up a tad. Apparently my instinct was the right one. Maybe I'm getting better at this emotion thing.

"Easy." Her eyes sparkle. "I told them if anyone at Miami Metro was a child molester, it was probably Vince Masuka."

I have to fight the smile. "That's not very nice."

"I wouldn't say it to him." Astor has the good grace to look abashed. Or so some might describe it.

"You can sleep on the couch for now. Just don't be surprised if Deb falls on you in the middle of the night." Astor looks confused, and I clarify. "She sometimes comes over and crashes there. Literally."

I double-check the locks on the door before I retire for the night. It's times like this I miss living in Rita's old house. An apartment typically only has one way in and out, not counting windows. Defending multiple points of entry might seem like a downside, but it's the price you pay for having multiple escape routes.

I think about these things and more as I go round and kill the lights, leaving the hallway on. Astor's curled up under the blanket when I check on her, facing the back of the couch. I hazard a hailing.

"Good night."

For a moment I think she won't respond.

"Good night, Dexter." Her voice is soft. It makes me think of Rita in my arms. "And thank you."

Don't thank me yet, I want to say.

Sleep doesn't come easy. So hard, in fact, that an hour later I'm still lying on my back staring at the ceiling with murder very much on my mind. Instead of sheep, counting all the ways in which indulging my desires would be a bad idea.

The kind that got her mother killed.

I think of the weeks ahead. Of the logistics involved in keeping a depressed and potentially violent teenage girl under the same roof, all while trying to conceal my nocturnal hobbies. Rita's children had made for good cover while she was alive, and I'd grown to feel for them what I thought might be affection. But in the wake of her murder, I'd been more than happy to allow my heart to harden over. It had taken Lumen to break me once more out of my shell. Now she was gone, her shattered psyche at least repaired enough that she could never look at me the same way again.

Harrison was still a child. But Astor was reaching that inconvenient age. The independent age, when kids start to ask even more awkward questions. Trying to start having lives of their own.

I think about doing pushups. I breathe slow and deep, running through a mental catalog of everything on my equipment checklist. Scalpel.

Knife.

Syringe...

By the second run through, I'm gone.