Guardian

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Chapter 1

Wayfarer, Georgia

Present day 

 

Too late, too late, too late.

The refrain pounded through FBI Special Agent Camellia “Mel” Wray’s brain.  Each repetition slammed into her heart.  She took a slow, deep breath that didn’t ease her pain or her guilt.

She should’ve been here, should've come when Cinda first asked her, not let work get in the way.  Sick in the depths of her soul, she hitched up the knees of her gray slacks and knelt in the grass by her music teacher’s crumpled body. 

On Cinda Baldwin’s other side, the thin, gray-haired medical examiner, Dr. Harry Milledge, also knelt.  He watched Mel over his glasses but said nothing, giving her time to process.  Somewhere behind her, the sheriff and two of his deputies waited.

Headlights from their cruisers cast harsh shadows over Cinda’s face, and the blue flashers gave her contorted features an eerie tint.  Her agonized expression eliminated any hope that she’d had an easy death.  Mel brushed a strand of white hair off Cinda’s cold forehead.

“You all right, ma’am?”  A stocky deputy who looked to be in his mid-twenties crouched beside Mel.  Hastily, he corrected, “I mean, Special Agent.”

Ma’am.  So familiar and, in the South, so automatic.  Cinda had been ma’am until Mel grew up enough to become a friend and not just a student.  She was the only person outside of the family who still called Mel by her old, more girlish nickname of Cami. 

Mel sucked air into her tight chest, but the deep breath didn’t help.  If only the night weren’t so muggy.  But what could you expect of southern Georgia in September, a few miles from the vast, wet expanse of the Okefenokee Swamp?

“I’m fine, thank you.”  Guiltier than homemade sin, as people back home would’ve said, but she wasn’t about to hurl from seeing a dead person.  This wasn’t the first murder scene she’d attended, just the first involving a friend.

Why the hell hadn’t she driven the five or so hours from Atlanta sooner?  Her team had cracked the human trafficking ring’s code at mid-day, but Mel had waited for the busts, wanting to savor the rare pleasure of seeing a teenaged victim reunited with her family.  Instead, she should’ve hit the road.

If Mel had left sooner, arrived here before Cinda’s assailant, Cinda might still be alive.

Mel locked the guilt away.  Later for that.  “I confirm this is Lucinda Baldwin, the owner of this property.” 

At least this cottage in the woods was far enough from town to avoid curious onlookers or passersby this late at night.  Only Mel’s dark green Jeep Cherokee, the sheriff’s two cruisers, and an ambulance sat behind Cinda’s green Ford Fiesta in the driveway.  No one hovered near the yellow crime scene tape ringing the front yard.

“How well did you know her?”  The deputy, whose nametag read Mitchell, had his notebook out now, and a pen.

“We’re from the same town, Essex, up in eastern North Carolina.  She was my music teacher for ten years.”  She was also the only person who’d encouraged Mel to pursue a career playing her flute even though her dad scorned it as impractical.  “We kept in touch, visited once or twice a year.”

“What brings you here tonight?”

“A visit, as I said earlier.  I’d planned to spend several days with her.”  Mel hesitated.  Saying Cinda wanted an FBI agent to check out some weird things wouldn’t win points with the locals, but they should know she’d been nervous.  “She said she’d seen some strange things, odd-looking people, eerie lights back in the woods at the full moon.  Did she ever report any of that?”

“Not so’s I know, but I’ll check.”  He pursed his lips.  “Lights mighta been the local Wiccans, especially at the full moon, but you never know.  Lots of strange things been seen in the swamp for centuries.  Right many Indian legends about it.”

Wiccans and swamp hoodoo.  Mel swallowed a sigh.  No wonder the town of Wayfarer, Georgia, had a New Age weirdo reputation.

She glanced at Dr. Milledge.  “What can you tell me?”

“Officially, nothing.” When she nodded acknowledgment, he added, “Seeing as how you carry that federal badge, though, I don’t mind saying she has odd wounds.”  He opened Cinda’s blouse to reveal four deep punctures on the right shoulder.

Mel’s head went light.  She took a deep breath and forced herself to focus on the punctures and not the fact this was Cinda, the woman who’d been more of a mother to her than her own flesh and blood.  Not now.  “Not much blood for wounds like that.”

“No.  There’s a fifth on the back of the shoulder, as though from a grip.  Five more at the base of the spine with what might’ve been the thumb dead center, by eyeball estimate, on the lumbosacral plexus.”

The description, the reference to that nerve junction in the lower back, jiggled something deep in Mel’s brain, but she couldn’t bring it forward.

“Shoulder wounds are right over the brachial plexus,” he continued, indicating the nerve junction at the right shoulder.  He unbuttoned the checked cotton the rest of the way and gently folded the right side back.  With one finger, he traced a deep, short abdominal cut.  “Under here’s the liver.”

“The killer meant to cut out her liver?”  Mel jerked her eyes aside and swallowed hard against a sick taste in her mouth.  Focus, damn it.  But a murdered friend could never be just another case.  The guilt and the loss and the bone-deep outrage over what Cinda had suffered threatened to choke her.  She shut her eyes to stem angry tears.  Later for that, too.

Blowing out a hard breath, she looked back at the doctor.  The kindness in his eyes deepened her guilt because she didn’t deserve it.  If only she’d left Atlanta sooner.

“I couldn’t say what was intended,” he replied, “not from this wound alone.  It’s odd, though.”

Odd, yes, and another poke in the depths of her brain, another fuzzy image she couldn’t bring clear.

“Cause of death?” Mel asked.

“No guesses.”  The doctor shook his head.  “Not until I take a closer look.  We’re ready to transport, if you’re done.”

“Yes.  Thank you, very much, for talking to me.”  She might be a Fed, but she had no jurisdiction over a local murder.  The sheriff and his team had allowed her this much out of professional courtesy.

Mel stood and made herself turn away.  Her hands were shaking, so she jammed them into her pockets. 

Deputy Mitchell offered her a bottle of water.  Mel took it with a word of thanks.  She hadn’t realized he’d gone to get it.

“Can you help us find next of kin?” he asked.

“She doesn’t have any family left.  I’m her executor.”  Knowing what that might imply, she looked the deputy straight in the eye.  “Aside from small personal bequests to friends--including me, unless she changed that--she left everything to the North Carolina School of the Arts.”

“But she lived here in Georgia?”

“She liked the atmosphere in Wayfarer.”  Until lately.  “She had a friend down here, a retired lawyer.  Hettie...something with a T.”

“Miss Hettie Telfair?”  The young man’s sandy brows rose.

“That sounds right.  I’d have to see Cinda’s address book to know for sure.”

“I guess that’s it for now, ma--uh, Special Agent.”

“‘Ma’am’ is fine.”  Any term of respect would do.  At age thirty, Mel had been on the job long enough to lose the insecurity that came with being a young, female law enforcement officer.  “I’ll let you know if I think of anything else, of course.”

“We’d appreciate that.”

As the deputy pocketed his pad, Sheriff Dan Burton walked over to her. 

“Strange case,” the short, burly man said.

“Yes.  Worse when it’s a friend.”  Mel kept her back to the bagging and lifting going on behind her.  The idea of Cinda in that bag clawed at her heart.  She tried to focus, convince herself this was a routine investigation.  “Any witnesses?”

“The woman who called 911 was driving by when her headlights hit a white male bending over Miss Cinda.  He ran right in front of the car.  Description puts his age as mid-twenties, height around five-six, blond hair.” 

He paused, frowning.  “She said his eyes were purple, swore to it, but I’m thinking that’s a trick of the light.”

“Or contact lenses.”

The sheriff eyed her speculatively, his face tense in the eerie light.  “Seein’ as the deceased was a friend, you gonna try to pull the Bureau in on this case?”

Mel shook her head.  “No grounds, and we both know it.  I want in, though.”  She met his narrowed eyes with a level stare.  “Unofficially.  I’m on leave from the Bureau for the next two weeks.  When I saw you all here, I felt...” Stunned.  Punched in the heart

But saying so wouldn’t help her case.

Mel drew a steadying breath. “I’m not too proud to do leg work, and I know how to take orders from the officer in charge.”

He studied her for another few seconds.  “I’ll need to get a look at that will, of course.  If you’re clear, and if you can be objective, I got no problem with you helping out.”

Mel nodded.  “I can do that.”  Clear meant not only that she inherited too little to be a motive for murder but also that she hadn’t had time to come here from Atlanta after work, kill Cinda, and then pretend to drive up after the sheriff’s crew arrived.  That was procedure, and she’d expected it.

“Thank you, Sheriff Burton.  You’ve been very kind.  If you can suggest a motel nearby, I’ll write down my work and travel schedule for today and get out of your way.”

She’d planned to stay with Cinda, but that would never happen again.  Mel set her jaw against a rush of grief.

Sometimes justice wasn’t enough.  This was going to be one of those times, damn it, but seeing the killer punished was the only thing she could still do for Cinda.

#

 Dr. Stefan Harper knelt by the rescue litter, both hands over his patient’s heart. “Stay with me, Javy,” he murmured, praying the unconscious man would hear him. His magic infused the slight, dark-haired mage’s chest, sealing the damaged blood vessels as best he could, keeping the heart beating and the lungs pumping.

He exchanged a worried glance with Edie Lang, the slim, blond medic kneeling across from him.

 A ghoul energy blast crashed into the magic shields them.  The eight encircling mages’ shields deflected the lethal energy with a sizzling sound and a flash of silver mage power mixed with the muddy yellow brown of ghoul.

Where the hell was the evac chopper?

Another bolt crashed in, then another, while other mages fought the ghouls around the protective circle. The battle had begun at the ghoul nest and spread far to the east, away from the mage landing zone and its medical helo.  The defending mages had to keep the ghouls clear until the evac chopper arrived.   

 But could Javy Ruiz live long enough to reach the Collegium, the mages’ base near Brunswick, Georgia, and its state-of-the-art operating suite?  The equipment there would give Stefan’s patient, his friend, a chance to live.  If they reached the OR fast enough.

“Blood pressure,” Stefan rapped out.  He couldn’t check it himself without losing focus on his task.

Another bolt crashed off the shielding, then another.  The circle of mages tightened.  

 “BP seventy-two over forty-eight,” Edie reported. 

Hell.  That was way below the bottom of normal.  Over his shoulder, he called, “Someone get an ETA on that helo.”

The shrapnel wounds in Javy’s chest were too numerous for Stefan to stop all the bleeding.  They had to reach the OR fast.

“Josh says two minutes, give or take,” Tasha Murdock reported grimly.  Her fatigues and helmet magically reflected the forest around the small clearing.  “What can I do?  Do you need a power boost?”

Stefan shook his head.  More power wouldn’t block the leaks, and the shrapnel would wreak further havoc if he simply summoned the little bits of metal out.  A sword wound would’ve been so much simpler to heal.

At least he could use magical CPR, not drive the shrapnel deeper with chest compressions and make things worse.  That was too dangerous to try until they were at the OR.  Unless Javy died.  If that happened, magic wouldn’t work anymore, but the Mundane, or normal human, technique might.

Damn it, he could feel the BP dropping.  He glanced at Edie, who pumped air into the cuff on Javy’s arm.

“Fifty-two over thirty,” she said, her voice flat but steady.  Her background as a wildland firefighter paramedic made her cool under pressure.

Stefan looked up at Tasha.  “Josh needs a safe perimeter.”  Having Josh Campbell, an army combat veteran, at the controls was a point in favor of Javy’s survival, but without help, Josh couldn’t shield the helo well enough to protect it from flying energy bolts. 

 “On it.”  Tasha sprang toward the front.  “Darren, Leslie, with me. Let’s put up a shield for Josh.”

Stefan heard them head out as though from a distance, his attention still focused on the pale, unconscious father of two.  But he couldn’t think about Javy’s kids now.  Better to focus on the vitals.

The ghouls fighting the mages around Stefan and his patient were the last of their nest.  The dawn raid Javy led had destroyed the nest and most of the ghouls, and the mages had seized a lot of documentation.  But they didn’t yet know whether those records contained any useful information.  Like whether the ghouls’ allies, demons from the Void between worlds, still meant to open a gateway to Earth.  They’d tried last month and would’ve succeeded if Stefan’s friends Griffin Dare and Valeria Banning hadn’t intervened.  That victory had cost Griff dearly.

“Chopper overhead,” Max Wilson reported.

 “Stay with me,” Stefan said under his breath.

The mage raiding party had liberated nine humans, two mages, and assorted livestock.  Because the use of dark magic left ghouls unable to eat anything other than fresh kill or breed among themselves, they kidnapped mages and Mundanes as breeders.  And occasionally as snacks, though they usually kept animals for food.  Stopping that was damn good work apart from anything the records yielded.  Javy didn’t deserve to pay for it with his life. 

“BP forty-six over twenty-three,” Edie said.

The sounds of battle were moving away.  At least Javy wouldn’t die because a fight prevented the chopper that could save him from landing.

“Edie, you board first and get the defibrillator ready,” Stefan ordered.  As she nodded, he looked into Max’s grave, blue eyes and added, “Radio ahead.  Order a surgical team to assist me and have an OR prepped for an open chest.  I want the elevator on the ground floor, doors open. When we land, this litter goes on a gurney, stat.”

Too bad they couldn’t translocate to the infirmary from the landing pad.  Every building on the property was warded against such incursions.  Or excursions, for that matter.  Even if that weren’t so, the systemic shock of the maneuver would likely kill someone in Javy’s condition.

Max announced, “Josh is landing.”

“Forty over—no reading.”

“Come on, Javy,” Stefan ground out.

Suddenly, he realized the clash of energies had died.  He could feel the rotor wash whipping the leaves on the pines and oaks around them and hear the ever-louder chukka, chukka, of a descending helicopter.  Yes!

Steeling himself for the worst, preparing to fight it, he watched the chopper descend.   Javy’s heart faltered, then stopped.

Stefan managed not to flinch at the final gurgling wheeze and still silence of Javy’s chest.

The chopper touched down.  Mages in bespelled camo yanked the rear door open.  Edie dashed to it while others grabbed the litter and hurried toward the helo.  Stefan ran alongside and leaped aboard as they slid his patient into the rear and began tying down the litter for flight.

Edie cut Javy’s shirt open, spreading it wide.  Fingers flying, Stefan placed the adhesive electrodes on his patient’s chest.  Even though his magical sense knew the heart had stopped, they had to wait for the machine to realize that.  “Ready,” Edie said.  

Stefan checked the charge.  “Clear,” he shouted over the noise of everyone embarking.  Electricity plus shrapnel would cause burns, but those were easy to heal.   He pressed the button to deliver the shock.

The jolt of electricity succeeded.  Javy’s heart restarted, but he wasn’t breathing right. 

“Bag him,” Stefan ordered.  At least the heartbeat held, though it was far from steady.

Edie applied the bag mask and pumped air into Javy’s lungs.

Stefan looked over his shoulder at Tasha.  “Tell Josh to go.”

He barely felt the helo lift off.  “Hang in there,” he told his friend.

The helicopter ride seemed to take forever.  As Edie started an IV, Stefan melded his magic with Javy’s, doing all he could to keep his friend connected to his body.  Still, Stefan couldn’t help remembering more was at stake than one mage’s life.

The Void demons didn’t have a portal to this world.  Or so the mages hoped.  However, given the ghouls’ recent improvements in strategy, it seemed obvious they were communicating with Void demons.  But how could they do that without a portal?

Maybe the demons have evolved.  Mages had.  Why shouldn’t their enemies?

Because stopping them was hard enough without their gaining new powers.  They’d never given up easily.  Odds were they’d try again to open a portal and bring plague, terror and death to Earth.

If that happened, the world was seriously and totally fucked.

#

Three hours after landing, Stefan stuffed his bloody surgical gown and gloves into the disposal bin.  Javy had survived.  Now all they could do was wait.  At least magic could speed healing, and Stefan’s competent staff would take over that part. 

He glanced at the wall clock.  Was it only one-thirty in the afternoon?  His mind might still be keyed up, but his body felt as though he’d put in a full day’s work.

He’d called Javy’s wife, Karen, and caught her en route from their north Georgia home.  When she arrived, she would want an update, so no use trying to rest.  He couldn’t anyway, not after surgery. 

Instead, he wandered up to his office and through the door marked Dr. Stefan Harper, Chief Physician.  The anteroom was empty.  His assistant was out, probably at lunch. 

Visitors didn’t see this part of the building.  They were restricted to an area rigged to look like a paranormal research lab.  The Georgia Institute for Paranormal Research was the cover identity for the mages’ Collegium, the headquarters for the Southeastern U. S. Shire.  And wouldn’t there be hell to pay if Mundanes ever learned about that?

The witch hunts of the seventeenth century, the Burning Times, had graphically demonstrated the lethal folly of letting Mundanes know about mages.  Only a small, almost minuscule, few could be trusted with the truth.  Open practice of magic was dangerous, and not only to magekind.

As Stefan had more reason than most to know.

Even after eighteen years, he still sometimes jolted awake seeing Krista’s pale, dead face.  She’d trusted the wrong person, and the situation had blown up in everyone’s faces.  Her family and Stefan’s had had to move, and the Northwest Collegium’s memory wipe of the guy she’d unwisely trusted had taken a bit more than intended, despite the mage doctor’s best efforts.  Mack, the Mundane bass player in the little band they’d all started together, had lost his music, his math, his hopes for the future. And Krista…hadn’t been able to live with all that.

As the grief stabbed Stefan’s heart anew, he rubbed his hands over his face.  She’d been his best friend, and he’d failed her.  If only he’d found her in time.

He shoved the memory aside and sat at his desk, punching the button for voicemail.  Nothing much interesting there, a couple of speaking invitations, an offer to co-write a paper.

“Stefan,” the fourth message began in the Wayfarer County sheriff’s familiar, gravelly tone.  “It’s Dan Burton.  We got an odd murder case here, could use some help.  Deceased is missing a lot of blood and has an unknown toxin in what’s left of it.”

Now, that was intriguing.  Stefan focused as the sheriff continued, “Cathy Lamb at GBI recommended you to consult on this, and you work well with my staff.  If you’re interested, give me a call.  Word’s out about the wounds somehow, so I’ve set up a press conference for late this afternoon.  You can get an idea what they’re talking about on the Oracle website.”

Weird wounds and strange toxins sounded ghoul-related. Stefan turned to the computer and pulled up the Wayfarer weekly newspaper’s site.  The murder was splashed across the homepage.  The victim, Lucinda Baldwin, was an elderly woman, a retired music teacher, but the sheriff’s department was withholding other details. 

Of course they were, or at least they were trying to, but there was a reference to a purple-eyed suspect and a description of deep, curving wounds, as though made from talons. 

Cold prickles rose on Stefan’s neck.  Purple eyes as in Void demon host?  Talons as in ghouls?

The article said the woman had moved to Wayfarer from Essex, North Carolina.  Essex.  Lucinda Baldwin.  No wonder the name seemed familiar.  She’d been Camellia Wray’s music teacher, and Essex was Cami’s hometown.

Memory slammed into him like a wrecking ball.  It shouldn’t have, not after nine years, but he was exhausted, with no reserves to maintain the walls he’d put up around the old wound.

He could still see Cami’s face, pale in its frame of dark brown hair, her gray eyes wide with hurt as she accused him of cheating on her.

After they’d dated a couple of months, he’d realized he loved her, so he’d taken the first step of the Revelation Protocols, the steps mandated for introducing a Mundane to the idea magic was real.  She’d reacted badly, so he’d backed off, trying to think of a new angle to try again and falling more in love every day. But then she’d caught him in a lie about what he did on the weekends.  Driven by heart-stopping fear that he’d lose her, he’d taken a stupid leap. 

“Marry me,” he’d said in desperation, “and I’ll tell you where I go on those missing weekends.”  If she would commit to him, he’d thought, maybe he could trust her with the truth.  Maybe she loved him enough not to freak out if he told her he was a mage, that he went away on his off weekends to study magical healing techniques with a mage physician.

“Tell me,” she’d flung back at him, “and maybe I’ll marry you.”

Maybe hadn’t been enough for him to risk exposing the mages’ secrets.  That would endanger both magekind and Cami.   Instead he’d kept his silence and lost her. 

Stefan frowned at the screen.  He’d been over her for years, of course, but he still remembered that kick in the gut she’d delivered, first by doubting him and then by leaving him. 

So what if this woman had taught Cami Wray?  Cami had nothing to do with this case.  Even if she came to the funeral--likely with a husband and kids in tow--he wouldn’t see her because he wouldn’t attend.  Thinking of her shouldn’t make his stomach clench.  That had to be tension from the hard day he’d had, one that was far from over.

The picture accompanying the article showed the victim’s bright eyes and kind smile.  She’d lived a quiet, ordinary life but died with a weird toxin in her blood, a toxin whose nature Stefan could probably guess without seeing the labs.  A toxin he needed to sample, one no Mundane doctor could properly identify.

If he was right, Dan Burton and his crew would be up against a foe they couldn’t hope to beat.  Stefan picked up the phone.

#

“Thanks for clearing me so quickly, Sheriff Burton.” Considering the suspicion many local cops nursed toward any and all Feds, Mel wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d sat on her request.  Instead, here she was, mid-afternoon of the very next day.  “I appreciate your bringing me in on this.”

They stood beside the corner desk he’d assigned to her, the only uncluttered one of eight in the room.  With deputies serving as courtroom bailiffs, patrolling the county, and managing the press out front, she and the sheriff had only the dispatcher and clerk at the front counter for company.

 “I’m glad to have the help,” Burton said.  “I ran that wound pattern through the National Crime Information Center and got a match with a case up near the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina.  Another one down in the Everglades, although not identical to ours, has similarities.”

“So we might be hunting a serial killer.”  Mel nodded.  “I knew the wound pattern seemed familiar.  I also logged onto NCIC, with the same result.”

Frowning, the burly man shook his head.  “Damndest thing.  Anyway, I asked the Atlanta office to bring you in on this.  Brunswick office is our usual contact, but you’re already here.” 

He laid a manila folder on the desk.  “Copies of the reports are in here.  Bottom line, we found nothin’ new.”

“What do you need from me?”

“For starters, you can back me up at the press conference.  I guess you noticed the crowd out front.  Dr. Milledge did the autopsy first thing this morning.  I’m thinking somebody at the hospital couldn’t help flapping their lips.”

Mel and the sheriff exchanged a glance of mutual frustration.  She said, “Judging by the chatter at lunch, I’d say you’re right.”

Some people in the café, The Goddess’s Hearth, had speculated about the murder as some kind of Satanic ritual.  They might be on track.  Those blaming otherworldly creatures absolutely were not.  What was it with this town and woo-woo? 

“There’s other strange factors we’ve managed to keep a lid on,” Burton said.  “Report’s in the file, but I’ll go ahead and tell you, most of Miss Baldwin’s blood was gone, and what was left had a strange substance in it Milledge couldn’t identify.  Like the Great Dismal case.” 

Mel shook her head. “‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ as the saying goes.  But you think the yard is the murder scene, even with no blood?”

“We do.”  Rubbing his chin, he added, “There’s signs of a struggle in the grass.  Anyway, Milledge recommended a toxicology consult, so I phoned the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.  Their top choice is a fellow who’s just an hour or so away.” His glance shifted past her.  “And here he is.”

 Before Mel could turn around, a man spoke in a rich, clear baritone behind her.  “Good morning, Angela, Corey,” he said to the clerk and dispatcher.

A shiver of recognition rocked through Mel.  But surely this couldn’t be Stefan Harper.  She risked a quick glance over her shoulder at the man strolling around the end of the counter and into the territory reserved for those with badges and weapons. 

Oh, God, it was him.

Her heart skipped a beat.  A buzz filled her ears, and she lost the thread of the sheriff’s comments.  Stefan Harper.  Voice of an archangel, hands of a sex god.  Or so she’d once described him, back when she’d thought he was the one person who loved her completely, who was wholly in her corner.

Her mistake.

“Hey, Stefan.”  Sheriff Burton walked forward to meet him.

Mel turned hastily back to the desk, toying with the paper in the file.  She was over him, had been for years.  So why wouldn’t her breathing settle?  It must be the shock of seeing him.  It could only be that.

Instead of the jeans and T-shirt combo he’d favored in med school, he wore a charcoal suit that fit as though it’d been tailored for him.  Otherwise, he hadn’t changed in the last nine years.  Same thick, dark hair neatly combed but in need of a trim.  Same strong chin and straight, aristocratic nose.  Same serious brown eyes with gold glints that never showed in photos.

Same generous mouth so adept at rousing her body.

Breathe, damn it

“Thanks for coming,” Sheriff Burton said, his gravelly voice a sharp contrast to Stefan’s almost liquid one.  “I don’t guess you’ve had a chance to go to the hospital yet.”

“No, sorry.  I’ll listen in on the press conference from the back, then talk to the crime scene unit before I go to the morgue.  Milledge agreed to meet me there.”

“That works.  Come on, I’ll introduce you to the FBI agent working with us on this.”

Footsteps came closer.  Mel steeled herself.  Deep breath.  In.  Out.  In.

“Stefan, this is Special Agent Wray.  Mel, meet Dr. Stefan Harper, our medical consultant.”

Mel squared her shoulders and turned to greet the man who had broken her heart.