Chris Cross clapped a hand down on Thomas Smalls’s shoulder, a wide grin on his face. “I scored a date at Trinity with my lady friend tonight,” Chris said. “Thanks.”
Thomas rolled his eyes as he powered down his computer. Still, despite his general annoyance at his partner and best friend, he offered a simple, “You’re welcome, Applesauce.” Chris’s jade green eyes were lit up like a Christmas tree. Thomas tilted his head back to get a better look at him. “Why are you smiling like that?”
“What? Oh, no reason.”
Thomas pushed himself out of his chair. He was only two inches shorter than Chris, so it wasn’t that hard to look the other man in the eye. “Who the hell are you taking out tonight?” he asked.
“None of your business, Tommy-boy.”
“It’s my sister, isn’t it?”
Chris scoffed, “No.”
“God, you’re an idiot. She’s not going to sleep with you.”
“Come on! Can’t you put in a good word for me?” Chris asked.
It was Thomas’s turn to scoff. “What in God’s name would I tell her? That I think you’re great in bed? Because that’s sending an entirely different message out than the one you want her to pick up on,” he said.
“Okay, okay. First of all, if I was going to sleep with a man, it wouldn’t be you. No offense.”
“Second of all, just tell her I’m a great guy!” Chris exclaimed. “Women love that shit! Good vibes or whatever.”
“I’m an agent, not a liar,” Thomas said. “You know, no offense.”
“You… you’re hilarious, Smalls.”
“I do my best.” Thomas grabbed his coat from the back of his chair. “I’m not going to help you sleep with my little sister,” he said.
“It’s not like I want to date her.”
“Yeah, and that’s why I’m not helping you, Christopher.” Thomas lifted his gaze to Chris’s face. “My sister isn’t one of your toys, Chris. I’ve held my tongue with all of your other rendezvous because that isn’t any of my business, but my little sister’s a completely different story. She’s my family, and that officially makes it my damn business.”
“So… you’d prefer that I be dating her?” Chris asked.
“No, Chris, I’d prefer you dump her and break her heart,” Thomas said, his words dripping with sarcasm. “Take someone else out. Let her down now instead of after you sleep with her. You destroy too many women that way, and I’m taking her side if you hurt her, no questions asked.”
“I’ll date her.”
Thomas scoffed. “You can’t date anyone, Chris. I’ve met you.”
“I could try. I just haven’t found a girl that holds my interests enough for it. But I could try.”
“Yes, let my sister be your guinea pig.” Thomas shoved Chris back a step. “You do whatever you want, but if she comes crying to me, I’ll kick your ass.”
Chris straightened himself out and saluted Thomas. “Sir, yes, sir.”
Despite himself, Thomas chuckled, shaking his head. “Goodnight, Chris.”
Chris smiled. “Night, Tom.”
“Hi, Daddy,” Olivia Smalls greeted as she walked into the living room.
Thomas looked up and smiled at his eldest daughter. “Hey, Pumpkin,” he greeted.
“Whatcha workin’ on?” she asked. The girl was eleven years old and just below the average height for her fellow peers, with sky-blue eyes and long blonde hair. The stunning eyes came from Thomas, but the soft, beautiful hair was all Mom.
“Just something for work, Pumpkin.” He closed the case file, knowing that his daughter would be more than willing to come peek at crime scene photos if he gave her the chance. “What’re you up to?”
“Can we get pizza?” she asked.
Thomas raised a brow at her obvious dodge of the question. “Maybe.”
Oliver Smalls, Olivia’s twin, ran into the room, skidding to a stop beside his sister. He folded an arm on top of her head, causing her to frown. “Hey, Dad.”
“Son, get your arm off her head. It’s rude,” Thomas said as he pushed himself to his feet. Oliver dropped his arm back to his side. Thomas frowned. The house was incredibly quiet, something that was never exactly a good thing in the Smalls household. “Where’s Triple Threat?”
Oliver threw his hands behind his back. “I dunno.”
Thomas turned to Olivia. “Hey, Pumpkin.”
“Daddy,” Olivia whined. “I’m not a tattletale.”
Thomas chuckled. “Okay, Pumpkin. Fair enough. Children!” he called.
Laura Smalls was the first one in the living room, quickly followed by Lucas and Liam. They were six years old, triplets, and the boys had done a terrific job of getting themselves into trouble at every turn. Lucas and Liam shared the same brown hair, while Laura had incredibly blonde hair. While Lucas had sapphire blue eyes, Liam and Laura shared the same ice blue color. Although the two boys stood strong and tall, Laura looked nervous.
Thomas squatted down in front of her. “Hey, Kitten.” She lowered her eyes to the floor. “Laura, where’s your sister?” he asked.
“I dunno,” she whispered.
“Kitten,” Thomas repeated. He tucked her blonde hair back behind her ear. “Come on, Laura. Where is she?”
“Lucas locked her in the bedroom closet!” Laura exclaimed.
“I did not!”
“Pumpkin, you’re in charge,” Thomas said as he rose to his feet. “Stay in this room, got it? And don’t let them out of your sight.”
“Yes, Daddy,” Olivia said with a nod.
Thomas headed upstairs and opened the door to the bedroom Lucas and Liam shared. He pulled open the closet door. Rose Smalls, a three-year-old with chocolate brown eyes and brown hair, grinned up at him. “Hey, Sunshine,” Thomas greeted.
“Daddy!” Rose exclaimed, holding out her hands.
Thomas picked her up and carried her back downstairs. He walked into the living room, Rose on his hip. “You’re all going to regret what you did to your sister when your mother gets home.”
“Please don’t tell Mom!” Lucas exclaimed. “She was messing with my stuff!”
“You don’t shut a toddler in a closet, Lucas. It’s not nice, and it’s just plain wrong.”
“Daddy! Just ground him,” Olivia said.
“I, uh… That’s for your mother to decide,” Thomas said. He bounced Rose up on his hip. “I’m ordering pizza. You guys… You behave.”
Thomas’s shoulders relaxed as his wife, Jeanette, wrapped her arms around him. “Hi,” he greeted, tilting his head back briefly to meet her eyes.
“Heard you had pizza.”
He rolled his eyes. “The kids had pizza. I watched.”
She laughed. “Kinda creepy, T.”
“I know.” He tilted his head back to actually, truly look at her this time. He smiled for only a moment before it fell from his face. “You’re late, Netty. What happened?” he asked.
“Car crash on two-ninety-five. Fifteen cars. Police said it was the ice,” she said.
“Christ. How many injured?”
“Well, when I left, there were eighteen. They were expecting two of them not to make it through the night,” she said. “We were swamped. Just… constantly in and out of the ER to meet the ambulances with another round of patients.” She sighed. “It’s just been a long night.”
“I’m sorry, Netty.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Her arms tightened around his shoulders. “What about you? How was your day?” she asked.
“Quintus case,” he said. “And Lucas shut Rose in the closet again.”
Jeanette let out a heavy sigh. “I’ll ground him. Again.” She kissed Thomas’s temple. “Is he up?”
“Yeah. He’s in his room.”
“Okay.” Lightly, she drummed her hands against Thomas’s shoulders. “You feeling okay, T? You’re pretty damn tense.”
Thomas sighed. “I’m good. Just…” He shrugged. “It’s February, Netty. Five more women will be kidnapped this month unless I can figure out more than the fact that the criminal is a white male,” he said. “I’ve been chasing this guy for a real long time, Netty, and I…” He let out a breath. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t worry about it, T. This is gonna be your year,” she promised. She kissed him. “I’ll talk to Lucas, and then I’m gonna take a shower. Don’t stay up too late tonight,” she said softly.
Thomas reached back and squeezed her hand. “Okay, Netty. I love you.”
She smiled. “Love you, too, Tom.” Thomas listened to her footsteps until they faded into nothingness. Slowly, his gaze drifted back to the open case file on the table. There was something he was missing, something he couldn’t quite identify about the kidnapper. He didn’t know what it was. The complete modus operandi, maybe. It was entirely possible that he could’ve guessed the skin color wrong, but most serial killers—kidnappers—stayed within the confines of their own race, especially those lacking in confidence.
What in God’s name was he lacking?
Tom raked a hand through his brown hair before dropping both elbows to the dining room table. He lifted his right hand, his index finger resting against the side of his nose, his thumb touching the bottom of his chin.
Confidence. Why was he lacking confidence? Why was he kidnapping women? Why were their bodies never found?
A lack of confidence. That much, Thomas was sure of. Confidence was much more than an external expression of openness and extroversion. It was internal, too. A lack of it came through for a reason. A physical or emotional flaw could cause a lack of confidence, something almost paralyzing that took place inside a person to make them feel like they didn’t deserve to walk among the rest of the living.
A flaw. He was flawed. The kidnapper had a flaw, one that Thomas had missed somewhere along the way.
No bodies. Kidnappings. Five women every February. He was aging alongside them. It was why the age went up every single February. It wasn’t about fame or glory. It wasn’t about being feared or recognized. It wasn’t about being well-known. It was about something entirely different, something Thomas had never even considered, something Thomas had simply overlooked time and time again because of something as dangerous as his own personal bias.
Loneliness. February was a lonely month for a person that was all alone, a person like the serial kidnapper, a person that kidnapped women throughout the month of February and killed them when they no longer gave him the company he craved.
Women. A distant mother, most likely. Or dead, abusive, something along those lines. Once upon a time, Thomas had assumed the kidnapper was a scorned lover of some kind, but from the beginning, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to believe a child could feel scorned enough to murder five girls every year for twelve years.
An abusive mother, he had been able to believe. He still did. But February… February was definitely important.
Thomas felt like the pieces were fitting themselves together.
The picture had fixed itself, and Thomas knew what the missing color had been.
Gray, the color of sadness, depression, and loneliness.
It may not have been much, but Thomas had corrected the mistake, his paintbrush had finally been dipped in the right color, and the picture was coming together better now than it ever had been before.
Tomorrow, he’d go about searching the records for a whole new kind of person, a person that just screamed loneliness. Maybe Jeanette had been right. This was the year. This was his year, and the picture had finally been fixed.