The first warning sign should have been Astor showing up on my doorstep.
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.
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.
By the second run through, I'm gone.
The smell of bacon penetrates the haze of sleep. I remember Astor, clearly up before me. As usual, I don't remember my dreams.
I make more noise than necessary getting cleaned up and dressed. By the time I emerge there are pancakes on the counter and Harrison has been installed at the table with his own plate. Astor is wearing a fresh set of clothes in the same utilitarian style as last night, all darker fabrics than I'm used to seeing on her. At least she hasn't gone full goth.
"Not that I don't appreciate someone else making breakfast," I say, spooning mashed raspberries over my short stack. "But did you plan on being here for the whole summer?"
"I don't know." She manages to make eye contact, more from concentrating on inhaling her own food than any apparent subterfuge. "I figured if you didn't throw me out, I'd just...take it one day at a time."
"I only ask because it can get awfully boring around here." I pour my orange juice, noting with approval her addition of a splash of grapefruit. "You might want to think about looking for a part-time job."
She blinks, momentarily stricken. "You want me to pay rent?"
"What? No." I shake my head to drive it home. "No, that's not even...forget it."
"Forgotten." She returns to her pancakes, giving Harrison a brief smile across the table. He coos and waves his spoon in response.
"But since you're here to watch him," I say, "I might work late. I'll try not to wake you."
"I've been staying up late myself." And she looks it, paler than ever. "Kind of hard to sleep."
"I know the feeling." I search her eyes for some sort of hidden meaning. "You going to be all right with Harrison?"
"Don't worry." Her lip firms with resolve. "I won't let anything happen to him."
I search around for an appropriate consolation. "Want to do something this weekend? Maybe go out on the boat?"
"I'll think about it." Her look says what the answer will probably be. Still, at least she's being polite.
So far it's an improvement over that brief period of acting out that led to my putting a severe bruising on a man's liver and kidneys. Given the evidence, I'm still waiting for a possible psychotic older boyfriend -- or wannabe -- to come out of nowhere. That's all I need. Some half-crazed adolescent hopped up on hormones, trying to get the drop on me with a sucker punch.
Luckily, it's a slow day at work. Slow enough that I let slip to Vince that Astor is staying with me.
"Oh, Rita's girl? Yeah, I remember seeing her at Harrison's birthday party." Vince doesn't even sound the least bit lecherous. I'm a little shocked. "How's she holding up? You know -- with her mom gone?"
"About like you'd expect." I give him the Godfather hands -- What can you do?
"Shit." He winces. "Lemme know if I can help."
"I will. Thanks."
He returns to his workstation as I resume cataloguing. I'm just getting into the rhythm when the next photograph flashes up on my screen. And this one is particularly violent and bloody.
So much so, it's like a memory.
Another tragic Miami sunset. Tragic for its impermanent beauty, which I, Dutifully Dedicated Dexter, had been enjoying until the perils of being on call forced me to abandon my post. My tentative family were naturally quite disappointed, although Cody and Astor seemed more aggrieved at missing a rare opportunity for night fishing. Rita, per her usual priorities, focused only on wishing me back soon, safe and sound.
"Don't worry." I work the muscles in my face to make a smile, to plant a kiss upon her cheek. "By the time they call me in, the bad guys are long gone."
"You could stab them with your scalpel!" Cody pipes up.
"Nah." I cut in before Rita can express her obvious shock and dismay. "Remember the red thread?"
Cody's head bobs with enthusiasm. "You make a map with it."
"That's right." I smile and ruffle the feathering of his hair. "And then my co-workers -- the guys with the guns --"
"They follow the map."
Still, I muse as I pull up and switch off the engine. I could conceivably strangle someone. Probably faster to make them choke on it. Or slice their carotid, if the thread was sufficiently thin and strong --
"Howdy." Masuka sends a cheery wave.
"I was just thinking you're one of the few people I can really talk to." I nod at his oversized Hawaiian shirt and matching shorts. "Then I saw that."
"This is my ironic relaxing around the house uniform. No criticism allowed."
I hold back an immediate response. In actuality, when it comes to making casual conversation, Angel's the only guy on the force I don't seem to have too much of a problem with. More importantly, I never know how much small talk I have in me at any given moment. Best not to exhaust my reserves.
"Watch your feet." Vince nods at the stain on the mantel of the doorway as we cross the threshold. "Meet the first of today's satisfied customers."
I pretend to think. "Looks like he's spread a little thin."
Vince snorts like a hyena I heard on the Discovery channel. "Wait'll you see the main course."
"Give me the Cliff's notes."
"Coyotes." Vince grins. "Go ahead. Ask me."
"I take it you're not describing the cause of death."
"Nope -- that's our victims. Perp might be a fellow smuggler."
I'm barely listening as I note the unusual splatter characteristics. The savagery on display gets my initial attention, but as I proceed I can discern a touch of cool, elegant precision in the strokes. Before long the others have wandered away and the entire cordoned off area is festooned with crimson threads, hovering in the air. I finish supervising photography, guzzling half a bottle of water as something tickles under my spine.
It's roasting when I step outside for some fresh air. The back yard is tiny, fully enclosed by brick walls. I'm this close to pouring the rest of the water bottle over my head when the tickle below grows stronger. I turn toward the dumpster in the corner and venture a greeting.
The head that pokes out is female. Late teens or early twenties. Brunette; long hair, not well maintained, but not filthy or matted. And a level of crazy in her eyes that despite all my long years of experience, is utterly new.
"Hello." She offers a tentative smile, inching out from behind the dumpster. I can hear the squelch of moisture from her sneakers, leaving bloody prints behind. Red lines run across her face and shirt, precisely matching the map I've constructed.
"Did they hurt you?" It's the only thing I can think to say. She's getting closer to the wall, and I'm not sure what her next move will be. I'd hate to see someone hurt themselves trying to get away.
"No." She smiles again, and waves. "But I have to go now."
Then she turns around, crouches, and leaps up and over an eight foot wall.
The so-called victims had turned out to be pretty low on the scum ladder. More than most crews, they supplemented their income with what they convinced the girls and women to let them take in trade. Their convincing often consisted of outright coercion, and when it came to disposing of the occasional body, they apparently had it down to a system.
That had been over a year ago. I'd left the incident out of my report, and had no reason to recall it. Looking back, it still seems like something impossible.
But what I'm looking at right now on my monitor definitely reminds me of the work of that strange girl, the one lurking behind the dumpster. It's the victim that doesn't fit the pattern. From the scant handful of evidence, the dead man himself wasn't a smuggler, but a part of the latest group being smuggled. Apparently my pretty, crazy young killer is an equal opportunist.
In between verifying catalog entries, I spend the rest of the day comparing files from the previous case. The resemblance to this latest one is striking, but nothing anyone else would have noticed. Contrary to what some people think, I'm not the only blood geek on the force. Whoever took these photos hadn't bothered to consult with me. If I hadn't been cleaning up the database, the only way I would have seen them was by getting called in for a second opinion.
Vince waves from the doorway. "Still on for bowling?"
"Shit." I'm less annoyed by potential socializing and more that I let something, anything, slip my mind. The devil is in the details. "I forgot about Astor."
"Bring her along." Vince raises his hand, in a gesture of Scout's honor. "I promise to keep the dirty jokes to a minimum."
"I believe you." I do, actually. "She's going through one of those dark periods. I want to give it a few days before she has to deal with anyone else."
It turns out to be a few days for me as well. Two days really, and two nights, but it feels far longer as I plot a map of violent crimes occurring around the two appearances of my prime suspect: One confirmed, one assumed. Harry is silent despite the way I'm jumping the gun, knowing next to nothing about this killer or her motives. Other than the fact that she can put an Olympic vaulter to shame without a pole? All I know is one thing.
I have to meet this girl.
Two nights later, my already skewed world turns upside down. Not to mention inside out.
Before Astor came to town, I'd been planning my next case to wrap up. As in who I was going to wrap up in plastic and confront with their crimes before I bled them out and chopped up their corpse. Hypocritical, yes. Also very cathartic.
But in all the commotion, my locked case is still in the Mommymobile, as Lieutenant LaGuerta termed it, and full of supplies. Very sloppy of me. I've been waiting for a good time to move everything in from the car, when fate intervenes.
An unplanned stop at a corner stand for a pulled pork sandwich is just the thing to lift my spirits. It's in a less upscale neighborhood, but I've been here before and I'm not concerned for my safety, even when I tip the cook generously. I'm halfway through my meal, licking the paper in as genteel a manner as I can muster, when I notice something.
Not that I can tell what it is. But the feeling only grows stronger as I linger and fuss, striking up a conversation with the cook and continuing to scan the area. Half the streetlights are burned out or broken. Down the block I spy a lone hooker taking advantage of one of the safe spots, surrounded by a halo of sodium glare.
Eventually I give up. I've gotten back in the car and am pulling out when I realize I'm heading the wrong way. Instead of turning around, I keep going. Follow my nose, or so it seems, until I'm far off the beaten track; into the dead industrial zone, where only the hardcore suicidal dare to tread. I find what seems like a good spot and kill the engine, peering around, letting my eyes adjust.
The faint sound of laughter.
The kind that takes pleasure in terror.
It's coming from the half-crumbled main building ahead. Momentarily I wish for darker clothing, before remembering to be thankful for what I do have. Which is two loaded syringes, a roll of plastic, a matching roll of duck tape, and what I think will be my new favorite knife. Assuming I get the chance to use it.
I'm walking a tightrope as far as the Code is concerned. But the sounds as I approach the building do nothing to dissuade me from my destination. And when I find a darkened window missing its corner pane, the sight inside matches what I'm hearing: A young man in a sport jacket and slacks, tormenting another in jeans and a T-shirt. Practically playing with him, like a pig fattened for the kill.
I only watch for a moment before my mind is made up. It takes another to station myself on the tiny bit of roof above the front entranceway. There are plenty of rocks up here. I find the biggest, weighing stone in hand and options in my mind.
Then my quarry crouches, preparing to lunge. The finality in his posture, the desperation on the face of his prey, all combine in the moment to make my decision.
I open my fingers.
The concrete rings, echoing through the massive empty space. My dropped pebble bounces from wall to wall as it fades into nothing but I'm not looking through the window. I'm looking straight down, holding my breath and two full syringes of M-99. And still Harry is silent in my head.
I hear footsteps behind, then directly underneath. The pause is long enough my breath begins to burn in my lungs. Though I haven't made a sound, I wonder if he can hear me.
Then he steps into my line of sight.
I let him have it with both barrels. One on either side, Little Chino-style. Better safe than sorry --
The roar of pain and outraged surprise nearly deafens me. I don't have time to pull back before a powerful grip has me by the forearms, hurling me to the ground.
I barely manage an awkward somersault to avoid a nasty landing, but there are still scrapes and bruises galore to be had as I tuck into a ball and roll. Any normal person would be out by now from the M-99 and I still hear him moving toward me, staggering a stutter-step as growls and snarls come closer out of the dark. I'm just thinking this may have been a bigger mistake than I could have dreamed when I realize they're growing fainter as well, even as they draw closer still. The figure of a man resolves itself in my vision it sways gently back and forth, before finally collapsing.
I realize my heart is actually beating faster as I survey the body. And not just from exertion. I'm not sure what my eyes just saw -- a distorted face? An extra pair of teeth?
Whatever it was. A trick of the light. Just an ordinary, reasonably good-looking, eminently forgettable young man, passed out at my feet.
I wrestle with rationality, but conscience quickly wins out. The victim is lying on his side when I enter the building, and I can hear the inward hiss of his breath, see the way his trembling body tenses at the sound of my approaching footsteps.
"Please!" A pitiful sob escapes his lips as I grab him from behind. I cover his eyes, forcing him upright.
"Can you walk?"
He freezes in my grasp.
"I --" He swallows a whimper of pain as he tests his bad foot. "I think so."
I point him in the right direction and let go. "Run."
Considering his injuries, he makes pretty good time. There's another little shriek as he hits the doorway, spying the unconscious form of his former captor lying on the ground, and he stumbles and skids before hightailing it out of there.
I drag said former captor inside the building double time, hoisting him onto a table before running back to the car for the rest of my supplies. A fiendish glee suffuses my being, the euphoric rush flooding my veins as I secure his body and start the mummification process. Not literally -- I've never been interested in torture per se. Though it might be amusing to actually kill someone by removing their brain through their nose. I chuckle as I rip off his shirt and stuff it into his mouth, strapping each limb down tight with a double wrap of fibrous packing tape. Another hard earned lesson, courtesy of Little Chino.
I grab his wrist and give a hearty tug. Sufficiently satisfied at the lack of give, I heave a sigh and sink down on a nearby chair, contemplating the knife in my hand. I still can't believe Harry hasn't chimed in by now. This entire evening has been one blatant Code violation after another.
As I think of Astor, I realize my cell phone is still out in the car. I'm on my feet, fully intending to go and fetch it just in case, when I hear a noise. I cock my head and peer from side to side before realizing it's the sound of something tearing.
I turn around to see eyes blazing with hatred. Saliva runs from the corner of my captive's mouth as he bites down on his shirt, every last muscle and vein standing out as he rages against my impromptu restraints. And somehow, little by little, the tape is actually giving way.
By now I'm annoyed, and more than a bit curious. I rap him hard on the forehead with the butt of the knife.
"Cut that out."
That gets his attention. He stares up at me, upside down, jaw working in silence as he takes in the sight of me and my blade.
"You shouldn't even be awake right now." I reconsider. "Well, actually -- you should. And what I should be doing, is showing you why you're here. A catalog of all your sins."
It takes a moment to work out the muffled sound coming from behind the gag. But it's regular, and his eyes are scrunching shut like he's having trouble breathing, and yes, this man is laughing at me. Which is not unheard of, in my line of work, but far from a regular occurrence.
"And you'd ask who I am, and why I'm doing this. And I'd make a few cryptic statements." I run my thumb down the edge of the blade. "Maybe compare myself to you."
He's not laughing any more. His entire body is quivering like a greyhound at the gate; his eyes are bright and shining, locked upon the thin red line welling up on my thumb.
"But none of that matters. Because the only thing that matters?" I raise the blade high. "I saw what you did."
His body is utterly still as he stares up at me.
"And you're going to die."
The tip descends in a perfect arc.
I can almost hear it hiss through the air before it meets flesh and sinks in, the hilt coming to rest against his chest. I wonder who he was, briefly, as he stares up in what seems like puzzlement and dismay. A grunt and a little sigh escape him, as does his final breath.
Then tearing becomes ripping. Like a stubborn bag of potato chips, finally giving way.
His hand is reaching out for mine.
The blade pulls free from his chest right as his wrist comes into the center of my field of vision. It's all I see as I put everything into a backhand stroke, in a perfectly executed on-the-fly amputation.
I'm expecting the muffled howl of pain. What I'm not expecting is to realize two things simultaneously. One is that rather than a fountain of blood from his wildly flailing wrist, there isn't a single drop. Except even this pales beside the fact of his face melting like wax, that bellowing roar from a mouth barely contained by a few scraps of shirt in those wide stretched jaws, those impossibly long sharp teeth.
Okay, I have time to think. This is new.
Then the other hand is reaching.
He's in the process of trying to sit up, so this blow isn't as clean. It's still enough to send his right hand sailing off into the darkness to join the left. And still those cleanly severed stumps are straining toward my unbelieving eyes, every nerve and vessel cleanly outlined in bloodless perfection. My brother would have called it a masterpiece.
I slam the knife deep in his thorax. He starts to laugh again, gagging on soaked and shredded fabric as his stumps brush my face.
I grab his right arm and turn toward his head, fighting that inhuman strength until his elbow gives way with a gratifying snap. He's still trying to reach me with it as I walk around to the other side and repeat the process. This time he knows it's coming, and fights even harder until I dig my fingers deep in his armpit and give a good hard tickle. The maniacal shriek that accompanies his body snapping taut, arching toward the ceiling like a pulled bowstring, is only outmatched by the subsequent scream as his other elbow gives way.
I pull the knife free once more. And the fear in those eyes as I raise the blade overhead tells me everything I need to know.
"Cut it out."
With every bit of my arm behind it, my new favorite knife earns its title in a flying finish. It's just heavy enough to do the job in one stroke: Slices straight through skin, muscle and esophageal tissue; glances off bone to be guided between what I suspect are C3 and C4, completing its downward journey as it meets the table beneath his neck with a solid thunk of impact.
I barely have time to relish the anguished expression on his face before it crumbles like sand.
Along with the rest of his body. Every scrap of clothing, down to the scraps of shirt still in his mouth, joins him in the process of disincorporation. In the space of half a second he's an outline of a man, frozen in silent agony.
Then the dust collapses, and swirls away.
At least this means less cleanup.
But what in the hell just happened?
The apartment complex is a virtual graveyard as I pull into my assigned parking space. For the third time since getting into the car I check my clothes, my face in the mirror. Then I sigh, take a deep breath, and disembark with killing satchel in hand.
As I pass the swimming pool, I'm still thinking on how to get by Astor if she happens to be awake. But my senses tingle as peripheral vision catches someone inside the fenced-off area. My eyes dart left and take in a brunette in a bikini, stretched out on a lounge chair, wearing completely unnecessary sunglasses.
I debate on whether I should tell her the pool's closed. Then I forget her as I climb the stairs. My shoulder still hurts where that guy wrenched it when he threw me, and landing on it right afterward didn't help.
I pause with my key in the lock. Surely that couldn't have been -- but no. Even cursory observation under dim lighting, even with that brief appearance of the original, it's not the blood-soaked girl from last year. I'm not a hundred percent; in fact, in my less sane moments I sometimes wish for photographic memory, before remembering all the things I'd love to forget. But pretty sure. The nose and chin don't match, and those are harder to fake.
At least Harrison is at Deb's tonight. I have to hand it to my sister, given her obvious lack of comfort with kids. Then again, extraordinary circumstances tend to broaden one's horizons.
The nightlight I've installed casts a feeble glow in a semi-circle as I shut the door behind me. I can just make out Astor on the couch, her blanket in a crumpled heap on the floor. She's on her side, her back to me, muttering low and occasionally giving a little twitch.
I kneel and gather the blanket, in my absolute most silent mode. I'm holding my breath as I drape it over her trembling form. Sweatpants and T-shirt, she's half- curled up in a fetal position, knees drawn up, fists clutched tight against her belly. I avert my gaze as I finish tucking her in, gentle as can be.
I begin to stand.
She sits up with a guttural scream.
I catch hold of her wrist.
Picture: Father and stepdaughter, staring at one another. Together, realizing a couple of things.
One: The stake in her hand might have killed me.
Two: Make that would. Even if this is the worst possible moment for a pun. Because Astor, rather than having the strength of a slightly built adolescent girl in average physical condition, seems to be more on the level of a bull elephant.
I'd find both of these points much more fascinating if her wooden weapon with its own deadly sharpened point wasn't hovering less than an inch from my own very vulnerable-feeling chest. As well as the fact that
Three: This girl is so strong that I wouldn't have a chance of stopping her. That is, if she hadn't stopped on her own at the last second. Her eyes are huge, her mouth falling open aghast at what she's almost done.
"Oh my God --" Her throat works in spasms, her grip loosening. Not enough to drop the stake. "I'm so sorry. Please, don't --"
"Quiet." Which I am. Not ominously so, just more calm than a normal person might expect in this scenario. Astor swallows again, but obeys.
I release my own grasp. "We need to work on your reflexes."
She blinks, fear replaced with confusion. "What?"
"You don't want to stake the wrong person, do you?"
Her eyes narrow a fraction. "Are you making fun of me?"
"Perish the thought." I stand and turn, ignoring every learned instinct -- an oxymoron if there ever was one -- feeling her watching as I cross the room to the hallway. I stop with my hand on the wall.
"I don't know if your mom ever told you this." I'm listening to my own voice, like a radio broadcasting in my head. "But my childhood...wasn't great."
She doesn't say anything. I can hear her breathing, a slight hitch in her chest.
"My dad...he wasn't the best. But he did his best. With me." I struggle for something safe, not overly sanitized or saccharine. "I want to do that for you. Without his mistakes."
"Oh." She falters. I'm wondering whether she'll say anything more, when she does. "Okay."
"Good." I allow myself the tiniest smile. "Your training starts tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" A hint of teenage outrage rears its head.
"Six o'clock. On the dot." I pause for effect. "And no pancakes."
Her only reply is a wordless growl.
With no rational explanation forthcoming, I spend the entire night and next morning feeling alternately aggravated and baffled. I hide it well, especially during Astor's first workout. We're not even two minutes in when she realizes I'm not treating her like a normal girl, instead pushing her obvious superior strength to its limits.
Even after this sinks in, I can tell she's still holding back. It's like we both know what's going on, but neither actually wants to mention the bull elephant in the room. I consider it quite the achievement that I manage to get her to break a sweat before we're through. Though the prospect of actual combat is daunting, regardless of her lack of skill. I think I managed to avoid serious bruising, but I'll be feeling this for the next few days. Already I'm rethinking my strategy.
I drop her off at Deb's place, staying just long enough to say hi to Harrison, who's apparently been up since well before dawn. By the time I arrive at Miami Metro, I'm back to ruminating on the impossible. Or at least what I've always assumed to be impossible, and thought no more of. When a demand comes in for a spatter report I nearly sing out in gratitude. Although I have no idea who to thank. God's supposed to be responsible, but I don't think He'd approve.
"Damn." For once, Vince seems at a loss for words. He surveys the photos with a genuinely sickened expression.
"Yeah." A tiny, flaming core of what must be anger begins to bubble in my guts. It's like a hunk of sodium dropped into a waterglass.
"Whoever did this took their time," I note. "Enjoyed their work."
"I'll get lunch." Vince looks away, shaking his head. "Want anything?"
"Thanks, but Astor's making dinner. Don't want to spoil my appetite."
Vince gives me a sympathetic look as he departs. It takes a second to remember he's probably sorry for me because of Rita's death. Then I have to close my eyes and breathe, fighting a headache. I can almost feel her hands upon my shoulders, the softness of her kiss on my temple.
Unusually for me, I'm glad to be rid of other observers as I run off hard copies and spread them out over the table. It's not the brutal pleasure on display in these murders. Far from it, after everything I've seen in my life. Rather, it's because I find myself again comparing them to the suspected kills of my wall jumping girl. Except I keep coming up empty. This is nothing like that brutal efficiency. More importantly, there doesn't appear to be any sign of a weapon.
Someone likes to get their hands dirty.
I close my eyes once more, trying to conjure the image of Rita's face. It takes a moment. I'm just starting to wonder what's wrong when she's standing side by side with Lumen, both of them staring back at me as if I were a total stranger.
Dexter. My name on her lips is a plea for her life. Blood wells up on her thigh, pours down her leg, spreading in a growing pool beneath her feet. Why didn't you save me?
He could never save you. Lumen's lips don't move but I hear her voice as clear as day as she stares me down. Rita crumbles to the ground as Lumen holds out her bloody hand; my shining gift to her clenched in trembling fingers.
So he tried to save me.
I open my eyes before I can cry out.
Before I leave the station, I spend the last half hour deep in research. Anything inexplicable that smacks of the slightest whiff of the supernatural, with particular focus on incidents with a distinctly vampiric flavor. Saying the V-word -- even thinking it, or any variation thereof -- does not make me feel any more in control of the situation.
What does, is getting back to a proper routine. And in the absence of that?
A plan to catch a killer.
I hit downtown Miami just as the sun begins to set. The glitz and bling are blinding under the dazzling lights of the club scene, forcing me to don a decidedly un-Dexterish pair of dark sunglasses. It helps to hide my disdain for the crude peacocking on display from both sexes, from their clownish appearance to the artifice dripping from every word and gesture. It all does nothing for me. Except to remind me of all the reasons I never felt human.
Even in Rita's arms.
Not for the first time, I wonder what my dead wife's reaction would have been if she had ever discovered the true nature of my addiction. At least tonight, Deb has taken pity on me; Astor is safe and sound at her aunt's apartment, the two of them watching Harrison and gorging on pizza. The best part was I didn't even need to ask -- Deb volunteered. Hence, tonight's night out on the town for damaged and disobedient Dexter, for whom the sound of opportunity knocking definitely drowns out any lectures from dear old Dad.
I make it past the worst of the crowd and around the corner, where the din and hub have died down a bit. Then I order espresso and take up position at the far end of the street cafe, on the edge of the shadows; my back to the wall, with a clear view of the corner.
Three missing persons this week, all of them in their twenties, might not be enough to tip the authorities. But combined with my newly found pattern recognition, the existing data shows things in a different light. Based on my quick and dirty algorithm, this location should be a prime spot. Good hunting grounds.
For them, and for me. Assuming I believed in them.
But I've replayed every moment of that encounter in my mind. And between the impossible events of last Thursday and the wooden stake in my stepdaughter's back pocket, I still feel foolish making and carrying my own. I also feel just a little bit safer.
I haven't broached the subject with Astor.
Not until I can do it without sounding like a lunatic.
The evening wears on, punctuated by espresso refills and toilet breaks. Groups of people come and go, staggering around the corner fresh from the bar, in search of a stiff drink to sober them up. Or a quick line in the bathroom. Or a quick sneak off into the shadows for a quick something else. I've toyed with the notion of pretending to read a book, but it seems like wasted effort. Even the lone barista pays me no heed in between orders, seemingly obsessed with his new smartphone. I'm on the verge of calling it a night.
Then a high-pitched giggle cuts the air like my favorite knife.
People often casually talk about blood freezing. And as something of an expert on the former, with a (deceased, by my hand) brother who specialized in the latter, I've apparently spent most of my life with ice in my own veins. But the birth of my son had awakened something new inside me, competing for attention with the Dark Passenger. And then the double impact of Rita's death, followed by Lumen's departure -- fleeing Miami for the comfort of her family, unable to face the cold reality of Dark and Damaged Dexter -- had left me almost missing those comparatively carefree early days. I had become a Real Boy, as well as the clumsy imitation I had already been -- and with all too real emotions.
The cold sensation slithering through my innards right now makes liquid nitrogen feel like a day at the beach. The nonchalant cruelty is something wholly new, perhaps the most unsettling thing. But the laugh itself is all too familar, and as they come round the corner it takes everything I have to remain seated, to keep my entire body from turning to focus on the woman draped on this man's arm and gazing up in rapt and mindless adoration.
My mind splits along separate tracks. The Dark Passenger, clinically observing that no matter how many uninhibited Halloweens had gone under the bridge since our relationship first began to involve actual sex, this is definitely Rita as I've never seen her before. Her tight, trim body practically spills out from a slinky red dress, her smiling face made up like a porcelain doll. And of course the rest of me is torn between the impossibility of her existence; the seeming reality of a woman I saw dead and buried now back among the living. Walking, talking, and pursuing mindless pleasure like all the rest of them.
Except the fawning all over this man she's hanging onto doesn't ring quite true. The more I watch as I pretend not to, the more I realize it's all an act. A very clever one. Though it could be even more subtle.
I stand and stretch, looking past them up the street. I check my watch, and then my phone as they amble past my table, cooing endearments to each other. Except he only has eyes for her body, and the look in hers screams something else entirely. I avert my own at the last second, covering my mouth in an exaggerated yawn.
When I turn my head, they're gone. I can still hear them, making their way down the side alley. Having scoped out the area beforehand, I know it's a dead end. I don't like the idea of someone coming in behind and trapping me between.
Remember the Code. My eyes flick back and forth, up and down the deserted street. Sure, it's not perfect. You've had to adapt. But it's kept you safe. Are you going to throw it all away on some passing hallucination?
I remember the Code.
I remember Rita.
My feet carry me forward as her face turns to dust in my mind.
"Stay back." She's dragging his limp and twitching body into the shadows, the open cruelty in her gaze now fixed upon me as I enter the alley. "Or I play make a wish."
"And he's the wishbone?" My mouth is actually dry. There's a double smear of blood trickling down his neck and her eyes glitter in the dark. I'm still being torn two ways and now it's the cold logistics of staking this undead imitation of the woman I
I hesitate only a microsecond, but it's enough. In that moment, we both know she could have taken me down. And now there is puzzlement in those eyes, as she lets him fall to the ground.
"Just a little appetizer." She smiles, but it seems like a frown. Or perhaps it's the other way. "Hardly your concern."
"You'd be surprised." I've lost the advantage. I should be running. Instead the Dark Passenger is writhing in uncontained glee, itching for a real fight. It's kind of stupid that way.
My only consolation is the lack of any inconvenient nearby street cameras to record my potentially ignominious defeat. I don't know why I'm thinking of that as she drifts toward me, as if she's walking on air.
And stops. Cocks her head, so much like Rita I could almost --
"You know me."
"I --" Stop. Full stop. She still looks more puzzled than possessed of any real knowledge. Best to keep it that way. Best with any foe, let alone this one.
"Are we playing my game now, Grandmother?"
I realize this last utterance -- in what sounds like a poor Cockney accent, no less -- has come from what appears to be a younger woman, black hair and black dress, crouching at her feet. A delicate crimson smear stains the corner of her mouth as she stares back at me, cradling her partner's discarded meal in her arms.
As my vision of Rita opens her arms.
I make the entrance to the alley by a literal hair.
Maybe I only imagine the feeling of fingers, brushing the tail of my shirt.
I sit in the parking lot for what seems like far too long. At least I'm not endlessly checking my face in the mirror. Instead I'm bifurcated, once more fixatedly following twin trails of death and destruction.
The part that wonders how in the hell Rita became a vampire.
And the terrified little boy, screaming for his mother.
The woman outside by the pool is there again. Drop dead gorgeous; definitely not the crazy brunette I remember all covered in blood. Though the Dark Passenger says this girl is no stranger to it.
"I've seen you around." I hazard a greeting as I pass by, casual as can be. "New neighbor?"
A scoff in return. "New lifeguard."
"Oh." I fumble a moment, distracted searching for my key. "Well -- best of luck."
She sounds secretly amused. "You too."
I let myself in without making too much noise. Unfortunately, it's not until then that I remember Astor's now staying here. I barely get my homemade stake into my back pocket before the table lamp comes on. Her thin form sits hunched over on the couch, the features of her face shrouded in shadow.
"You okay?" Somehow, I manage to sound like nothing's wrong.
"Dreams." She shakes her head. "Bloody."
"Can I get you something? Water?" I'm already headed for the kitchen, where I find a convenient drawer and stash the stake amongst some other wooden utensils. When I open the refrigerator, I note with approval Astor's refilling of the filtering water pitcher. Deb could learn a thing or two from this girl.
"Yeah. Please." She draws a shaky breath, exhales noisily as she sits back, staring at the ceiling. "And thank you."
"Don't mention it." I pour us both a tall cold one. Returning to the living room, I hand her the glass, offer mine in a toast. "To your health."
A little snort escapes through her nose, accompanied by a rueful smile. Still, she doesn't object as our glasses meet.
The water is unbelievably good. I have to stop before I drink too much, setting it back down.
"Actually, I'm feeling kind of hungry." I look at the clock. Half past three. "How would you feel about steak and eggs?"
"Oh God yes --" Astor coughs and covers her mouth. "I mean yes please."
I end up opening the bottle of wine in the refrigerator that Deb brought over last Christmas. I don't know why, except I want to have a drink. Just one. Against my every rule of self-preservation, I'm nonetheless finding myself enjoying it until I see Astor pouring her own glass.
"Just one," she replies, when I voice my objection. If by 'voice objection' you mean 'feebly and ineffectually protest'. Excellent parenting by dashing, debonair Dexter. Stellar work.
She doesn't push the issue. I'm breathing a sigh of relief as we wash up after, until what I can only assume is the vino results in a tad too much veritas.
"I still kind of hate you."
I blink, wondering how to process this. I'm not sure whether to take offense. Or if I even should.
She looks away, hands wrist-deep in suds. "And I hate myself."
"Been there." I hand her a clean towel. "Which is worse?"
"I don't know." She looks at her hands like they belong to someone else. "For a while, I thought if she never met you...Mom would still be alive."
I blink again, perilously close to something resembling tears. "I've thought that too."
"And then I think about Paul." Her forearms tremble, fists clenched under the water's surface. "And how many more times it would have taken him to beat her to death."
A pleasant surge of righteous anger runs through me. The memory of swinging a frying pan. And how I first committed the great and glorious code violation of getting Emotionally Involved.
"I failed your mom." My voice is hollow in my ears. "I won't fail you. Not if I can help it."
"Dexter --" She falls silent. The only sound is the air conditioner, the creak of insects outside.
"Get some rest." I leave the kitchen, pausing in the hallway. "Tomorrow's going to be a busy day."
I can hear the pause before she speaks. "Why?"
The Dark Passenger smiles.
So do I.
"We've got work to do."
As Dexter opens up more of himself to Astor, the enemy escalate matters to a horrifying new level, striking close to home.
"Bro, you know I love my only nephew to pieces." Deb chucks said nephew under his chin, prompting an enormous grin in return. "But you gotta get a fuckin' nanny."
"I don't like the idea of him being around strangers." I force my feet to remain still, feeling Harrison's tiny but growing hand in mine. "And do I need to start a swear jar for his college fund?"
"Are you fucking kid--" Deb breaks off in a growl of exasperation. Astor looks like she's about to giggle, and I'm not sure what sort of reaction that might provoke from Deb. Nor am I particularly eager to find out.
"We'll talk. Later." My sister levels a baleful glare that reminds me of Harry. "Seriously -- I can't keep doing this. Not unless you want me forever single."
"Bye, Aunt Deb." Astor seems about to leave it at that. Then she abruptly steps forward and gives Deb a hug. At first my sister looks startled, almost like I imagined myself the first time Rita felt comfortable enough to do it to me. Then she returns the squeeze, offering an awkward pat on the back as they separate.
Astor is smiling on the drive back as she plays peekaboo in the mirror with Harrison, securely buckled into the back seat. But her smile seems troubled.
I wait until we've stopped at a light.
"So why do you have a stake?" My eyes remain on the road. My voice is of reasonable volume, my tone utterly bland and conversational. "And not the kind that goes with sunny side up."
From the corner of my vision, Astor shifts in her seat.
"Dreams." A single word, a single syllable. Equally casual on the surface.
The light has changed. I check both ways before proceeding. "Go on."
She doesn't respond right away. Until Harrison returns to looking out the window, less fascinated by his big sister's antics than by the rapid passage of the world outside our little metal and plastic shell.
"At first -- I thought it was because of Mom." I can hear her swallow. "That I was just...freaking out."
I consider offering some sort of sympathy. Almost immediately, I reconsider. Astor looks like she's trying not to grind her teeth as she chews on her thoughts.
It's her next words that throw me.
"Because I kept seeing her."
If she had told me this before last night, I'm not sure what my reaction would have been. As it is, I don't suddenly swerve off the road. I just have a brief flash before my eyes of suddenly swerving off the road.
"You mean --"
"Not for real." Her fingers twitch and stroke one another like she's trying not to let them clench. "In my dreams."
I manage to remain silent.
"So I tried one of Grandma's sleeping pills." She lowers her voice, joining Harrison in staring through the window at an older couple walking their dog. "But it didn't help, and -- I didn't want to take any more."
"Sensible." I curse my triteness. Remember, kids. Do what Dexter doesn't. Just say no.
"Then one day, I was sitting on the back step. I'd already bought that knife. I was just looking at the pile of brush they hadn't cleared away. And the next time I looked down..." Astor shrugs, still not looking at me.
I consider as I make the turn, smoothly backing into my parking space.
"If you saw your mom right now." Again, I reconsider. "Let's say tonight. If she showed up at our door, after dark -- what would you do?"
Astor's gaze falls to her right hand, resting on her thigh with the palm up. Her fingers, loose and relaxed, form slowly into a fist.
"I'd try to kill her."
The internal surge of joy from the Dark Passenger makes me feel rather giddy. Her knuckles aren't quite white, but I hear one crack.
I try to make it sound innocent. "Why?"
Astor pauses. The look on her face says this is the fatal Rubicon, and she almost falters before her face hardens, her young voice the same.
"Because it wouldn't be her."
I say no more. Too much to think about. And like always, too little time.
As we pass by the pool, I notice it's deserted. No lifeguard on duty today.
Harrison tugs at my pantleg. The look on his face tells me he suspects I won't be sticking around.
"I should be back by six. I'll text if I have to work late." I check my watch -- don't want to have to speed. "Call Deb if you need anything."
Before I can stop her, Astor sweeps into my arms. Which respond in reflexive imitation of her gesture, and I stand there a moment with her wrapped around my midsection, Harrison clinging to my leg. I'm not sure how long this is supposed to go on before it gets weird. As the kids say.
"Bye." Astor disengages and kneels to pick up Harrison, who returns my wave with considerably more enthusiasm than I can muster. At least I remember how to smile.
Even if it feels just as fake.
Once you have some idea what to look for, it's amazing how many murders start to look like vampires.
I have to remind myself that confirmation bias is a thing. As are many other things. Traps one has to avoid when engaging in, say, rigorous logical debate. Or structural engineering. Or hunting what may be literally the most dangerous game.
By all appearances, my quarry possesses the appetite and fundamental mindset of a wild animal. Driven to kill by the thirst for blood, night after endless night. But combining it with human intelligence seems truly diabolical. Talk about the worst of both worlds.
My day at work -- when I'm not analyzing blood and trying to act normal -- is mostly spent planning this evening's festivities. Working with Astor on balance and reflexes should be slightly less hazardous to life and limb. Hopefully my own. I'm also looking forward to finding out if she has any other special abilities. Call me crazy (and by most people's definition, I certainly am) but I don't think it's unreasonable to suspect we've only scratched the surface.
Vince stops by my office after lunch to drop off a stack of manila folders. I grunt my thanks as I peer through the microscope. Still, I sense him lingering.
"How's Astor doing?"
"Better," I return automatically as I squint. Does that hair belong there?
"Glad to hear it." I hear a rustle of paper. "Listen, I know we talk a lot of shit at the bowling alley -- but I'm sure the guys would be happy to tone it down. You know -- if she wanted to join us some night."
"Tell that to my sister." I straighten up, wincing at the momentary protest from my shoulder. A miscalculation when Astor threw me had ended in my landing just wrong enough to aggravate the previous week's injury.
"She does cuss like a sailor with Tourette's." Vince gives a nostalgic sigh. "Of all the girls I've never slept with, I've learned the most from Deb."
"And you wonder why I keep my teenage stepdaughter confined to the apartment."
"I figured it was for the free babysitting." Vince chuckles, but the look on his face becomes surprisingly serious. "You know I'm kidding, right? Because if I'm ever out of line -- if you ever think my comments are inappropriate, all you have to do is --"
"I'll say something." I offer a reassuring nod and an upraised hand. "Go. And sin no more."
"Think I can manage that. For the next..." He checks his watch. "Two hours."
"Wow." I pretend to be impressed. "That long?"
"My friend?" He cocks one eyebrow high with a sagely nod. "Freaks come out at night."
His hyenalike laugh echoes down the hall in the wake of his exit.
I return to examining photos, more to put the images of sinning Vince far from my thoughts. No matter how weak someone may be -- or how strong -- it always comes down to the basics. But even most young humans need serious training to develop the true killer instinct. So far, and for all her inexplicable strength and durability, I've no reason to believe Astor is any different.
I finish the day's shift with a smile on my face, and a song in my heart.
For the first time, it doesn't only sound like murder.
"You want to know the best time to kick someone in the face?" I try not to sound overly professorial as I await an answer.
Astor regards me with hesitation and a dubious air. We've managed a two hour session with me pacing myself, working on escape techniques in between lessons on general strategy. The only positive aspect is the locale; the late hour has ensured that the health club where I maintain membership will be completely deserted. Unfortunately, this privacy has also allowed Astor the luxury of not holding back. I'm sure my second wind will arrive any moment.
"Is this about to turn into a Bruce Lee lesson where I end up on my ass again?"
"Language," I admonish. This earns the usual glare, but I've moved on.
"The answer is: When you're wearing steel toed boots. And your opponent --" I draw back my foot, looking down at an imaginary body. "Is flat on the ground at your feet."
"Sounds good to me." Astor nonetheless appears somewhat more cautious. I lower my foot and she relaxes just a little. Very little.
"So forget everything you ever learned from Hollywood," I conclude. "If you want to defend yourself -- and more -- then we'll continue. But you need to treat it seriously."
Her eyes are burning now with puzzlement, and curiosity. "What style is this?"
"Huh." I wonder at the question even as I'm working out the answer. "Guess you could call it a combination of aikido and shoot fighting. With a bit of good old fashioned street cop."
She ponders this, looking irritated as she attempts to flip her hair over her shoulder. It's a new style for her, tied in a single braid that hangs down her back. Should be much more convenient for our training sessions. It also brings a pang at yet another memory of Rita; I can see her mother in her even now, beginning to emerge in the features of the woman Astor will become.
"Where did you learn it?" The question clearly has multiple layers.
"Mostly classes in college." Which is true. "It was a nice change of pace from all that science. The more you cram your head with information, you just want to turn your brain off for a while. Do something physical."
"I always thought you were kind of a geek." Her skeptical frown doesn't seem directed at me.
"Gotta keep in shape." I shrug, uncomfortable with the new direction things are taking. "I've never been much for team sports."
A low sound reaches my ears. I realize it's a chuckle.
"I guess Olivia was right."
I frown as I recall the relevant events of last year. Astor had run away with her friend; they had come here, whereupon I had found it necessary to beat a tattoo on the vital organs of the man dating her friend's mother. Another on my growing list of suicidally stupid and overly dramatic gestures.
She looks at me sideways. Judging how much to reveal.
"After her mom's boyfriend took off," she says. "They never saw him again."
"Oh." My brain scrambles, calculating conversational trajectories. "Yeah?"
"She was convinced you had something to do with it." The look on Astor's face can only be described as troubled. By what, I'm not certain. Any uncertainty is hazardous to my health. The more uncertain, the more potentially fatal.
I hazard a halfway point. "What if I did?"
Astor's snort makes for a decent scoff.
"You wouldn't hear any complaint from her. Or me." She holds her head high, but I still detect an element of shame. "I'm glad your friend saw what he did to her. I'm glad she said something."
"Me too." This seems an appropriate avenue for redirection. "It hasn't been easy for me. To...talk about my feelings."
Because for most of my life, I didn't have any feelings. Or they were buried so deep as to make no difference.
"When your mom was gone..."
The Dark Passenger coils within, a clear and obvious warning. I ignore it, along with all my own training; ignore the shade of Ghost Harry, frowning at me over Astor's shoulder in silent disapproval.
"I lost it."
That was putting it mildly. The impromptu murder in that filthy restroom had been my most blatant Code violation to date. I'd waited on edge for weeks, expecting the hammer to come down despite my meticulous cleanup of the scene. But when I dared to check up on the case of the disappearing redneck, the investigative trail had gone cold. Apparently God smiles on drunks, dimwits, and overly emotional serial killers.
Astor still looks skeptical. She remembers the empty look on my face when I broke the news of her mother's death. The mouse ears I was wearing at the time probably didn't help. Nonetheless, she seems to accept this.
"I --" Swallow the truth. "I was running away. I was going to leave you. And Cody...and Harrison."
Force it out.
"I thought you'd be better off without me."
"I'm glad you stayed." Her voice is quiet as she looks down at her taped and battered hands. "What made you change your mind?"
I remember the stink of urine and blood. The rasp of my throat, raw from screaming, as I knelt on an ancient wooden floor. The cold comfort of a dead man's hand on my shoulder.
I take her by the elbow and gently guide her to the sink. Slowly the tape unwinds, assisted by warm water.
"Someone convinced me otherwise."
A sniffle emerges before she angrily wipes it away. Her other hand remains firmly in mine.
"Even after that -- I had to...work through the pain." I can't remember where I first heard that phrase, but it comes in very handy. Not least because it's true. "Lumen...had problems of her own. We helped each other. But then --"
She decided, the Dark Passenger sighs. She knew what was best. She decided for you. For us.
"She had to go." I look away. "To be with her family."
We finish our washing up in silence.
The ride back is equally devoid of discussion. At least between Astor and myself. Luckily, Harrison is there to make up the deficit. I wonder again how old he can get before he inevitably starts Noticing.
I crane my neck as we pass by the pool. There's no sign of our new lifeguard, but I stop and frown, squinting at the light from the parking lot reflected on the water.
"What's that?" Astor inquires.
"Stay there." I unlatch the gate and glide forward on rubber soles. The light in the pool itself is broken, burned out or turned off. As I come closer I can discern a large dark patch, with something limp and shiny in the middle.
"What is it --"
My voice is no louder than before, but Astor instantly turns and hurries up the stairs with Harrison. Her shaky hands rattle my keyring against the doorframe until she finally gets the two of them inside, almost slamming the door in her haste.
My ears barely register these sounds as I stare at the hollowed out corpse of a dog, surrounded by what I now realize is an enormous cloud of blood that is slowly drifting outward into the uncontaminated water. An explosion of organs trails down from its abdomen, the mass below anchoring it to the spot as it slowly bobs back and forth.
I hear someone swallow, feel their presence beside me. I should be alarmed that someone managed to sneak up on me. Except they're not trying to hide as I look and see who it is: The new lifeguard, her eyes fixed upon the mess that's floating in the pool. However, she's not screaming, fainting or vomiting. Not your typical reaction.
Also she's wearing dark jeans and a matching denim jacket, with some sort of T-shirt beneath. It's the first time I've seen her in something other than a bikini and sunglasses. Her dark brown eyes are liquid smoke outlined in black shadow, her shoulder-length hair perfectly tousled. If it weren't for the gruesome circumstances, she could be a fashion model.
"Think you're a little late for this one." My attempted banter slips out before I can help it. Her gaze tracks over to me, unreadable.
"Sorry." I cover a cough. "Morbid humor. Occupational hazard."
She offers a dismissive snort as she returns to examining the grotesquerie. "You a cop?"
"Close enough." I plaster on my most winning smile, just in case she turns back. "My sister's a cop. I do forensics. Miami Metro."
"Great." This last is muttered under her breath as she kneels, examining the edge of the pool. "Like I don't have enough problems."
"The last time someone peed in this thing, it was shut down for a week." I raise one hand as she raises her head to glare at me. "True story."
She regards me with a look of absolute stone. "You wanna back off a little there, chief?"
"No problem." I raise both hands and take a step back. "I'll need to phone this in."
"Yeah. I'm sure the fine folks at Animal Control are gonna get right on that."
"Not every civil servant is a useless parasite." I have to appreciate her calm in the face of horror. Also her unflappable sarcasm. Whatever else she might be, this girl is a professional of some experience. "Some of us actually perform a useful function."
She doesn't take the bait this time. Instead she surveys the tile for a long moment, kneeling down low enough the ends of her hair brush the wet cement. I'd wonder what she were doing if I weren't simply being amazed that none of the neighbors have come outside to gawk.
She stands with a sigh, wiping both hands on her jeans. "Mind if I use your bathroom?"
"Sure." Inwardly, I curse my instinctive waspy politeness. One of these days, it's going to get us all killed.
"Don't worry." My new companion appears somewhat mollified, perhaps sensing mistrust. "I got a ride coming. I'll wait outside."
I hope her ride is as copacetic about gruesomely slaughtered housepets. But none of that matters. Because while I thought I was paying attention before, my entire body has just sprung up to a level of alertness that is physically painful. All senses flung into overdrive by a sound that makes everything else in the world come to a screeching halt.
The wordless voice of my son, crying out in fear.
It lasts no more than half a second. In the space of that time I'm in motion, have reached the foot of the staircase that leads to my apartment. Lifeguard Woman is hot on my heels as we practically fly up the stairs and I slam open the door, taking in the panorama.
Harrison hadn't sounded as though he was in pain; just scared. Therefore, my first priority is determining whether violence on my part is appropriate. And if so, how much.
Astor is standing close to the wall, one hand held out before her as she interpolates her own body between Harrison and the intruder. Who has come from the hallway, and is therefore standing in profile to me as I enter the apartment.
I can hear Lifeguard Woman sucking in a hiss of air. But when the stranger turns her anguished face toward me, I have my own flash of recognition. Although her clothes are different.
For one thing, they're not covered in blood.
She cocks her head and bangs fall over her eyes. "You're a killer."
"Dexter?" Astor's hand is shaking. Despite her best efforts at self-control, I can hear the matching tremor in her voice.
"Hey, kiddo." Lifeguard Woman's words are pitched low and soothing. "You got a lot of people worried."
"I can take care of -- myself." And my strange savage girl's eyes are an inferno as she stares down the other woman. "My. Self."
Harrison lets out a loud hiccup. It nearly turns into a wail, but Astor sweeps him up and into her arms, never taking her eyes off of our home invader.
"Ladies?" I try not to sound overly confrontational. "Maybe you'd like to take your obvious history with each other...somewhere else?"
"You have to tell her." This from Intruder Girl to Lifeguard Woman. Clearly, I'm going to need to know their names. Right now, though, I have other priorities.
"Who are you!"
It's as much demand as it is question, all of Astor's pent-up frustration and fear in one fervent exclamation. And in her eyes is something more. Something the Passenger and I both know on sight, in our deepest instincts. Something dark and primal.
And somehow, literally inhuman.
It's that last bit that raises my hackles. Again, quite literally; the hair on the back of my neck rises up and my skin crawls, plus a few more things I'm too stunned to pay attention to. Because no matter how foul the deeds of those so-called humans who ended up on my table, tucked away in my hidden treasure chest of blood slides, they had been human: Unsurprisingly, disappointingly, tiresomely human to the last, each and every one. How obvious did it have to be? Every time I'd been foolish enough to think that I might learn a valuable life lesson from someone, it turned out to be far more trouble than it was worth. And in the end, Rita had paid the ultimate price.
Now, suddenly, I'm angry. Because I've just seen Rita again. Or something walking around wearing her skin. And because these people know a hell of a lot more than they're letting on.
I open my mouth. And stop before I can utter a word, all my thoughts fled. Because as one, as I glance back and forth between them, all three of these dark-haired attractive young women are turning their heads, joining each other in staring out my window. The blinds are drawn, and outside the light of the security floods only extends a few feet beyond the building. Still they stare, as my brain strives to connect these disparate elements into some sort of coherent structure.
From outside comes a faint and sinister giggle.
Every day, in every way, my life grows a little bit stranger.
That is, until it went off the rails completely. Which by my guess would be when I saw one of my kills turn to dust and blow away in the wind. Didn't even get a blood slide. And then the runaway train turned into a rocket, blasting off into outer space. Because I'm not sure what else you'd call it when you see your dead wife back among the living.
Make that undead.
The dwindling rational part of my brain takes in the rest of the room. Its occupants present a fine tableau, starting with the strange woman who followed me up the stairs and into my apartment. Currently she's facing off against another strange woman. My life seems to be full of them lately. Including Astor, who I thought I knew. Reasonably well, as people go.
Astor clutches Harrison to her chest as she watches the two strangers. I know from experience that for whatever reason, rather than hitting like a typical girl, Astor hits like a Mack truck on steroids. On the other hand, I've also personally witnessed one of these other women jump over an eight foot wall. I have a sneaking suspicion this newcomer is no different.
All this pales, however, before the look on Astor's face. Very much one of recognition. And dawning horror, as she stares out the window and her lips form the word:
"Where do you think you're going?"
The casual authority in that rich, purring voice is only outweighed by its dangerous calm. Wherever this woman might have honed her craft, it wasn't at lifeguard school.
Luckily for me, I'm not the one being addressed. At first I think she's talking to Astor. Then I realize her target is the other unfamiliar young brunette. The one who apparently broke into my apartment, as opposed to following me in. And who is staring at the woman who followed me in, looking like she wants to bolt right past her, out the door and into the dark to face head on whatever the hell is out there.
This is not helping me feel in control of the situation.
"Let me go." The one with crazy eyes is practically dancing back and forth; champing at the virtual bit like a racehorse trembling with the need to bolt. "I can take her --"
"Can you take me?" The other woman stands unmoving, blocking her path to the door. Dark circles of exhaustion undersscore her eyes, offset by the flinty, implacable gaze. "'Cause last time I checked --"
"This is what I do!" The girl's hands ball into fists, and her voice drops to a whisper. "It's all I do."
"And this is exactly what happened before." The aura of command is still present, but her companion sounds less of an authority figure. More like a friend. "You ran off alone."
The crazy girl gives her a sad little smile, that doesn't look crazy at all.
"I'm never alone."
I feel her move before I see the movement itself.
It's the only thing that saves me from being pummeled into paste.
I'd like to say I looked like poetry in motion. That I put Olympians to shame; that every stuntman in the business immediately hung up their spurs, knowing in their hearts they could never equal my superlative grace and skill. The reality is that I couldn't have looked more foolish if I'd been slipping on a banana peel.
Actually, that might have helped. At least then I would have had an excuse.
The next thing I know, I'm sprawled out and sliding. Then I hear a muffled grunt, feel an impact that sends a vibration through the floor.
I'm thinking the neighbors are going to be calling the police any minute as I sit up and see Astor running toward me. The two increasingly strange women are joined in all-out combat that with each powerful exchange, threatens to reduce my tasteful modern furniture to so much kindling.
"Stay with Harrison!" I manage, and motion Astor back. She skids to a stop as I struggle to my feet.
My first instinct is to grab a knife from the counter, but that urge passes almost as quickly as the blows being traded. Astor has the potential to be this good, or so it seems. But this is more than raw strength and speed, more than superlative skill or years of training. These girls are fighting on nothing but pure instinct. And despite their obvious historical drama -- for the sheer joy of it.
I back into the kitchen, never taking my eyes from them. My hand is on the phone when a flying body meets my set of glass bookshelves. The shelves are definitely the loser, but my crazy killer girl isn't looking so good herself.
She's not getting up. She lies there on her back, crimson streaks across her face, just like the first time I met her, staring at the ceiling. And slowly, disconcertingly, she begins to smile.
"They're coming to get you, Faith." A giggle trickles from between her bruised and bloody lips. "I can hear them..."
"You hear radio broadcasts from fuckin' Mars!" The other woman straddles her, grabbing her shirt in both hands and bodily lifting. Crazy girl continues to stare at the ceiling, her laughter growing louder as our new lifeguard -- Faith? -- draws back a cocked fist.
Astor is still obviously trying to process the voice of her dead mother coming from outside. But on top of that, she's looking more and more conflicted; as if she's trying with all her might not to abandon her brother and throw herself headlong into the mix. All I know is that whatever connection these girls have -- however these increasingly bizarre events can and will be eventually explained -- right now, this seems like a very bad idea.
"They're coming..." My little lunatic continues to laugh, hanging limp in her attacker's grasp. Faith stares at her in obvious frustration, and I realize I've forgotten to dial 911.
Then the sun flips on, right outside my window.
It's our night watchman. I can't remember his name, but now I recognize our outdoor floodlights, all of them on full blast.
"Police have been notified and are on the way! Drop your weapons and lie face down, on the ground! I repeat, lie face --"
Faith actually screams aloud. Right in the other girl's face, all her anger and frustration in one brief and uncontrolled outburst.
Then she slams her to the floor. Rises, turns, and makes a break for the door.
The sudden reversal has me more than a little confused already. By the time I convince my sluggish muscles into movement, Faith is out the door, leaving it swinging in her wake. Outside I hear a confused shout that quickly turns to a yell of pain, followed by a rattling crash. If I had to guess, I'd say our night watchman just got thrown up against the wall of the clubhouse.
"Is it now?" I look over at our home invader. She's still stretched out on the floor, looking to be checking my ceiling for leaks.
I hazard a suggestion. "Don't you want to help your friend?"
"She won't be staying."
The lack of commotion from outside seems to bear this out. I can hear the security guard cursing and groaning as he hauls himself to his feet, with none of the desperation in his voice of only moments before.
"She'll lead them away." The girl slowly sits up, wincing as she gives one shoulder an experimental rotation. "And they won't be back. Not tonight."
"How do you know?" Astor demands. Harrison is trying to crane his head around to get a better look, but big sister has him in an unrelenting grip.
"Because I know why they're after you."
She's not looking at Astor.
"Me?" I flash back to the night I frst saw Rita resurrected. Is it possible these things are capable of tracking by scent? I almost chuckle at the notion of a literal supernatural bloodhound.
I keep both eyes on her as I pull a clean dish towel from the drawer, run water in the sink until well chilled. She watches with interest as I wring the towel out, nods when I hold it up, catches it when I toss it over.
"No offense," I say as she holds the cloth to her face. "But how do we know we can trust you?"
"I see what you did there," she says, wiping away the worst of the blood. Astor is still watching her with a frown of suspicion, watchful for the first wrong move.
"Ever hear the old joke?" She tosses back the towel, standing straighter under our scrutiny as she returns my gaze. "I'm crazy. Not stupid."
Astor lets out a short bark of laughter that sounds more like a sob.
The phone is still in my hand. I look down at it, shrug, and place the receiver back in its cradle on the wall.
I can hear the guard struggling his way up the staircase. From the squelching sounds, his waterlogged uniform must be giving him almost as much trouble as his chronic obesity.
"In here," I call out. "We're all right."
"Thank God." The guard -- Guillermo, that's his name -- is halfway in the door when he remembers he's pouring water rather than dripping, and quickly steps back outside. "Any of you get a look at those people?"
"We were kind of busy," I say.
Guillermo pokes his head in. Then he purses his lips and lets out a low whistle as he takes in the spectacle of broken glass and twisted metal, the explosion of books now scattered all over my living room.
"Someone broke in." I realize how lame it sounds, even as I look over to flash a quick silent warning to my new partner in crime. "We...drove him off."
"Probably working with the two I saw. Jesus, that shit in the pool..." Guillermo holds one hand to the small of his back with a grimace. He's recovering from the pain when he notices our unfamiliar face. "Who's that?"
"Friend of Astor's." I feel smooth as Saran Wrap as I offer an indulgent smile. "She's staying the night."
"Gotcha." Guillermo nods, his token inquiry already forgotten. "Looks like you were as far as they got, but I'm gonna check on the other tenants. Maybe by then the cops might show up --"
He breaks off, looking suitably embarrassed. I smile, shake my head and wave.
Thankfully, he takes the hint. The door is hardly shut when I'm walking over to our stranger. I stop a few feet away.
"I can't keep calling you Crazy Girl." I lift my chin, in a gesture of general inquiry. "What should I call you?"
The tiniest twitch at the corners of her lips. "We are legion."
"That's not very reassuring." I manage to sound casual. "What do your friends call you?"
She looks at me as if I'm clinically retarded.
"I am Alia of the Knife."
I can hear the capital letters. More importantly, I recognize the reference. Never read the books, but I saw the miniseries.
"I take it that's meant to be figurative." I frown as I regard her. "Maybe a metaphor?"
"I am Shiva." She holds her head high, then seems to slightly deflate, shoulders sagging. "I'm a killer."
Astor takes a step back. I can feel her tensing up from here.
A laugh emerges from our homicidal houseguest. "I'm a lifeguard."
I blink, and squint. While she and Faith certainly bear a passing resemblance, they're no twins. And yet, in that moment...
She turns to Astor, with a sad smile.
Thankfully, the cops who arrive are about as interested in taking statements from my stepdaughter and her friend as they are in taking one from Harrison. I provide the same sketchy details I gave to Guillermo, with which they seem more than content. One of them recognizes me as Deb's brother, but it doesn't turn into a prolonged conversation.
I keep one eye on the girls sitting on the couch as I wrap things up and send the officers on their way. Astor is still holding onto Harrison, her posture only slightly less rigid as our visitor demonstrates her ability to play peekaboo with a toddler without resorting to violence. I catch her eye, and she gives the slightest nod: I'll be all right, for a minute.
I turn and slip down the hallway, silent on the carpet. Our crazy girl had entered the living room from this direction. At the other end was my bedroom, with no alternate entrance. Apart from the window.
I can already see from here the locking mechanism is actually broken in two, the ends bent and twisted from sheer force. I dump the pieces in my wastebasket, making a mental note to call the building super. Then I quietly shut the bedroom door, turn around and take a long, hard look at every last thing in the room.
Nothing seems out of place. I kneel, and press my fingers to the hidden switch.
My secret stash of killing implements springs forth. It appears likewise undisturbed; the length of thread that serves as a warning system still intact.
How did things spiral this badly out of control?
I slide the chest back into place. Then I stand up, and if I had a knife in my hand I would have turned around and plunged it into the chest of the person I can now sense is standing directly behind me.
When I turn around, it isn't Astor.
"They can't come in." She seems a bit guilty as she indicates the window. "You have to invite them."
I venture to give voice to insanity. "You mean vampires?"
"No." This earns me a scornful look. "Leprechauns."
"So your sarcasm isn't broken." I offer a sagacious nod. "Good to know."
She glares, back to being suspicious. The effect is ruined when the room echoes with a growl from her stomach.
"You want some breakfast?"
The mournful gaze she turns upon me would melt the stoniest of hearts. As it is, I feel a tiny twinge in my own.
She offers a shy smile, looking even younger than Astor. "Do unto others."
Her table manners are atrocious. At least they start out that way. Then partway through it's as though a switch were flipped, with her channeling a Victorian governess; each bite small and proper, just so. Harrison is greatly amused. I only hope he doesn't take away the wrong lessons from this experience.
We do at least extract a name. Or rather, Astor does, while I'm clearing away dishes and sweeping up glass. I come back and Astor introduces us to Dana, who sits and smiles prettily with her crazy eyes, a stray smudge of red adorning her temple. I take this as a sign that we can start asking the tough questions. Unfortunately, her mental state remains foggy at best.
"I heard my mom out there." Astor's eyes are haggard, her voice blunt and hard. "What do you know about her?"
Dana cocks her head to one side. "She's dead."
Astor swallows as a hand reaches out to cover hers.
Dana's quiet voice is full of sympathy. Astor stares back, grief and anger at war with each other upon her face.
"It's why they're hunting you."
Again, Dana's statement is directed at me. Her gaze is so piercing it feels like I'm actually being pierced.
"She doesn't seem to remember me." I frown as I try to work it out. "It's like she's someone else now."
"Would be." Dana nods. "If it was her."
"Wait -- what?" Astor's agitation is growing, Harrison fidgeting in her map.
"It's not her." Dana gives her hand a squeeze. "More so than usual."
Astor falls silent.
Still, I muse to myself as I dispose of a dustpan full of glass. Too many questions.
And now that I have a fellow killer under my roof?
Time to start getting some answers.
Exposition through conversation, and a new non-Buffyverse addition to the cast.
Remember what I said about getting answers?
Turns out it's not enough to ask the right questions. Not when you're interrogating thousands of people who happen to be in the same body. Apparently with this girl, "contains multitudes" is quite literal.
I watch her watching Astor and Harrison. Us at the kitchen counter, them on the couch.
"Mama." Harrison points to the stuffed duck he's just dropped to the floor.
Astor smiles as she retrieves the target. I can tell her heart's not in it. A college psych professor once told me that teenagers are like actors, because all they know how to do is project and magnify. They're still learning how to manage their emotions.
Which brings to mind another question. "How old are you?"
Dana gives me a look of scorn and pity.
"Of course." I raise my hands in mock surrender. "That's a leading question. Not to mention rude."
She frowns, like she's not sure if she's being mocked. "Rude?"
"So I've been told. By --" I consider this. "Well. Pretty much every woman I ever met."
Dana shakes her head as if warding off a dive-bombing insect.
"You need to know. You need to know," she repeats with one hand upraised, loosely held, her index finger pointing skyward. It brings to mind the sort of preachers who baptize people in rivers.
"But there's a problem," Dana continues. She glances over at Astor, then back at me, and stifles a giggle. "I'm an unreliable narrator."
"You're a lot of things," Astor says.
I look over at the couch. Harrison is laid out with his head in her lap, with the blanket she's been using draped over his slumbering form. I really ought to be getting her some sort of real bed.
"But I'm no liar." Dana stares at her, dark and haunted. "Am I?"
Astor shakes her head no. Slowly, silently.
"Dana." I choose my words with surgical precision. "What are you?"
She turns back to me with a condescending look that seems also grateful. Like it's a question she's been waiting for.
"Into every generation she is born. One girl in all the world. A Chosen One." Dana's capitals are again audible as she sits up straighter. "She alone will have the strength, the skill. To stand against the vampires --"
"The demons." Astor's voice is a whisper of terror and exultation.
"And the forces of darkness," Dana concludes. She meets my attempt at a stern, fatherly gaze head on, and that inhuman presence inside her seems dwarfed by staggering visions of untold millennia, countless lives down through the ages. "I'm the Slayer."
"Again with the capital letters." I glance over at Astor, who looks like her nightmares are coming true right before her eyes. "And did I hear you right?"
"Demons." Dana nods, then shakes her head. "But no leprechauns."
Astor offers another humorless snort.
I look back and forth between them, trying to ascertain the safer path. "Seems like there's more than one of you."
"That was then." Dana gives Astor a shrug that seems like an apology. "This is now."
"And what about your friend?" I say it like Astor says tenant. "Faith. How does she fit into all this?"
"Thinks she knows better." Dana ducks her head, then raises it once more. Her demeanor is proud, even defiant. I think back to the moment I first saw her, covered in the blood of the men she had slaughtered. Smugglers; rapists and murderers.
"You're not just hunting vampires." I feel it come together in my head like a spatter map. "You're going after humans."
"My work takes me to strange places." This time, Dana's not looking at me. Astor swallows but returns her gaze, and Dana turns back to me wearing that sad little smile. "You haven't seen me at my worst."
"I'll take your word for it." My silent stare into her eyes can't help but give a full-on glimpse of the brutality beneath the veneer of civilization. Along with a reminder of how we first met.
"What about me?" Astor's voice is low and urgent. She keeps sneaking side glances at Harrison, hands clutching her knees in an apparent struggle to remain still.
"One of us." Dana nods to Astor as she sits up once more, rigid and proper. "Things are different. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer...will be a Slayer."
"And that's me." Astor appears more than slightly stunned. And with a growing apprehension I can only attribute to parts of her dreams she hasn't shared.
"And me," Dana confirms. The fingers of her right hand give a slight twitch. "Except I'm special."
"I can tell." I can also tell from the look Astor gives me that this wasn't a socially acceptable joke.
Except Dana actually laughs, and rolls her eyes. "I'm every woman."
"I'll assume that's meant to be sarcasm." I peer at her closely, trying to discern the emotional map for the territory. I feel like a blind man carrying a broken lantern in the middle of the night. On a desert island, filled with quicksand.
"But in your case," I continue. "It seems literal. Or if not every woman --"
"Every Slayer?" Astor's eyebrows knit together in thought. "So you have...some kind of connection? With all of us?" The look on her face is growing more troubled. "With me?"
"I wasn't ready to be strong." Dana's looking at the floor now, shaking her head, her hands clasped tight in front of her. "Mistakes were made."
Even with her trying to be quiet about it, I can hear Astor swallow from all the way over there where she's sitting. As usual, the Dark Passenger takes a keen interest in any details that might be gleaned, however tragic. For my part, I've learned that ignorance can sometimes be more than bliss. It can keep you sane. Or at least functioning.
But not alive, the Passenger croons.
The image flashes in my mind like a streak of lightning; Harrison crying, sitting on the floor, surrounded by blood. I realize I'm clenching my fist, nails digging into my palm.
When the hell did I become so volatile?
I know at least part of the answer.
"You said it wasn't her." I assemble my thoughts, turning to Dana with what I hope is an air of authority. "And by that you mean -- the blonde woman I saw --"
"You can say vampire," Astor interjects, sounding impatient. "Can we at least agree on that? And move the f--" She clears her throat. "Move on?"
"And by that you mean -- that is not my wife and this girl's mother, Rita Bennett?" My eyes bore into Dana's. "Murdered by the Trinity killer?"
"Dexter." Astor's voice is hushed as she gazes at the sleeping form of my son, still curled up on the couch under a blanket.
"That's what I mean." Dana offers a rueful smile. "Pretty sure."
"Well -- that's good." I look over at Astor, unsure whether I'm offering or seeking reassurance. "Right?"
Again, Astor offers only a silent nod of assent.
"Problem." Dana holds up one index finger for emphasis. "This chick is one of those long-term thinkers."
"Those are the worst kind," I agree.
"The kind that does more than suck your blood," Dana continues, with some impatience. With her hands on her hips, her defiant attitude and slangy accent, she could be a Valley Girl straight out of the eighties. Not that I lived through them myself, but some things you never forget. Not with the karaoke stylings of Vince Masuka to forever sear them into your memory.
"So she wants to make people suffer." I'm already following down the path. "And mind games can be more devastating than physical. Warm up with the mental torture --"
"Finish the job on the body." And something too dark to name flashes deep in Dana's eyes. "Want to hear the bad news?"
"You're kidding, right?" Astor's fighting to keep her voice level. I can hear the beginnings of hysterical laughter underneath, squirming to get out. "It gets worse?"
Over the last few weeks, my formerly empirical mind has been forced to become somewhat open. So much so that I'm starting to worry my brains are falling out. But I can come up with at least a few hypotheses regarding vampirism, and none whatsoever for a psychic.
Because apparently Darla -- my phantom lady of the evening, my lovely Rita look a like -- has herself a seer for a sidekick. That would be Drusilla, the other vampire I met that night in the alley. Let her get close enough, she can enthrall the average person into submission, then slaughter them at her leisure. And there's potentially no end to the amount of intel she can gather on her opponents. It's just a question of whether she's lucid enough to act on it. Or if someone else can worm the details out of her.
"So the more Darla knows about us..." Astor's expression is grim at the full and dire implications.
"They use the things we love against us." Dana nods, looking stricken as she brushes away a troublesome tangled lock of hair. "And the people."
"Guys." I pitch my voice low, as soothing as I can. I'm out of practice. "At least we know it's coming, right? Forewarned is forearmed."
"Psychological warfare." Dana dismisses this with a wave of her hand. "Just give me an ass to kick and I'm good."
Astor winces as the other girl gives her knuckles a solid crack.
"So you're here to help?" I clarify, off of Dana's puzzled look. "At least until the Darla problem's been dealt with."
"As long as someone doesn't get in my way." The look in Dana's eyes leaves little doubt in my mind. It's the look she had when she and Faith were busy destroying my furniture.
"I really don't have room here for another person," I point out. "Plus the landlord might have something to say."
"It's okay." Dana rises to her feet. Then places her hand on my shoulder, like she's bestowing a benediction. "I'll be around."
"As long as you don't let yourself in again." I don't make it sound optional.
She smiles, and seems perfectly sane. "Cross my heart."
"You can't go --" Astor's interjection chokes off as she sinks back into the couch. Harrison shifts and mumbles, drawing a nervous glance from Astor before she turns around with a look of naked pleading. As if all the things that didn't make sense are finally starting to; and in the desperate knowledge that if Dana steps out that door, she may never return.
"I'll be all right." Dana walks over to to the couch and kneels before Astor. Down on one knee like a suitor, taking her by the hand. "You'll be all right."
"You better come back," Astor whispers. She swallows and squeezes, so hard I see the corded muscles tremble in her forearm.
Dana returns her strength in full.
"Count on it."
I escort her to the door, where we both scan the area for signs of trouble. The only indication is the yellow hazard tape cordoning off the pool. Before I can warn Dana to be careful, she's vaulted over the railing, vanishing into shadow without a trace. I strain my ears, to no avail. She really is some spooky ninja badass.
I cover a yawn as I close the door. I'm double checking the locks for good measure when I realize I've been doing it for a few minutes. Maybe longer.
"Dexter." Astor takes me by the hand. Leads me down the hallway, gives me a gentle push. "Go to bed."
"Harrison," I mumble. My tongue is cramped and dry, my once crisp dress shirt wrinkled with sweat.
"I've got him."
I was standing. Now I'm lying down.
Someone is removing my shoes.
I'm lying on a table. I should be able to tell if it's plastic wrap holding me down, but I can't move a muscle. Utterly paralyzed, unable to blink or so much as draw breath. And still my panicking brain persists on existing, on processing all these details. The slow click and scrape of the footsteps that circle round; the low murmurs and whispered laughter.
Rita looms over me, looking down. Her smile fades.
I should have fucking killed you when I had the chance.
Her knife flashes before my eyes.
I'm sitting up in bed. My hand on my chest, breathing hard through my nose. No blood; no stab wound.
I fall back among the pillows to stare at the ceiling. My shoulder still throbs, if a bit less this morning. Which it is, judging by the sunrise creeping through the curtains.
A timid knock from my door. "Dexter?"
"I'm up." My response is automatic. I'm sitting up, standing, on my feet before I remember it's my day off.
"You have a visitor."
Something in Astor's voice adds to my urgency. I throw on the first clean shirt I can grab and stride out with great confidence to seize the day.
I come to a halt. Because standing in my living room is the last person I expected to see, other than Rita. Standing there with a travel bag over one shoulder, blonde hair in a ponytail, wearing that same old familiar look of concern.
"Hope I didn't come at a bad time."
Somewhere, I find my voice.
Catching up with old friends, and forging fresh alliances.
Until now, I hadn't much wondered how things could possibly get more awkward.
I'm beginning to rethink that policy.
It's a good thing I have today off. Instead of indexing slides, comparing DNA samples and measuring arterial spray and flow, I get to numbly prop myself on a stool at my kitchen counter watching Astor make coffee. Lumen sits beside me with an air of uncertainty, seemingly hesitant to make physical contact.
From outside comes the chatter of underpaid workers, venting their frustration and disgust at whatever hijo de coño would do such a thing to a poor damned dog. Animal Control has already been by to pick up the corpse, leaving the crew of the apartment complex to deal with cleanup. I make a mental note to do something nice for them. Something more substantial than a case of beer.
"Since you left. Things have..." I search for something appropriate for all audiences. "Gotten weird."
Lumen frowns, a subtle tilt of her head indicating her awareness of Astor's presence. "More weird?"
I think of the last few weeks. Then the last twelve hours.
Lumen considers this, pursing her lips in thought. For a moment I feel them brush against my neck. Deep down inside the Passenger flinches, drawing away.
"Here you go." Astor sets the steaming mug on the counter with a nod to Lumen. The old wariness is back, as if they were meeting for the first time. Or maybe just maintaining a bit of token teenage hostility, for the sake of appearances.
"Thanks." Lumen cradles the cup to her chest. "How's your friend?"
Astor blinks, then her face clears. "Good. Olivia's good."
Lumen nods, apparently satisfied. Astor clears her throat.
"I'm going to take Harrison outside." She nods at her grinning brother, already dressed and ready to go. "I won't go anywhere else."
"Are you sure?" Lumen frowns once more. "It's...a little messy out there."
"We can sit on the dock." Astor has that pleading look again. I'm not sure which of us she's trying to save. "It's broad daylight."
"Sure," I say. "Harrison, you do what Astor says. Okay?"
Harrison gazes up at me. "'Tay."
"How about that?" I smile hugely and ruffle his hair. "Another word already."
Is this what they mean by growing up too fast?
"Oh -- Lumen." Astor turns mid-step, momentarily wrestling with something. "You haven't been...having, like -- weird dreams?"
"Define weird." But Lumen is relaxed and smiling in her reaction; seemingly unaware of any hidden meaning. Astor shakes her head.
"Come on, Harrison." Astor gives a mock scowl as she takes him by the hand. "You need sunscreen."
We drink our coffee in silence while they finish up in the bathroom. Astor waves as they head out, and I exhale sharply when the door shuts.
"I'm sorry." Lumen looks crestfallen. "I shouldn't have sprung this on you --"
"No." I reach out and take her hands in mine. "You might have come at exactly the right time."
I still don't mention anything supernatural. Soon -- hopefully. But first I need to know the rest of Lumen's story. How she got from here to there, and back again. Having assured her that Astor is still blissfully unaware of my murderous history and hobbies, my newest houseguest naturally then inquires as to the nature of our current stated "weirdness". For instance, does it have anything to do with the bloody mess out there in the pool?
My redirection is clumsy, but soon enough the conversational floodgates begin to move in the other direction. People love to talk about themselves, even when it's not all that pleasant. And I'm the only person in the world she can open up to.
"I was staying with Mom." She looks a little more composed now that we've moved to the couch. "Managed not to exhibit too much PTSD around her."
A sarcastic laugh punctuates this. Not a hysterical one, or even overly nervous. Just very self-aware.
"I couldn't have asked for a better reunion," she quietly continues. "Under the circumstances."
The tragedy in her eyes is muted but unmistakable. Cushioned by layers of murder, Lumen had clawed her way out of the pit to a state she had thought forever lost to her: Simply wanting to live. For any reason, that is, other than vengeance. And then she had turned, and seen me at her side, and she had realized that unlike her I would never stop. Because this was my life. Before Rita, during Rita, after Rita, world without end. Hallelujah.
"But I couldn't stop thinking about you."
The sadness in her smile is perplexing, until I realize her concern is directed at me.
"And Harrison." She glances at the door. Her smile is I think what people call wistful. "And Astor -- believe it or not."
"I wish you could meet Cody." I blurt it out before I can stop myself. "Astor's brother. Harrison's half-brother. He's a great kid -- they're both --"
I flounder to a stop. Lumen's hand covers mine, giving a squeeze of reassurance.
"But Owen..." She swallows. "Wouldn't leave it alone."
Her smile vanishes.
"He'd moved out to California. But when he heard I was home, he caught the first flight back. Showed up on my mom's doorstep, demanding to know what was different now." Lumen's eyes flash a hint of steel. "You know what I told him?"
I feel a slight tremble in her hand.
Her gaze is fixed on mine. Her cheeks are a healthy pink, the smell of her hair fresh and clean. It's a far cry from the bruised and bloody near-lunatic state I had found her in when first we met. Talk about awkward.
"So Mom came out and got in his face. And the whole time, I'm ready for him to try something. Anything." Lumen shakes her head. "I didn't want him to. I swear. And he's never -- so much as --"
She draws a deep and shaking breath.
"Finally, he left. And Mom came over to me. And when she put her hand on my shoulder? I didn't scream." She looks down at our conjoined fingers.
"I didn't even want to." She sounds almost puzzled. "But that was when I knew."
Lumen raises her head, her grip on my hand strong and steady.
"I had to come back."
"I'm glad." My voice seems hoarse with emotion. I tell myself it's from lack of use. We sit there holding onto one another, until a thought occurs to her.
"So where is Cody?"
"His grandparents. His dad's folks," I clarify. "Orlando."
"Right." She nods, frowning in recollection. "And Astor -- why is she here? Did she get into some kind of trouble again?"
"Not exactly." I disengage my hands and lean back to stare at the ceiling. "It's complicated."
A hint of mischief enters her tone. "More complicated than you."
"Definitely weirder." I pinch the bridge of my nose and think of the wooden stake tucked in the back of my utensil drawer.
"Well --" Lumen looks torn, reluctant to voice her concern. "I don't want to make things more complicated."
"It's not that. It --" I shake my head. "I was going to say...it could be dangerous."
Lumen regards me with a mix of skepticism and confusion. "You're kidding, right?"
"I wish I was." I show her both empty palms in frank admission.
Her eyes narrow as her voice drops to a lower register, a lesser volume.
"More dangerous than Jordan Chase."
I meet her gaze with utmost seriousness. "Yes."
She exhales shakily. "Wow."
I wait for more, but Lumen's still mulling it over. I'm just about ready to say something when she shakes her head.
"Well, that tells me two things." Her eyes latch onto mine. "First? That means something really fucking scary."
"Language," I reflexively respond, clearing my throat at her lifted brow. "Sorry. Force of habit."
She gives a chuckle of disbelief. "I'll try to restrain myself."
It's enough to make me doubt her conviction. That, and the complete lack of conviction. But first things first.
"And second?" I ask.
Lumen folds her arms over her chest, casting her eyes downward.
"It means you're right."
I watch. I wait.
Our eyes meet.
"I did come at exactly the right time."
Her face twists up as she holds out her arms to me and I know this dance. I'm supposed to run to her, embrace her with all the passion I've never felt but my body is numb as she wraps herself around me and all I can think of is Rita, not even for my own loss as for Astor, and Cody. Nothing can make up for my complete and utter failure to take out the monster who murdered their mother.
"I hate the thought of you facing -- whatever this is." Lumen is whispering into my shoulder, clinging tight to me with all the might in her tiny frame. She's no Slayer, but I'm still finding it a little difficult to breathe. "Not without someone on your side."
"I have people," I manage. The fervor in her embrace relaxes as I lay my head atop her own; our bodies pressed together as we sway back and forth. "But I'm glad you're one of them."
We remain like this for some time. It's like a very slow motion dance. Until Lumen is looking up at me with bright and shining eyes.
"Do you still have them?"
It takes but a second to divine her meaning. I indicate the chair at my desk, motioning for her to sit. As she takes her place, I glance out the window, satisfying myself of Astor and Harrison's presence down on the dock.
Lumen watches intently as I draw the blinds, step over and throw the deadbolt on the door. I hop up on the edge of the desk and pop the front panel on the air conditioner, pulling free my trophy case.
She gingerly takes the box from me, like she's receiving holy relics. I hop down from the desk as she opens the lid, running her fingers over spines of glass.
"There." I stop her at the three-quarter mark. "That's Cole."
Her fingers tremble.
"And that's Jordan."
She bows her head again, taking a great deep breath and letting it out in a slow, steady stream. Finally she looks back up at me.
"These dangerous people." Her eyes search mine. "Do they deserve to die?"
"That's kind of the problem," I say. "They sort of already have."
Lumen's confusion is definitely outweighing her skepticism. "So what's the problem?"
"I think it's time for show instead of tell." I close the box and slide it back into its hiding place, replacing the panel. "Come on. We'll grab the kids."
Lumen is still confused. "Where are we going?"
I pluck my keys from the bowl on the kitchen counter.
By camping, I really do mean the great outdoors. Especially at this time of day when my health club is definitely lacking in privacy. As we pile into the car, I find myself bemused at just how normal we appear. How like a family.
"Are you staying in touch with Cody?" I direct this at Astor, who's sitting behind Lumen as we pull out of the complex and head for the freeway.
"I talked to him last night." She meets my eyes in the mirror. For the moment, she seems a perfectly happy and well-adjusted teenager. "I think he's starting to enjoy it too much. They're spoiling him rotten."
"Happy birthday," I blurt out. Astor looks surprised, and I frown. "It was last week, right?"
"No, you're -- right." She seems oddly deflated as she returns her attention to Harrison, trying to get him to grab her moving finger. I go back to keeping my eyes on the road.
"I just realized you actually are a teenager, now." I finish the loop and accelerate, enjoying the breeze in my hair through the open windows. Beside me Lumen shines, a warm and welcoming presence.
It takes about as much time as I anticipated for her to realize just where it is we're going. I'm in the middle of making the turnoff from the freeway when I feel her tense up.
"It's okay." I keep my voice casual. watching for the dirt road.
"Isn't it --" Lumen swallows. "A crime scene?"
Behind me, I hear Astor shift in her seat. I imagine her leaning forward, trying not to look curious.
"The investigation wrapped up a while back." I slow down a bit as we make our way up the road. The tall trees on either side make for cool temperatures in comparison to the streets of the city. "For a while, kids were using it for a party spot. But it's been pretty quiet."
A battered and peeling sign announces our destination as I pull in. Astor is first to disembark. Her skepticism is back in full as she gazes around at the dilapidated buildings, the crumbling stone walls.
"Camp River Jordan?" She squints at the sign before giving me a baffled look. "What we are doing here?"
"Just going for a walk." I finish extracting Harrison and his carrier, along with my smaller satchel. I'm momentarily confounded until Lumen steps forward to relieve me of my greater burden.
"You should get one of those wrap things," she says, unbuckling a grateful Harrison. "For carrying kids? Lets you keep both hands free."
She's still on edge, but seems to relax as we move away from the buildings. I pick the first path I find and we head into the woods: Me holding the carrier, Lumen holding Harrison; Astor following close behind.
"We're in luck," I inform everyone. "Not much rain. Any more and the mosquitos would be out for blood."
Harrison is craning his neck around and staring up at the trees in wide-eyed wonder. I can still feel the others, trying silently to figure out what I'm doing.
"Astor, why don't you run ahead?" I glance back over my shoulder. "See if you can find a clearing."
She hesitates only a second before shooting past us, tearing around a curve in the path to disappear into the forest. I can hear the diminishing sound of her sneakers pounding the earth, quickly fading.
"Damn." Lumen looks impressed, but not unreasonably so. "Get that girl on the track team."
"I was thinking MMA."
"Never mind." One step at a time, I think. Seeing is believing.
We walk along in silence. Every so often, whenever Lumen starts to appear nervous or melancholy, she looks down at Harrison in her arms. Each time, his smile or fascination with his surroundings is enough to push back the darkness.
I know it can be this easy for me. I've felt it myself.
Why does it always seem so hard?
"Hey." Lumen's hand finds mine, fingers intertwining. I look up to see nothing but concern on her face. "Whatever you need from me -- you've got it."
"Good." I return her hand squeeze, as Harrison attempts to introduce his chubby fist into the mix. "Right now, I just need one thing."
I try to sound optimistic. "Convince Astor to trust you."
"Huh." She clearly wasn't expecting this. "Again?"
I nod. "Again."
"And it's not drugs?"
I glance up the path. "You're going to wish it was."
The path is widening out, opening up into a space among the trees before continuing deeper into the forest. As as approach the clearing I spot Astor kneeling by a stone fire circle, poking the ashes with a stick. The rusting hulk of a mini-tractor lies at the edge of the treeline, its yellow safety paint chipped and flaking, scoop half-buried in the ground.
"Let me." I accept Harrison from Lumen and take a seat with my back against one of the trees. Harrison being an active boy, he immediately begins to struggle free.
"No, buddy." I watch as Lumen approaches Astor, slowing as she draws closer. "You stay right here."
Lumen kneels at her side, examining the ashes with interest. "Find anything?"
Astor shrugs. "Wasn't looking."
Lumen nods. She looks back at me, gauging something in her mind. Then sighs, and turns to Astor.
"If it wasn't for your dad --"
"He's not --" Astor breathes heavily as she leans on the stick, grinding the tip into the earth. Nobody says anything until Astor clears her throat.
"Sorry." Her forearm swipes over her eyes in a sharp, angry motion. "I am. Dexter's been -- more of a dad than my real one ever was."
I'm confused. This sounds like it should be a good thing.
Then I remember.
"You ruined everything!" Astor's voice is trembling as we stand facing each other. "We'd gotten used to it. It wasn't that bad."
As usual, I struggle to comprehend. "Used to what?"
"To the way things were!" she shouts. "Before you! Without a dad!"
"Oh," I manage. Beside her, Cody stares at the floor, fists clenched at his sides.
"And then you come along, and become a part of the family. And we thought that everything was gonna be good forever." For a moment, I think Astor may start to cry. "You made us think that!"
The Passenger inside is silent. As is Harry, standing next to me, looking as helpless as I feel.
"And it's not true." Astor's voice drops back to normal levels. "Things got worse."
How can I put their needs ahead of the number one rule?
"And now, every time I look at you...I get so angry." Resignation and despair war upon her face, as she pronounces sentence. "Because it was all just a lie."
"I'm sorry." Lumen echoes Astor in her apology. "I shouldn't have --"
"No," Astor interjects. "It's okay."
Lumen glances back at me. I try to convey silent confidence in her decisions as Harrison continues to look about the clearing, unsure of what to focus on.
"I can't imagine how you must feel." Lumen's voice is barely audible. "I mean -- when I went back home. My mom was there."
Astor's shoulder gives the tiniest twitch, as though she almost looked up.
"I was so happy. I never thought I'd see her again." Lumen momentarily falls silent, gathering courage. "But there were so many things I couldn't say to her."
Astor raises her head. It seems curiosity has finally gotten the best of her.
Once more, Lumen glances at me. "Because there was only one person who would understand."
The emotion in those eyes is not the same as Rita's. Even before she and I ever met, Lumen had known too much. Been illuminated to the harsh and ugly realities of existence. But I don't know what else to call what I'm seeing.
Is this love?
"If it weren't for Dexter, I wouldn't be here."
Lumen holds Astor's gaze, unflinching.
"I'd be dead."
"Die-die," Harrison chimes in. Lumen shoots a perplexed look at him.
"I think that's how he says dada," I offer. At least, that's what I tell myself.
Astor bows her head. Though not entirely gone, the tension in her posture seems somewhat eased.
"Okay." When she looks up at Lumen, I can see the predator in her eyes. "Okay."
I watch in silence as Astor rises from her crouch, discarding her stick in the fire pit. Then she turns and walks over to the corpse of the mini-tractor. At less than an arm's length away she stops, reaches out and gives an experimental poke. Then another, slightly harder, before nodding.
Her form is perfect. I've been working in weight training whenever possible, though we quickly hit the limits of whatever challenge could be posed by the machines at my health club. But it's absolutely textbook; beautiful in its simplicity, stunning in its execution. Astor simply drops into a squat, hooks her fingers under the tire treads and stands back up with a mild grunt of effort. The mini-tractor doesn't just turn on its side; it actually does a complete flip before hitting the ground with a surprisingly quiet thud. The vibration is actually more significant than the noise.
I look over at Lumen. Her eyes are huge, her mouth ajar.
Astor breaks into a run, heading dead-on for the largest tree. I'm not at all surprised when she continues straight on up the trunk before kicking off in a flip of her own, completing two full rotations before grabbing onto a branch and swinging around. It's a display that would shame professional gymnasts. Lumen is looking even more flabbergasted as Astor disengages and flies into the air.
I'm already standing. Harrison cradled firmly in my left arm, right hand reaching into my satchel as Astor comes down to nail a pinpoint landing.
My injured shoulder protests as the knife leaves my hand.
A scream catches in Lumen's throat.
Astor turns in place, hands coming together with an audible clap.
Lumen stares at the tip of the blade, hovering an inch from Astor's face. Before either of us can react, Astor whirls about and hurls the knife. The tree across the clearing emits a resounding thwok as it suddenly sprouts a handle. It's still shivering from the impact as we stare at it, leaves drifting down from above.
Lumen stares at the tree, at Astor, and at me. Finally, she finds her voice.
"You weren't kidding."
Dexter tries to get back to the daily grind, only to find the supernatural world intruding in the broad light of day.
The rest of the day is spent on training. Which oddly enough, is decidedly easier when my attention is divided between one person with superpowers and another without. Lumen's presence allows me to pit her and Astor against each other, as well as demonstrate techniques on her instead of Astor. It's an hour before sunset when we finally leave the campgrounds, and I'm feeling much better than the last time I tried this. Still, I can see how another Slayer would be useful. It would be nice if Dana didn't have so many issues. Among them, basic communication.
We still haven't broached the topic of the supernatural. By unspoken agreement, Astor and I appear to have come to a mutual decision on this. However extraordinary her newfound abilities, they're undeniably real; demonstrably so, as Astor said herself, in broad daylight. We manage to skirt around the specific intent and purpose of those abilities, never explicitly pleading more ignorance than we actually have. We do inform Lumen that there are at least a few thousand young women like Astor all across the world. This last piece of information gives her serious pause for thought, enough to end the conversation for some time as we travel down the highway. I can imagine how Lumen would have dealt with Jordan Chase and his friends if she had the power of a Slayer.
I know most men would probably be jealous, even fearful of a woman with this much literal strength. But the Dark Passenger has only admiration for a fellow predator of the highest order. As for me, I've gone hand to hand with a vampire when I had almost every advantage and barely come out on top. Rather than worry about my pride, I'll take all the help I can get.
The sun is barely hanging above the horizon and Harrison well and fast asleep by the time we get back to the apartment. The pool is drained and thoroughly scrubbed, surrounded on all sides by safety barriers. As we climb the stairs I feel again as though I'm observing from outside. I marvel at the perfect picture we present to the world. A loving family returned from their Sunday outing; tired from their exertions in the sun and fresh air, but better in every way for the experience.
With only one bathroom, it takes a while for two adults and a teenager to get cleaned up for dinner. It's a shame that my newfound threat model precludes grilling outside after dark. In the end, I offer up the rest of the week's breakfast ham as a sacrifice, with Lumen making scalloped potatoes to stretch enough out for everyone.
Despite the day's progress, Astor's emotions are at war upon her face when we sit down for dinner. Every time she relaxes enough to actually laugh or smile, it's as if she remembers all over again. Hearing the voice of her dead mother outside of a dream appears to have set back the little progress she's made over the past year.
Kids need direction. Harry stands beside me at the sink as I finish washing up. A sense of purpose. Something bigger than themselves.
"She's a Slayer," I murmur. In the living room, Lumen and Astor are keeping watchful eye on a sleeping Harrison, conversing in hushed near-whispers. "That seems pretty big."
And most of what you think you know about them comes from a murderer. Maximum concern is carved into every crag and crevice of that ghostly face. And an unstable one at that. It's no wonder Faith wants her off the streets.
"Maybe she didn't vet them like I would have." I barely say it out loud. "But she obviously has some kind of code."
So did Hammurabi. Harry leans on the counter, trying to capture my gaze with nonexistent eyes. That didn't make him a civilized man.
"I didn't see a civilized woman." I pull the plug, using the sprayer to rinse away the suds. "I saw a frightened girl. One who had probably suffered a deeply traumatic experience."
Dexter, you can't save everyone. Harry looks as though he wants to grab and shake me. Trying to recreate the family you've lost is only going to put all of them in --
"Everything okay?" Where Harry stood, Lumen now stands.
"Reasonably." I finish drying my hands and hold out a welcoming arm. Lumen hesitates before stepping into my embrace. I'm not sure she thinks I actually have emotions. Like me, she wants to believe.
"This Dana girl." Her voice is muffled in my shirt.
"She sounds --" Lumen sighs. "Like she's been through a lot."
"I'm not sure." I gaze over her shoulder into Astor's cold, judgmental stare. "I think she could use a friend."
Astor's gaze falls away. It's enough to cement my decision.
"You should take my room." I'm hoping to avoid an argument. "They just got the new window installed."
"I don't --" Lumen's protest falls short.
"I'll roll out my sleeping bag. Somewhere Astor won't step on me if she has to get up." I indicate an appropriate spot on the floor. "I'll feel better if I'm closer to Harrison."
Lumen seems to accept this. But I see her frown as she looks over at Astor. I take her by the hand, and lead her down the hall.
"Come on." I try to make light of things. "I'll show you where I keep the good stuff."
Actually, she remembers right where my toolchest is hidden. It's one of those little things that help us both sleep soundly. Astor doesn't comment on the new sleeping arrangement, but seems slightly mollified. I really need to get this girl her own bed. Even Harrison has one.
I think I dream of Rita. But upon waking it all turns to smoke, wafting away on the breeze.
Astor uses our lack of ham to make a special pleading for the return of pancakes. Lumen being reluctant to voice an opinion, I opt for diplomacy, while remaining silently determined not to make a habit of giving in to adolescent appetites. Luckily for me, Harrison isn't old enough to vote.
Our household's level of caution and contingency planning is so heightened that I end up being almost ten minutes late to work. It's been hard enough trying to contain one secret life. Now I have two.
"Good morning to you too." I manage to forestall further abuse with the usual proffering of pastry. From over a mouthful of apple crumb, Deb levels a cockeyed glare that could peel the paint off a wall.
"I'm still not sitting again this week."
I don't have to pretend to look innocent. "Hot date?"
"Fuf mo!" A spray of crumbs accompanies this apparent denial. Deb gives a mighty swallow, fanning her reddening face.
"It was just a question," I say. Honestly, I'm not sure what her problem is. With that pale skin, she practically looks sunburned.
"I just want to spend a boring week of evenings relaxing at home. Without any other fricking responsibilities." Deb heaves a dramatic sigh. "Is that so wrong?"
Methinks my sis protest too much. "What's wrong is you saying fricking."
"Fuck you," she replies. "Up the ass, with a rolling donut. Want to get out of the office?"
"I just got here." I indicate my office door, still shut and locked.
"That's why you missed the briefing." Deb's eyes slide up the hall. The blinds in LaGuerta's window are shut, but I can see motion behind them.
"Maybe I will go with you." I resist the urge to look over my shoulder as I fall into step beside Deb. "I have been spending too much time behind a desk."
She lets out a sarcastic snort as we head for the elevator, double time.
"This one sounds pretty simple." She jabs at the button, motioning me ahead of her. "Always glad to have you, though. We can take my car."
"By the way," I announce as the doors slide shut. "Lumen's back."
Deb does a literal double take. It's one of the few times I've actually seen one that wasn't staged.
"You were going to find out sooner or later." I keep my tone casual. "I didn't want you thinking I was trying to hide something."
"Right." Deb's skepticism is plain. "Is she still your tenant?"
I gaze at the flickering flourescent overhead. "When I figure it out, I'll let you know."
"At least that sounds less bullshit than last time." She shakes her head. "How's Astor dealing with it?"
"Better than last time." We disembark from the elevator, where I pause to hold the door for a pair of cadets. "I think she decided she has bigger things to worry about."
"Well -- you know teenagers." Deb dons her dark sunglasses as we exit the building, squinting up at the sky. "Everything's the end of the world."
The scene itself is uneventful as advertised: Everything above board and by the book, without the slightest need for sneakiness or subterfuge on my part. I find it especially relaxing since my normal stress-relieving hobby has taken a a back seat as of late. By the time I'm done stringing thread I've gone through two bottles of water and I have the report mostly written in my head. I apply the finishing touches as I'm reeling off salient points to the group of patrol officers assigned to the case. I fully expect them to have the culprit in hand before dawn tomorrow. Sooner, if they think to check the seaports.
"You up for a Cuban?" Deb looks famished as we pull out. I can wait, and say so.
"Right. You've got a full house." She frowns. "Must be tight there. Since you sold Rita's old place."
"It's not ideal," I admit. "I'm thinking of taking the apartment next door. Make it into one unit."
"On your salary?" Deb shakes her head. "Bro, I know you like to save. I know you like to live simple. But family is anything but simple. And yours --"
The sharpness of my glare causes her to stutter to a halt. She sighs.
"Is very not simple."
Her voice is soft and forgiving. Understanding. For what that's worth.
But it does get me thinking again about how complicated this would all be if it was just for the people involved. No bloodsucking creatures of the night. A stepdaughter with emotional problems, instead of supernatural strength. And the fact that the longer I wait to tell Lumen that vampires are in fact real, the worse it will probably be for all concerned. Particularly when one of them is a dead ringer for --
"Huh?" I look up to find us pulled into Deb's spot at Miami Metro. "What about Rita?"
"I know you miss her." Deb stares straight ahead, hands on her steering wheel. "God knows I do too, and not -- but you can't --"
She flounders to a stop.
I take her right hand in both of mine. Slowly; careful not to grab or squeeze.
"I said it before, and I'll say it again." I like the way this sounds. The wholly reasonable voice of the patient older brother. "Nobody is trying to replace Rita. That's --"
I shake off the passing shiver, as Deb gives me a curious once-over.
"That's not possible."
Deb nods, and bows her head. Finally we exit the car. I'm not sure which of us feels the better for having aired our emotional laundry. I'm still figuring out if any of mine is suitable for public viewing.
"So if you don't have a hot date," I say. "Will you at least show up one night this week for dinner? You pick the night."
"Ugh." Deb makes a face. "Fine, you can feed me steak. Or burgers," she quickly adds. "But seriously -- I just need some quality me time."
"Consider it done." I extend my arm with a flourish and the elevator doors slide open. "After you."
"You're pretty gallant, for a fucknut." But Deb smiles through pinkened cheeks as we enter the main office.
I come to a complete stop at the sound of that voice. All the more so because the owner of said voice is coming toward me in an expensive grey pantsuit and hairdo with tortoiseshell frames, bearing equal confidence in her stride. And because said owner was last seen in my apartment while destroying furniture and beating the stuffing out of a mentally troubled girl, who also happened to be her fellow Slayer.
One thing I can definitely say about Faith?
"Lenore Ogilvie." She holds up a very official looking ID, hanging from her lanyard. "DCF."
She cleans up well.
"Can we talk?"
Defending his domain, Dexter takes a gamble, and acquires valuable information.
The dilation of time is a curious phenomenon in human psychology. Perception clearly and wholly at odds with reality. Where the subjective rules, and objectivity fears to tread.
For the most part, my own fears have been what most people would call concerns. As a teenager, I'd nearly fallen from a rooftop as I stood ever closer to the edge, trying to force myself to be afraid. After college, I had managed to summon up a simulacrum of emotion that mimicked the real thing well enough. But I had barely been getting a grip on this sort of play-acting. And then my false relationship had been turned on its head when Rita -- safe, meek, undemanding Rita -- had shown up at my door in an overcoat, offering to raid my tomb. I had let her into my heart, along with her children, and been taken on a roller coaster ride that ended with my being thrown headlong from the tracks. And the absolute most disconcerting moment of genuine existential dread that I can recall, so much worse in hindsight, was when my latest prey strolled into the Miami Metro office in the broad light of day; walked right up to me with an evil eye and a friendly smile and said: Hello, Dexter Morgan.
Arthur Mitchell had found me. Invaded my place of work, where I was viewed as a respected professional. Where people thought of me as normal.
All this flashes through my thoughts in the time it takes to clear my throat. Behind me I sense Deb coming to a stop, with an inexplicable stiffening up.
I try on a smile. "Miss Ogilvie -- I assume?"
"If you insist." Faith lets the lanyard fall from where she's been holding up her ID for my inspection. The photo matches her new look, hair bun and all. It looks like quality work. I assume it's fake.
"Can I get you a coffee?" I hold up the box in my hand with its traditional peace offering. "Donut?"
"I'd appreciate it if we could get down to business." Faith's speech is crisp and precise. Quite the change in speech patterns. She's no Eliza Doolittle, but it's a distinct contrast to the rough and tumble street thug I remember.
"I'm on a schedule," she continues. "As I'm sure you are."
"What the f--"
Faith gets a very odd look on her face as she stares over my shoulder. Behind me, I can hear Deb choking off her favorite word. Actually, it sounds more like choking on.
"It's about a missing persons case." Faith is looking at me again, but her words seem directed at Deb. Whatever's going on here, it doesn't seem too crazy to think these two have met before somewhere.
"How did --" I clear my throat. "Where did you --"
"A colleague of mine recommended you," Faith says. "Spoke very highly."
It's game on as I return her poker face with equal stoicism. "Follow me."
I usher her into my office, leaving the blinds shuttered. Luck is on my side, with Vince currently out on another assignment. I already have enough far too much tactical exposure to worry about.
"Interesting new approach," I remark. I pull up my chair and take a seat.
Faith's only concession to relaxation is to continue to stand there, looking awfully intimidating for a woman her size. Of course I know perfectly well what she's capable of. I've seen her in action.
"You're not my problem." Faith makes this not just a statement but a declaration. Her professional demeanor is both like and unlike my smile that offers donuts to unsuspecting colleagues. It's completely false, and yet she believes. Fervently.
"What about my daughter?" I return her calm stare with aplomb. "Because of what she is? You might decide she's your problem."
"You don't know Jack." Faith doesn't sound angry, or even insistent. "And you don't know what you don't know."
"I know she's a Slayer," I say.
I'm not expecting the response I get. Faith's eyes harden and her jaw tightens up as she bites down on the first words that threaten to come out of her mouth.
"You think you know what a Slayer is." Faith shakes her head, like she has only pity for me.
"I know they hunt vampires," I say. "And just a few weeks ago, I wouldn't have believed any of this. But --" I spread my hands. "Here you are."
"You think you're helping. But you're only gonna get hurt." Faith leans forward, hands on my desk as she stares into my eyes. "Maybe more."
"Why are you here in Miami?" I regard her like the puzzle every person is. "Is it Astor? Or Dana?"
Now, that's definitely anger.
"Yeah. Dana. There's a fun story." Faith leans closer, her voice dropping. "She tell you how she was kidnapped? Ten years old, her whole family murdered?"
I don't blink. But my heart quickens.
"How the guy tortured her for months, before she escaped? So the cops pick her up on the street. She spends the next few years in the loony bin, and then -- soon as she's old enough to get her period -- hey, here's the dreams of every Slayer who ever lived. Powers that be, they figure -- why the hell should this girl have any trouble figuring out what's real? No problem, right?" Faith is breathing heavily as she swallows her growing emotion.
"But if she didn't mention any of that?" Her voice is deceptively calm. "You might want to hold off on inviting her to Astor's next slumber party."
My mind whirls with new data. I've already imagined Lumen with the power of a Slayer. Even now, somewhat restrained by the cold comfort of our having executed every one of her tormenters, I wouldn't be surprised to see her take up vigilantism as a full-time endeavor. If Dana is in fact responsible for some of the murders I've photographed and catalogued, then my other theory was correct. I'd be willing to bet that hunting humans isn't in the Slayer Code.
"You think she's acting out?" I make it sound purely hypothetical. "Trying to take revenge for what was done to her?"
Faith's lip curls, a slight snort issuing from her delicate nostrils.
"You think she's cute." Her voice drips with disdain. "That she's...tame."
"I wouldn't go that far." I take note of the fact that she's leaning not on her palms, but on her fists. Some people would interpret this as aggression. I have another theory I intend to test later. Assuming I survive this encounter.
Her gaze softens, along with her voice.
"I'm not trying to make this a hard sell." There's that pity again, as she straightens to her full unimpressive height. "But it should be a no-brainer."
I cut to the chase. "What do you want from me?"
"Stay out of my way."
My eyebrows rise. "That's it?"
"Along with don't go out after dark? Kinda common sense."
The perpetual lack of patience that seems to define Faith roars back to the forefront. This time, I have a response.
"Come to one of our training sessions."
She doesn't respond. At least verbally. But I can see her own eyes widen, and then narrow as she attempts to ascertain my angle.
"You've trained other Slayers," I say. I make it very much not a question.
Faith looks increasingly uncomfortable. "So?"
I try on a different smile. "I'd like to see how you train mine."
Faith scowls, folding both arms over her impressive chest.
"Do I look like I have time to hang out with every cute single dad who wants to show how involved he is with his kid?"
I go for the third option. "I'll make dinner."
From the look of things, I may have found her weak spot. Her jaw hardens, along with the glint in her eye.
"Before I go breaking bread with you --"
"Since you've already broken my furniture," I interject.
She levels a glare at me that could melt steel.
"I know for a fact your daughter hasn't killed a single vamp. Or any other kind of demon." Faith cocks one eyebrow, waiting for a response that doesn't come.
"Now you?" she continues, carefully scrutinizing me for any reaction. "I'm not so sure. Whatever training you're giving her aside? Obviously you're not even giving her the chance to take anything down."
"Because I care about her." I try not to sound overly accusatory. "I try to keep her out of trouble."
"Like you said -- she's a Slayer." Faith pronounces it like a death sentence. "Trouble has a way of finding us."
"You made your point," I say. "You have resources of your own. All kinds of information about us."
"That's not my point." Her retort comes quick. "Point is, before I bother any more with you -- not Astor --"
I note the distinction.
"-- you need to come on patrol. With me." Faith looks me directly in the eye. "So you can get a few things through your head."
I frown, in puzzlement and annoyance. "I'm not scared."
"Then you're not all there." Faith utters a little snort of laughter from her nose. "Maybe a thrill seeker."
I pause, then shrug.
"I've...done things. In the past." I chew over my words. "Of that...sort of thing."
"But not now?" Faith views me with unconcealed skepticism. "You're all better?"
I spread my hands, open and clean.
"I don't know what I am." A snort of my own emerges from my nostrils. "But my daughter came to me for help."
"She's not your kid." Faith's words are sharp, her implicit accusation razor keen.
"She might as well be." I glance over at the blinds, watching shadows of my colleagues move to and fro. I can't believe Vince hasn't walked in by now and said something more obscene than ever before.
"So yeah. I'll go out with you." I return my gaze to her. "And the sooner the better."
Faith's laugh escapes from her, as if through restraints. Like she can't help herself. It still makes her look nicer.
I nod in confirmation. "Tonight's the night."
I escort her from the office like a gentleman, keeping up a stream of harmless empty chatter. Everyone is oblivious to us apart from Deb, who shoots little daggers from behind an open folder as we pass through. I leave her at the elevator and turn left, as if heading for the lab.
I step around the corner. Then I turn round, come to a halt and hold up my clipboard and pen, chewing on the cap, trying to look lost in thought. My patience is rewarded as Deb comes into view, sprinting through the elevator doors before they can close upon her.
I quickly return to the main office, heading down the far corridor toward the lounge. A tiny, dismal and rarely frequented venue, it also had windows that overlooked the parking lot nearly right where Deb was parked.
My nose and fingers press against the glass. Then I pull back as my breath fogs the view.
I'm no expert in these things. But I have to wonder.
That definitely looks like a lover's quarrel.
"Ugh." Deb groans, fumbling with her shoelaces, trying not to fall over.
"Have a seat." I guide her to the couch and prop her feet up on the table. "Want some water?"
"No." It comes out rather forcefully. I suspect she's doing her best not to vomit.
"Trust me, it's the best thing." I finish removing her shoes and stash them under the couch, wrinkling my nose. "I'll put it on the table for you. Just in case."
"You're such a good fuckin' brother." Deb curls into a ball, wrapping around the body pillow that spans nearly the length of the couch. "And get me a wastebasket..."
"On it." I slide the makeshift bucket into place and give her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "Get some rest."
By the time I finish washing my hands and bring back a bottle of water from the fridge, Deb is fast asleep. I leave the bottle by her head as promised, and heave a sigh as I head for the car to fetch my bag.
Are you sure this is worth it?
"Sometimes, you pick the most inconvenient moments." I glance around as I reenter Deb's apartment. An instinctive habit.
You used to have a lot more instinctive habits. Harry follows me down the hall, giving the bag in my hand a hard look. I'd say you're starting to overthink things.
"So you can judge Dana, but not the person who wants to bring her in?" I'm already pulling out the various testing components: Regular, magnetic, even flourescent. When it comes to field kits, our employers at Miami Metro spare little expense.
You drugged your sister. Harry actually sounds shocked. Sent her home sick from work. On a hunch?
"On a reasonable set of circumstantial evidence." I pull prints from the telephone, followed by the coffeepot. "Don't you want to know who we're dealing with here?"
I'd say you're reaching too far. Harry glances over at Deb, snoring on the couch. Maybe in the wrong direction.
"And where would you suggest?" I cast my eye about the living room for possible surfaces.
What about Rita's look a like? Harry's put-upon patience shows no sign of giving way. And the other one with her? You could end up fighting a war on three fronts. To what end?
"You're right. I need to know who I can rely on." I head into the bedroom, steeling myself for what's likely to come. "I need to know who they are."
Thankfully, Harry refrains from speaking while I lift prints from the bedposts.
As well as the handcuffs.
"Hey, Dex." Vince hails me without looking up from his post at the microscope. "Deb feeling any better?"
"She was asleep when I left." I unload my treasures, wondering if I should risk outside involvement.
"Well, that's a decent straight line in and of itself." Vince turns in his chair to face me, adjusting his glasses. "But the proper response for a good brother is, How would I know? I've never felt her."
I blink in bemusement, offering an uncertain smile as he does what he calls his Butthead laugh. Like Faith and Dana talking about Slayers, you could hear the capital letter when Vince put a name to it.
"Whatcha got there?"
Too late now. "Vince, I'm going to ask you to do something that potentially skirts the bounds of ethical behavior."
"Sounds serious." Vince looks uncharacteristically so. "What's up?"
I take a deep breath and hold up my collection of prints.
"I need you to find out if my sister is sleeping with that social worker."
Vince doesn't bat an eye as he reaches out and grabs the entire stack. The prints are all Deb, Astor and myself. Until we get to the bedpost.
"Remember," I caution. "Mum's the word. Unless you want to experience manual castration with no anesthesia."
"Not on my kink bucket list." Vince mimes zipping his lips shut, tossing an imaginary key over his shoulder. "Mum's the word. Especially if you're into milfs."
I make sure he's fully reengaged with his own work as I gather up all the evidence. Then I pull out a tray of vials, looking like I'm ready to run an unrelated test of my own. It probably isn't necessary, but Vince is sitting sideways from me rather than with his back turned. What with everything else going on in my life, I feel safer being sure.
Vince continues to run down his sample checklist. With a slight cough to cover the sound, I hit ENTER.
I've already disabled the bell on completion. I'm in the middle of sorting my decoy tray of vials when I see the alert window pop up.
"Hey, I just remembered I have an untouched Cuban in the break room fridge." I catch Vince's eye, finding it receptive. "You get it, I'll split it."
"Done and done." Vince takes a moment to jot down some notes. Also to wash his hands.
The door swings shut. I wait for him to disappear from sight before I hit PRINT. Then I dismiss the window, secure in the knowledge that the job is already safely in the buffer.
Seconds later, I'm staring at a high color printout.
Of a mug shot. Informing me that the state of California lists Faith Lehane as
and considers her to be
ARMED AND DANGEROUS.
"I didn't see it," Vince says as he reenters the office. He doesn't sound too broken up. Keeping food in any workplace is usually a lost cause.
"I'll buy lunch tomorrow," I reply, folding the printout and stuffing it in my pocket. "Just to make it up to you."
If Astor were coming along tonight, I might be more concerned.
As it is?
I am really looking forward to this.
A Slayer takes our humble narrator out on the town.
"So she used a fake ID to get inside the police station."
"To talk to you."
"And she's like Astor, and this other girl -- Dana?"
"Except she's after Dana?"
I shrug. "Apparently?"
Lumen makes a fist and socks me in the bicep, less than gentle. We're lying on my bed fully clothed, her nestled into my chest with our arms around one another. The window is open and curtains are fluttering in the breeze. It feels good.
"This is crazy." Lumen's worry is a mild sour note amidst the serenity. "It's got to be some secret government project."
"Well, I couldn't say for sure." I shrug, my hand resting atop the curve of her hip. "But I don't think so."
I feel her drawing back to look at me. I turn my head to do the same, and find her unsurety taking on a more cynical awareness. It's a look I remember well.
How do I know you didn't kill these girls?
She swallows, looking down at her hand on my chest.
"I still can't believe I fucked you."
I cough. Lumen looks up to my clearly disapproving eyebrow.
"Fine." She doesn't roll her eyes, nor even sound impatient as she allows herself a very slight smile. "I still can't believe I slept with you."
I have to think for a second. "Is that a bad thing?"
"No --" Lumen sits up, hand still on my chest. It feels like it's both to keep me from moving and to reassure me that she's not going anywhere.
"No," she continues, quieter. "It was -- it was good." A heavy sigh. "At the time."
I have a reputation as a good listener. It's times like these I find it hard to maintain.
"Even though in hindsight it seems like the worst possible time --" Lumen breaks off, apparently in reaction to the look on my face. "No! Not like -- I'm not --"
"It's okay." I've found this truism just as likely to aggravate emotions as it is to calm them. But Lumen shakes her head.
"All the way here -- the whole time on the plane, in the cab -- I thought about it." Her fingers graze along the surface of my shirt, pressing into the flesh beneath. "I wanted to. I want to," she concludes, more forcefully.
I venture a cautious interjection. "But..."
"But even without Astor around, like right now -- every time I try, or think about trying, I just --"
I wait a decent interval before presuming to finish her thought. "Freeze up?"
A silent nod of confirmation. Her left hand rises to her shoulder then rubs at the back of her neck, as if to soothe away pain.
"Do you know why?"
"A lot of things." Her gaze points over my shoulder toward my dresser. I know the photograph she's looking at.
Who she's looking at.
"When Astor and Olivia first showed up there -- your old place?"
"Remember the next morning? I was making breakfast. And Harrison --"
"He said Mama." The awkwardness comes flooding back, more intense than before as I picture my son in my arms. "Astor didn't take it well."
"Talk about the worst possible timing." Lumen bows her head, then looks back up with glistening eyes and a wobbly lip. "I feel like she'll never forgive me for that. And it makes me feel bad, but not just for her -- it's like I'm disrespecting her mom."
"Ouch." I continue to hold her hand, inwardly cursing my lack of input. On the other hand, painful experience has taught me that saying the wrong thing is usually worse than saying nothing at all.
"But also because..."
I pump a mental fist in silent victory.
"Because -- it's like, the first time? After we --" She stumbles and swallows, her voice falling to a whisper. "I was so out of my mind. For so many reasons, and --"
Her hand balls into a fist. Clenches, then relaxes, as she opens her fingers and stares at her palm. I wonder if she's imagining holding a knife.
"I'm not saying it was temporary insanity. And I'm definitely not saying you took advantage of me." A deep breath, and a shaky exhalation. "I just..."
I wait. As long as it takes.
"I almost feel like I'm two different people. Before..." She holds up her hand, palm up, then allows it to fall. "And after. And as hard as the before one tries..."
She takes a deep, shuddering breath.
"It's never enough."
A short pause becomes longer, stretching into uncomfortableness.
Lumen looks back at me, hesitant about everything. Including whether to worry.
"I was going to give a hug." My own hesitation shines through loud and clear. "I think that's what people do in these situations."
"Yes." And slowly, the tension fades from her face, from the rest of her body. Lumen sinks into me once more, snuggling deeper, hugging back. "They do."
"I don't need a sitter."
Astor's voice is just on the civil side of a growl. I sigh internally, and resist the urge to cradle my forehead in both hands. That would be a show of weakness. Which would be important even if my stepdaughter wasn't capable of bench pressing a Buick.
"I promised your grandparents you were going to have proper supervision at all times." I put extra stress on the last three words. "And before you pull out the whole 'but I'm a Slayer' --"
"I wasn't --" Astor shuts her mouth at my raised eyebrow, stewing silently in her outrage.
Outside Lumen stands on the balcony, Harrison in her arms, the two of them gazing out over the bay. It hadn't taken much escalation on Astor's part for our new guest to decide that absence might make the heart grow fonder. Or at least less hostile.
"There's still a lot you need to learn." I hold Astor's gaze, not letting her look away. "Agreed?"
I can see her wanting desperately to say something very sarcastic. The fact that she's struggling for self-control is a good thing. Or should be, from a Harry perspective. Control your emotions, or they control you. In me, he had found the perfect test subject. Everyone believed me to be without emotion. And so I had responded in kind.
"Yes." Her level of grudge appears well within my limits of tolerance. But her frustration is plain, even to a social cripple like myself.
"I didn't say anything to Lumen." I keep my voice low, watching the balcony in my peripheral vision. "But Faith's taking me out on patrol."
Astor blinks, and frowns in puzzlement. "Patrol?"
"Basically, vampire hunting. And whatever else might rear its ugly head." I look her dead in the eye, trying to emphasize the gravity of the situation. "We need to know more about all this stuff. And whether we can trust what Faith says."
Her gaze sharpens. "About Dana?"
"About a lot of things." I try to convey the importance of what I'm entrusting her with. "You could ask why she was fighting that other Slayer."
Between Astor's abilities and Lumen knowing the location of my weapons stash, I feel relatively comfortable leaving the kids with her, even after dark. I tell Astor that I'll call when I'm outside the door, and not to let anyone but Deb in under penalty of eviction. Astor still harbors some degree of suspicion and resentment, though I'm not sure where it's directed. That level of behavioral analysis remains a mystery to me.
The only thing I can't decide is whether to tell them about Faith and Deb. In the end I opt to remain silent, if only because I have to admit I don't know much about that relationship. Except that it bears further investigation. I also realize that broaching the subject with either Lumen or Astor requires a vastly different approach. At the moment, I don't feel up to either of those particular challenges.
Faith arrives on time, an hour before sunset. She's back in the jeans and denim jacket I remember from her post-bikini days; hair down around her shoulders, loose and flowing as the rest of her. I can imagine Astor moving that way someday. Like some great beast, stalking its prey.
Is this really the life I want for her?
What about what she wants? Harry stands at my desk, observing them with me from across the room. Have you even asked her?
"She said she wanted to stay with me." I'm watching Lumen, who sits watching Faith like a hawk. The latter is slowly winning Astor's grudging acceptance with a combination of martial advice and obvious affection for Harrison. The badass older girl image certainly doesn't hurt.
And you took her back in. Knowing everything you do. Harry shakes his head in dismay. Even with her powers, you're putting her at risk. Harrison too.
"I'm starting to think you might not be the best source of advice on parenting a teenage girl." I check my pockets one more time, finding everything in order.
Dexter, you were always my first priority. From the moment I found you. Regret smolders deep within that ghostly gaze. Deb had to take second place. It was inevitable.
"I'm sure she'd take great comfort in that," I mutter under my breath.
Dexter. Harry stares at me with a mixture of surprise and something else. Was that sarcasm?
"I don't know." I watch Faith exchange a few quiet words with Lumen. Astor watches from the couch, Harrison in her lap. "What else would you call it?"
I'm proud of you, son. Seriously.
With Faith heading my way, I elect not to reply. Instead I plaster on a smile and wave to the living members of my family. I think about decisions, and how old a person should be in order to make them.
"Thanks for not giving her the hard sell," I say as we descend the staircase. "About signing up for the Slayer thing."
"You don't." Faith scans the parking lot with the seasoned eye of what I now recognize as a fugitive. "Job picks you, whether you want it or not. Up to you how to deal with it."
"You as in her?" I indicate my car before realizing she's already heading straight for it. I should have known she'd have eyes on me.
Could that be why this thing with Deb? Faith getting close to my sister as a way of finding out more about me? I think to myself as we fasten our seatbelts that it may not be a good idea to ask.
From the back seat, Harry smiles in the rearview mirror.
You're learning, Dex.
Hardly, I think. As Vince would say, this one isn't exactly rocket science. More like common sense.
But the kind of sense you've never shown before. Harry gives a nod of encouragement. You're developing it now. Every time you open up to Astor. Every time you show her that you're there for her.
This seems a bit at odds with his previous advice. I'd respond aloud, but I don't want Faith to get the wrong impression about me.
"We're gonna head downtown. But first?" Faith rolls down her window, fingers lightly drumming the edge, regarding me with a look of frank appraisal. "I want to know Darla has such a hard-on for you."
I don't say a word. I pull my wallet from my pocket, flip it open and hand it over, carefully watching her face.
I don't have to watch that carefully. Her eyebrows immediately bounce upward, followed by contracting in a frown and squint as she brings the photo closer to her face, eyes narrowing in concentration.
The image itself I know all too well. I haven't looked at it since Rita was murdered. But it's as perfectly preserved in plastic. As plain in my mind as the look on my mother's face when she said:
Close your eyes.
We'd spent the day at the beach with the kids. The four of us, together. And as the red sun was sinking toward the horizon, Rita had thrust her phone into the hands of an obliging stranger to take our picture as a family. A few tries later, one of them had turned out to be everything Rita was hoping for. I don't actually look too bad in it, for one thing -- only slightly confused, which is less than normal for me. Mostly it's Rita being her usual charming self and holding me close. Astor and Cody are hugging us from either side, wearing enormous grins of their own.
Faith looks up at me and shakes her head, exhaling a puff of air. "Mind if I show this to someone?"
I shrug. "Be my guest."
She digs out a phone from her jacket and snaps a photo. Then she twiddles her thumbs, apparently adding a comment before nodding and stuffing it back away.
"I'll say this much." Faith looks over at me with something new in her eyes. "That answers that question."
I hazard a guess. "As to why she's got such a hard-on?"
Faith snorts. "Hole in one."
The ride is conducted mostly in silence. Faith directs me to the slightly seedier side of downtown, not far from where I first encountered Darla. The club scene doesn't seem quite as happening this time around, but the crowds are still large enough that we can easily blend in. Though as I point out, we don't exactly look like a couple.
"Couple of goddamn idiots," Faith mutters as she stares out the window. Rather than depressed or resigned, she seems weirdly energized, like she's trying to contain or restrain herself.
"I should have my head examined," she continues, seemingly ignoring me. "Oh, wait. I did."
Faith doesn't appear fooled in the slightest by my casual tone. "Kind of a work requirement."
"Honestly, I was surprised the department didn't want a mandatory evaluation for me." I feel Faith's gaze shift toward me as I come to a stop at the light. "After my wife was killed."
"I heard." From the sound of it, she's read the papers. Maybe the police and FBI reports. "You didn't even take time off."
"I couldn't afford to." I struggle for a kernel of truth in an ocean of lies. "It was all I had."
"What about the kids?" Her question is casual, her intent all too obvious. No need to say more.
"They left." I wait for a group of staggering twenty-somethings to finish clogging up the street before making the turn. "Then...Astor came back."
"And the next thing you know, she's sneaking out at night with a stake in her pocket?"
"Something like that," I concede.
"I've got tabs on the grandparents." Faith sounds utterly serious. "Turn here."
I obey without a thought. The perfect clockwork boy, now a mechanical man.
"If Darla's famous for anything," she continues, "it's messing with family. We're not the only ones who can find this stuff out."
"I appreciate it." I follow her pointing finger to the parking lot, a single bored attendant manning the gate. "Assuming I can trust your people."
"You can trust them to die trying to do the right thing." Her tone sounds equally admiring and disgusted. I suspect she's been accused of that herself.
"I don't suppose you could answer a few practical questions." I couch it as a humble supplicant; not overly fawning, but eager to learn. "About vampires?"
"Fire away." I can hear the shrug in her voice. "Just know I'm not a geek. I don't do science."
"And if you ask me who would win in a fight, a vampire or anything else, I will hurt you."
I quiz her on the basics while I pay the attendant and jockey for a spot. As I've discovered from hands-on experience, decapitation is very much an option when it comes to disposing of the undead. The rest is an interesting hodgepodge of folklore and Hollywood brought to life, with a few odd exceptions. Odd from a scientific standpoint, that is. Vince would be as fascinated as I am.
"How hard would it be to get a blood sample?"
"Don't." Faith's warning is flat, her word final. "Don't think you're the first geek with a few bright ideas."
I settle for redirection. "So what did you and Astor talk about?"
A cynical chuckle drifts over to my side of the car. "There's worse things than pot, but I wouldn't make a career out of it."
"What?" I fumble my keys as we're getting out of the car. "Astor's smoking pot?"
"Tried it a couple times." Faith looks far from concerned. "Think I talked her out of it, but -- you know how it is."
My mind is a blank as I stare at her. "She's thirteen."
Faith looks back, expectant.
"...and a year ago she was helping a friend steal liquor." My cheeks puff out in a hefty sigh. "Among other things."
"Been there." Faith chuckles, not unkindly. "Trust me, so far? You're getting off light."
My growing dismay finds no outlet. Other than to think this just keeps getting better.
"So, dad." Faith shoves her hands in her jacket pockets as she surveys the row of club fronts, their queues stuffed beyond overflow. "Ready for your first demon bar?"
"Demon bar?" I squint at the particularly garish neon display that has her attention. "I thought that was a gay bar."
"I'm kidding." Faith rolls her eyes. "You're waiting outside."
I'm sure my puzzled frown does nothing to dispel her image of me as a hayseed, ready to stumble into a nest of vampires. Is it a nest? And what is the proper collective noun?
I venture an unremarkable statement. "I thought this was supposed to be an educational experience."
"Slayer walks into a demon bar, you know she's looking for trouble. Anyone with her? Instant target." Faith's tone is casual, the look in her eyes anything but. "And one thing that's never been part of the job description is liability insurance. Last thing I need is a cop getting killed on my watch."
"No buts." She points to the line next door, stretching out into the street. "Mingle. If you know how."
Half of the men standing in line are by themselves. As a result, I don't stand out. It also means they're competing with each other for available women. This leaves me fre to observe the chum-infested waters from my peaceful mental island. Apart from thoughts of Lumen, rippling ever closer to shore. Along with everyone else in my ever-expanding circle that I somehow found myself sworn to protect.
The longer I think about it, the clearer the stakes become in my mind. I know there are still people out there who deserve whatever violent fate might come, a death at my blade or worse. But as shocking as it might be to discover a tribe of creatures existing outside of all human law, it seems far more chilling to realize their relationship to us as a species. At best, we're regarded as enemy soldiers. And always and everywhere, we are food.
The compulsion to kill suddenly seems less compelling. Or rather, the Passenger is slowly coming to realize that it might possibly find a socially acceptable outlet.
Faith hadn't said vampire bar.
How many kinds of demons are there? How many crazy stories might be true? And was there anyone who would understand me more than Dana? Someone else with whom I could truly discuss the painful reality of the Code I had been trained to follow?
The crowd surges, carrying me forward. I come perilously close to being shoved up against a buxom brunette in a black dress. Luckily her companion sees me, hauling her out of my path with a triumphant smile.
It seems as good an excuse as any to withdraw. I wear an aw-shucks expression as I turn away, noting again I wasn't alone. A good chunk of the single men, and even some of the couples, have peeled off to the other spots along the strip rather than wait their turn in line. I could wait for Faith at the empty lot on the corner, with very little light to reveal my presence.
And with God knows what waiting in the shadows. Harry's eyes are invisible, enormous dark holes in the shadow light as he sends a pointed look at the illuminated storefront on the far side of the street. You can see just as well from inside. And it's far more defensible.
"Nothing I do is defensible." I continue moving forward, leaving the light behind as I walk toward the darkness. "But demons don't live by our rules."
"And I don't have to live by yours."
I can't tell if Harry's still following.
I don't even know if he's there.
"I still choose to." My words are low, almost subvocal. "I still follow..." I have to think about it. "Most of them."
I turn and take up position.
"But I can't keep doing the same thing over and over. I mean --" I stifle a laugh. "We all know what that means."
Harry remains silent.
"It's time to try something different."
The night is balmy and moist, with almost no wind. I flex my fingers, alert for the slightest of sounds as I watch the door where Faith went inside.
I'm almost taken by surprise when she comes back out.
The only unusual thing is the manner of her exit. Which is airborne, headfirst. Part of me is still expecting a faceplant, or even a broken shoulder. But Faith just lands and rolls and comes to her feet like she does this every day, never missing a beat as her motion turns into a run, top speed down the middle of the street as the door behind her slams open and a pair of somethings break into hot pursuit, cackling like demented hyenas. Their howls echo off the buildings and roll through the concrete jungle, warning all and sundry to run.
Or face them.
Faith is approaching the perimeter of the parking lot. I step forward, raising my hand.
Her eyes widen as she looks up.
Over my shoulder.
I freeze at the sensation of nearness. Of a massive bulk rising up behind me, towering overhead like a basketball player; smelling like a dead Saint Bernard that sat out too long in the rain.
Claws brush my neck.
"Hey there, cutie."
Dexter demonstrates some dashing dance moves. Darla returns offscreen, forcing more honesty. And a new threat looms from an unexpected direction.
With each new update, I keep thinking this story is about 75% complete. At this point, that estimate may be slightly more accurate than before. I still need to flesh out the end, so we'll see if I can wrap everything up in 16 chapters. I can see feeling the need to go to 20, but hopefully not much further.
The cold and leathery grip on my shoulder is beginning to tighten when I move. A high-pitched snarl greets my evasion, accompanied by a whiff of displaced air from behind.
Faith steps in and turns round, her back up against mine as she holds her pursuers at bay. The hyena-things are even more repugnant up close. They move slightly upright on four legs, more like apes. One grins and drools and paws at the ground, seemingly eager to pounce. The other hangs back and circles and growls, never taking its eyes from the Slayer.
"Here." I look down to see the hilt of a knife, being handed to me. A rather large and effective looking one. "You're gonna need it."
"Thanks." I flash a smile and a blade. "I brought my own."
The hyena-things are backing away as a mirror image of the thing towering over me strides toward Faith, wrapping one hand around the other fist. The crack of its knuckles is the least ugly thing about it. The one I'm facing is tall and thin, more like a basketball player than the beefy broadside build of a Little Chino. Its skin is rough and hangs somewhat loosely, thickening to plates over its limbs and torso. More than anything else, it reminds me of an armadillo. With teeth.
"Aw, you're no fun." More teeth are on display as the armadillo grins from ear to ear. I don't see any actual ears.
"Try not to die." Faith's back is warm against mine. "I'm shit at that whole loved ones speech."
Then we're separated. Everything is moving very fast.
Except it's not.
I've been in life and death situations more often than most people. I would say more times than I can count, if I didn't remember every one with unfortunate crystal clarity. If I didn't have a box full of evidence hiding inside my air conditioner serving as an admittedly incomplete catalog of my crimes.
I twist and dodge, maintaining arm's length with short jabs of the blade. Part of my lack of fear, I realize, is the outlandish appearance of this thing. I find it fascinating. Unlike Darla, who had cut to the heart of what passed for my soul with her dead ringer resemblance to my deceased Rita. Not to mention the obvious fact of actual vampires being naturally and intimately intertwined with my own lifelong obsession.
My considerable knife skills are barely getting a workout, and my lack of fear is fast becoming actual annoyance. I back away with a quick glance at Faith. She doesn't seem to be looking at me, seems to be busy fending off the other demon.
Except I've seen her in action for real. Unleashed, unrestrained, full bore and all out. The difference takes less than half a second to see.
"What's the matter?" A rich, throaty rumble emanates from my opponent. It follows my slow, sidewise steps like a linebacker stalking a cheerleader. "Dontcha wanna play?"
"That's the problem." I let my left hand dangle, hidden from my stalker's angle of view.
A hearty slurp echoes over the asphalt. "What's that?"
I let my contempt shine through. "I don't play."
A roar fills my ears. Its arms swing forward, in an attempted bear hug.
I'm already ducking underneath. Watching the shadow where its right arm turns into a solidly muscled shoulder.
My fist rockets upward.
Clenched tight around a syringe, as the needle slides into an unprotected armpit.
The bellow of rage becomes a wordless cry of confusion. At triple the normal dose of M99, I'm expecting anything from unconsciousness to death. Maybe convulsions. Faith and the other creature are paused mid-grapple, staring as my victim gently sways on its enormous tri-toed feet.
The demon struggles for words. Its craggy jaw works in circles, as if to dislodge a mouthful of peanut butter.
Then the earth trembles as the massive body plummets forward and plants itself face first in the pavement. Little giggles and chuckles ooze from its drooling lips, interspersed with helpless moans. A sigh of annoyance cuts through the light burbling that emanates from my fallen foe.
I look over to find Faith looking back at her own attacker with an impatient frown. The second demon looks to be on the verge of beating a hasty retreat, frozen under the weight of the Slayer's glare.
"Yo." Faith's tone is friendly, her smile anything but. "I paid for the full hour."
"Lady, you didn't tell me we were gonna be fighting some --" The demon sends a nervous glance in my direction. "Some kinda -- rogue demon hunter!"
Faith sighs, looking more annoyed.
"Hey, we did everything like you said." I can almost see the beads of sweat breaking out on its panoramic forehead. "You really gonna bust my egg sacs over this?"
"Then beat it." Faith waves him off with a roll of her eyes. I feel somewhat confident in assuming these two are hims. "Before I change my mind."
The demon's relief abruptly turns to disgust as he approaches his fallen commrade. As he takes a quick step back, I notice a growing dark puddle spreading out from beneath the body. I'm pretty sure I didn't use my knife.
"Oh, come on --" The demon breaks off with one look at Faith. With a grimace and sigh, he stoops and grabs his buddy, hoisting one beefy arm across his shoulders. Another grunt of effort is heard as he stands, giving me a baleful glare before turning and shuffling back in the general direction of the nightclub, dragging his partner along with.
"Guess it wasn't a fluke." Faith looks only the slightest bit embarrassed. More like satisfied.
"Pardon?" Though I think I'm starting to figure it out.
Faith flashes me a huge grin that doesn't feel at all fake. "So that's how lab geeks fight dirty."
"You really do like that word." I check my arms for cuts and scrapes. I can feel her eyes. Not watching me, but the knife in my hand.
"So yeah. That was a test." Faith stows her own knife back in her jacket. I can see the holster now.
"I know you're quick on your feet," she continues, "but good reflexes aren't everything. Had to see if your brain measured up."
"I wouldn't want you doing that to my kid." I sound more irritated than is healthy. A healthy Dexter does not demonstrate his heart on his sleeve.
Faith's smile disappears. "Just be glad she didn't have to go through all this three years ago."
I frown, doing a quick calculation. "She would have been ten."
"Aside from that." Faith shakes her head and stuffs her hands in her pockets, staring up at the the lights of an airplane passing overhead. "I mean when the old crew were still in charge."
I think back to the little I've been told. "When there was only one Slayer?"
"Yeah." She laughs, without a trace of humor. Then looks down and laughs again. Quieter, with equal parts humor and cynicism.
"Back when it was just you and your crazy new powers and nobody else. Except a bunch of tweedy tea-drinking Murgatroyds who show up out of the blue to tell you to say goodbye to any freedom you might have thought you had, because your ass belongs to them. And they're gonna lie, manipulate and screw you six ways from Sunday, every way but the fun way."
She sounds like she wants to spit. To cry.
"And sooner or later -- probably sooner -- the inevitable night that you go out on their precious mission and you don't come back? They just write it down in their little notebook. 'Jolly regrettable,' they say. And already the next girl in line is wondering what the hell happened, and why she can suddenly derail a train car with her bare hands."
I blink, distracted by a vision. "You can do that?"
"Figure of speech." Faith's grin is back, slightly abashed. "Communication was never my strong suit. Work with me here."
"The way you describe these people --" I fall into step beside her as we head back toward the car. Behind a crowd have gathered outside the bar, oohing and aahing over our pair of attackers. One of the hyena-beasts breaks away from the group to chase after us, only to fall back at the piercing sound of a whistle from the still-upright armadillo demon.
"You said Dana has the memories of every Slayer," I continue. "Because that would mean --"
"She knows all the dirt." Faith delivers this confirmation in a stark tone of grim realism. After dealing with the politics of a police station, I can only imagine the machinations of a secret society who control this kind of power. Or controlled.
"Well, then." I strive for a neutral presentation. The devil's advocate.
"Doesn't that make her the best equipped to see when someone is abusing their power?" I cast a brief glance at her face as we walk. "Especially in the name of the greater good?"
Faith shakes her head, with a reluctant smile. "You sound like a Jesuit."
"I won't ask if that's a compliment." I hit the remote to unlock the car. "And not to sound rude, but how do you know what one sounds like?"
Faith snorts, looking back up at the sky. "He was the guy who evaluated me. More like a ex-Jesuit."
I ponder this. "So he pronounced you fit to go back to work?"
She looks away, sounding equally evasive. "Something like that."
I know that feeling. Like she'd rather talk about anything other than herself.
I step forward and open the passenger door on sheer instinct. Faith looks at me like she's fending off a stalker. Maybe an idiot.
"Never trust a gentleman." But she accepts my hand with a sardonic smile as she hops up and into the vehicle.
I walk around, get in and start the motor. Faith remains silent as I navigate the lot and find the exit. It's not until I've paid the attendant and we've pulled out onto the street that she speaks.
"I'm a murderer."
In my mind I see her face, enshrined in grainy black and white. Mugshots have that way of bringing out a person's soul.
I wrestle with the proper approach before going with honesty. "I know."
She exhales, staring out the window with one knee drawn up, fingers tapping the windowsill. Until they abruptly stop moving; her eyebrows drawing together, as if annoyed at her lack of self-control.
"Friend of mine was in trouble. And not to sound all sorry for myself, but I don't have a lot of those. Even after the white hats let me back on the team."
I have to wonder who those are. But Faith is still talking. I get the distinct impression she's been searching a long time for anyone who might actually listen.
"And this was while I was still on the outs. But the trouble he's in -- it's the kind that spreads. Unless you stomp that shit out. Burn it, salt it, put a stake through its heart. Whatever it takes." She takes a deep breath, with a slight tremble.
"But this guy...he went to bat for me. After I turned on him. After everyone else gave up." Her voice hardens. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have made it to prison."
My instincts keep me watching for signs of pursuit. But I can't see any motor vehicles tailing us. Nor aerial surveillance by pterodactyls, when I look.
"So I kick his ass. Get him straightened out. And then --"
When I look, her smile is a thing of beauty and wonder. At the world; at herself.
"An old frenemy shows up. Says they need me back on the team." A cynical chuckle. "And I could have said no. Gone back inside, sat in a cell a few more years. Reflected on all my numerous fuckups."
Faith turns a disbelieving eyebrow on me.
"Sorry." I finish navigating the onramp. "Habit."
She pauses before giving a quiet chuckle. "Suppose there's worse."
I let her have all the time she needs. I think I'm getting better at this.
"I wouldn't call it a second chance." Her darkened tone implies stains that won't wash out. "But I had the chance...to do better. To do good."
Which is what Dana's trying to do, despite her fractured psyche. Let alone the weight of history riding heavy on her shoulders.
Why can't we all just get along?
"I'm risking a lot even telling you this," Faith says. I can feel the sharpness of her glance. "You work inside the system -- I don't. I can't."
"Believe me, I sympathize." Our exit is fast coming up as I briefly return her gaze. "I'm just looking out for Astor."
Faith takes this in, fingers tapping their way across her upturned kneecap. The resemblance between herself and Astor and Dana is superficial beyond the color of their hair. Still, I wonder if there are any blonde Slayers.
"I try to help people." Faith makes it sound like a weakness. "No matter who they are. But I admit it -- I'm biased. For me, Slayers come first."
"Fair enough." I'm mulling this over when a thought occurs. "Where can I drop you off?"
"Your place works."
Faith sounds once more closed up and walled away. Like she won't take no for an answer. I don't push it. I'm still figuring out how to deal with a teenage daughter.
Not to mention, I reason, this woman has nearly a decade of maturity and hard-earned experience over Astor. Trying to tackle that sort of thing head-on is like facing a charging rhino. But like Lumen, despite her reluctance, it's not that hard to keep Faith talking about herself. It makes me wonder how much research she's been doing on me. Why ask questions when you already know the answers?
She's out of her seat belt as we pull into my apartment; out of her seat as we come to a stop, out of the car before I can utter a word. By the time I fumble the keys from the ignition and make a hasty exit of my own, Faith is nowhere in sight.
I finish stowing my knife in its oilskin wrapping. As I shut the back hatch and check the locks, I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up, do a wild and frantic dance.
I turn and survey the nearly empty lot. The tickle of electricity crawling through my belly is already fading, my tiring eyes unable to discern if the motion of the shrubbery is a trick of the light. I wait, but nothing emerges.
I trudge toward the staircase with a heavy tread, but feeling light at heart. My newest acquaintance is showing the potential to become an actual friend. I just have to serve as mediator between her and her wayward protege. Help smooth things out; get everyone on the same page. And the Dark Passenger is licking its chops at the prospect of a vast unknown demon population, ripe for the plucking.
What could possibly go wrong?
The lights are off in my apartment. I frown and dial the home number, juggling my cell phone with the ungainly oilskin-wrapped package.
I hear it ring through the door. I'm feeling concern begin to distill into worry when the line picks up.
"Dexter?" Lumen sounds ragged and harried, on the verge of tears.
I manage to calm her enough to get her to unlock the door. At which point Astor grabs my arm and yanks me inside, thankfully failing to dislocate my shoulder.
"Hey!" I manage. Astor's hand is on my chest, eyes wide as she feels the beat of my heart.
"Oh, thank God --" Astor slams the door, hurling her stake at the wall with a clatter before wrapping her arms around my torso. Lumen hugs my shoulders, tense and trembling.
"Harrison?" I manage.
"I got him to sleep." Astor slowly disengages from me, not looking at Lumen.
"About twenty minutes ago." Astor turns and heads for the hallway, with only a brief glance at us. "I'll go check on him."
I watch her leave the room before realizing Lumen is still very much attached.
"What happened?" I venture.
Lumen swallows, her head on my chest. "Your wife was here."
A painful squeeze envelops my heart. My arm remains steady about Lumen, holding her close.
When she speaks, her voice is scraped and raw from strain. But her words are firm.
"I think you need to start talking."
It doesn't open the floodgates. But the faucet is open, and the trickle soon turns to a slow but steady stream of information. How she and Astor had been joking about my new girlfriend, even as Lumen wondered how much Astor wasn't telling her. How they heard a knock at the window, only to be paralyzed at the sight of "Rita", clad in billowing diaphanous white. How my dead wife had implored her daughter to let her inside, all while Harrison cried in his big sister's arms and Astor stared silent at the window clutching a pointy piece of wood. Which all had raised quite a few questions in Lumen's mind, to the point where she doubted her sanity.
Confirming her suspicions did not, in fact, allay her fears. But there were already too many impossible things happening right before her eyes. No matter how ugly, the truth was something of a relief.
"So it's not Rita." Lumen's hands are warm, trailing down and back over my chest and stomach. We've moved to my room and are lying together on the bed, fully clothed. More than simply reassuring herself of my physical presence, it's almost like she's trying to make sure the two of us are still sharing the same universe.
She shudders and closes her eyes. "Still."
"Yeah." All of the psychological weirdness is nicely encompassed. "And I'm told this woman is famous for playing head games. Her and her partner."
Her roving hand drifts across my waistband, then stops. I can feel the subtle tremors in her muscles, the momentary hitch in her breath.
"It's okay." I kiss the top of her head, enjoying the smell of her shampoo. "My first year with Rita, I spent the whole time worrying she might want to have sex."
"Not exactly reassuring." But I can hear her chuckle, feel her relax and sink into my body. For a moment our breathing is perfectly in sync.
"I know it's hard for you." Lumen pauses, choosing words carefully. "To talk about her."
"I have to talk to someone." Preferably someone other than the ghost of Harry.
"So does Astor." Lumen shakes her head, taking in the enormity of the situation. "I hope she'll talk to me."
I hold her tight, listening to her breathe. "So do I."
We fall asleep entwined together.
All night long, I hold Lumen in my arms.
I have a hard time believing any sex could be as good as this.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the universe is determined to balance the scales. Because the following day is a domino chain of unrelated mishaps.
It starts out small. You'd think being out of juice is something that simply wouldn't happen in Miami. I make do with coffee, informing Astor that she is to answer whatever questions Lumen might have about the world of the supernatural.
"Like I've got all the answers." Astor's chin is up as she stares back at me before looking away, then down at the floor.
"You should have been here." Her words carry not even the merest hint of accusation. A simple statement of fact.
I give in and reach out, place my hand upon her shoulder. She gives an angry sniffle.
"I know." I remember Harry giving me this speech. Well -- his version. "I won't always be."
She looks up with obvious fear upon her face. I shake my head.
"I'm not going anywhere." I hold her gaze. "But I won't always be around. And you're going to need to figure out who you can trust."
Astor gives a mistrustful glance at the closed door to my bedroom. "She's not a Slayer."
"Neither am I." Score one for didactically dependable Dexter.
Astor looks back at me, at my hand on her shoulder. "That's different."
"At the risk of sounding obtuse," I venture. "What's different about it?"
Her face contorts further as she attempts and fails to give voice to my uniqueness. Better not to have her dwell on some topics.
"Give her a chance." I squeeze her shoulder and release, with mental fingers crossed. "She might surprise you."
I don't regret the heart to heart, but I'm already running late. As a result, I forget the donuts for the first time in years. Angel is forgiving as ever, while Vince makes me promise to buy the next two rounds on bowling night. My already irritable sister, for her part, is sufficiently offended by my transgression to call me a fucknugget in front of the entire station before storming off in a righteous huff.
I watch her stalk away, wondering if it's just me. Then I catch Vince watching her stalk away. He quickly wipes the leer from his face.
"Sorry." He manages a rueful grin. "Force of habit."
Even with my best parental glare to keep him in check, I can see Vince's eyes glaze over the rest of the day every time Deb comes within sight. Apparently he's constitutionally unable to resist picturing my sister in the throes of lesbian passion with the stunning social worker who recently paid us a visit. Deb makes nice with me eventually, but seems more than a little defensive. It's always been hard for me to put myself in someone else's shoes. Still, I can't help but empathize with someone who seems worried that everyone will find out the truth.
I spend the next few hours engaged in one of my least favorite pastimes: Namely, filling out paperwork. Every bit of consumable materials we use, from fake blood to victim dummies, needs to be accounted for in order to satisfy the suspicions of Miami Metro's waste reduction team. With the latest budget crisis looming large in the headlines, they've become almost as feared around the precinct as the folks from IA.
I look up to see Vince gesturing through the window. I finish the column I'm on and rise from the chair, grimacing at the twinge in my back.
"What's up?" Whatever it is, it has to be big.
"Don't know." Vince's normally jovial face is a mix of confusion and concern. "I hope they're not still monitoring our Internet."
I follow him to the staff room, where everyone else is already present and seated. Lieutenant LaGuerta stands at the table up front, not looking at us as she shuffles through a huge stack of paper.
I revise my earlier opinion. Whatever this is, it can't be good.
"People, I've got some bad news."
Sometimes, I wish I could more often enjoy being right.
"I'm sure you're all aware of the rumors," LaGuerta continues.
I guess that excludes me.
"First, I want to assure you that despite the ongoing budget crisis, all salaries including overtime are being fully guaranteed by the state government. I have that personally from the Deputy Chief."
"Wait for it," someone mutters.
"But we all knew the cutbacks would hit us at some point. And we're all going to need to tighten our belts if we want to get through this."
"Sure." Deb chuckles bitterly. "We can save on ammo by giving the homicidal of Miami a good talking to."
"Snarky commentary is not going to win the day, Detective." LaGuerta scans the room, looking at each of us in turn. Joey Quinn is watching Deb from the corner of one eye while pretending not to. Otherwise, the room is hers.
"We need to make smart decisions that serve the public interest. And that means triage. It means prioritizing."
"Bullshit." Deb leans forward, fire in her eyes. "It means politics."
"I won't deny there's been pressure from ICE." LaGuerta doesn't raise her voice. "Or from numerous public advocacy groups. But with the new evidence coming in, we can only conclude that the so-called Coyote Killings are not in fact exclusively human traffickers, as was previously --"
An alarm bell goes off in my mind. Someone else has made the connection I made weeks ago. Which means that Dana is in danger. Danger of being discovered.
I look up to see LaGuerta holding a fresh sheet of paper.
"But the real headline here is --" And LaGuerta stops, and smiles. "For once?"
She turns and pins her printout to the corkboard.
"We caught a break."
Dana's eyes are haunted and hollow. Looking off to one side, as the photographer captures the moment.
Captures her, in a cell.
In a straitjacket.
"And we have a suspect."