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Chapter 2


I-95S


With coffee, and a piece of homemade style pecan pie with ice cream firmly tucked away, we resume our journey south. After giving Bud a rough outline of Harms new job he laughs appreciatively, at the irony of the assignment. But he’s happy to hear that Harm is returned to the Navy he so loves. I smile, inwardly, at the fact I am now partnered with someone who likes junk food more than I do. I may have to become the wise one, or we both will weigh three hundred pounds.

Bud is maneuvering the car back into traffic, when he picks up the thread of our conversation. “So now he’s in Norfolk, investigating the SEAL they want to decorate for heroism. Except the Admiral of NAVSPECWARCOM, wants him court-martialed. Sounds like a situation only Harm could get himself into, and out of, in one piece,” he whistles appreciatively. “This is the guy I saw on the BBC report, right? The story with the byline of the freelance journalist.” He concludes.

“Right, he was in charge of a black op, to extract two state department officials. They had been ‘relocated’ by ‘unfriendlies,’ at an undisclosed location. One was from the US, the other was a British minister of something.” I supply vaguely.

“All I know was on the news. Harm can’t and won’t talk about the classified part, if he even knows, and he can’t discuss the case. In the event it comes to court martial, I could be on the other side.”

“I remember the story,” Bud continues, “the Brit was seriously wounded, but when they passed near the school with the trapped children, he insisted the SEALs rescue them. The US official is complaining that Kensington...that’s his name, isn’t it…?” I nod, and he continues, “…that Kensington risked their lives, and the success of the mission in doing so. The British minister maintains that, from a humanitarian standpoint, once they were aware of the children’s danger, they had no choice. The school was caught in crossfire, wasn’t it?” This must be difficult for Bud to discuss. Schools and children in a war torn country, dealt him his injury, and almost cost him his career.

“The reporter claimed to have information,” he continues bravely, “from the families of the children, that the people they were fighting, were using faulty targeting equipment. Neither side knew the school was occupied. It was only a short time, before the school was turned into rubble; it had already taken several hits. If that nine year old hadn’t climbed out a back window, and found help, while everyone else hid under the furniture, the teacher and all seven children would have been killed.”

“Once they were safe the free-lance reporter sold his story to the highest bidder,” I supply the finish, “and it became world wide news. Now they can’t sweep it under the rug, but that Admiral, and several people at State, do not want to reward him, in spite of the fact that the public has acclaimed him a hero. They feel he overstepped his authority, and didn’t use the proper chain of command, when he wanted to change the mission parameters. It’s likely he knew permission would be denied, but proving or disproving it will be tough. That part is Harm’s job.”

“But didn’t this happen several months ago?”

“Yes. It did. About three months ago I think. But nothing was said until the request for his medal had reached a certain level in the chain of command. It was when it came to the attention of the Admiral and his friend from State, that the charges were filed.” I explain

“Wow, what a mess.” Bud comments in wonder, then he chuckles. “But I’ve never seen anyone better at untangling a giant can of worms, than the Commander.” It’s a slip, because he isn’t aware of Harm’s promotion.

“Captain,” I correct him, with a proud smile.

“Excuse me?” He’s both pleased and surprised.

“He’s a Captain, Bud.” The warmth and pleasure I feel, every time my thoughts and heart stray to Harm, only serves to confuse me more, contrasted with the feelings of the dream.

“Really? How cool is that?” He is so pleased he reverts to a vernacular I have rarely heard him use, lately. Bud hasn’t allowed himself to relax for quite a while. “Captain!” he muses again, “Awl right!!”

I unwind into my seat, as Bud enjoys this new information. He is taking great pleasure in handling my car, for the moment. However, I know his mind will come back to the issue at hand soon enough. It has to be discussed; I truly need his help. I just don’t know how to explain it all to him.

As I settle against the smooth leather, I allow my mind to wander to something he said before, ‘it can be hopeless, if we don’t sort it out a piece at a time’. Perhaps Bud can find a way to show me that hope is a reality.

It is relaxing, to ride in the comfort and safety provided, by giving control over to a trusted friend. I’m so very tired from my interrupted sleep. My mind drifts. The sun through the windshield is warm, and it lulls me into a half-conscious state. The image of Harm slides through my thoughts, appearing first on the golden sunbeam that warms my eyelids.

But, as I sink deeper, the shadows appear, misty at first, like swirling fog, the tendrils wrap around him. Soon they begin to take form, morphing into a distorted version of the four women in my dreams. They wrap themselves around him, covering him, twisting his image, turning light to darkness.

“Harm,” I snap awake, calling his name harshly. For a moment not realizing where I am.

“Are you alright, Mac?” Bud’s soft, strong voice calms me quickly, but I’m shaken by the strength of the image my mind just conjured. For the second time in two days, I’ve seen this image in daytime, this time stronger than the last.

“I’m fine Bud,” I try to cover quickly. “I guess I fell asleep. Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry, was it the same dream? You must have been frightened, to call for Harm that way,” he observes.

“Yes, Bud, I was,” I take advantage of his misunderstanding; I’m not ready to do this yet. I know I have to, but not yet. Maybe, it’s because I feel we’re getting closer to the dark thing I don’t want to look upon.

Deliberately distracting myself, I check my internal clock and find its 12:27. “What do you say we find a place for lunch,” I suggest. “We’re past Richmond aren’t we?”

He nods, “There’s a nice little restaurant off the highway, about five miles from here. The Comm…uh Captain and I stopped there, last time we traveled this way.”

“Sounds good,” I agree, with forced cheerfulness. I’m not entirely certain I should go anywhere that holds a memory of Harm, yet curse myself for my foolishness.

Every time I open my eyes, my heart convinces me this is all some horrible trick being played on my mind. I’m desperate to sort it all out, and just as desperate, never to give my dark thoughts access to the light of day.

The restaurant proves every bit as good as Bud described. We order from a simple menu, but find every item prepared by hand, as if in someone’s own kitchen. In deference to the mid-morning snack, I take a page from Harm’s book and order a crab salad.

Indulging in a final cup of coffee, before returning to the road, Bud decides it’s time to revisit the original subject. He senses my reluctance to do this willingly.

“Mac, I need to ask you some questions. Before we get down there, we really need a plan. If what you suspect is true, we could meet with resistance, even hostility. We can’t solve this, if you and I aren’t on the same page.” He states reasonably.

I want to jump up and run into the woods behind this building, instead of answering a single question, but I know this must be done. I know he’s right. I sigh deeply and prepare myself the best I can. “What do you want to know Bud?”

“You said there were four women, right?” He lowers his voice, even though we are sitting in the rear of the room by a large window.

“Right,” easy enough.

“What did they look like?”

“What do you mean?” I’m puzzled.

“General appearance. Describe them if you can,” he prompts. I think I know where he’s going. Some serial killers are motivated by a personal relationship.

“I don’t know,” I start allowing my mind to wander briefly into each image, pulling back before I’m captured by the spell. “Sort of like me, I guess,” I supply, as I process this chilling new discovery. “Dark hair average build,” my thoughts scream in denial.

He nods. “You’re a little taller than average,” he suggests

“It’s hard to tell, they are all laying down, sort of crumpled,” my voice wavers. After a steadying breath, I continue, “still I would say taller, rather than short. Not overweight but not thin either that’s about all. Bud you…what do you think it means?”

“There’s not enough information yet Mac. Remember what I said, we have to put this together slowly,” he comforts. I almost believe he knows what thoughts are torturing my mind.

“What about their faces, can you see their faces,” he continues calmly.

“Yes, not very distinctly, but I would know them if I saw them again.” I’m beginning to tremble

He nods again digesting this information. “When did you have each dream? When was the first one?” he asks switching tracks again.

I can remember it with crystal clarity. It was the week I was in Norfolk on a case, after that dreadful last encounter with Harm. I stayed the weekend in Virginia Beach. Harm had left on his first CIA mission, my mind clutches to the thought, that this may have had something to do with his work for the CIA. Could that be the explanation? But that doesn’t really make sense, he no longer works for them, and there was a death this weekend. Or does he? Do they ever really let someone go? God my head hurts……

“Ma’am… uh Mac,” Bud breaks into my thoughts, “the first dream, can you remember?”

“Yes Bud, I was assigned a case in Norfolk. I came down and spent the weekend in Virginia Beach. It was three months ago, the week Harm left for his first assignment with the CIA,” I finish, my voice shaking.

He nods for a minute. “So, that’s where you were.”

“Excuse me,” I’m confused now.

“The Admiral was livid. He kept calling me, and Sturgis, to find out if we had heard from you. Harm called him four times that weekend, trying to find you. He was relentless, finally the Admiral hung up on him, after telling him not to call again. It was a real mess. The Admiral was angry the entire week you were gone,” he explains.

“I…I let the battery on my cell phone go dead,” I explain lamely. “The Admiral assigned the case, he should have known where to find me,” I add defensively. Even I wouldn’t believe it, why should they, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. So, it was Harm making waves, Webb indicated as much, but never actually confirmed it.

“You saw Harm before he left, didn’t you?” This question sounds more personal.

I hesitate for several moments before nodding.

“Nasty fight?” he concludes.

Again, I nod.

He just sighs, accepting that what Harm and I have, has been gained by a road hard traveled. No one could ever accuse our relationship of resembling a fairy tale. Although, I smile briefly at the fantasy quality of his final approach, and our joint surrender,

Seeing my ghost of a smile, he brightens somewhat, “I guess it all finally worked out, huh Mac?” he says almost like a kid referring to his favorite bedtime story.

“Yeah Bud. Yeah it sure did.” I’m reassuring myself as much as him.

For a few minutes, we look out the window, watching several horses graze peacefully in the pasture nearby. The tranquility of the scene has a calming effect, and we both regain the strength to continue. I harden my resolve. I really need to get this out, to share the burden. I’m not sure I can carry it much longer.

We look back at each other in mutual agreement. At the same instant, he reads my eyes and continues.

“What about the other two Mac, when did they happen?” he questions gently.

I take a deep breath, “One was about a month later, and the other was just about four weeks ago, just before Harm and I….before we found each other again,” I finish in a rush.

“And you saw the same thing?” He queries.

“Yeah, just about, the middle two are less distinct, but still very real. The women’s faces are different, the scene is nearly identical, the way they’re killed the same, the… the man is the same,” I finish in a rush.

“So, the scenes and the man are all identical, just the faces are different?” He’s pushing at me.

“Yes….uh, no, not exactly.” I’m grasping at wisps of memories, trying not to be trapped by them.

“Ma’am?” He slips.

“Not exactly… Bud, the first one is different,” I only just now realize.

“How different?”

“I’m not sure… it’s the floo… that’s it…she’s on a floor, not a bed, at the foot of the stairs,” I whisper.

“Like she fell?” he asks

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think she was pushed.” My voice is barely controlled, now.

“But it’s still the same man?” he reiterates.

I sob a quiet, “Yes,” as I nod my head.

I can’t say any more now. I excuse myself quickly and head for the ladies room. After several gallons of cold water on my face, between sessions of crying, until no more tears will come, I finally compose myself. Once again, I regain the tough façade of Colonel Sarah Mackenzie, JAG’s Chief of Staff. It takes me a good fifteen minutes, but I forcefully retake control.

I’ve shared the burden, at least the factual part. Now I have to tend to the business of solving this. Hopefully, Bud can help; possibly, the NCIS agent will help, what was his name? Garrett?

I convince myself that telling Bud about the feelings won’t be necessary, he has all the pertinent information, but a nagging little voice tugs at me, whispering I’m wrong.


13:20
Restaurant parking lot
South of Richmond


I’m emotionally exhausted. As we pay our bill, and walk back to the car, I feel my nerve endings pinging from the battle raging within me. A battle between the dark and terrible fear that resides in my mind, and the golden wall of hope that protects my soul. The victor in this horrid battle will win my heart. My heart is willing the outcome in favor of my soul, but the onslaught from my mind remains relentless.

“Bud, I need to drive now,” I ask, absently reaching my hand for the keys.

“Sure Mac,” he hands them over. Only then, do I realize I may have hurt his feelings.

I smile at him the best I can, “Nothing personal Bud, I just need to do something physical, to take my mind to a different place. Running the rest of the way to Norfolk isn’t a viable option.”

He grins at the thought and climbs in the passenger side.

“No I don’t suppose it would be,” he agrees as we buckle up.

We pass the rest of the trip in small talk and intermittent bouts of silence, broken by a few best unheard duets to the radio. By the time we pull into the parking area facing the Base Commander’s office, we have lightened our mood considerably. We can once again focus on the task before us. Truthfully, I’m still a little unfocused, but I’m not dwelling on it for now.

Our meeting with the CO, though impromptu, was quickly accomplished. He had little to say to us, other than to apologize for lack of base accommodations. That was pure courtesy on his part. His primary request, addressed the investigation be handled as swiftly and cleanly as possible, so he could concentrate on preparing his men and ships for their mission.

He commented wryly, on the frequent visitation of JAG lawyers and NCIS investigators to the base recently, and he wanted answers that would avoid future incidents.

Although Bud and I weren’t privy to all his references, I assumed he very likely included Harms project, as well as my visit several months ago. We agreed to do everything in our power to find his answers. We were dismissed, after securing his permission to access any records or personnel we deemed necessary.

Back in the car within fifteen minutes, we headed for the Marriott business suites, where Coates had already arranged for our stay. Upon arriving, we were surprised to find a mini suite, with a living and kitchen area, plus two separate bed and bath rooms. Coates efficiency was quickly approaching legendary. I assumed she arranged this, not only to expedite our investigation, but because it was probably cheaper than separate rooms. The kitchen area suggested she wouldn’t welcome a large expense voucher for restaurant meals. Clever young lady.

We dropped off our bags, and freshened up quickly, before heading for Portsmouth and the crime scene. A quick call to the cell phone of NCIS investigator Garrett, produced the impression that his patience with our presence was thin, but his orders to cooperate were firm, so he gave us directions that let us find the place without too much difficulty.

We found ourselves climbing the front steps of a semi townhouse with four attached residences, each had an entrance that faced a different direction. This one faced the rear and a small wooded area. It would be very easy for someone to slip away from here completely unnoticed.

We introduced ourselves to the overtly surly agent in charge, one Jack Garrett, who possessed all the worst aspects of pilot arrogance that I had witnessed over the years.

“I want to make myself clear Colonel, this is my crime scene, you will touch nothing, and any information shared, will be approved by me. Don’t start questioning my staff they have a job to do.” His attitude was classic petty bureaucrat.

“Our joint orders, seem to indicate a cooperative effort is expected by both our superiors,” I challenged him

He backed off only slightly, “You will find Colonel, I will withhold nothing,” he agreed stubbornly, but I had the distinct impression he would release his facts in his own good time.

I wandered around the living room, looking but not touching, gathering a feel for the occupant. Her file said she was married to a deployed Marine Captain, and it was obvious she was using a sizeable portion of both their incomes to provide her accommodations. I asked permission to look at the crime scene, and after additional admonishment to touch nothing, was directed to a bedroom at the head of the stairs.

Fortunately, Bud sensed what my response would be, and was quick on my heels. One look into the room of my nightmare, confirmed that I had witnessed the act with little distortion. I swayed slightly, but Bud steadied me in a way, that made my lapse unnoticeable to any one nearby. I needed to see no more. I knew what had happened, and how. The dark shadow was drifting over my mind again, but as a residual rather than active entity.

We descended the stairs, and as I regained control, I posed the question burning my consciousness.

“Mr. Garrett, have you had reports of any other similar murders?” I asked with what I thought was casual suggestion.

He spun on me, swiftly pointing out, “Colonel I am a senior investigator and I certainly don’t need any reactionary ideas to muddy my investigation. If I had any other matching crimes, I am perfectly capable of making the comparative conclusion. I don’t need you messing things up, by suggesting anything so volatile as serial events. (“) He carefully avoided giving my suggestion the name it deserved.

At that moment, Bud had a stroke of brilliance. Not having spoken more than a few words, he was able to fall easily into a trademark game Harm had taught him, several years ago, and give this overweening little toad, not only a target, but a reason to underestimate him.

“Say, sir,” he began, “Our CO told us you used to fly,” he was using his hero worship tone and look. I just sat and watched, my knees were still a little weak from confronting the murder room.

“Yeah, so what?” Garrett replied defensively.

Uh oh, I thought, perhaps another Buxton.

“Well, it’s just that one of my best friends is a pilot, and I just wondered what you fly.” Bud was giving him the full treatment.

“Lieutenant, we are not here to bond, I don’t see how my flying has any bearing on this investigation.” Garrett responded ungraciously.

“No sir,” Bud looked hurt, “It’s just I admire anyone who can fly, and well, I just thought…” he let his voice trail off effectively.

“Fine I flew Harriers off the Guadal, I retired five years ago,” he relented slightly. There was resentment in his tone, but it’s hard for a pilot to turn loose of his flying. We’ve both learned that over the years.

“That must have been terribly interesting,” Bud gushed, then turned to me. “What’s that plane the Commander flies?” He asked somewhat muddled, deliberately misidentifying Harm. “The yellow one with the two wings?”

“You mean the Stearman, Bud?” I played along, not sure where Bud was going.

“A biplane? Garrett is incredulous He flies a biplane?” his tone dripped derision; Bud had him.

“Well, only in his spare time, when he flies for the Navy, he flies the one that has the moving wings.” Bud’s scattered hero worship broke through, because Garrett now fully underestimates him.

“The F-14,” I supply, “mostly that is, although he has flown a C130 and a 747 too.” I’m doing the, not too checked out female, thing now.

“Oh yeah, I remember,” Bud beams, then he turns back, “and you flew a Harrier. Wow,” he takes it to the limit. Mentally placing Garrett in the same category with Harm’s accomplishments causes the man’s chest to swell, and he begins to respond to Bud’s admiration.

“Well, Lieutenant, I wish there was more I could tell you,” he re-enters the area of the investigation. At this point, he probably has decided we wouldn’t know what to do with a fact if we had one. “The only thing we have is a DNA sample that has been sent to CODIS, a few generic fibers that could have come from uniform cloth, possibly dress blues, and the fact that there was no sign of forced entry into the apartment. The ME has already reported that the sexual encounter was consensual. The fibers may be from her uniform or not, but we may catch a break if the DNA turns up in the database.”

“Has her husband returned?” I asked immediately.

“No Colonel,” he replies disapprovingly, “he is deployed in an unknown location. Chain of command is handling notification. This was apparently an extra curricular affair. Her assailant had sex with her, then cut off her air at her windpipe, most likely with his forearm, before snapping her neck.” I know I pale visibly, at his description as it replays in my head, with all the attendant shadows, but I firmly hold myself from outward reaction.

“And there’s no record of any similar crimes lately, even at other bases?” Bud sneaks the comment in innocently, but Garret reacts strongly again.

“I told you before, I know how to do my job, if there had been others, I would know.” He snaps

“I’m not so sure of that, I think this little lady is on to something,” comes a gravelly voice from behind me.

I turn swiftly, rising to my full height, to see who has dared to use such a dismissive reference to my rank and gender.

I’m stunned to find myself staring into nearly the strongest pair of clear blue eyes I’ve ever seen. The man is taller than Harm, which I’ve usually doubted was gracefully possible. He’s about ten years older, with a heavy mane of wavy silver hair that drapes around his head, only about half and inch too long. He has a massive body, just slightly less than perfectly toned, but showing signs that he works and uses his muscle structure. The tendency towards weight gain, that softens his appearance, is a battle he appears to fight successfully.

His face is dancing with amusement, as though he has overheard most of our conversation, but also contains a core of deadly serious interest in my premise, that allows me to forgive his familiar form of address.

Rather than tear into him, which was my first instinct, I find myself strangely drawn to him, and in a somewhat breathless tone, I respond with, “What do you mean, you think I’m on to something? And, for the record,” I straighten myself, “I’m Lt Colonel Sarah Mackenzie, JAG corps. This,” I wave towards Bud, “is my partner Lt. Bud Roberts.”

He stretches a large, firm, but gentle handshake in my direction, then takes Buds hand as well.

“Welcome to Portsmouth. Too bad the circumstances aren’t better. I’m Sheriff Ben Farraday. As I was saying… by the way,” he looks at me, narrowly, “where did you get the idea there were more murders?”

Bud pipes up and distracts his attention. “We were reading an online seminar last week,” he explains smoothly and with complete falsity. “It suggested that sometimes murders containing certain elements, are actually serial in nature, but you need the resources to search for the other crimes. Occasionally, distance or jurisdiction can allow them to go unidentified for lengthy periods of time.” I stare at him in amazement. Perhaps his response was not entirely fictional, in any case it diverted the sheriffs attention momentarily from me. “Now sir, you were saying?” Bud prompts innocently.

Sheriff Farraday eyes Bud for a moment with perfect understanding of what has occurred, but insufficient evidence to call him on it.

“I was saying,” he continues, “there have been two others in the last three months, and yes, Lieutenant you are correct, they are cross jurisdictional.”

“You know, this is nonsense,” Garrett pipes up. “Colonel, do you have any more questions for me, because if you’re going to go chasing fantasies, I need to get back to work. My information was that you would work on her contacts and personal activities from the base, and share your findings so we could build a complete picture,” he remarks pointedly.

I nod. “That’s my intention, Bud and I will begin as soon as we’re finished here, and report to you when we have pertinent information.” I use my voice, to leave no doubt in his mind, we will conduct our end of the investigation thoroughly.

“Good, then if you have no more question, you’ll excuse me,” and with that, he turns and heads back upstairs.

“Nice guy,” the gravelly voice penetrates my thoughts.

I nod and shrug, before turning my best smile on him, the one that’s only slightly less potent than the one I reserve for Harm. “Sheriff, is there somewhere we can go for coffee? I really want to hear about these other murders.” I stop the charm just short of full scale flirting.

“Well, little lady,” he continues, as he offers his arm, “I think I may have just what you’re looking for.”

I link my hand through his arm in a way that purposely displays the diamond resting there. The knowing smile he returns, as he holds the door of the ‘vette for me, shows me we are on exactly the same page.

Murder investigations are never fun, and this one has such deep issues for me. In spite of that, I think this sheriff is going to prove much more interesting to work with, than the NCIS agent we have left behind.

16:00
Portsmouth


We follow the sheriff to a local coffee shop that is right out of a 50’s film noir. Upon pushing open the heavy chrome and glass door, he allows me to enter first, and I see him signal the waitress with three fingers. We find seats in the rear, at one of the Formica tables. I look around, and take in the counter with its jukebox remotes, the blackboard with the daily specials, the freshly scrubbed but well-worn linoleum floors.

The waitress, whose name is Rosie, arrives expertly balancing a precarious collection of coffee cups, silverware, menus, cream, and coffee. Predictably, the sugar resides on the table, in the customary glass cylinders, with pour top spouts. I would ask how he found this place, but it’s obvious he is completely at home here.

I decline his gracious offer for anything but coffee. However Bud is drawn to the idea of homemade apple pie, and I mentally note to keep an eye on where we eat, and how I indulge when we are together. I have a completely different metabolism from Bud, and it could easily be responsible for him not passing his next physical.

After we have been served, and settle into several sips of excellent coffee, the sheriff turns to me.

“Well now, Colonel…” he starts

“Call me Mac,” I smile, “all my friends do.”

“And you think we will be friends?” he studies me.

“Oh, yes, sir, the Colonel is an excellent judge of character” Bud jumps in, “almost as good as Comm….. that is, Captain Rabb,” then he catches himself, “er… uh… sorry ma’am,” he stumbles.

“It’s okay, Bud, I know what you mean.” I allow his slip.

The Sheriff eyes us carefully as we speak, and waits for an opening.

“Have you two been doing this long?” He asks somewhat amused.

“Oh, no, sir,” Bud starts again. “You see we only just were assigned to work together…”

“It’s okay, Bud,” I pat his arm, as I see Ben Farrday roll his eyes.

I turn my attention to him and he just shakes his head, “You know you really ought to take this act on the road, you’d make a fortune.”

Bud frowns, and tries to interject again, around a mouthful of pie, but I stop him with a look and turn back.

“I don’t know what you mean, Sheriff.” I try my best smile.

“Call me, Ben, all my friends do.” He manages to say it without sounding sarcastic.

“And you think we will be friends,” I mimic his earlier statement, also with a straight delivery.

“Not if you two don’t quit trying to mess with me every time I want some information,” he says almost harshly.

I just look at him for a minute, trying to judge what I’m dealing with, but my gut feeling wins out, and I smile genuinely this time. “What do you want to know Ben?” I ask straightforwardly.

“Now that’s better,” he leans back in his chair, which threatens to bend under his massive frame.

“First, Mac,” he begins, “I want to know why you think there have been more murders, and I don’t want any more of your partner’s interference.”

I know I have to tell him something, but I’m not sure I can tell him the truth. He isn’t going to understand, and the way it haunts me, is something difficult to share. I’m not sure what crosses my face, but he studies it closely, watching my silence deepen.

Finally, he speaks first. “You’ve seen them,” he states quietly, but with conviction. “Nightmares or visions,” he asks, going straight to the heart of the matter.

It’s the last thing I expect to hear, and I catch my breath. “Nightmares, mostly. How did you know?” I can barely breathe.

“My Gramma,” he explains, “she used to do the same thing. Spooked the daylights out of the family. She would get that same haunted look on her face that you have, until she figured out what her visions meant. Sometimes she never knew, some of them haunted her until she died.” He shakes his head sadly.

I have nothing to say to that, I’m too stunned to respond.

“Does it happen much?” he asks sympathetically.

“Enough,” I answer.

“What about this case?” he questions.

I take a deep breath, look around, and make a decision. “Four times, mainly. Four different women.” For the second time today, I’m pulling this horror out, and holding it up to the light of day.

“We only have three,” he points out. “Is one in the future?”

“Perhaps,” I shudder, “but I don’t think so. The first one may have looked like an accident, and may have gone undetected.” I describe my nightmares in detail, leaving out only the feelings associated with Harm. Until I figure out what that means, I don’t intend to share it with anyone.

He nods seriously, as though he were being presented with hard evidence gathered at the crime scene. I suddenly gain a new respect for this unlikely ally, who doesn’t discount information because it’s not conventional. On the other hand, I have a feeling he will be ruthless, to whoever did this. I’m still uncertain about the cloud that surrounds Harm. If any of this concerns him, I can only pray there’s some deep explanation, involving his association with the agency. Somehow that doesn’t seem plausible enough to make my mind rest easy.

“Anything else?” he looks sharply at me, as I wander among the memories and emotions of my dreams.

I shake my head and continue, “They are very disturbing the first time; they are literally crystal clear. Then later, they repeat more faintly, like an echo of a memory visited. But lately, they all seem to coalesce, and I’m seeing the victims together, all sort of swirled.” I have to stop and pull my mind away. I’m terrified I’ve said too much, but he seems to understand, and allow for the emotional strain I’m experiencing.

“Yeah, it used to really mess with my Gramma, too. I can remember sitting with her at night, sometimes when they were especially clear. You’ve had others?” he questions and I tell him broadly about the other times, Chloe, Harm, and the investigation into Commander Laura Aiken’s death.

“What about things you never learn about, people you never know?” he probes.

I shake my head uncertainly. “I’ve had nightmares for years. Most I can’t remember, except for the feelings afterwards. Some I can relate to…uh… past experience. A few are clearer, but don’t make sense. Maybe it’s just a suggestion, or something else I encounter when I’m awake, something that registers, but isn’t primary in my mind. I can’t really tell. The most vivid ones are about people I know; this is the first time…” I trail off.

“Are you sure there’s no one you know involved?” he studies me suspiciously.

“Well, sheriff,” I try a shaky smile, “until I solve it, I won’t know that, will I?” I answer his question with a question before I continue. “Now, you said you had some cases that matched the murder of Ensign Lansing. There are going to be hard facts there, can you share those? I’d really like to get to the bottom of this, and see if there’s a connection.”

Whatever he’s after, he decides to drop it for now. He seems as intent on solving these murders as I am.

“You’re right Mac, and yes I’m willing to share, but that’s a two way street. This murder may have been military personnel, and she may have been killed by one of yours, but if she wasn’t, I have to deal with the prosecution and trial of a civilian. I will need everything I can get, to lock this son of a bitch up for good.”

I’m mildly shocked, it’s the first time I’ve heard him utter a remotely impolite epithet. “Unfortunately, since NCIS is the original investigator, I can’t officially turn anything over until he sees a reason.” I begin, “I do believe we have a dilemma. However, I would rather see justice done than protocol observed. As long as chain of evidence is preserved and no laws are broken, that will give the defense a loophole, I think we can establish a cautious working relationship, don’t you sheriff?” I ask tilting my head suggestively.

He laughs heartily, “I’ll bet you’re a real piece of work in the courtroom,” he graces Bud with a look, for the first time in several minutes, and Bud just smiles.

He’s dropped the act established at the crime scene, and I’ve felt his inadvertent protectiveness, as Ben and I talked. Now he looks almost proud, “You have no idea, sir, you have absolutely no idea.”

A few minutes later, we leave the coffee shop, and take separate paths, with a promise to touch base tomorrow. One of the other murders was Ben’s jurisdiction, but the second belonged to the chief in Newport News, and he will be hard pressed to get the full file. He has a file, collected from various personal sources, but it is neither the complete file nor the official one. Eventually we may have to subpoena that one, or get the FBI involved, if we find enough evidence before we reach a solution.

Bud and I drive directly to the base to talk to Ensign Lansing’s coworkers. We will have a better idea of what we are looking for, after we have more information about her background and recent activities. Somewhere, this evening I hope we can make a connection with Harm. I have to find the answers; I have to prove this has nothing to do with him.


19:30
Marriott suites


“Hi, sweetheart, are you hungry?” I hear on my cell phone, the only voice that can make me smile, at this moment. I was just about to send Bud to dinner on his own. It’s been an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally, and for once in recent history, I truly didn’t feel like eating.

One sentence, delivered by that voice, has turned the entire evening around for me.

“Uh, sure, Harm,” I’m somewhat at a loss here. “Bud and I are sharing a suite, where are you?”

“I’m down in the lobby,” his cheerful voice continues, “with enough bags of Chinese to feed the 7th Cavalry.”

“Harm, how did you find us?” He can be full of surprises.

“Need to know,” he jokes, “after all, I used to be a spook.” He laughs, obviously amusing himself.

“Okay, Harm,” I exclaim, patiently, “come on up. Since you’re so smart, I don’t need to tell you the room number,” I tease.

“Uh… well, my source didn’t have that information,” he falters a little, “can I bribe you with…?”

“It’s 925 Harm,” I provide, knowing he has a bag full of my favorites. Suddenly I’m starving.

“Be right up,” he closes the connection.

Bud and Harms reunion is heartwarming. We spend the next hour, stuffing ourselves silly and catching up. Finally, Bud offers to retire, so Harm and I can be alone, but reality intrudes, as we realize that we are both working investigations.

Unfortunately, Harm has to return to base, to continue the work he missed today, while he was in Washington. Bud and I still have several hours work to do, on the information gathered in our interviews.

Harm and I walk to the door, where he doesn’t resist claiming a goodnight kiss, or maybe two. It will have to replace the activity we both would prefer to indulge in. Bud gallantly volunteers to clear the food and put the leftovers away.

I suddenly question if ending this separation from Harm, is going to become the primary inducement for getting this case solved. At the moment, the glow surrounding me is pushing aside the shadows that truly motivate me.

After Harm leaves, Bud and I spend an hour correlating the interviews with Ensign Lansing’s coworkers. Most of them didn’t socialize with her, and had no actual knowledge of her habits. But one, an Ensign Carlyle, had been to a small gathering the previous week, to celebrate her new assignment. Carlyle claimed to have gone home early, but mentioned she thought Lansing might have met someone, and was evasive about some of her responses. Bud and I determine to re-interview her tomorrow. She seems to be our strongest lead, at this point.

The day is catching up with me. This is not normal, as I’m often able to work long hours during an investigation. However we are at a standstill, and the fear, frustration and stress I’ve experienced today have taken their toll. It was difficult telling Bud about the dreams, but sharing them with a near stranger has multiplied the exhaustion. I finally accept the fact, that without rest I will do this investigation no good at all. And I’m driven to find the truth.

It is equally unusual, that I feel myself drifting to sleep, almost the minute I touch my pillow.

 

 

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