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No updates this week

Hey, guys.

I’m currently trying to get through to my vet to take Willie and Selene in today, one for a check-up for his heart and fluid retention, and the other for an urgent medical issue. Unless I get some super great news today, I’m not planning on updating this week. Depending on how today goes, it might be a little while, but I’ll do my best to keep you posted, either here or on my other social media.

Thank you for your patience, and I hope like hell things go so well today that I post a chapter. But I don’t see that happening. So I’ll see you guys… soon.

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When Toxicity and Mental Health Affect a Story

Hey, guys!

Sorry for getting this post out to you much later in the day than planned. The power company cut our power so they could cut down tree branches almost immediately after I posted today’s chapter of The Spectator, and we were without it for almost two hours, and then it was tragically time for bed. But anyway, let’s get into it, shall we?

As all of you know, I’m sure, posting on Wattpad was initially something I enjoyed. I enjoyed sharing my stories there, even when I had no readers, even when I only had one (Gabby). I’ve always loved interacting with respectful readers, and I still do enjoy that part of it. But as you know, Wattpad eventually grew to be incredibly toxic for me.

In between the constant changing environment on Wattpad (Oh, we’ll do ads to pay our writers! No, we’ll do nothing. Oh, what if we make readers pay for coins that they can use to pay for chapters and we give the writers with that feature a small cut? Yeah, most of them are in their teen years and don’t have jobs, but it’ll be great!), the toxicity of many commenters, and the sexual harassment story I don’t often talk about, it was no longer enjoyable.

For my own sake, I won’t say much more than the sexual harassment was directed at me from a man who is now an ambassador at Wattpad. Funny how that works, huh?

Anyway.

“Finally, an update!” It’s been six hours since I last updated. Finally isn’t an appropriate word, but you can bet it was always the first or second comment on most chapters I posted. When people comment things like ‘finally’, you come into the mindset that the only thing that matters is finishing a story so readers don’t have to ever wait for updates. And eventually, that’s the mindset I hit. Hitting word count milestones was worthless to me. Finishing a chapter was worthless. Finishing a book was the only real joy I ever felt in the last two or so years on Wattpad, and even that joy only lasted for the five minutes before I started the next one.

Not being able to feel any happiness from finishing a book starring a character you’ve loved sucks, and it takes its toll, both on you and on the story.

That’s where we come to today.

I’ve written ten books in the Bo Austen-Taylor series, and although I love the characters, there are many aspects of some of the books I flat-out don’t enjoy. I rushed through many of them so I could hit those five minutes of joy, and it shows. Some of the resolutions are rushed. Some of the killers have half-baked backstories that, while included in the story, make little to no sense, there are far more plot holes than usual, and far worse of a crime: I took away all of Bo’s character development from the Bo Austen series because I couldn’t write a character healing while I was worsening.

And that hurts.

Bo worked so hard to hit this place where he didn’t need to be normal all the time because Jensen wouldn’t love him if he was normal, because Jensen loved him because he was Bo, because he was Eli. And I took it away because… how the hell are you supposed to write a character on his way to better mental health when you can’t even take care of your own? When you don’t even put your own mental health at the forefront of your concerns?

For Bo, I feel that I need to rewrite the Bo Austen-Taylor series. For myself, I feel that I need to rewrite the B-A-T series. I haven’t written a single word in book 11–or a single word in book 5 of Young Bo–in almost two months. They’re both hard to look at, and they both remind me that I failed Bo every single time I open them. I need to fix it.

This is where my question to you guys comes in. I have ten books written. I can either A. continue posting the current B-A-T drafts while I rewrite the series or B. remove all of the B-A-T books and begin posting them the same way I would have on Wattpad, as they are written.

This brings me to issue two: Killer in Training.

I love Freddie, Paris, and Preston, but adhering to the backstory laid out in the B-A-T series has caused an issue in that book two of the series has no actual plot until about 5K words before the end. Even if it’s enjoyable to read, the first 25,000 words have no plot, and that’s not fair to those characters or the reader (even if you’re enjoying it, which is okay!).

If I rewrote book one, the main thing that would change is the ending. Hell, it’s probably the only part I would rewrite before diving into a new book two. I won’t spoil it here in case you haven’t read the current ending, but for those of you that have read it, I’m sure you can imagine what a change in the ending means, what a slight change in his backstory means. Hint: it involves Paris.

So this one isn’t so much a question as it is a statement. I’ll be rewriting the ending, at the very least, on Fedkenheuer, and then I’ll begin book two again, this time with a brand new premise, and I hope you guys will be excited for that.

In regards to both of these rewrites, July 1st will be day number one. Which means that if I post B-A-T as it’s written, the prologue of Happy Face will, more than likely, go up on the first or the second.

But anyway, that’s all my thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours, as well. Thanks for sticking with me, guys.

Happy Face Killer – Chapter Nineteen

NOT EDITED

Chapter Nineteen

3:23 PM; CLIFFBURN COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, BUSES

“Are you listening to me?”

Freddie lifted his head, dragging his gaze away from the window. “Sorry?”

Evie’s brow furrowed as she laid the back of her hand on his cheek. “I asked if you were okay. You’ve barely said three words all day.”

“I’m fine. Just… just a little out of it.” Freddie cleared his throat, leaning back against the window. His eyes drifted over to where his sister stood at the edge of the school’s playground, arms crossed over her chest, watching. God, he hoped she couldn’t see Evie through the window. If she didn’t know about Evie yet, he wanted to keep it that way. “I failed the English quiz.”

“Is that why Garvey held you back after class?”

“Yeah. She wanted to make sure nothing was wrong with my home life.” Freddie closed his eyes. “Never failed a quiz in my damn life.”

“Hey, baby, it’s okay. We all have bad days. Do you get to retake it?”

He nodded against the cold window. “I have until Friday to study for it again.”

“And you’ll be better at it on Friday, I promise,” she said, rubbing a small circle on his upper back. “I’ll even help you study, Fredster. You’ll pass with flying colors.”

“Thanks, Ev,” Freddie murmured, forcing his eyes open as the bus doors closed. He watched his sister as the buses pulled away from the school. He didn’t live all that far away, but when it was cold outside, it was certainly a hell of a lot better to ride the bus than to walk out to the farm. “Is tonight too soon?”

“Yeah, but I’ll ask my parents and come over tomorrow after school.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem.” Evie wrapped her arms around one of his. “I worry about you, Freddie.”

“Why’s that?”

“You always seem lost in your own little world, like you’ve got way too much shit on your mind.”

If only you knew, Freddie thought. “Things just get a little stressful at home every now and then. Taking care of the farm, taking care of myself, making sure Grandpa does something more than sit and watch TV, making sure Faith is safe and okay and taken care of. Faith that she isn’t going to turn into a bloodthirsty monster like Mother and Fiona. Faith that I’ve raised her better than that. Faith that she’ll forget all about the time Mother made us—

“Have you ever tried to talk your grandpa into hiring help?”

“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think he’d go for it. Pride and whatnot.” Freddie lifted his shoulders. “When it comes right down to it, I don’t think I’d want to hire help, either. It’s our farm, and I… I don’t want anyone else touching it.”

“Fair enough.”

“Freddie couldn’t help but wonder why she hadn’t asked if his older sister had plans to come back and help, but it quickly clicked in his head that had never told Evie about Fiona. Evie hadn’t come to Cliffburn until after Fiona had graduated, and she had no idea his killer sister existed.

Christ, was he thankful he’d kept his mouth shut about Fiona.

At his house, Freddie got off the bus and headed up the gravel lane, hands wrapped around the straps of his backpack. On the deck, he pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the front door. He stepped inside, kicked off his boots, and dropped his bag to the floor. He closed the door and made his way to the living room.

Faith looked up from the television, where a repeat episode played of some children’s cartoon about fairies and what looked like weird trolls, but he wasn’t sure. “Hi, Freddie.”

“Hey, sweetheart.” Freddie sat down beside his little sister, draping his arms over his knees. “What’re we watching?”

“Mm… I dunno.”

Freddie chuckled. “Tragic. Looks great.”

Faith lifted a shoulder. “It’s kinda dumb. They try to find a place to get away from the cold, but…” She threw both hands out toward the screen. “There’s a house right there.”

“Well, that’s just because you’re already too smart for these kinds of shoes,” Freddie said. Faith, four years old and starting preschool the following August, had gotten bored with cartoons that requested the viewer to point out the obvious solution almost a month ago. It had been around that time that Freddie feared his sister would eventually be smarter than he was, that he’d never be able to help her figure out much of anything in the world.

But she still needed him to define certain words for her, and she still asked him to read to her at night, so he felt like he had time to learn to deal with that possibility.

Freddie cleared his throat. “We need to talk about Fiona.”

“Okay.”

“If she ever comes to this house while I’m gone, you don’t unlock the door for you. You don’t open the door. You don’t talk to her or let her inside.”

“Why not?”

“Because… because Fiona wants to take you away from me,” Freddie said. He didn’t know for certain if Faith was on his older sister’s radar or not, but he wanted to know he was prepared for the worst.

“I won’t let her inside,” Faith promised. “What if she comes in on her own?”

“Then you call the cops.”

“Nine-one-one?”

“Nine-one-one,” Freddie confirmed.

“Okay,” Faith said simply, turning her attention back to the television. Freddie let out a nearly inaudible breath, closing his eyes. If his older sister was watching him now, how the hell would he tell the cops about her?

5:01 PM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, KITCHEN

Bo lifted his head as Jensen walked into the kitchen and tossed the keys to his cruiser onto the counter. “So… did you turn up anything useful?” Bo asked, picking up the key to drop it into the little wooden bowl on the counter.

“Depends on your definition of useful,” Jensen mumbled. He rounded the counter and pressed a kiss to Bo’s forehead. “Hey, sweetheart.”

“Hi, Daddy,” Amber greeted, barely looking up from the potato she was peeling over the sink.

“Some of the regulars believe they may have seen the woman, others are absolutely certain they saw her. Some know they didn’t, some think they didn’t, and some were one hundred percent too drunk to remember if they saw her or not.” Jensen pulled open the refrigerator, eyes scanning the shelves before he found a bottle of beer. “Helpful thing, though. One of the guys we questioned said she was definitely black. He saw her when she was up by the bar, so we can confirm that now.”

“Well, that’s something,” Bo said.

Jensen nodded. He leaned back against the counter and twisted off the bottle cap. “Did you read through my notes from Will’s questioning?”

“Yes. She was definitely twenty-one, then?”

“Well, that’s what Will remembered seeing on her ID, anyway. He doesn’t remember the name on it. Doesn’t remember if he even saw it. Just the age and her picture.”

“Something is still better than nothing,” Bo said. Jensen only nodded. “But… nothing else came of the interviews?”

“Nah. Couple people told us that it’s our fault for not having better laws. But that’s about it.”

“You don’t make the laws. It’s your job to enforce them.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. Then I kindly reminded her we don’t work at bars to enforce said laws, but she could’ve saved the girl since she was in the bar.”

“And then?”

“Then Jake sent me to sit in the cruiser for being a bad influence on the interview.”

Bo chuckled. “Smooth move, Einstein.”

One corner of Jensen’s mouth lifted. “Thanks, babe.”

“Sure thing, love.” Bo leaned up and kissed Jensen, thankful that the man didn’t exactly taste like beer yet, just mint with the slightest taste of alcohol and whatever chapstick he’d put on before coming into the house. “I’m going to the gym. Kay’s in the family room with the boys, Hati and Acky are asleep in our room, Amber’s your helper for supper, and both recipes for food are open on your tablet. I’ll be back in an hour.”

“All right, Eli. You gonna do a bit of boxing?”

“That’s the primary plan. Boxing, cool down jog, shower, home.”

“Sweet.” Jensen smiled. “Once it’s warm out, we should look into building a shed outside, make it our own little gym. Then we don’t have to go far.”

“I… shall add that to a to-do list so we don’t forget,” Bo assured. “I love you both. I’ll be back soon.”

“Love you, Eli,” Jensen said at the same time Amber said, “Love you, Daddy.” Bo pressed a kiss to the top of Amber’s head and grabbed his keys from the bowl on the counter. Bo hoped the workout would serve as a destressor from the doubt his mind had instilled in itself during the day before he called Mekhi to assign him and his men to dig up information on the cartel.

6:32 PM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, KITCHEN

Bo stood at the counter, his phone held between his ear and his shoulder. Jensen and the kids were in the family room, eating and picking out a movie. Bo planned to join them soon, but the call to Mekhi needed to be made first. He knew damn well he’d never do it if it didn’t happen before joining his family.

“Hey, Boss,” Mekhi greeted. “What can I do for you?”

Bo smiled faintly, closing his eyes. Having so many people jump to help him was still an incredibly odd concept, though he didn’t entirely mind it. Mind or not, he wasn’t sure how long it would take before he was used to it. “I have a mission for you.”

“Sweet. I’m in great need of something to do,” Mekhi said. “What’s up?”

“I need some information dug up on a cartel. According to Carmine, they ran up through Los Angeles a year ago, and they’ve been there instead of Mexico ever since.” Bo cleared his throat, opening his eyes. “Isaac Sáez. Does the name ring any bells for you?”

“Mister Pitman had us keeping tabs on them. They operate primarily in L.A., but they’ve been made aware that selling drugs inside of L.A. gets ‘em killed,” Mekhi said. “What do you need to know about them?”

“One of their men killed a member of the Lucchese Family. I need to know if the boss, Isaac, ordered the murder of Lorenzo or not.”

“So we’re looking to see if bossman knew about the crime, or if his man just jumped off the deep end?” Mekhi asked.

“More or less.”

“Can do, Boss. When do you need it by?” Mekhi asked.

Bo looked down at his watch. “Sometime before eleven PST, if that’s at all possible for tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, I’ll do you one better, Mister Austen. Nine o’clock PST.”

“I’m entirely okay waiting until eleven.”

Mekhi chuckled. “I like being put on the clock, sir.”

“Okay. Nine PST.”

“I’ll call you in sixteen hours and about thirty minutes. TTYL, Bossman,” Mekhi said.

Bo rolled his eyes, unable to fight the smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “I’ll talk to you later, Mekhi. Stay safe.”

“Always do, sir. Ta for now.”

Bo chuckled. “Ta, Mekhi.” He pulled his phone from his ear and ended the call. He tucked his phone away, grabbed his plate from the counter, and walked into the family room. He sat down on the edge of the lounge, setting his plate beside Jensen before sliding back on the couch, sitting between his husband’s long legs.

“All good?” Jensen asked.

“All good,” Bo echoed.

“Sweet,” Jensen whispered. He pressed a kiss to Bo’s shoulder. “Told you you’d be amazing at this job.”

Bo squeezed the younger man’s thigh. “Thank you, Jens.”

“Mm… always a pleasure, babe.”

11:49 PM; CLIFFBURN, BUBBA’S SPORTS BAR

Fiona couldn’t give two shits about sports, to say the least. Still, she had assumed a sports bar would be the best place to nab an unsuspecting man. Mom had never only had to kill weak or drunk women. Fiona didn’t plan to be stuck to one option, either. When it came to that night, she figured the large percentage of males in the bar only helped her case when it came to choice of victims.

A man slid into the bar stool beside her. “Buy you a drink?” he asked, a charming smile on his face.

“Sure. Just a beer.” He nodded, holding up two fingers to grab the bartender’s attention.

“Be with you in just a sec, Buddy,” the woman said.

“Buddy?”

“Nickname.” He stuck out a hand. “Brandan.”

Fiona grabbed his hand. “Zoe.”

“Pleasure to meetcha, Zoe.”

Fiona smiled. “Pleasure’s all mine.”


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New update roughly every Tuesday!


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Happy Face Killer – Chapter Eighteen

NOT EDITED

Chapter Eighteen

1:01 PM; CLINSTONE POLICE DEPARTMENT, LAB

“Here,” Bo said, sliding Jensen’s notepad across the table.

Jensen grabbed it, eyes quickly scanning the names, numbers, and addresses Bo had written down. “Sweet. You coming with?”

Bo shook his head. “I have some calls to make. Just take a lot of notes and record anyone that’s willing to be recorded. I’ll listen to all of them later.” A pause. “If you don’t mind doing so.”

“Not at all, babe.” Jensen leaned to the side and kissed him. “Good luck with the calls,” he said, pushing himself to his feet.

Bo nodded. “Good luck with the interviews.”

“Thanks, babe. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Okay. Stay safe.”

“Will do.” Jensen rounded the table, offering a two-fingered salute. Bo smiled faintly and returned the gesture before his husband left the room. Bo let out a sigh and leaned up, pulling his phone from his pocket. His work phone was in his satchel, but until he called Carmine, he didn’t need it. Bo unlocked his screen, opened his contact list, and selected Dallas’s name. After a moment, he pressed the little green phone button and pressed the device to his ear.

“Lab geek,” Dallas greeted after the fourth ring.

“Lieutenant. How’re things at the station?”

“Man, let me tell ya, people are really protesting out there, but no one’s managed to burn the place down just yet.”

“Ha ha.”

Dallas laughed. “No, it’s all good out here. People are still getting used to not having Jamal lurking around in the shadows and scaring the shit out of them.” Bo snorted. “Otherwise, it’s good. All smooth sailing out here, Shorty.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“Hey, uh, Jamal always wanted a copy of all police reports. Do you want copies for your files too?”

“I think I would prefer that, yes.”

“Can do. Jamal also liked signing off on the reports before I filed them just to make sure all the Is were dotted and all the Ts were crossed, you know? So do you wanna do that too?”

“I think you’re more than capable of that. If you need my signature after you’ve approved them because of how Jamal had things set up, I’ll sign it afterward. I trust your judgment.”

“Sounds good, Chief. How’s Clinstone? Do you getta be a lab geek again?”

A smile tugged at one corner of Bo’s mouth. “I do. It’s… I missed sitting in a lab all day while I was in L.A., that’s for sure.”

“Yeah, I bet. How’s the case over there treating you?”

“Well, it appears our killer’s a woman. We don’t know much outside of that.”

“Thrilling. Female killers are always a bitch to chase after.” Dallas cleared his throat. “What about the vigilante dickhead?”

“Nothing new. Nothing more than I had when we were in Los Angeles. He keeps killing, keeps moving to different cities and states to beat his next victim to death. That’s… that’s it.”

“Why do you think he jumps states instead of bringing them back to a comfort kill zone? Developing a ritual?”

“I have no idea, Dal. I wish I did, but… but the vigilantes always get to my head.”

Dallas remained silent for a moment before offering a quiet, “Sorry about that.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“It’s always going to be at least partially my fault, Bo.”

“No. I should’ve gotten help as soon as I found out who you were… playing on the side. But I didn’t. I buried myself in work instead, let Jamal take his anger and betrayal out on me. That said, GBK was a much bigger blow to my mental health than Hangman was. I was scared when you left. That’s what I remember feeling. First at how the hell I had been so blind. Second, because I thought I’d never see you again.”

“Well, good thing Kathy and I got our stupid asses arrested, huh?” Dallas asked.

Bo snorted, shaking his head. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“But, uh, anyway.” Dallas cleared his throat. “I’ll send some reports over your way. Just drop your signature and email them back whenever’s convenient for you. Sound good?”

“Works for me, Dal. Keep my station afloat for me.”

“Will do, lab geek. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Yes. Take care.”

“You too, Shorty.”

Bo pulled his phone from his ear and ended the call. Briefly, he touched his free hand to the three necklace charms hanging at his neck as he selected Frank’s number. He pressed the phone back to his ear and waited.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Frank greeted.

“Afternoon, Frank. Anything important I need to know about?”

“No, sir. As it stands, the Cassata and Lucchese families are busy with their own missions outside of Los Angeles.”

“What about Jamal’s men?”

“Just the usual. Patrols, watching out for chatter, keeping gangs on their radar.” A pause. “Those are all good things, Mister Austen. Everything’s good here.”

“Good. That’s… that’s good. How’re things at the Estate? The horses?”

“Good on all fronts. The horses are being taken care of.” Frank shuffled through some papers. “Oh, yes, I’m supposed to ask if you have any requests for the room you and Mister Taylor will stay in at the Estate, as well as the rooms for your children. Different beds, new mattresses, new bedding, different flooring, a coat of paint… Anything like that?”

“Jensen and I can handle that when we come back to California.”

Frank chuckled. “I know it’s an adjustment for you, sir, but part of my job is handling things like this. It’s what I, the interior designer, and the movers are for.”

“Well, I suppose I could talk to Jensen?” Bo suggested.

“That’d be lovely, Mister Austen.”

Bo nodded. “I’ll talk to him tonight and get back to you by tomorrow at… noon your time?”

“Works for me, Mister Austen. Take care. I’ll hold down the fort until your return.”

Bo smiled, though the older man couldn’t see him. “Thank you, Frank. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“All right, Mister Austen. You enjoy your day.”

“You too, Frank.” Bo pulled his phone back once Frank had ended the call. He set the device down on the table and leaned to the side, grabbing his satchel. He lifted it onto the table and grabbed his work phone from the side pocket. Bo sighed, tugging down on his beanie. Two phone calls in, and he already felt worn out from talking.

He dropped his head, forehead resting on the heels of his palms. Eventually, it was something he’d need to get used to. The phone calls, the checking in, the delegation of certain tasks to Frank while still shouldering so much of it all. He needed to learn to be more like Jamal. Jamal could bark orders and carry on conversations all day long without any need for a break, without ever growing tired. Jamal, of course, was much less introverted than Bo preferred to be, and as far as Bo knew, Jamal had never been cursed with depression or anxiety. Together, the extroversion and lack of mental health disorders aided the older man in his usual activities.

Bo wasn’t cut out for all of this. There had to be some part of Jamal that knew that, some part that Jamal had pushed away and chose to ignore simply because Bo was ‘his boy’.

Scrubbing his hands over his face, Bo lifted his head. He could worry about feeling like garbage in regards to himself at a later time. He just had to make it through another phone call. He just had to make it until his next appointment with Gabriel. Friday wasn’t horribly far away. Surely he could manage until then.

He grabbed his work phone, unlocked the screen, and opened up his contact. After a moment, he selected Carmine’s name from the list and touched the green phone icon before pressing the device to his ear.

“Hey, Chief,” Carmine greeted.

“Hi, Carmine. How’s, umm… questioning going?”

“We’ve got the name of his boss. No idea if the boss gave the order to kill my man or not.”

“Is the boss an alley of yours?”

“Eh… yes and no. He’s a cartel man. We aren’t incredibly affiliated with them or anything, but we’ve never had problems with them, either. If Bossman didn’t give the order for fuckwad here to go out and kill my man, I don’t want to go causing any problem.” Carmine grunted, and Bo heard a slight thwack before a second man laughed. “You feel me?”

“I get it. No need for further problems to arise,” Bo agreed. “Has the cartel spoken out about their man going missing?”

“Not that I’ve been made aware of. But like I said, we aren’t exactly affiliated. We pick up on mob chatter, for obvious reasons, but the cartel’s generally a whole different realm for us. They usually don’t do any business with anyone that isn’t part of Cartelli’s little gang.”

“I can… make some calls once I get off work. I’ll find out if there’s been any mention of the man missing. If the boss gave the order, I could only imagine they would come looking for your family first. If he didn’t, he presumably wouldn’t know about the murder, and he wouldn’t know where to start looking.”

“You’d really dig that up for me, Chief? I don’t wanna put you out or anything like that.”

“You’re my ally, Carmine. We’re supposed to do things for each other.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Chief. I’ll send you what we know about the cartel so far. Otherwise, Bossman over there is Isaac Sáez. Hispanic guy, cartel’s been in his family for three generations. Think he’s got a wife, maybe a kid. That’s about all we have on him, last I knew, but I’ll email you his file. Edit with what you end up with and send her right on back. Deal?”

“That works for me, Carmine. Give me twenty-four hours, and I’ll do my best to have it to you in less.”

“Fucking love you, Chief,” Carmine said. Bo smiled, closing his eyes. Worn out or not, at least he knew one of his new business partners loved working with him. That was admittedly something that could be chalked up to a positive. “I’ll shoot you an email of what we’ve got on him so far. Thank you, really.”

“My pleasure, Carmine. We’ll talk soon.” “Sounds like a plan, Chief.” Carmine, much to Bo’s relief, hung up first. Bo set his phone on the table and let out a breath of relief. With the bulk of calls made and checking up on things in L.A. done, he could get back to notes and pointless application refining. Neither needed to be done, but they were great time killers until his shift ended and Jensen could fill him in on the interviews with the bar’s New Year’s night regulars.


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Love Tends the Garden – An M/F Romance Short

NOT EDITED

Spring had finally sprung in Iowa, enough so that the biggest worry for the blooming flowers would be if they got enough rain or too much rain rather than if the overnight and morning frost were going to kill them.

Kate Webb buried her fingers in her hair and gave her scalp a good scratch as she walked into the kitchen. She was never sure if the scalp scratching triggered a yawn or if she was just an incredibly yawny person in the morning, but either way, it was routine, no matter what time she rolled out of bed and got around for the day.

Kate turned on the coffee maker—pre-filled with water and coffee grounds the night before—and crossed her arms over the counter. She dropped her forehead to her arms and closed her eyes. Kate was far from a morning person. Hell, she wasn’t even really a daylight person. Even her eleven AM wakeup call that morning was a little too close to sunrise for her, but if she had any hope of scoring eggplants early in the season, she needed to get to the greenhouse well before the ‘just got off work’ evening gardeners walked through the place.

She had missed out on eggplants from the greenhouse three years in a row. She didn’t much care for them herself, but they were her dad’s favorite vegetable out of everything one could grow in their garden, and he wouldn’t eat any dish made with eggplants that came from anywhere but their local greenhouse. In previous years, her neighbor had been kind enough to ‘loan’ her the eggplants needed to make a birthday dish of some sort for her dad, but before winter’s cruel fingers had sunk into the town at the end of last year, her neighbor had moved for warmer weather and sunnier days.

With a groan, Kate lifted her head as the final bit of coffee dripped into the glass pot. She couldn’t wait to get back home and get back to her much-needed rest.

***

Though Kate wanted like hell to keep her hopes up and her thoughts positive, the greenhouse shelves looked even emptier than they had by the time she had arrived the previous three years.

She managed to get a plant or two for just about everything she usually put in the ground, save for onions and peppers. That was fine. As long as she could find even one eggplant on the shelves she hadn’t checked yet, she could make something for her dad’s birthday later in the season that didn’t require onions or peppers. There were plenty of recipes to choose from, so long as she could get her hands on the ever-elusive eggplant.

Kate’s heart sank as she rounded the corner to check the last shelf. Her dad’s good days got fewer and farther between with every passing month, and she wanted to make every good day the best it could be. Was it so much to ask for the universe to help her out just this once?

She checked every shelf in the greenhouse once more just in case someone had hidden an eggplant away behind the lonely squash plant in the back.

No one had.

Admitting defeat, Kate made her way up to the counter.

“Early riser today, eyy?”

Kate set her basket on the counter and offered a smile. “Not early enough, apparently.”

Eli Peterson nodded. “Jenny bought us out of a lot of our stock right around opening. I even asked Mom and Dad if I was allowed to place a limit on plants per customer.”

Kate snorted. “I’m sure they were appalled.”

“Oh, absolutely. Can’t rob a paying customer of their well-earned plants or… something like that. I don’t understand the rules. I just follow ‘em.”

Kate chuckled softly, shaking her head. She had known Eli and his parents her whole life. Before her mom’s passing, she and her dad had gone to the greenhouse every year for their vegetables, and Kate had always come with them. On occasion, the Petersons had even let Eli show her how to water a plant or two with his tiny watering can.

But Kate had stopped attending the annual greenhouse shopping trip when she’d hit her hormonal years as a teenager, and her mom’s passing hadn’t sparked the urge to go back. Her dad’s inability to go for the last five years had been the only thing that had changed her mind about her greenhouse attendance, and Eli had been just about her only in-person human interaction since.

God, that was sad.

“We should get a restock in two weeks,” Eli said, his voice quiet.

“That’s okay. Dad prefers the ones bought in the first week. He says they’re just not the same if you wait any longer than that.”

“Will… he know?”

One corner of Kate’s mouth scrunched up. She had gotten her fair share of questions phrased that way about her dad, but she always struggled to answer them in a way that didn’t piss someone off or make her seem ridiculous. Eventually, she had given up on trying and had settled on the only answer that had ever made any sense to her.

“No, but I will. I like to keep my lies limited when and where I can.”

Eli’s expression was far more understanding than any greenhouse clerk’s face should be allowed to be. Maybe it had something to do with those soft brown eyes or the way his brow always furrowed just a little when Kate talked about her dad every year. Maybe it was because he was the only person she’d let into her home more than once since her dad’s diagnosis. Maybe it was because he was the only person in town who had seen her dad’s dementia in person for more than a few seconds.

Or maybe it was just pity. She got that one a lot too.

“I understand. Lying sucks. I’d want to keep it limited too.” Eli looked down at the basket of plants. His little notepad resting on the counter, he went about adding up the total cost. His parents had never invested in a cash register, instead settling for a notepad, a pencil, and a lockbox. Eli had once quietly muttered something about getting a ‘damn register’ when he took over someday, but Kate didn’t know how true that was.

Old habits were hard to break, even the time-consuming and less efficient ones.

“All righty, Kate. Fifty-two dollars and sixty cents.”

“Am I still allowed to write you a check?”

“Yeah, but Mom and Dad will hunt you down if it bounces.”

Kate snorted. “Deal.” She rifled through her purse for her checkbook. Her heart skipped a beat. “No, no, no,” she whispered. She set her purse on the counter for a better vantage point, like being able to pull it apart a little more would make her checkbook jump out of the house and run down to the shop.

“It’s okay,” Eli said. “Mom and Dad left for lunch, and they won’t check the lockbox until tomorrow.”

“It’s not okay. I have it. I just…”

Eli laid a warm hand on her forearm. Kate stopped digging, lifting her eyes to meet his. “Kate, it’s fine. I’m not offering to just let you just take ‘em, okay? I know you don’t want that. But I can swing by your place tonight after work and pick up the check then. Or cash. Whatever works for you. In the meantime, take the plants and get some gardening done.”

“Thank you,” Kate whispered.

“You’re welcome.” Eli gave her arm a gentle squeeze. He grabbed the small strawberry plant from the edge of her basket and smiled. “I’ll hold this one hostage until you pay its ransom tonight.”

Kate couldn’t help the smile that crept across her face. “Just don’t hurt her. I won’t pay a single dime if you hurt any leaves on her stem.”

Eli stuck out his free hand. “Deal.”

Kate snorted and grabbed his hand, giving it a firm shake. “Thank you, Eli. I’ll have the check ready tonight. Thank you.”

Eli smiled that warm, polite smile of his. “You’re welcome. Enjoy your day, Kate. I’ll keep Miss Strawberry safe until tonight.”

Kate lifted her purse over her shoulder. “Oh, you better. Or I’ll spill the beans on your little under the counter deals.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

She pointed at him, grabbing the basket of plants with her free hand. “Don’t test me, Peterson.”

Eli held up both hands—strawberry plant and all—in surrender. “I won’t hurt her. You pay your ransom, and she goes home safe and sound.”

“Deal.” Kate mouthed one more ‘thank you’, not quite having the strength left to say it aloud one more time.

Eli’s smile spoke far more understanding than pity.

***

Kate had searched for her checkbook in every nook and cranny she could find when she got home. The cupboards, the drawers, the dryer, the dressers. Hell, she had even checked the refrigerator.

Letting out a breath, she walked into the living room. Her dad sat in his rocking chair, eyes on the television. She leaned around the corner for a look at what was playing. It was a relatively new show in comparison to what he watched on his more distant days. His lack of complaint or confusion was usually a good sign. “Hey, Daddy?”

He glanced up at her, smiling before his gaze shifted back to the television. “Hey, sweetheart. Back so soon?”

“Yeah. Traffic wasn’t too bad.” Kate cleared her throat. “Any chance you’ve seen my checkbook?”

“Checkbook?” he echoed. He chuckled. “Baby, aren’t you a little young for a checkbook? Lord knows I’ve got you covered until well after you graduate.”

Kate closed her eyes for a moment. Well… not as good of a sign as she had hoped. She smiled. “You’re right, Daddy. Sorry. Umm… do you know where your checkbook is?”

“It’s in my nightstand. Do you need something?”

“No, I was just cleaning. You know I like knowing where the important stuff is so I know I’m not gonna lose it.”

“Ah, that’s my girl. Well, you can go check if it puts you at ease. Just don’t overwork yourself.”

“I won’t. Thanks, Daddy.” Kate hurried past the television and walked into her father’s bedroom. True to his word, the checkbook was in his nightstand. Kate grabbed it, tore off a check, and tucked it into the pocket of her jacket. Just in case he still believed the book was his the next time he found it, she put it back in his nightstand and closed the drawer.

She headed back into the kitchen. She wrote out the check for fifty-two dollars and sixty cents and tucked it beneath the basket of fruits and veggies waiting to be planted in the garden. She’d wait to plant them until after her still much-needed nap.

Kate pulled her phone from her pocket and checked to make sure the camera feed from the little camera hidden in the living room was connected to her notifications. Her dad didn’t move much during the day, but the camera helped her feel safe about her daytime naps. If her dad switched over to his wheelchair or left the room, she’d get a notification about the movement, and she’d be able to check the feed to make sure everything was okay. It helped keep accidents to a minimum, and it helped prolong his time in the house with her instead of in a nursing home.

She raked a hand through the part of her dark brown hair to push it away from the sides of her face. “Nap first,” she whispered.

***

Eli felt stupid for going home and changing his shirt four times before driving out to Kate’s house. Even as he had done up the buttons of the fourth shirt, he had told himself it was just because he didn’t want to go over there in what he’d worn to work. That was, of course, bullshit, but everyone was allowed to tell themselves a white lie now and then.

Eli pulled up to the curb outside Kate’s house and cut the engine. She had waved at him from the garden when he’d driven past, so he wasn’t too surprised to see her coming out of the house, check in hand.

Her hair was a mess, pushed back from her face with a blue and white bandana rolled up like a headband. Her tank top was a little wet around the hem and a little dirty on the sides, like she’d wiped her hands on them more than once. The older women in town tended to judge her for the little things like that. It wasn’t rare for Kate to make a run to the grocery store in her pajamas or her gardening clothes.

According to one of the regulars at the greenhouse, Kate ‘thinks about her dad too much to even pretend to care about her own appearance’.

Eli didn’t much care if her clothes were a little dirty or if her hair was a little messy. She was still a beautiful woman. Eli didn’t think any amount of dirt could change that.

Kate stopped on the sidewalk as Eli climbed out of his car. Her hands went to her hips. “I don’t see my strawberry plant, Peterson. I was promised she’d be returned undamaged.”

“Ah, as promised.” Eli leaned back into the car and, after allowing his hand to hover over the two plants in his passenger seat, grabbed the strawberry plant. He closed the door and walked around the front of his car. “See? Didn’t touch a single leaf.”

“Thank God. I don’t have the energy left to kick your ass today.”

Eli snorted. “Reasonable.” He handed over the plant and accepted the check she held out to her. “Thank you.”

Kate nodded. “Yeah. Thanks again for letting me hold off on that until tonight. I completely forgot to make sure everything was in my purse before I left.”

“I think you have the right to forget something every now and then.”

“Maybe,” Kate said quietly. She held up the strawberry plant. “Thanks again, Eli.”

“No problem.” He took a step back toward his car and pulled open the passenger side door as Kate headed back up to the house. “Hey, umm, Kate?”

She stopped and turned back around. “Yeah?”

Eli grabbed the second plant from the seat and walked up the drive. “I didn’t want anyone in the shop to think there was some sort of favoritism going on, but I-I saved you one this year.”

Kate searched his face for what felt like an eternity before her gaze fell to the nursery pot in his hand. “You… you saved an eggplant for me?”

He shrugged, like saving it wasn’t something he’d been thinking about for the last two years. “Yeah. It’s no big deal. I just know you’re not really a morning person, and since Mom and Dad refuse to allow pre-orders, I made sure to buy one first thing this morning.”

“For me?”

“For you.”

Kate bent down to set the strawberry plant on the ground. Before Eli could promise there were no strings attached, Kate straightened out and threw her arms around him. Eli grunted, holding the plant out to the side before wrapping his free arm around her.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“My pleasure, Kate.” Eli expected her to pull away, but she didn’t. She twisted the material of his shirt in one of her hands, the fingers of her free hand biting into his shoulder. Eli closed his eyes, hugging her just a little tighter.

Kate was more or less alone in the world. It hadn’t been too long after her mother had died that she had switched from daughter to caretaker. She had stopped attending parties in high school, she had skipped out on just about every event but prom and graduation, and she had taken a ‘gap year’ between graduation and college.

Of course, her ‘gap year’ had gone on a bit longer than three hundred and sixty-five days, and now the only people really in her life were her dad and his doctors.

Kate patted him on the back and stepped away. Her cheeks were a little red, her eyes a little wet. She smiled. “Sorry. Haven’t had a good hug in a while.”

“That’s okay. I’m not opposed to hugs.”

“Thank God.” She took the eggplant from him, holding the pot in her cupped hands like an injured baby bird. “Eli?” she asked, eyes still on the plant.

“Yeah?”

“Do you… do you have plans tonight?”

Eli shook his head, though she wasn’t looking at him. “No. Just me and probably some gaming.”

Kate lifted her eyes just enough to meet his gaze. “How would you feel about giving up gaming to attend a little supper here?”

Eli did his best to conceal at least some of his joy at the idea. The last time he’d been invited to supper with Kate had been their pre-prom dinner, and that had been with a group of five girls and one other guy.

Tonight’s supper would just be him, Kate, and her dad.

“I’d love that,” Eli said.

Kate smiled. “I’m just going to plant this little guy and Miss Strawberry, and then I’ll get into making food. Is spaghetti okay? I know it’s not a very… sexy food, but y’know.”

Eli snorted. “I don’t normally get my hopes up that the food will be sexy.”

Kate laughed. “That’s probably a good thing.” A pause. “I’ll, uh… see you around six?”

“Six works for me. See you then, Kate.”

***

After planting the remaining two plants and watering everything in the garden, Kate headed inside to start supper. She wasn’t sure what to classify the night as. ‘Date’ felt like the wrong word, but not because of Eli. Kate liked Eli. Never making themselves official in high school hadn’t changed that, and since then, he had grown into a handsome man with a good sense of humor and a sense of fashion she’d be willing to ‘borrow’ on occasion.

But ‘date’ felt wrong since her dad would be there with them. Thankfully, if anyone in town understood that, it was Eli. He was the least judgmental person there was when it came to her position as full-time caretaker and breadwinner.

Kate hadn’t had time for dating since before she graduated high school. She had spent most of her junior and senior years trying to hide that her dad had gotten sick. She hadn’t wanted a judge or a police officer poking into their business, into their lives. She hadn’t wanted some stranger to decide if her dad was ‘dangerous’ or ‘unfit’ to be a parent anymore. It was a narrative she hadn’t planned to let the town put on her family, and she had managed to succeed. It hadn’t been until after graduation that it had finally gotten out that her father was sick. Though she had hated the way some of their neighbors had acted when that sickness was discovered, it hadn’t mattered.

By then, she had legally been a grown ass woman, and no one could take her or her dad away anymore.

Eli had been one of the few who stuck around as time went on, as she pulled away from her social life more and more to take care of her dad. They didn’t see each other or talk to each other every week by any means, but the time they did occasionally spend together was time Kate always appreciated.

If Eli Peterson wanted to use an eggplant to make his move instead of any of her previous trips to the greenhouse or any of his grocery runs for her, so be it. Kate sure as hell wasn’t going to reject any kind of garden variety veggies from a man like Eli.

***

Eli had changed his shirt twice more before heading back to Kate’s house. He owned primarily button-ups, some more solid in color than others. He had settled on a simple plaid button-up and left the house before he could change his mind again. He knew Kate liked flannel and plaid patterns, so he hoped she found it more charming than creepy.

It was a shirt after all. He hadn’t bought it specifically because Kate liked it. There was nothing creepy about wearing a shirt he hoped a woman he was interested in liked.

He hoped.

Eli let out a breath and shut off the car. He really needed to shut off his brain before it exploded. He had a habit of thinking himself out of dates, his mind conjuring up things to worry about that no one else would even really notice or care to acknowledge.

He opened the door and climbed out of the car. He leaned back in to pull his keys from the ignition, pocketing them as he heard the front door open.

Kate’s dad stood in the doorway, a hand wrapped tightly around his cane. He lifted his free hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Now, do my eyes deceive me, or is that Eli Peterson I see?”

“Seems like they’re still running twenty-twenty.”

Joshua snorted. “Somethin’ oughta still be working at top speed, huh?”

“Pfft, you aren’t too worse for wear.” Eli closed the door and made his way up to the house. “I didn’t know you were up and walking around with a cane now.”

“Only for about the last week,” Kate said as she came into the small foyer. She finished drying her hands and slung the towel over her shoulder. She laid a hand between her dad’s shoulders and offered a smile. “We’ve made a lot of progress with the new physical therapist. Things are going well.”

Joshua nodded. “The new therapist is a great gal. Doesn’t let me give up too easy, which I needed.” He cocked his head to the side as he adjusted his grip on his cane. “Is there something you came over for, Eli?”

“I invited him over for supper, Daddy. Eli was kind enough to save an eggplant for me at the greenhouse this year.”

“ ‘Bout time. I was starting to think both of you lacked any romantic awareness.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “Get your butt back inside.”

Joshua smiled. “Of course. Leave you two alone.” He patted her on the shoulder and gave Eli a thumbs-up before heading back into the house.

“He’s doing okay today, it seems,” Eli said.

Kate looked back over her shoulder, offering a nod. “Not too bad. He thought I was in high school this afternoon, and we had an incident with the stove at lunch, but…” She lifted her shoulders. “But today’s been good. We happily accept as many of those as we can get.”

“I wish you guys had even more of them.”

She smiled an almost sad little smile. “Me too, Eli.” She nodded over her shoulder. “Come on in. Supper’s on the table.”

Eli stepped into the house and closed the door behind him. He followed Kate to the dining room, where she pulled out a chair for him. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She looked him up and down with tired eyes. “You look nice in plaid.”

He couldn’t help but smile. Proof he’d been overthinking it: check. “Thanks. And you look nice in a gardening tee.”

Kate snorted, amusement dancing amongst the exhaustion in those light brown eyes of hers. “Thanks.” She slid an empty plate over to him. “Spaghetti here, meat sauce here, veggie sauce here. Have at it.”

***

Supper had gone well, at least as far as Eli knew. Conversation had been pleasant the whole evening, even after their food was eaten. Eli had never felt like a third-wheel to Kate and her dad, and he’d never felt like he and Kate were excluding her dad either.

It was the most successful date Eli had had in a long time.

Now, with Joshua back in his chair in the living room, his cane on one side and his wheelchair on the other, Eli followed Kate back to her room.

She set her phone on the nightstand and dropped to the foot of the bed. “Thanks for coming over tonight, Eli. It was nice having someone else around. I love Dad to death, but…” She laughed softly, shaking her head. “But I don’t get out much.”

“Me neither. Thanks for having me over.” Almost gingerly, he sat down beside her on the bed. “How, uh… how are things with your dad? I mean, really?”

“I don’t know.” Kate clasped her hands between her thighs. “I’m going to have to put him in a home eventually, but I’m trying to put it off as long as I can. As long as I can work from home, as long as I can keep the cameras around the house connected to my phone… As long as everything keeps doing what it’s supposed to do, I can keep him here. I can keep taking care of him.”

She swallowed roughly, shaking her head. “The good days are few and far between. Today was… was good, and I’m happy for that. But recently, the good ‘days’ are turning into good afternoons or good mornings instead. He loses who I am and where we are a lot of the time. He thought I was in high school just today, and he thought my checkbook was his. He even had it in his nightstand drawer to keep it safe, like it always was. Stuff like that is the usual now, and once he progresses further into… into it, the things he starts moving or forgetting are going to be more dangerous.”

“Like the stove incident today?” Eli asked.

Kate nodded. “It was stupid. I didn’t take my damn phone into the garden with me. I left it on the table at the front of the house, and I didn’t hear it go off when he rolled his chair out to the kitchen. He just wanted a snack. Turned on the stove, filled a pot up with water, and set it on the burner. And then a pot holder on the lid of it, which… fell off and landed right next to the flame. I-I went inside to put my hair up because I broke my damn hair tie, a-and thank God I did. I could’ve lost Dad if I hadn’t.”

Eli laid a hand on her back. “You can’t be expected to be there one hundred percent of the time, Kate. It’s too much to ask of one person. A pot holder caught fire, and it could’ve been worse, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t worse because you were there, and that’s all there is to it. You were there, even if it wasn’t before it happened. You still stopped it.”

“I guess so,” Kate said quietly. With a heavy sigh, she dropped her head to Eli’s shoulder. “You don’t have any people or animals you need to get home to, do you?”

“No, not unless you think my PlayStation is lonely.”

Kate snorted. “It might be. I don’t know.” She stayed silent for a moment. As Eli slid his hand up to her shoulder, she laid a hand on his thigh. “You can say no if you want to, but, umm… do you wanna stay with me tonight?”

“Like a sleepover? Or like sex?”

Kate chuckled. “Like a sleepover. I’m an exhausted mess.”

Eli rolled his eyes and turned to press a kiss to the top of her head. “You aren’t nearly as much of a mess as you think you are.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.” She cleared her throat, lifting her head from his shoulder. “I need to take a shower. If you’d like to join me for a sex-free water-saving mission, you can.”

Eli watched her stand up. “Are you sure?”

She smiled. “It won’t be too much different from freshman year. I’m just a little less skinny, and you’re a little more muscular.”

“You make a damn good argument.”

“I try.”

Eli grabbed her outstretched hand and rose to his feet. Kate grabbed her phone from the nightstand and gently tugged him to the bathroom connected to her bedroom. Once she shut the bathroom door, Eli barely managed to undo the buttons on his shirt before she pulled her own over her head and dropped it to the floor.

His eyes skimmed up her bare torso, past her belly button ring and the short hairs that led up to her bra. Part of him felt guilty for looking—for ogling—just like he had as an inexperienced freshman. The other part of him simply said, “You’re beautiful, Kate.”

Though her head was bowed as she pulled off her jeans, he could still see the smile on her face. “Thank you.” She nodded toward him as her hands came up to unclasp her bra. “How about you shed that shirt and show some skin so I can say the same about you?”

Eli snorted. “Deal.”

***

Their shower the night before had been far less awkward than it had been for Eli when they were younger. Kate’s back pressed up against his front as he had scrubbed her chest and stomach with her soap-covered loofa. The little smile on her face as she had stolen it from his hand to wash his chest instead. Her soapy hands on his cheeks as she had leaned up to kiss him.

Eli wouldn’t mind having more nights end that way, but whether or not Kate felt the same way was a mystery.

He had woken up alone, afterall.

Eli ran a hand through his hair, scratching the back of his head. He couldn’t smell anything coming up from the kitchen, not even coffee, so it was unlikely she had left the house. Her phone wasn’t on the nightstand, so she had left for more than a quick trip to the bathroom.

He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stood up. He grabbed his jeans from the floor and pulled them up his legs before heading downstairs.

He found Joshua asleep in his rocking chair in the living room, and after a little bit of searching, he found Kate outside. She sat on the table at the front of her house, feet resting on the seat of the chair beneath her.

Eli walked outside and cleared his throat before leaning back against the table. “Everything okay?”

Kate nodded, her eyes focused on the garden. “I had a dream last night that someone came and tore up everything I planted because they didn’t want Dad to have any eggplant.” She chuckled softly, shaking her head. “It sounds so stupid, but I had to come out and check. I needed to know everything was okay. And when it was, I totally lost it and had a good cry.” She turned to look at him, cheeks still red. “I’m gonna have to put him in a home, Eli,” she whispered.

Eli lifted himself onto the table and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into his bare side, her skin a little cold to the touch. “I won’t let you do it alone if you don’t want to. And if you’re not ready yet, that’s okay. You don’t have to do it right this second, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan made up. Maybe you’ll feel more… more at ease that way. Knowing what’s going to happen can help calm the mind a little, you know?”

After a moment, Kate nodded. “Maybe you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with planning ahead.”

“Exactly. We all like being prepared for something.”

Kate shifted just enough to kiss his shoulder. “You probably have to head in for work soon, don’t you?”

“Yeah, in about an hour.”

“Maybe… you can come over again tonight?” Kate asked.

“For planning and preparing?”

“Maybe a little bit. Maybe for another date.”

“I’d love that,” Eli said.

“Perfect,” Kate whispered. She lifted her head and jumped down from the table. “In the meantime, let’s scrounge up something for breakfast so you don’t go to work totally starved.”

Eli chuckled and got off the table. He grabbed Kate’s hand and gave it a tight squeeze. “Sounds perfect.”


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Happy Face Killer – Chapter Seventeen

A/N: Belated Tuesday update 🙂

NOT EDITED

Chapter Seventeen

10:26 AM; CLINSTONE, TWINKLE TOES BALLET STUDIO

Bo squatted down in front of Castor, tugging down on the hem of the toddler’s white t-shirt. “You look nervous.”

Castor’s head snapped in his father’s direction. “Why?”

“Well, I figured you’d be smiling by now.”

“Why’m I the only boy, Daddy?”

“I suppose a lot of boys in Clinstone don’t want to try ballet.”

“Is ballet not for boys?”

“Ballet’s for anyone who wants to do it, baby. Boy, girl, or otherwise.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.” Bo smiled, tapping his index finger to the tip of the boy’s nose. “That just means you have to show all the girls how amazing you are at dancing, that’s all.”

Castor smiled. “Okay, Daddy.”

Bo held the boy’s face between his hands. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“I’m honored.” Bo pressed a kiss to the boy’s forehead. “Have fun, okay? Greyson and I will be right here the whole time.”

“Okay, bye-bye, Daddy.”

Bo chuckled, deciding not to remind him one more time that he wouldn’t be going anywhere. “Bye-bye, baby.” Castor giggled and turned, running across the room to where the girls and two adults stood. The girls, dressed in pink leotards and tights, were getting pink or white tutus from the teachers.

Castor, dressed in a white t-shirt and black tights, stood behind them, head cocked to the side. “Do I get one?”

“Umm…” The woman looked back at Bo, who only nodded. “Of course you do,” she decided, holding a white tutu out to Castor.

He clapped excitedly, thanked the teacher, and hurried back to Bo. “You didn’t go bye-bye.”

“Nope, still here.”

“Help?”

Bo grabbed the tutu and held it out to the boy. Castor stepped through it, one hand wrapped around Bo’s arm. Bo slid it up his legs and adjusted it at his waist. “There you go, baby,” he said, pushing the boy’s glasses up on the bridge of his nose.

“Thanks, Daddy.”

“My pleasure.”

“Bye-bye?”

“I’ll be right here,” Bo said.

“Okay!”

Bo pushed himself to his feet as Castor hurried back to the rest of his classmates. The blonde smiled and sat down beside Pollux on the bench by the window.

The toddler climbed into his father’s lap. “Daddy?”

“Mm?”

“Car.”

Bo grabbed Pollux’s toy car from the bench and handed it to the boy. “Here you go, baby.”

“Tanks.”

“My pleasure, sweetheart.”

“Do… I detta tome here every day?”

“Just every Tuesday.”

Pollux nodded. “Tool.”

“I know, baby. It’s pretty cool,” Bo agreed.

“Tas looks pretty, Daddy.”

“He does, doesn’t he?”

Pollux threw his head back against Bo’s chest. “Am I pretty?”

“Oh, you’re the prettiest baby in the whole world, sweetheart.

Pollux grinned. “You’re pretty too, Daddy.”

“Oh, thank you, baby.” Bo rested a hand on Pollux’s chest as the toddler leaned back against him. Bo looked up as one of the teachers worked to get all of the children in a circle. Castor smiled at Bo, waving a hand. Bo lifted a hand, tapping his fingers to the heel of his palm to return the wave.

One of the other children stomped a foot. “Momma!” she exclaimed, wildly waving both hands. Bo looked around the room, brow furrowed. Was it because he was old or because he wasn’t normal that all the parents being on their phones seemed wrong to him? Why sit in on your child’s ballet class if you couldn’t do anything more than lean against the wall and play games on your phone the whole time?

“Yeah, sweetheart, you’re doing great,” one of the women said, glancing up at the little girl.

Bo bit back the eye roll that so desperately wanted to come through. He did his best not to judge others. He had been judged, bullied, and pushed around his whole life. Doing any part of it to another person wasn’t something he wanted to do. Still, when given the choice between doing something on his phone or watching his children do something they were already beginning to love, he would always choose his kids.

How could he not?

Pollux ran the toy car down Bo’s thigh, more than content with the simplest of objects. Across the room, one of the teachers messed with her phone until the instrumental of Baa Baa Black Sheep came through the speakers in the studio.

“All right, feet together, girls.”

“And Cas,” the second teacher added.

It was incredible to Bo, really, that in 2030, the teachers had a hard time wrapping their minds around a boy in their toddler class. Castor, of course, wouldn’t care much, if at all, and Bo was thankful for that.

“Hands on your shoulders,” the first teacher said, while the second moved her hands up to her shoulders. Some of the kids followed immediately, and the others tentatively followed soon afterward.

“Hands in the air.” Bo smiled as Castor threw his hands up excitedly, a big ol’ smile on his face. “Hands on your head.” Castor looked to Bo, who lifted his free hand to the top of his head. Castor stared at him for a moment before nodding and dropping both hands to the top of his head.

Bo looked down at his watch. The class would run until eleven-fifteen. He hoped Jensen would drop by after he was done talking to Will. Castor was, as they had imagined, adorable, and he wanted Jensen to see him.

But, just in case, Bo pulled his phone from his pocket and started recording their little baby in a tutu.

11:10 AM; CLINSTONE, TWINKLE TOES BALLET STUDIO

Jensen stepped into the studio, keeping a hand on the door until it closed. Thankfully, he didn’t have to be too quiet. Between the giggling and the screaming, no one would hear him even if he tripped and fell on his face. He watched a woman’s eyes roam over his body, stopping at the gun and badge at his hip for a moment. When her eyes met his, he offered a smile before walking over to Bo and dropping down beside him.

Bo looked up at him and smiled. “Hi.”

“Hey.” Jensen ruffled Pollux’s hair. “What’re they doing?” he asked, leaning forward to clasp his hands between his knees.

“They are currently roaring like dinosaurs.”

“It sounds like screaming.”

Bo laughed that genuine laugh of his that warmed Jensen’s chest every damn time he heard it. “Because it is.” Lightly, he elbowed Jensen in the side. “Find out anything from Will?”

“Got a few names of the regulars that were definitely there. I’ve got ‘em on a notepad in the cruiser,” Jensen said.

“Awesome, thank you.”

“Sure thing.” Jensen smiled, shaking his head. “God, he looks so happy.”

“He hasn’t stopped smiling the whole time we’ve been here.”

Jensen leaned up and pressed a kiss to Bo’s temple. “Thank you for talking me into this. I would’ve hated myself if I had taken this away from him because of some… some worrisome prejudice.”

“My pleasure, love.”

“What about you, P-Diddy? You wanna do some dancing?” Jensen asked.

Pollux lifted his head to look at his father, his nose wrinkling. “No dancing, Daddy.”

Jensen snorted. “God, you’re like your father. You’re both fun haters.”

Bo shoved the younger man’s shoulder. “Don’t be a dick,” he whispered.

Jensen grinned. “Can’t help it, babe.” Bo rolled his eyes before looking back at Castor. The two teachers had the kids seated on the floor in small rows as they talked to close out the class. “Do they scream the whole time? Or do they teach them other stuff?”

“Most of ballet at the age is just teaching your kid to be aware of their body and their personal space. It teaches them they’re in control of their movements, and it teaches them how to move within their own personal space,” Bo said. “They went through a few of the positions, same with tendu, plie, releve, leap, chasse… so on and so forth. They learn things here. They just don’t figure out the names for the moves until much later.”

“I’m gonna level with you, Eli. I don’t know what most of those words mean, but I’m excited for him to teach me what they mean someday.”

Bo smiled, leaning to the side to kiss Jensen’s shoulder. “I don’t know if that woman over there is mad because my husband showed, because you’re married, or because you’re gay.”

Jensen snorted. “I’m gonna cover my bases and put my vote down for all three, babe.”

“That’s probably a good vote.”

“I thought so.”

When class ended, Castor ran across the room, grabbing Jensen’s outstretched hands. “Daddy, you came to see me dance!”

“Of course I did, buddy. Daddy just had a bit of work to do first. I’ll be here much longer next Tuesday. Promise.” Jensen pressed a kiss to the boy’s forehead. “Did you like it?”

So fun, Daddy! Do you like my tutu?”

“It’s real pretty, Casafras. Literally the best tutu I’ve ever seen,” Jensen said.

“Really, Daddy?”

“Really, really.” Jensen pushed himself to his feet and picked the boy up, hiking him up on his hip. “Come on, Eli. Let’s grab lunch and some ice cream for our super well-behaved boys.”

Bo smiled, adjusting his grip on Pollux before standing up. “Sounds like a plan to me. Lead the way, love.”

12:14 PM; CLINSTONE POLICE DEPARTMENT, LAB

With the boys fed and back in daycare, Bo and Jensen sat in the lab, Bo’s notebook in front of Jensen, and the sergeant’s notes in front of Bo. Bo opened up his laptop and typed in his password. “I’ll start looking up the names and get addresses for you guys. You can bring them in for questioning or just head over to the houses.”

“Sounds like a plan, Eli.” Jensen’s eyes fell back to the list of vigilante victims.

Stanley McCullough, the Blackout Killer. Thirty-two years old. Killed in September of 2028 in Clinstone, Minnesota.

Jack Allen, rapist. Thirty-nine years old. Killed in March of 2029 in Los Angeles, California.

Diana Green, victim number three, had been a prostitute. Twenty-five years old. Also killed in March, only fifteen days after Jack, also in Los Angeles.

Victims four and five were both burglars and both killed in Atlanta, Georgia. Gavin Summers, nineteen years old. Austin Poole, twenty years old. Gavin had been killed December thirtieth, and Austin had been killed on January second, marking the vigilante’s first kill of the new year.

Gilbert Olsen, wife beater, thirty years old. Killed on January seventh in Miami, Florida.

A yellow sticky note sat at the top of the page, aligned perfectly with the top of the page but pushed a few centimeters away from the right border.

Killer

*male

*between 6’5 and 6’8

*TBBK

*Take Bind Beat Kill

Jensen pushed the notebook away and grabbed his bottle of pop. “I still can’t get over how wide a range this dude has on victims.”

“I know. I’m just waiting for him to prove how equal every crime is in his eyes and kill a jaywalker,” Bo muttered, clicking the end of his pen three times. “Do you want me to write their addresses on a sticky note for you?”

“You can just write ‘em at the bottom of the notepad.”

Bo frowned. “Are you sure?”

Jensen reached out and flipped back the page. “There.” He tapped a finger to the new page.

Bo let out a breath. “Thank you.”

“No problem, babe.” Jensen pressed a kiss to Bo’s shoulder as the blonde wrote out a name, an address, and a phone number. “I’m gonna run upstairs, let Ryan and Lehmann know you’re looking up info on the regulars. Then I’ll be back, okay?”

“Okay.” Bo squeezed Jensen’s thigh. “I shall be here.”

Jensen smiled. “Good to know, babe. Be back in a sec.”


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Truths & Chains – Chapter Twenty-Six

A/N: I finally managed to accomplish a bit of something here, so here’s a belated Monday update 🙂

NOT EDITED

After sitting his ass on the couch all day, Elias had gone out for groceries. He didn’t really need anything that couldn’t wait until after work tomorrow, but it was an excuse to get him out of the house. That was something.

He pulled into his driveway, heart jumping into his throat.

Vito fucking Minetti stood outside his house, leaned back against the door. Vito met his gaze and smiled that sickenly charming smile of his, lifting the hand that held Dude’s leash.

Elias cut the engine and undid his seatbelt. Grabbing the only bag of groceries he had, he climbed out of the car. “We talked about this. If I see you lurking around my place, I’m calling the cops.”

Vito chuckled. “I’m surprised you remember that. You were wasted.”

“Yeah. Bad day.”

The giant nodded. “You gonna come any closer, Payne? Or you gonna keep your distance like I’m the monster they label me and Ti as?”

Elias closed the car door and forced himself to walk up to Vito. “You lucked out. I know you didn’t kill that man.”

The smile came back to Vito’s face. “Yeah, ‘cause I was busy rockin’ your world.”

“That seems like an overstatement.”

Vito scoffed, pushing himself away from the door. He leaned down to Elias’s height and curled his fingers beneath Elias’s chin, tipping his head back. “Let—”

Elias stepped away from him, heart-pounding. What if someone saw them? The man his parents had potentially hired to torment him over the phone?

Vito’s brow furrowed. “Really? Now you’re going to start shying away from me? You got what you wanted, and now I ain’t allowed to touch you?”

“That’s sort of ironic coming from you,” Elias said, the words wobbling ever so slightly. He pulled his keys from his pocket. “I don’t want people to see me with you.”

“Because I’m a monster, or—”

“I never called you a monster.” On his second attempt, Elias managed to unlock the front door. “You put that word in my mouth.”

“You’re more… defiant than usual. More snappy. Someone piss in your Cheerios or something?”

“Bad weekend.” Elias shoved open the door and walked inside. He turned to face Vito. “Are you coming in or not?”

The smile that came to Vito’s face was almost dangerous. Exciting. Thrilling. Gorgeous.

But dangerous.

He walked into the house, Dude behind him. Closing the door, Vito raised a brow. “Sober Elias… letting me inside. How daring of you.”

Elias couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “What did you come here for? To remind me you knew where I lived?”

Vito followed him into the kitchen, Dude’s claws clicking on the tile. Before Elias could even open the bag he’d set on the counter, Vito hooked an arm around him, warm lips moving to his neck. Elias closed his eyes, shoulders sinking for the first time in what felt like an eternity. “Dude really liked that little treat you left for him.”

“Good, ‘cause I have a whole bag of them now.”

Vito chuckled against his neck. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”

Elias cleared his throat. “Can you answer the question, Minetti? I’m a little on edge today, so I… I need to know why you’re here.”

“I thought maybe you and I could take Dude for a little walk.”

Elias opened his eyes, brow furrowing. “Why?”

“ ‘Cause you like him, and he likes you. I could probably benefit from a bit of dog training from you.”

Elias couldn’t help the little laugh that fell from his lips. “Vito, I’ve never owned an animal of any kind in my life. I know less about him than you do.”

“He likes you more than he likes me, so you’ve already got me one-upped, babe.”

Elias snorted. “He absolutely does not.”

Vito stepped away from him, tugging Dude back to the doorway of the kitchen. Elias turned around, one eyebrow raised. “Ready?”

“Sure.”

Vito dropped Dude’s leash. Dude took a little step forward, stopping when Vito said, “Dude.” The dog looked back at him before starting toward Elias again. “Dude. Come here, Dude. Come to Daddy!”

Dude paid him one last glance before trotting over to Elias. Elias tilted his head to the side and reached down to pet the top of the dog’s head. “Okay, maybe there’s some truth to your stalking. Why doesn’t he like you?”

Vito shrugged. “I’m not sure yet. I mean, we, like, bonded when I gave him that treat you left for him. Took a while to get him to take it from me, but it was totally worth it.” He leaned his shoulder against the doorframe, clearing his throat. “I figure it’s the tattoos or the accent. Most of the people running those dog fights are Italian and covered in tats. I hate it, but I understand the, like… common ground for him. He’s not scared of me, but he doesn’t totally trust me.”

“Even after he destroyed your bathroom?”

“Oh, my God, right? I asked him the same fuckin’ thing. How many monsters do you know that would just give you scritches after you ate their bathroom, huh?” Vito asked.

Dude threw his head against Elias’s thigh, tail thumping on the ground. Elias chuckled, squatting down to Dude’s height to distract himself from the question at hand. Sure, it had been directed at the dog, but Elias couldn’t help but think about it. How many monsters did he know that wouldn’t beat a dog for destroying a couple expensive towels and an entire package of toilet paper?

“You’ve already made a breakthrough with him,” Elias said after what felt like an eternity. “Give him some time, Vito. I’m sure he’ll come around to love you as much as you care about him.”

“That’s the hope.” Vito flashed a smile when Elias met his gaze again. “So? What do you say about that walk?”

Elias pushed himself to his feet, offering a little shake of his head. “I can’t.”

Vito raised an eyebrow. “You really don’t want to be seen with me, huh?”

“No. I can’t be seen with you. There’s a difference.”

Vito snorted. He walked across the kitchen, stepping over Dude like he was a small lap dog rather than a giant bulldozer of a companion. Elias backed up into the counter, pressing his hands to Vito’s chest as the giant trapped him against the cold granite. “Which reason, Payne? Because I’m a mobster? An enforcer? A thief?” Vito leaned down until they were nose-to-nose. “A murderer?” he asked, his voice hardly above a whisper.

Elias swallowed. “I don’t know what you are,” he whispered back. Much as he hated it, it was the truth. Vito and his brother were being framed for a murder they couldn’t possibly have committed. How many of the other Horror Twin murders were frame jobs?

“Then what is it? Mom and Dad gonna freak?”

Elias searched Vito’s face before forcing himself to break eye contact. He looked down at his hands instead, focusing on his thumb as he moved it over Vito’s shirt. “I asked you if you called me after we slept together.”

One corner of Vito’s mouth scrunched up. “When?”

“When… when we slept together?”

“No, when’d you ask?”

“I-I don’t know. The second time?”

“When I was high?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Vito nodded. “I’m a bit, uh…” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Don’t know the fuckin’ word. I’m known for something. Starts with an N.”

“Notorious?”

Vito smiled. “That’s it. I’m a bit notorious for not really committing drunk or high convos to the long-term memory bank, y’know?”

“Oh.”

“But that don’t mean I’m not listening now.” Vito moved his hands on the counter, closing Elias in just a little more. “Talk to me. What about this phone call thing?”

“Someone called me after we slept together. I could just hear breathing on the other end. I thought it was you, but when I asked you, you said you didn’t have my number.”

“And you believed me?” Vito asked. “I mean, you were right to. I don’t have your number. But, uh… believing me? That’s a new one.”

“You were genuinely surprised. You don’t do a lot of expression changes when you’re drinking, but you do everywhere else, especially when you’re high. I know you weren’t bullshitting me.”

“Well, umm… cool.” Vito cleared his throat. “This person call you again?”

Elias nodded. “Yeah. Not just breathing. It was a deep voice, like one of those modifier things. Told me to stay away from Minetti.” He poked Vito’s chest. “That’d be you.”

“You scared of the voice? The person behind it?”

“I don’t know,” Elias said honestly. “I think they might’ve been hired by my parents, but… but there’s always the chance this person wasn’t. I’m more scared of that than anything.”

Vito lifted one of his hands and curled his fingers beneath Elias’s chin. “I ain’t gonna let someone hurt you for hanging around me, Payne. Not for sleeping with me, not for letting me inside, not for going on a walk with me and Dude.”

“I-I don’t know, Vito.”

Vito rested his thumb beneath Elias’s bottom lip and tilted his head back just a little. “Elias, I’m not going to let anyone hurt you because of me. That ain’t how I roll.”

Elias searched his face for the humor he’d grown so used to, but it wasn’t there. “You… you really mean that, don’t you?”

“I’m a lot of things, but letting someone get hurt because of my… media reputation isn’t part of what I believe in.”

Elias bowed his head, lightly thumping a fist against Vito’s chest. “If you don’t want to have to hug me again, I don’t think you should talk anymore.”

“Did I say something asshole-ish?”

Elias shook his head. “The opposite.”

“Mm.”

He expected Vito to step away from him, but he didn’t. Instead, he slid his hands up Elias’s back and pulled him into a hug. Elias closed his eyes, wrapping his arms around the tattooed giant.

“If I hug you long enough, you gotta take me and Dude for a walk.”

Elias snorted. “I’m not taking you anywhere,” he said, his voice muffled against Vito’s chest.

“I’ll be good. Won’t hump anyone’s leg or anything.”

Elias laughed, pulling his hands between them to gently push Vito away. “You’re ridiculous.”

Vito smiled. “Yeah, but I’m hot as hell, so I get away with it.”

Elias couldn’t help the quick up and down scan he did of Vito’s figure. “That checks out.”

“I thought so.” Vito bent down and grabbed Dude’s leash. He held it out to Elias. “Come on. Look at his cute little face. How you gonna say no to him?”

Elias looked down at his hands, gingerly rubbing and pulling at his ring finger. “What if this person sees me? Sees… us?”

“Then I’ll track ‘em down and end the problem.”

“I thought you were more of a nightclub bouncer than a murderer.”

Vito snorted. “I am. But when you’ve got a family in law enforcement, you use that shit to make sure problems are dealt with.”

Elias didn’t know what the hell to believe anymore. “Family in law enforcement?”

The smile came back to Vito’s face. “Come on a walk with us. Then I’ll answer questions.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Walking down the street next to the hot guy I’m sleeping with.”

Elias raised an eyebrow, finally meeting Vito’s eyes again. “Present tense?”

“Don’t get your ego all inflated or nothin’. I ain’t changin’ anything about myself.”

Elias snorted. “I’m not expecting you to. I’m just surprised you want to keep sleeping with someone who isn’t planning on sleeping with you every single day.”

Vito shrugged. “My brother’s been shot, I’m on temporary leave from work, and I’ve got a new dog to raise and shit. I don’t wanna put the effort into someone else. Don’t have the time or the patience for that shit right now.”

If nothing else, Vito’s unwillingness to ‘put the effort’ forth for another person gave Elias a lot more time to hang around Vito and find out what he needed to. “You know that nice, gated little community of one you live in?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go for a walk there. Less… less chance of me being seen with you.”

That dangerously exciting smile came back to the potential mobster’s face. “Fuck yeah. Let’s go.”


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Happy Face Killer – Chapter Sixteen

NOT EDITED

Chapter Sixteen

8:57 AM; CLINSTONE POLICE DEPARTMENT, LAB

Bo sat down behind the table, sliding his second cup of coffee of the morning onto the wooden surface. He reached over and pulled a thin stack of paper from the printer. He laid them out in front of him and grabbed a brand new purple notebook from his satchel. While his red, black, and blue notebooks all had designated purposes, the purple one finally had one as well.

He would use it to keep track of the vigilante’s victims.

He clicked the end of the pen three times, flipping back the cover of the notebook. He wrote a single word on the header of the page in his familiar neat, nearly computer-like font:

Vigilante

Although Bo had printed off the reports for all six vigilante victims, he didn’t need to look at any of them as he wrote down the bare minimum about the vigilante’s first victim.

  1. Stanley McCullough – 32 years old
  • Murderer (Blackout Killer)
  • Killed September 2nd, 2028 (Saturday) around 10 AM in Clinstone, MN
  • Skull caved in, crushed orbital cavity, broken jaw, shattered teeth, dislocation shoulders (entirety of description will be referred to as ‘bludgeoning’ from here on out)

Bo stared down at the page almost distastefully. He much preferred his coded shorthand to fully writing out the words. He preferred things like ‘TOD’ instead of ‘time of death’ or ‘killed on’ or ‘killed around’. He preferred things like ‘DOB’ rather than ‘date of birth’ or ‘born on’ or simply listing their age. He liked the little codes, things like, ‘D’, ‘SA’, ‘FP’, or ‘PA’. Drugs, sexual assault, foul play, physical assault.

The codes made him comfortable. The codes made him feel safe. He had started using them after he and the rest of the country discovered who Hangman really was. The revelation that one of his best friends was a serial killer, the realization that said killer had slipped right under his nose, had driven him to use the coded letters and words to keep possible killers out of his business and his cases.

The codes kept killers with access to the notes from knowing how much he knew about their cases and their victims.

But when it came to the vigilante case, he couldn’t risk it. He couldn’t risk hiding what he knew. The vigilante case messed with his head and made his bad days even worse. If he fell off the wagon, he needed to make sure anyone in the station could pick up his notebook, read his notes, and pick up exactly where he left off without any problems.

So he’d leave the codes and the safety net behind to guarantee the case would never be left untouched, no matter what happened.

“Eli?”

Bo lifted his head to meet Jensen’s gaze. “Mm?”

“We’re gonna head down to the bar early, start questioning Will as soon as we can.”

Bo nodded. “That’s a good idea. I’ll be here taking notes until I take Cas and Greyson down the the ballet studio.”

“Sweet. What notes?”

“Vigilante,” Bo said after a moment.

Jensen frowned, raking a hand through his hair. “Should I have Jake stay here with you instead? He wouldn’t mind.”

“I’ll be okay.”

“Promise?”

“I promise. I’m doing okay today. Not a lot of… darkness up there.”

Jensen crossed the room, as though a closer look would help him confirm the seriousness of the promise. “Take breaks, okay? Don’t trap yourself in your head with this guy, with this case.”

“Breaks.” Bo nodded. “I’ll be sure to take them as often as I can.”

Jensen pressed his hands to the table and leaned over to kiss the blonde. “I love you. Don’t let this guy drive you crazy while I’m gone.”

Bo smiled softly. “I’ll do my best, love.”

“I’ll see you in a bit, maybe even pop by the ballet studio to see our boy in action.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“I love you too, baby.” Jensen smiled as Bo reached up to push the dark hair from his forehead. “Thanks.”

“Mmhmm. Good luck with Will.”

Jensen nodded. “Good luck with your notes.” He kissed the tip of Bo’s nose and pushed himself away from the table. He flashed a smile laced with his usual Jensen-charm before turning and walking back out of the lab.

Bo shook his head, unable to fight back the little smile that came to his face. He pulled his phone from his earphone from his pocket. Notes on the ‘vigilante’, ballet, and then notes on whatever Jensen and the CPD Dork Squad managed to work out of Will.

Bo let out a sigh. “Work to do,” he mumbled, plugging his earphones into his phone before pushing them into his ears. He picked up his pen, made a mental note to call Dallas or Frank to check on things at the LAPD. “Lots and lots of work to do.”

9:30 AM; MAGNOLIA, THE HAPPY FACE KILLER’S FARMHOUSE, FOYER

Fiona pulled on her boots and shrugged a coat over her shoulders. She headed outside and closed the door behind her, simply breathing in the cold air around her. She had hoped she’d grow to like the farmhouse setting once it was her place, but that hope hadn’t gone far. She had hated farms before, and she still hated them now. The little ‘homey’ houses and the big plots of lands were far from her taste, but her mother had always moved them into a farmhouse no matter what state or city they ended up in. Her mother had loved the houses and the opportunities within them.

Her mother had always used one of the spare bedrooms or a large closet as a room to store her trophies in. Her mother had been smart, taking small trophies that could be easily transported, things that could be packed away with great ease and without taking far too much time in a dire situation.

She had taught Fiona, Freddie, and their little sister how to pack them away without making too much noise. It had been nothing more than a precaution, a ‘just in case’ for if the police ever managed to catch up to her. The police, of course, never had caught up to her, but their mother had been prepared.

She had taught her children everything they needed to know about killing and anything that would follow it. She had taught them to always steal little trophies, little things the cops wouldn’t notice. If you were going to steal a ring, make sure it was new. The last thin you wanted was a tan line left on the finger. Knowing you stole the ring would always let at least one cop into your head.

Their mother had been smart, incredibly smart, and Fiona had been one of the lucky few to gain her wisdom. Most of the killers in the country would kill–literally, she figured–to talk to the woman so many of them must have idolized. And there was Fiona, who had the sheer luck and joy of being born right into it!

And then there was Freddie. Fiona let out a scoff and dropped into the porch swing. Freddie, the little bastard. Mom would be so disappointed in her little boy. Back in the day, before she packed up her bags and left Cliffburn in the middle of the night, Mom had believed Freddie to be the poster boy of perfection. She had always seen him as her star pupil, always believed he would be the biggest, baddest killer in the family.

But he had failed her. Fiona hadn’t failed her. Fiona had started killing. Fiona had followed her mother’s every step, rule, and order, but she just wasn’t good enough for Mom.

Fiona thought that was okay, really. Mom just needed to come home and see her children again. She needed to see her children again. She needed to see what Fiona had evolved into. She needed to come back and see Freddie’s goody two shoes act, and then she’d quickly realize which one of her children was better, which one was actually evolving into a true God like Mom.

Maybe Mom would even help Fiona kill Freddie. He was too far gone, but they still had time to save her sister from Freddie’s way of life. Her sister could still come around to the truth. She was young enough for that.

Fiona just had to get rid of Freddie and his grandfather first. Then she would have full access to her sister, and she could remind her of all their mother’s training.

Fiona drew in a long breath, staring out at nothing. She couldn’t decide if wanted to knok Freddie down a few notches or take out another bar victim first. Either seemed fun, but she didn’t plan on letting the police find Freddie’s or Grandpa’s body.

And boy, did she want to remind the police of her business in and around Clinstone, Minnesota.


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Happy Face Killer – Chapter Fifteen

NOT EDITED

Chapter Fifteen

Tuesday: January 8, 2030
12:00 AM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, LAUNDRY ROOM

Bo pulled the clothes from the dryer, dropping the unfolded mess into the laundry basket balanced on his hip. Although Bo would love to simply climb into bed with Jensen and call it a night, he was still waiting on a call from Carmine. The mobster had told him to expect a call that night, and as it was still ten PM on Monday in Los Angeles, Bo was giving the man the benefit of the doubt.

He closed the dryer door and walked out of the laundry room, through the mud room and the little corner hallway, and into the bedroom. He crossed the room quietly, balancing the laundry basket on the chair in the corner of the room. He pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped the lock button to turn on the screen. No missed calls or messages.

Bo closed his eyes for a moment, letting out a slow breath. Carmine, the Minetti twins, and whoever else would be involved in capturing the man responsible for Lorenzo’s death would be fine. They would be safe. Bo knew he had no reason to worry about any of them, but he couldn’t help it.

They were his allies now. They all worked together to keep each other alive. They were a part of his life, and he was an important part of theirs. How was he supposed to stand there and pretend he wasn’t even the slightest bit worried?

He tucked his hands behind his back, staring out the glass sliding door that led to the small patio nestled between the outside walls of the bedroom and the keeping room. He stood there for what seemed like a lonely eternity, simply staring at his own reflection and the backyard, before Jensen’s reflection appeared beside his own.

Bo tilted his head back as the younger man laid a hand on his back. “Hi.”

“Hey.” Jensen cleared his throat, raking his free hand through his dark hair. “Whatcha doing?”

“Waiting for Carmine to call.”

“Mm. When’s that gonna be?”

“I’m not sure. I just feel like I have to keep waiting for him. I won’t be able to sleep until I know everything went down okay,” Bo said. “Whether I like it or not, they’re partially my responsibility now.”

Jensen nodded. “I get it.” He leaned down and kissed the blonde. “I could help you pass the time?” he suggested.

Bo raised a brow. “I thought you were tired.”

“Well, was. Now I’m just horny.”

Bo snorted, shoving at Jensen’s chest. “You’re ridiculous.”

I’m adorable. I dunno what you’re talking about.”

“Mm.” Bo leaned up and kissed him. Hands resting on Jensen’s chest, he pushed him back to the bed. Jensen sat down with a grunt, looping his fingers through Bo’s belt loops. Bo laid a hand on Jensen’s shoulder, leaning to the side as he slid his phone onto the nightstand. “What’s the plan, love?”

“I don’t think I have the genius, intellectual answer you’re looking for.”

Bo smiled, moving his hands to either side of the man’s face. “I love you.”

Jensen’s familiar charming smile crossed his face. “I love you too, Eli.”

Bo leaned down and kissed him, wrapping his fingers around the bottom hem of Jensen’s shirt. He tugged it over Jensen’s shoulders, only breaking the kiss to pull the shirt over his head. “You’re perfect, Jens.”

“I’ll accept the compliment because I know I’m hot, but I still think you’re as close to perfect as either of us get.”

Bo smiled softly, pressing a kiss to the younger man’s forehead. He took a step back, looking down as he unbuttoned his flannel. “Thank you for… for being my cheerleader. You know, no matter the reason you’re cheerleading.”

“It’s been my pleasure, Eli. That’s what I’m here for.”

“It’s deeply appreciated.” Bo shrugged off his flannel and climbed onto Jensen’s lap, draping his arms around the younger man’s neck. “If the phone rings and it’s Carmine, I have to answer it.”

“Deal.”

1:03 AM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, MASTER BEDROOM

Bo lay on his back on the bed, Jensen snuggled up to his side. “Think he’s ever gonna call?” Jensen questioned, a hand resting over Bo’s heart.

“I sure hope he does.” Bo combed his fingers through Jensen’s hair, clearing his throat. “I feel like I have to worry about him for reasons I can’t even comprehend. Jupiter, the man has the Horror Twins on his side, and I’m unexplainably worried.”

“That’s just ‘cause you’re a worrier, baby. You worry a lot, and you care a lot.” Jensen tilted his head back and pressed a kiss to Bo’s jaw. “That’s part of why I love you, Eli. You just care so damn much about everyone you know.”

“It can be quite annoying, though. I mean, right now, it’s keeping us both awake.”

“I don’t mind.”

“You’re very sweet, thank you.” Bo laid his free hand on Jensen’s cheek, shifting just enough to kiss him. “You can sleep if you’d like. I’ll just keep waiting for the call to come in.”

“You’re a worrywart, Eli. I won’t let you sit here in silence, waiting. I know how you get, and being trapped in your head isn’t good for you.” Jensen rolled onto his stomach, crossing his arms over Bo’s chest. “I don’t mind being up for a little while, Eli.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

The couple lay in comfortable silence for nearly another fifteen minutes before Bo’s phone rang. He reached over with his free hand and grabbed the device. He checked the caller ID, slid his thumb across the screen, and set it to speaker. “Carmine,” he greeted.

“Sorry to keep you waiting so long, Chief. We caught him about an hour and a half ago, but he isn’t cracking yet. We need to find out if the order was given to him by someone else. Gotta know if we’re in danger of losing more men before we kill him off.”

“What’ve you tried?”

“Who’s that?”

“Jensen, my husband,” Bo said.

“Aha, of course. Well, I’ve made the executive decision to not let the Minetti twins anywhere near him until it’s our last resort. Once Vito gets going on a guy, you can’t get him to stop.”

Jensen chuckled, meeting Bo’s eyes before mouthing, “That’s what he said.”

Bo rolled his eyes, backhanding his shoulder. “Who’s with the man now?”

“No one. I’ve done a bit of good cop on him. We’re letting him sit alone for a little while before I go back in and keep trying,” Carmine said.

“Who normally works information out of them before you sic the twins on them?” Jensen asked.

“Depends on the guy. Me, Venetia. Tito on his own isn’t a bad option. He can usually do his job without, you know, ‘accidentally’ going too far and murdering the guy. Pitman’s done quite a few interrogations for us too.”

“What does Jamal normally do?” Bo asked.

“Wish I could tell. It’s always just him and the guy in the room. Cameras off, door closed.”

Bo sighed. “Of course, the Pitman way. Keep doing what you’re doing, Carmine. If he doesn’t crack by morning, give me another call. I’ll do some more digging on him and get you something you can use for leverage against him.”

“I appreciate that, Chief. Thank you.”

“No problem.”

“I’ll keep you updated.”

Bo noded, though the mobster couldn’t see him. “Thank you.”

“Sure thing, Chief. Goodnight to you both.”

“Goodnight.” Bo waited until Carmine ended the call before he locked his screen. He set his phone and the nightstand and turned off the bedside lamp.

“Does that mean we sleep now?” Jensen asked.

Bo chuckled. “Yes, love, it means we sleep now.”

“Sweet,” Jensen whispered. He kissed Bo before uncrossing his arms and dropping back to his side of the bed. He wrapped an arm around Bo’s torso, head coming to a rest on the blonde’s chest. “Thanks for putting it on speaker, Eli. Good to know I really do get to be involved in all of this.”

“Of course you do. You’re important to me, Jens. You can be involved as much as you want to be.”

“I know. Just… I’m just glad you weren’t bullshitting me, I guess.” Clearing his throat, Jensen threw a leg between Bo’s. “I love you, Eli.”

“I love you too, Jens.” Bo pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “Goodnight, love.”

One corner of Jensen’s mouth lifted. “Night, babe.”

6:07 AM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, MASTER BATHROOM

Bo lifted his head as Jensen stepped into the shower and wrapped his arms around him. “Morning, love.”

“Morning,” Jensen mumbled. He dropped his forehead to Bo’s shoulder. “What’re we up to today?”

“Case-wise, I’m planning on looking through the crime scene photos of the vigilante killings. I’m just going to compare them, see if… if he’s getting more violent, or if certain categories of ‘criminals’ get different levels of violence for their beatings. Is anything going to come of it? No, most likely not, but I need to look anyway, just so I can be sure.”

Jensen nodded. “That’s okay. It gives you something productive to do. That’s always good for you head.” He cleared his throat, arms tightening around Bo’s torso. “What about the homicide here?”

“I don’t think there’s anything to do just yet. I’ve talked to Dave about the woman he saw, who we’re assuming is, more than likely, our killer. I’ve seen the sketches. I’ve seen the photos. I’ve seen the alleyway. We’ve run the sketches through the system and rendered no matches.” Bo laid a wet hand over Jensen’s. “Still no luck on a warrant for those receipts, I presume?”

“Nuh-uh. Judge still can’t bring herself to agree with it. There’s no guarantee we’ll find anything, so what’s the point of ‘invading’ these peoples’ privacy?”

“They put their whole lives on social media every day of the week, or thereabouts. I doubts they care about the so-called privacy of what drinks they ordered.”

“I know.” Jensen shook his head. “Anyway, we’ll talk to Will. He’s had some time to cool down, time to think about things other than the dead girl. We can just ask if he has any names for the people he remembers being here that night. If any of them were regulars, he might have first and last names, you know? We could question them, see if they saw the chick. We’ll go from there.”

Bo nodded. “Okay, yes, that’s good. You can take Ryan and Caleb, talk to Will, see what you can get out of him.”

“All right. I’ll talk to Jake when we get to the station. He and Will are close, so having him tag along might make it seem like less of an ambush.”

“Sure, love, that sounds good.” Bo cleared his throat. “Cas’s ballet class starts today at ten-thirty. I’ll take him to that and have Pollux tag along so he doesn’t feel left out in daycare. You guys can question Will and anyone that he gives you the names of, and we’ll… we’ll reconvene after that to see what we can piece together. Does that… sound okay?”

“Sounds just fine to me, Eli.”


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Truths & Chains – Chapter Twenty-Five

A/N: Full disclosure, this is the last completed chapter I have written. Writing has been very slow and very difficult for me for quite sometime all across the board, so if there isn’t an update next week, that’s why. I’m doing my best to finish chapter twenty-six as soon as I can. Thank you in advance for your patience.**

NOT EDITED

Dude in tow, Vito walked into his parents’ house. He offered a little courtesy knock on the wall. “It’s me, not a burglar.”

“Ah, good. Was pretty damn worried,” Dad said as he walked into the foyer. “I see you’ve brought a friend.”

“Yeah. This is Dude. He’s, like… legally your grandson now.”

Dad smiled. “Ti said you rescued one of those dogs from the fight ring, but I wasn’t sure I believed him. My Vito, taking care of another living creature?”

Vito snorted. “Yeah, sounds fuckin’ weird, huh?”

“A little. Sometimes I worry you don’t really know how to take care of yourself, let alone someone or something else.” Dad looked down at Dude. “Is he friendly?”

“Long as you’re not a shoe, totally.”

Dad chuckled softly, shaking his head. He squatted down in front of Dude and stuck a hand out. Even though Dude didn’t move closer to him, Dad kept his hand out, completely undeterred. “How have things been going with him?”

“He’s destroyed more of my house than I’m willing to admit, but I like having him around anyway. We came to an… understanding this morning, I think. He finally figured out that I’m not like those bastards that hurt him. We connected or something like that.”

“That’s great, kiddo. Sounds like you’re already doing wonders for the big guy.” Dad smiled as Dude nudged his hand with his nose. Dad scratched the top of the dog’s head, gaze lifting to Vito’s face again. “How’s your anger around him?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said he’s destroyed a lot of things. How’d you respond?”

Vito shrugged. “Well as I could, I guess. I didn’t yell at him. I was more… offended than angry.”

“That’s good. Maybe he’s helping you out too,” Dad said. Gently, he patted the side of Dude’s head and pushed himself to his feet. “Your mom’s in the kitchen, but I think you should go see your brother first.”

“Why?”

Dad’s expression softened further, if that was even possible. “Vito, I know you struggle with feelings and emotions, especially the ones belonging to your brother, but he isn’t exactly going through an easy time right now.”

“Well… yeah. He was shot.”

“That is unfortunately far from the only thing going on, Vi.”

Vito’s brow furrowed. “Okay. Umm… do you wanna hold onto Dude?”

“Sure, kiddo.” Dad took the dog’s leash and, after some encouraging, bribed Dude into the kitchen with the promise of food. Vito kicked off his shoes and made his way back to the guest bedroom he and Tito always stayed in when they visited.

Tito sat propped up on the bed, eyes focused on the window across the room. Vito leaned in for a better look, but he didn’t see anything more than slightly snow-covered trees. He rapped two knuckles on the open door.

“Come in,” Tito mumbled.

“Already did.”

Tito turned to look at him, a smile jumping to his face. Even Vito knew it was forced. “Hey, baby brother.”

“Hey.” Vito cleared his throat, taking a small step into the room. “Bo tell you about what’s going on?”

“Yeah. Our only lead’s dead, we’re being framed for it, and they’re dragging our name through the mud even more than usual.”

Vito nodded. “Yeah, that about sums it up.” He crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. “So… how’re you doing?”

“I’m okay. If one of us doesn’t get shot or stabbed, has it really been a month in our lives?”

“Guess not.” Vito rubbed his hands together before clasping them between his knees. “You, like… don’t have to be okay, though. You know, if that’s, umm… difficult right now.”

Tito raised a brow. “Who sent you in to talk to me, Vi?”

“Dad. But I was gonna come talk to you anyway.”

“Yeah? To talk about my feelings? Because that doesn’t really seem like you.”

“It’s not my fault I don’t fuckin’ get this shit.”

Tito shook his head. “I’m not saying it is. I’m just saying I doubt you would’ve come in here for that if Dad hadn’t made you.” He cleared his throat, turning back toward the window. “How’s the dog?”

For a fleeting moment, Vito considered ignoring the question and pushing further, but if he had a chance not to pretend he knew what to say or how to feel, he’d take it. “He’s good. I think we had a real breakthrough this morning.”

“Yeah? What kind of breakthrough?”

“He accepted a treat from me. Not from my hand, but he ate it right next to my hand. I don’t know if it’s the tattoos or the accent that concern him a little bit, but he’s starting to figure out I’m not gonna hurt him. Fingers crossed he figures out how to stop destroying the house now.”

“Have you gotten him any chew toys?”

“I… got him food and a bed.”

Tito turned back to his brother, one corner of his mouth lifted in the smallest smile Vito had ever seen. If nothing else, he was pretty sure that one was genuine. “Well, that’s very Vito of you, if nothing else. But he does need a bit more than that. Toys, treats. Do you have a harness for him?”

“A collar.”

“Might wanna get a harness too. Less pressure on his throat if he pulls on the leash. Do you at least have food and water dishes?”

Vito glanced up at the ceiling. “Technically.”

“How do you ‘technically’ have food and water dishes?”

“I have a clean bucket from the shop and a cereal bowl.”

Tito laughed. “Very on brand, Vi. Good job.”

Vito smiled faintly. “If you wanted to, you could totally come with me to pick some stuff out for him. We could, like, make a day of it or something.”

Tito raised a brow. “Are you inviting me to a day out with Vito Minetti?”

After a moment, Vito nodded. “Only ‘cause it could do you some good. I still don’t wanna be seen in public with you.” He waved a hand in Tito’s direction. “All of this would totally cramp my vibe. People think I’m hot, and you’re wearing pajamas and haven’t showered in days.”

His brother snorted. “Of course. I don’t want to ruin your chances of getting laid in a Walmart.” He backhanded Vito’s knee. “How’d your apology go?”

“You really wanna hear about my sex life?”

“I hear about it anyway. This time I’m just initiating it. I think that’s somehow better.”

Vito cleared his throat, shifting on the bed. “The apology didn’t go well. I couldn’t let it go, and everything they said… You’ve met me. I took all of it the wrong way, like it was a personal attack.”

Tito nodded. “I get it. I have a hard time not taking everything as a personal attack too. I’m just a little better at burying that feeling inside instead of letting it erupt. I’m not sure which is better, honestly.” He reached back to adjust his pillows and closed his eyes as he leaned his head against the wall. “What happened after the not-well apology?”

“I moved on. Tried to go back to my usual thing, but that didn’t work.”

“No?”

Vito shook his head, even though Tito wasn’t actually looking at him. “I don’t know what the hell happened. I, like, couldn’t move past it. They took a lot of work, a lot of conversation, a lot of… paying attention. I dunno. Maybe there’s some tiny icky gooey part of me that craves something a bit more… emotional than I tend to prefer.”

“And they provided it to you,” Tito said. “So did you sleep with them again?”

Vito couldn’t help but smile, glad that Tito wasn’t watching him. He didn’t want anyone to know that even thinking about Elias made him smile. Hell, Vito didn’t even want Vito to know that. “I did.”

“Vito Minetti, sleeping with the same person twice. God, when was the last time you did that?”

Vito glanced up at the ceiling. “Years. That chick who was stalking me and harassed you a couple times, thinking I had cut my hair. Sleeping with the same person twice is a bad omen.”

“But not with him?”

Vito’s eyes snapped to Tito’s face. “What?”

“What?”

Him?”

“Shit,” Tito whispered. “Do… you prefer ‘them’? I’m okay using that if it makes you more comfortable.”

“I’m not gay.”

“Of course you’re not. You still like women. You can have sex with whoever the hell you want. Man, woman, genderqueer. I don’t care. Gay and straight aren’t the only sexualities in the world, Vi.”

Vito raked a hand through his hair. “How… long have you known?”

“A couple months,” Tito said after a moment. “You’re not great at actually ending a phone call when I call you at a hotel room. I’ve heard you talking to a guy a time or two. I always end the call once I realize you didn’t, though.”

Vito hated the pounding of his heart, hated the tightening of his chest. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I did. I mean, I told you you needed to make sure you actually hit the end button instead of the mute button.”

“I remember that. But I mean about, umm… knowing I was screwing around with men.”

Tito offered a shrug, finally turning to face Vito again. “I wanted you to tell me when you were ready. I didn’t want to force you to come out to me. Even now, I didn’t mean to let it slip. I guess I just have a bit of a harder time filtering out what I ‘know’ and what I know right now.” He reached out and grabbed Vito’s hand, giving it a tight squeeze. “You know I don’t care, right? That I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s a phase or that it’s wrong? Because it isn’t. It’s not a phase. It’s not wrong. You liking whoever you want to like is right. Nothing more, nothing less. I love you no matter what, Vi. Your sexuality is never going to change that.”

Vito laughed, looking away as he lifted his free hand to wipe at his eyes. “God, Ti. Don’t make me have fucking feelings.”

“You need them sometimes. Deserve them. I think making you have feelings so you know I fucking love you no matter what is a good one.”

“Yeah,” Vito whispered. He wiped his cheek on his shoulder and cleared his throat before turning back to Tito. “What, umm… what did you ask before all that?”

“Sleeping with him twice isn’t a bad omen?”

“I haven’t decided yet. The dog likes him. I think if he was a super bad guy, Dude would know.”

“That’s good. Dogs have a sense of things.” Tito raised a brow. “Think you’re going to sleep with him again?”

“Only because he left me a cinnamon roll and bought a snack for Dude.”

Tito snorted. “It’s a good reason, as far as I’m concerned.” A pause. “Do you know what you like about him?”

“I dunno. I might just have a thing for people that had or have shitty parents. God knows I’d fuck Bo if he wasn’t married. Or if I could talk him and Jensen into a threesome.”

Tito choked, turning to cough into his elbow as he laughed. “Jesus Christ, Vi. Do not try to talk them into a threesome. They absolutely do not need your… energy in their sex life.”

Vito cackled. “If I thought I could, I already would have. Jensen might–I don’t know–but Bo totally wouldn’t. I don’t approach people with propositions I know have no chance.”

“That’s good, smart. Like, in all honesty, that’s good.” Tito laid a hand on his chest, drawing in a slow breath. “Does Bo know? That you’re bi, not that you want to sleep with him.”

“I’m pretty sure he knows both, but yeah, he knows. I told him not too long after I figured it out. I figured if anyone in my life was gonna get it, it’d be Bo. I-I was gonna tell Uncle Luca, since he was in the mob. He knows what it’s like to worry about what other soldiers are going to think of you. But… I dunno. I want to be able to admit I’m bisexual. Uncle Luca still sorta struggles with that, y’know?”

Tito nodded. Relief washed over Vito as some of the tension seeped out of his shoulders. Though he’d never admit it to an actual living, breathing human being, there was something about being understood that felt… warm and fuzzy and great. “I get it. He’s lived with Uncle Mal for… years, and he still has a hard time admitting he’s not straight. I think it’s probably a generational thing, and who knows what the hell he and Uncle Mal went through. Who knows how much we don’t know about.”

“Yeah, could be.” Vito shifted. “You, uh… heard from Lillian?”

Tito snorted. “You don’t have to pretend you care about any of that, Vi. I already promised I wasn’t going to talk about her anymore.”

“You did?”

“Yes.”

Vito glanced up at the ceiling. “When?”

“Have your drugs and alcohol finally killed enough brain cells that you really can’t remember our conversations?”

Vito laughed. “Maybe.”

Unfortunately, the look on Tito’s face seemed to indicate that his comment hadn’t been a joke.

“Relax. Was I hungover?”

“Of course.”

“Figured. You know I say shit I don’t mean when I’m hungover. Usually a little hazy on those conversations too.”

Tito let out a harsh breath. “You told me I was incapable.”

“Of what?”

“Incapable of sex. Incapable. Like I’m damaged goods in your world.”

Vito cleared his throat, lifting a hand to rub the back of his neck. “That, umm… that was a real dick thing to say, Ti. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, umm, you can talk about her all you want, you know. I don’t care.”

“I appreciate the offer, Vi, but I’m good. Expecting you not to get pissed off that I’m complaining about my relationship with a woman I can’t have a relationship with is unfair. Expecting anyone not to be pissed to hear about it is unfair. I love her, but my feelings about myself and the mob have made sure that the appropriate course of action is to keep my mouth shut about that feeling. That’s all there is to it. Forcing you to listen to my bullshit over and over again won’t change that.”

“If you’re sure.”

Tito smiled. “I’m sure.” He patted Vito’s arm. “Let’s go get some food, yeah?”

“Yeah, of course.” Vito pushed himself to his feet and turned to face his brother. “Can I help you up?”

“That’s okay. Go on and make your plate, and I’ll meet you out there in a few. We can turn the TV up super loud and keep Mom and Dad busy while the reporters throw their little pissy fit outside.”

Vito nodded. “Okay. If I don’t see you in five, I’m comin’ back.”

“Sounds good.”

Vito tentatively patted his brother’s shoulder. “See you in a few.” He walked out of the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Letting out a harsh breath, he made his way to the kitchen.

Dad looked up from dropping a small handful of cheese into Dude’s mouth. “How’d it go?”

“I, uh… I think I made him worse.”

After a moment, Dad nodded. “That’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have sent you in there blind.”

“We can’t expect you to be able to solve everything just because he’s your brother, either,” Mom said. She stirred whatever was on the stove one last time before turning off the burner. “You tried your best, honey. That’s all we can ask.”

One corner of Vito’s mouth lifted. “Thanks, Mom.” He reached down to scratch the top of Dude’s head. “So… food?”

Mom snorted. “Have at it, sweetheart.”


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Hashtags & Homicide – Chapter Twelve

**I just finished this one, so belated Wednesday update! Thank you for your patience with this book. Things have been slow-going across the board, so I appreciate it.**

NOT EDITED

After dropping Theodore off at work, Russell headed to the police station. Inside, after topping off his coffee mug with the less-than-good coffee in the breakroom, he sat down at his desk. Before he could even turn on his computer, his lieutenant stopped in front of his desk.

“Morning, sir,” Russell greeted.

“Morning, Steele. How’re you doing this morning?”

“Been better, been worse. What’s up?”

“Got a case downtown. Could be a suicide, could be a homicide, could be an accident. Responding officers have requested a homicide detective to be safe. If you’re ready for it, I’d like to send you down there.”

“I’ll definitely take a case.”

“Thought you might. Follow me?”

“Of course, sir.” Russell pushed himself to his feet, grabbing his coffee mug. On the walk to his lieutenant’s office, he asked, “So what do we know?”

“Woman fell to her death from a window at BuzzCorp. Don’t know her name or age yet, but it’s assumed she worked there. She had a lanyard around her neck for a nametag, but the nametag itself wasn’t found attached to it.” He grabbed a folder from his desk and held it out to Russell. “Initial dispatch call transcription and audio recording. There are about seven of them that came in within seconds of each other. One of the calls was from someone inside the building, and the other six were from people on the ground.”

“Thank you, sir.” Russell held up the folder as he backed up toward the door. “I’ll do you proud.”

“After your work with Vince’s case, I’m already more than aware of that. Keep me posted, Steele.”

“Will do, Loo.” Russell walked out of the lieutenant’s office, closing the door behind him. He hadn’t hoped his next case would be a possible suicide, but he’d take it. He needed work. He needed something to make his mind focus on, something that wasn’t his father, abuse or his time undercover in narcotics.

Yeah, he’d definitely take it, possible suicide or not.

***

By the time Russell got to BuzzCorp, the place was packed. Civilians swarmed the barricades, phones out and filming. The reporters hung further away from the scene, but it meant very little for their integrity. One of the cameramen for Channel 7 stood atop their van for a better angle on the scene.

Russell shook his head, his jaw tense. He had a general distaste for most journalists, but flocking to a possible suicide just because it was probably trending on Twitter felt like a new low for them. Using someone’s death–whether it be a homicide or a suicide–for clicks and views had always been despicable to Russell. Reporting the news was one thing. Climbing atop a van to try and film the victim’s corpse was another.

He managed to find the only remaining place to park on the side of the street about two blocks away from the scene. Hands shoved into his pockets, he walked back toward the BuzzCorp building. He did his best to keep his head up rather than bowed away from the cameras. He wouldn’t dignify their questions with any answers, but he hated the way they framed articles when detectives and officers from RPD shied away from the cameras.

Untucking his hands, he ducked until the yellow police tape framing the scene. “How bad is she?” he asked.

“Pretty bad, but… not as bad as you’d expect from the fall, I guess,” Officer Miller said, his voice quiet. “Blood all over the pavement. Head caved in. Broken banister pieces all around her. Which, uh…” He cleared his throat. “All I’m saying is, if she jumped, I don’t know why she chose the only window on that floor where she would’ve needed to climb over a wood banister.”

Russell nodded. Looking up at the BuzzCorp building, he couldn’t help but wonder the same thing. “Thanks, Miller.”

“Yeah. Good luck, Steele.”

Russell clapped a hand down on the officer’s shoulder and made his way back to the small white tent that had been set up over the victim’s body. “Morning, Ellie.”

The forensic analyst lifted her head before pushing herself to her feet. “Morning.” She looked over at the crowd of people beyond the police tape, shaking her head. “God, can you believe this?”

“I… unfortunately can. Anything for a damn click,” Russell said. He cleared his throat. “Do we know anything? Other than, uh… where she fell from.”

“She’s an intern. I didn’t quite catch his name, but the coworker that was, umm…” Ellie wiped her forearm down her cheek, keeping her gloved hand free of contamination. “The coworker that was coming back with coffee when she, uh, fell, is inside. I got in before any of the officers, so I sent him back inside and asked him to sit on one of the benches in there.”

Russell nodded. “That’s helpful. Thanks, Ellie.”

“Of course.” A pause. “You don’t think she jumped, do you?”

“Not on her own, no.”

“Good. Me neither.” Ellie bumped his shoulder with her own. “Go interview the other intern. I’ll let you know what I find when I know more.”

“Sounds good. Thanks, Ellie.” He patted her on the back and made his way up to the BuzzCorp building. Inside the lobby, he found the other intern sitting on one of the benches against the wall. He sat hunched over, face buried in the heels of his palms, fingers pulling at his hair. The cardboard cup holder sat beside him on the bench, all six spots still filled with a coffee cup.

“Excuse me, sir?” Russell asked. The man lifted his head, but not enough to look at him. Russell squatted down in front of him. “Hey. How’re you doing?”

“Not great,” the intern whispered. “So… so not great.”

“Yeah. I’m sorry you had to see what happened out there. I wouldn’t even wish it on a cop, let alone a civilian.” Russell cleared his throat. “I hate to ask this, but I… I do have to know. Have you spoken to anyone about what happened?”

The intern shook his head. “No. I-I’ve just been sitting here like that lady out there told me to. Is that okay?”

“That’s more than okay. Preferred, really. Thank you for listening to her.” Russell pushed himself to his feet, unable to handle the burn in his knees any longer. He sat down beside the man instead. “I’m Detective Steele. Can I get your name?”

“Jack. Umm… Jack Lawrence.”

“Do you prefer Jack or Mister Lawrence?”

“Definitely Jack.”

Russell nodded. Clearing his throat, he reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and grabbed his notepad. “Jack, do you know who fell?”

Jack nodded, fingers twisting in his hair. “Mya.”

“Do you know her last name?”

“Mmhmm.” Jack hunched forward just a little further. “Bradley.”

Russell wrote the name down and made a note to find her next of kind. “How well did you know Ms. Bradley, Jack?”

“We both were accepted into an internship position after college last year. So, umm…” Jack swallowed, scrubbing both hands over his head. “I knew her for about six months, I think. We’ve been… seeing each other for the last three weeks.”

“You were dating?”

“Seeing each other.”

“I’m sorry, Jack. I’m not sure I know the difference.”

“Dating is, like, dating. Seeing each other is, umm… is when you can still see other people without it being cheating. I-if I took her out for lunch, she could still get coffee with someone else the next day. If she liked coffee guy better than me, we don’t have to keep seeing each other, and we go our separate ways, no hard feelings.”

“Do you think everyone she was seeing understood it that way?” Russell asked.

“What?” Jack asked, his voice barely above a whisper. “Y-you think someone…?”

“I’m exploring our options.”

Jack sniffled. “I, umm… I know there was a guy who didn’t wanna see her once she explained they weren’t actually dating. I-I don’t know how big of a problem he was. I think she only told me about him the one time.”

“Do you know his name?”

“She might’ve told me his first name. I can… I can check our texts.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Russell said, his voice soft.

Jack leaned up to pull his phone from his pocket, and he used the back of his free hand to wipe his nose. Russell had no problem with who chose to ‘see’ someone or ‘date’ someone, but he had an unfortunate feeling that the person who had actually pushed Mya to her death had been someone who hadn’t taken the ‘seeing’ label so well.


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Happy Face Killer – Chapter Fourteen

NOT EDITED

Chapter Fourteen

7:00 PM; CLIFFBURN, PRESTON GRAHAM’S FARM, FRONT PORCH

Freddie stood beside Evie on the porch, arms crossed over the banister. “Thanks for coming over.”

Evie nodded. “Yeah, no problem.” A pause. “I hope you get some sleep tonight, Freddie. You look like hell.”

He chuckled, uncrossing his arms to scrub both hands over his face. “Me too, Ev.” He dropped his hands to the banister as he heard tires crunching on the gravel and frozen snow in the driveway. He turned and pressed a kiss to Evie’s forehead. A kiss on her lips had never really called to Freddie, and he hoped that would continue to not bother her for at least a little while. Murderous mother and sister aside, Freddie still had a few other feelings to work out, one of which revolved around the way he genuinely felt about the opposite sex.

Freddie cleared his throat. “Tell your parents ‘hi’ for me.”

“Can do.” She patted his cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Freddie. Love you.”

“Love you too, Ev.” Freddie watched her head down the two stairs at the end of the porch, watched her climb into her parents’ car. He lifted his hand in departure, waiting until they had pulled out of the drive before he headed inside.

He could hear the television in his grandfather’s bedroom. He headed into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of water, and retreated to his own bedroom. Done with studying for the evening, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. If his sister truly was anything like their mother, she wouldn’t hesitate to kill him if she thought he was even thinking about going to the police.

He couldn’t risk that. She’d find out about Evie, one way or another, and she’d take Evie out first. She’d probably go after Grandpa second and Dad third before finally killing Freddie.

He wouldn’t let her kill his girlfriend or his family. He’d find a way to tell the police. He would. He just needed time, and he needed to make a plan. He just had to make sure it was the best damn plan he could possibly come up with.

He needed to know the plan wouldn’t leave room for error, an error that would certainly get someone he loved killed.

It was a lot for a fifteen-year-old to shoulder, to say the least, but he’d dealt with worse.

7:09 PM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, KEEPING ROOM

With Amber and Kayla playing a video game in the family room, Jensen cleaning up in the kitchen, and the twins seated on the floor tossing a ball back and forth, Bo sat down beside David on the couch, setting a folder and a notebook on his lap.

“Got lots of questions planned for me, lab geek?” David asked.

Bo shook his head. “Not too many. I mostly want to walk through the night at the bar, if that’s all right with you.”

“Sure Bo.”

Bo reached out and smoothed a hand over Adalynn Quinn’s head. The child, only two months over a year, was David’s first and only child. She had been born with Cecilia’s darker than charcoal hair, and her baby blue eyes had since turned to something much closer to David’s green ones.

“When did you go to the bar?” Bo asked, lifting his eyes to David’s face.

“We left the house around ten or so. We stopped at the gas station, grabbed a couple bags of chips for a snack.” David shook his head, a faint smile toying with either corner of his lips. “But we probably got to the bar around ten-thirty after that. Give or take, you know?”

Bo nodded. “Sure, that works. When it comes to the woman who approached you, did you notice her when you and Cecilia first got to the bar?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, everyone was kinda wearing the same damn thing. Cecilia was really the only one I would’ve been able to pick out of a crowd.”

“Simply because she’s your girlfriend? Or because of what she was wearing?”

“Umm, little bit of both, I guess. A lot of the girls–especially the younger ones–were wearing leggings instead of jeans, and the ones wearing jeans had them tucked into their boots. Cecilia didn’t. She had bootcut jeans on, the boots on under them.” He cleared his throat. “She, uh, was also wearing a pretty tight flannel.”

“Mmhmm.” Bo raised a brow. “So you’d recognize her breasts.”

“I’m a straight man dating a damn gorgeous woman. You’d recognize Jensen’s ass, right?” He shot a look in the boys’ direction, but neither one seemed to be paying attention to anything that wasn’t their game of catch.

Bo snorted. “It depends on what pair of jeans he’s wearing.”

David chuckled. “Fair enough. Either way, I could’ve picked Ceci out of any crowd. To me, everyone else in that bar just looked pretty much the same,” he said with a shrug. “But people were coming and going all night, so I’d never be able to say for sure when she came in.”

Bo nodded. “That’s fair. When she approached you, what were you doing?”

“Cecilia and I had been dancing. She went to the bathroom, so I hung back by the wall. I was watching the singer–Adam, uh, lars, I think–when she actually came up to me. She touched my arm, called me handsome, said it was too lonely over by the wall. I told her I was a boyfriend and a father, told her to lay off. She got… really angry and told me to get off the dance floor. Like, irrationally angry, you know? Most drunk people just go the hell away and find someone to, like, grind on or something.”

“The idea of irrational anger checks out. She was upset her plan wasn’t going as she had, well, planned. She didn’t want to have to try snagging several different people that night. She had wanted the first time to be a success.”

“Unrealistic expectations for a criminal, if you ask me. Even the homicidal… dumbs-dumbs expect at least something to go wrong in a public place, right?”

Bo glanced up at the ceiling before lifting his shoulders. “Yes and no, I suppose. I understand internal anger, but it’s the fact she got visibly angry that throws me off. She went into that bar with a plan. She probably sat down, scoped out the people there, and picked you out because you were standing off by yourself. She thought you would be lonely and drunk, that she could sweet talk you out of there without any trouble at all. She didn’t account for anything outside of that, and she expected it all to go down exactly as it had in her mind. When it didn’t, she reacted much stronger than the well-planned killers usually do. That’s where I stumble.”

“You can’t make the external expression of the anger make sense,” David said.

Bo shook his head. “Everything else about this leads me to believe she’s in control. She’s in control of the plan, the victim, and the night. She sinks her claws into them. End of story. She knows what she wants to do and she makes a solid plan for it. But when one tiny step goes haywire, she blows up.” Again, he shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Think it’s not her first kill? Like, maybe she’s done it in a different town or state before? And if she has, maybe it went a lot smoother there, so she was already way too cocky for her plan here in Clinstone.”

“I’m not sure. It’s a possibility, but Gwen and I believe it’s her first homicide in general. Here, other towns, other states… We think Angie Hall was her first.”

“Why? There wasn’t any hesitation in what she did, right?”

Bo shook his head. “It’s more in the way it was done. For me, anyway. She did it in a dark alleyway where other people could witness a kill that was just for her. To me, it would make sense that, with miss Hall, she hadn’t figured out that the thrill and fulfilment for many killers are stronger when done in private with no one else around. It allows the killer to… bask in their work for a longer amount of time. You get a better look into the victim’s eyes. You get a better look into the victim’s eyes. You get a better look at the life as it leaves their eyes. You get to experience every single thing about it, engage all five senses. The more experienced killers seem to enjoy that far more than the alleyway-type kills.”

After a moment, David nodded, eyes drifting back to Castor and Pollux. He couldn’t believe how they seemed to pay absolutely no mind to the conversation about death and homicide. He lifted his gaze to Bo’s face again. “All right, I can see that.”

Bo cleared his throat. “Did she walk away without complaining?”

“After she got angry and I told her there were lots of drunk people she could dance with–I think I called her darling in my best southern accent–she glared at me, but she walked away. I watched her, but she was still just standing there when Cecilia came back from the backthroom. I lost sight of her after that,” David said.

“Did you ever see her again? Even for a brief moment?”

“I saw her at the bar a couple times, usually just long enough to buy herself or… or Angie another drink.”

Bo nodded. He looked down at his closed notebook before clearing his throat again. “You’ve said she was dark-skinned?”

“Well, darker than me, I think. But you know, it’s winter in minnesota, so it’s really not hard to be darker than me. Tanning places exist, you know?”

“So you don’t know if she was actually Black?”

“No. I wish I did. It was just really dark over by the walls of the dance floor. Sorry, Bo.”

“No, that’s okay. Anything’s helpful, David.” Bo turned his head as he heard Jensen’s footsteps off to his right. “Hi.”

“Hey, baby.” Jensen jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “All the dishes are in the dishwasher, so I’m gonna head out to the gym. You’ll be okay holding down the fort?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Sweet. I’ll be back in, like, an hour, hour and a half.”

“Okay, love. Drive safe.”

“Will do.” Jensen leaned down and kissed him before smiling at David. “Night, Dave.”

“Night, Jensen.” David watched him walk away before letting out a sigh. “We’re going to catch her, aren’t we, Bo?”

“Of course,” Bo said with a nod. “We usually do, don’t we?”

“Usually,” David agreed. “We’ve missed a few, though.”

Bo nodded. He knew enough to know David was talking about GBK. Unfortunately, telling David the real reason they had been unable to catch GBK was off the table. Instead, he settled for, “Yes, but I have a better track record in Clinstone.”

David chuckled. “I guess so.”

Bo looked down as the ball the boys were playing catch with hit his foot. He leaned forward and grabbed it before tossing it back to Castor. “There you go, buddy.”

“Thanks, Daddy.”

“No problem.”

“I can’t wait till she starts talking,” David whispered, shaking his head. “She just, you know, babbles right now.”

“She’ll get there,” Bo assured, turning back to the police chief. “Which are you hoping for? Mom or Dad?”

One corner of David’s mouth lifted. “I don’t mind either way. Sometimes, over the baby monitor, I hear Ceci encouraging her to say Dada. It’s… God, I love that woman.”

Bo smiled. “She’s a good soul.”

“She is. I can’t thank you enough for introducing us, Bo. My life’s a hell of a lot better with her in it.” He snorted, adding, “Clearly.”

Bo smiled. “My pleasure, David. You both deserved someone to love, someone to love you. I’m just glad I wasn’t entirely incorrect on the assumption you two would get along well.”

“God, you were right, you little matchmaker.” Bo rolled his eyes. David reached out and touched his fingers to Bo’s lap. “Anything else?”

“I don’t think so. Well, actually… what time did you leave the bar?”

“I don’t know for sure. It was before last call, though. We’re old, and we both had work in the morning.”

Bo chuckled softly. “Fair enough. Well, I think that’s it, then.”

“Sorry, Bo. I know it’s not much help.”

“Hey, like I said, anything helps. I’ve worked with less before.”

David nodded. “Good point.” He patted Bo’s thigh. “I’m gonna head home, get Addie to bed. You’re good here?”

“Yes, I’m okay. They’re all pretty easy to keep entertained.”

The police chief chuckled, squeezing Bo’s shoulder. He pushed himself to his feet, holding Adalynn to his chest. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Otherwise, call or text me if you need anything else.”

“Will do, David. Goodnight.”

David nodded. “Night, Bo. Oh, and thanks for supper.”

Bo smiled. “No problem, David. Don’t forget her diaper bag.”

“Good call, lab geek.” David leaned down and grabbed the bag from the floor, hiking it over his shoulder before heading out of the keeping room. Bo leaned back against the couch, listening until the front door closed. “Daddy’s going to take some notes, and then we’ll get both of you cleaned up and to bed, okay?”

“Story?” Castor asked, looking up at his father.

Bo nodded. “Of course, kiddo. You guys can pick whatever bedtime story you want.” The boys high-fived, as if convincing their father to read to them later had been some incredibly difficult task. Bo only smiled, shaking his head. Almost four years, and Bo still didn’t understand how he and Jensen had ended up with kids as perfect as the twins. It had been even longer since they adopted Kayla and Amber, and he still felt the same way.

They had lucked out with kids as amazing as the four they had. Bo could only hope that, in the midst of being police chief in Los Angeles and the analyst in Clinstone, a fifth child would turn out the same when he and Jensen finally got around to it.


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