Author’s Note: So I told myself today I’d be good and clean. I’d also finish my other story before doing too much Nano. Well… I couldn’t come up with anything but an “everyone dies at the end” solution for the other story, and cleaning came to a halt when the kitchen sink backed up. I woke with an iffy stomach this morning, and the sink made me queasy. My stomach took forever to settle after that.
So I got plenty of Nano done before happily being sidetracked into yet a third story, the collaboration with Liana Mir.
I should mention that Kaplan, who first cameoed in the last section and reappears here, is a character from another story, one as yet unpublished, and I’m not sure if she has more of a role in this yet. I did write a possible ending that involved her and more characters from her original story, and it was a fun thing to do, so I may revisit that or extend it.
“Why the hell should I?”
“Because I was acting like the overprotective jackass that I am when I saw him ogling you, and I would never have brought up the whole farce of a marriage we got forced into back then if I hadn’t been so bothered by him looking at you like that and because I swear I didn’t know they were feds when I agreed to take the consultation with them. This was only the preliminary meeting, and they would have gotten the same answer I just gave them—I can’t help them,” Nolan said, catching her arm. Shaelynn looked at his hand and considered twisting it off, but she didn’t like obeying knee-jerk reactions, not when they meant getting violent. That wasn’t her. It was what they’d tried to make her, a perfect soldier, but it wasn’t her.
She looked into Nolan’s eyes, taking a breath and letting it out as she realized he’d been stripped clean of all acts. This was him, raw and exposed, and the discomfort on his face told her he’d just noticed the same thing.
He let go of her arm. “I’m sorry. Old patterns, habits… You know that I did what I did so Nora didn’t end up your father’s twenty-first wife, and it wasn’t like he was the only one who seemed to be impatient for her to get old enough to marry off or even that looked at you when we were ‘married.’ Back then it was my responsibility to make them answer for that. It sickens me that I still think it’s my place to do it. I don’t want to live by his rules. I never did, but we had to survive—”
“I know.” She cut him off, wanting to stop talking about any of this. She didn’t want to remember, none of them did. They could almost function as friends if they didn’t think about that one aspect of things, but if they let that part get in, it became awkward. They had worked well together—that was their problem. She should have turned him in when he admitted his clumsy tactics with the gun—holding it in a way to look cool rather than control it—was about not using it like he was expected to, but she hadn’t. Somehow covering that up meant covering up more things, and they were a strange team before she hit a “marriageable” age and was handed off to Nolan like a damn prize.
Nolan looked away for a moment, and when he turned back, he was all business again. “I have to update another client in about an hour, but I have time to discuss those files you wanted to go over now since the feds won’t be staying.”
“You think they’ll accept no for an answer?”
“Honestly, what can anyone expect me to tell them now? That was thirteen years ago, and we worked on escaping from the inside out. I didn’t storm any compounds, and we didn’t confront your father directly. I’m not an expert, and I can’t prevent another Waco, not that they’d even expect that.”
Shaelynn nodded. She hadn’t expected him to say anything different, not when it was true. When it first happened, he’d been considered a hero for what he’d done to get as many of the kids out as possible, but he hadn’t done it to be a hero or a leader. He’d just done it for his sister. Their mother had fallen for her father’s lies and trapped them. Nolan got them out. That was all it was.
“I overreacted,” she said. “When I saw them, I thought… I thought all kinds of things I had no right to think. Even if they were true, I don’t have the right to judge you for working with them. It might even be good if you could help them get others out without standoffs. My father was prepared to make it the Alamo, not a mass suicide, but that fell apart when we wrecked the fence and took the kids.”
“Again, another reason why I can’t help them. There isn’t some kid from the streets full of resentment and never buying one ounce of the guy’s lies, never drinking the Kool-Aid in most of those groups. Most of the internal conflict there is the second or lieutenant thinking he wants the place as the leader. Not the case with us. That guy was sickeningly loyal to your father.”
She swallowed. “Subject change. Now.”
“You had six things you wanted to ask me about. Ask.”
“Seven, actually. I didn’t know you were such a cat person.”
“Who says I’m a cat person?”
“You wouldn’t work for a company that made inferior cat food when they asked for help reorganizing their company and remaking their image.”
He grimaced. “Yeah, well, the cult didn’t allow us to have pets, but back in the days of our crappy apartment, I befriended a cat or two over the years, only pets I ever had, but they were good for keeping me company when I wanted to pretend I didn’t know what my mother was doing—good for distracting Nora, too.”
She did curse then. “Why is it we can’t ever get away from that? I ask about cats and you mention it—and even if you hadn’t pointed out why I didn’t know about your affection for cats, that memory was painful. It’s like a field of land mines with us, isn’t it?”
“We could always try sticking to the weather.”
She snorted. “Very funny.”
“I know. That wasn’t much of an attempt there,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets. “This is going to be awkward no matter what I say now. That’s why you really stay away and why you working with me would be a bad idea and why we don’t even call each other on the phone most of the time. Too much past. It’s impossible to talk like this. We just bring up old horrors that need to stay buried.”
“Are you holding something back?”
He turned to her with a frown. “What?”
“You couldn’t sleep for almost a month before we stole the bus,” she reminded him. “You went over everything, obsessed over the details, and that’s what Nora thinks has put you back there. The sleeplessness. You have something going on that you’re not telling either of us?”
“An operation like that? No. I don’t—just because the feds came today doesn’t mean I had anything like that going on. I don’t. I wasn’t the one that was good at strategy—that was you. I got all the credit for it, but you were the one that made that plan work. I knew a few things from the streets, knew the stuff those militia drill instructors taught us, but I didn’t ever want to think strategy. The most strategy I ever had was knowing I could have eaten my own gun if I didn’t have Nora to protect.”
Shaelynn shook her head. “You were stronger than that.”
“Says you. I don’t believe it, and neither do the worms on my chest.”
She considered hitting him. She didn’t. She almost thought he wanted that. “You were having trouble sleeping before the trip, so we need to look closer at something you started working on before you left.”
“You have the files.”
“I know.” She put a hand on his arm. “Have Nora reschedule everything you were supposed to do today. You’re going home.”
She smiled. “You have to introduce me to your cats. Well, and you need to sleep.”
He blinked. “How do you know I have a cat? I don’t have cats.”
“You have at least three.”
“Fine, I have four, but that’s only because one of them needed a kitten,” Nolan said, defensive. She looked at him. “He kept escaping.”
“So you got him a kitten?”
“That kind of warped logic could only belong to you.”
Shaelynn stopped to scoop the kitten up into her hands as she watched Nolan try to get comfortable. The other three cats had claimed spots around him or on top of him, and she knew that she would never have been able to sleep like that, but he did seem comforted by the act of running his fingers through the black one’s fur, tangling in and out of it the way he used to do with Nora’s hair or even Shaelynn’s at times. She should have known he was a cat person.
She moved the orange fuzz onto her shoulder and reached for the door handle, pulling it shut behind her. She had said no to the slumber party, but maybe this was what he needed—to have someone around when he was trying to sleep. Maybe that was why the trip let him sleep, not the jet-lag. He’d had Nora nearby, and that was enough to get him through the night. His cats, while almost an army, were not enough.
She reached up to grab Creamsicle off her shoulder, shaking her head again at Nolan’s choice of name—it could have been worse, he’d said he considered naming the kitten after one of his worms, and she’d refused to let him tell her what he’d named his scars. “If I were you, I’d worry about getting eaten.”
The kitten blinked, starting to purr again, and she gave it a pat on the head before crossing back to where the files were. She was going to prioritize which ones she felt like asking him about, and maybe she’d let the kitten help with that.
She sat down on the couch, putting her feet on the table and the cat in her lap as she flipped open the file. “Brokerage firm?”
The purr stopped. She almost laughed. Yeah, she hadn’t thought much of that possibility herself. She’d held onto it because there was a lot of money involved, and money was almost always a good motive. She set the file to the side, picking up the next one. This one she liked more—if only because the guy involved seemed like slime—nothing in the file said he was, but he gave her that impression anyway—so she might start with that one, find out what Nolan thought of that.
The doorbell stopped her from consulting the next file. She got a bit of a squeak out of Creamsicle as she rose, and she pet him, calming him as she went to answer it. She frowned. “Kaplan.”
“I wanted to speak to Sheppard without Shaw to clarify a few things, and I figured trying to do it at the office was a bad idea. This was never about a cult—I work missing persons, and I am looking for two teenage girls, not a cult.”
Shaelynn willed herself not to grimace. She pulled the door open further. “Come in.”
“Sheppard did some work for one of the girls’ father, but I got the sense the man lied to me about what that work was. I figured I’d go to the source. Shaw, though, he went from assuming this thing was about a serial killer to a cult of serial killers when he saw Sheppard’s background,” Kaplan went on. Shaelynn looked at her, and the agent shrugged. “He’s my first partner since I transferred, but he’s about enough of an idiot to make me quit for good. My husband and his two brothers have all offered to kick the crap out of Shaw. They’re all very overprotective.”
“You have the gun and the badge, though.”
Kaplan laughed. “So does the husband. And the brothers have guns—one’s army, the other’s navy. Shaw is either going to transfer or disappear himself by the end of the year.”
Shaelynn found herself smiling. “I’d recommend a different line of work, personally.”
“Your instincts as good as Sheppard’s?”
“Technically, my name is Sheppard, too,” Shaelynn said. She let the kitten go so she wouldn’t squeeze it as she spoke. “I took the name when Nolan and Nora went back to the name they’d been born with—I didn’t want my father’s for any reason, and for a time, I did actually think Nolan was my husband, so it made sense.”
Kaplan nodded. “It does.”
“Look, all of that is in the past. It’s supposed to stay there. Nolan reacted like it wasn’t, like he was seventeen again, and I overreacted because he’d promised me when we got out he’d never be involved in any cult—not as a deprogrammer like people were telling him he should be, not as law enforcement—they kept trying to tell us it was a good way to use the skills my father forced on us, but we never wanted those skills. The idea of using them sickens me.”
“I don’t blame you. My husband had to kill someone in the line of duty, someone that almost killed him, and it still eats at him even though he didn’t have a choice.” Kaplan reached into her jacket pocket and took out two photographs, passing them to her. “Those are the girls I’m looking for.”
“And only one of them is the daughter of the guy Nolan consulted for?”
“Supposedly. The resemblance is what made Shaw jump to serial killer, but for me, it was another warning bell.”
“You have DNA to test them and be sure they’re sisters?”
“At the lab. I’m hoping for something more like an accidental meeting and outrage over family lies that caused the girls to run off for a while—there’s a better chance of a happier end there—but I know it’s possible they’re dead because of the resemblance. Still doesn’t mean a serial killer or a cult.”
Shaelynn carried the photos over to the couch, spread out the files, and found the one she wanted. “I’d flagged this for a different reason, but I’d say that someone’s political ambitions are out the window now that everyone knows he’s got another daughter out there.”
“Had his eye on being mayor then governor and on to president,” Shaelynn said. She’d been a bit ticked that Nolan had taken on that one, too, but he’d squashed the guy’s ambitions, so she was more okay with that one—she just figured that the other guy might not have taken it so well, and if it connected to these missing girls, maybe this was it, the thing that was keeping Nolan up at night.
“Spare me,” Kaplan muttered. She shook her head. “I thought I’d gotten away from most of that when I transferred out of DC.”
“Well, she should have,” Nolan said. “You should have had a warrant for what’s in that file, and Shaelynn didn’t have the right to share it with you.”
She shrugged. “You never made me sign any non-disclosure agreements when you gave me the files, and I don’t work for you. You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
“Can’t sleep with voices in the other room. You know that.” He came around to the edge of the couch. “I should tell you that the confidentiality agreement between me and Bavelier has been violated, and I could get sued if you confront him with what you learned through Shaelynn.”
“If need be, I’ll get a warrant. Was the second daughter part of why you discouraged him from office?”
“More that I knew he was a philanderer and wouldn’t admit it, even when I said he needed to disclose everything to me so that the evaluation could be made with all the variables. If he thought he could keep that sort of thing a secret, he was an idiot. I saw the way he looked at my sister.”
Kaplan’s face flickered with distaste, mostly contained, carefully controlled. “You’re not saying he likes ’em young, are you?”
“Nora may act twelve sometimes, but she’s twenty-six. She’s at least half his age, but it’s still not as bad as it could have been,” Nolan said. “I hadn’t heard his daughter went missing. I’m not surprised he has more than one, but I didn’t find her before I shut down my evaluation. It didn’t take a genius to know that he was never going to get elected. I told him that. End of consultation.”
“How’d he take that?”
Nolan laughed. “You thought he was a threat to me, Shaelynn? No. Not him. He was arrogant, so self-important that he couldn’t believe things were other that what he thought they were, but he was not dangerous. He didn’t have the connection to reality to be a threat. He assumed that I was just going to tell him what he wanted to hear. I didn’t. He said he’d convince everyone he knew not to hire me, but I haven’t seen any decline in business, so I don’t think that worked.”
Kaplan glanced between them. He shook his head. “My sister thinks I’m a screw loose or two since I got shot last year. She asked Shaelynn here to make sure I wasn’t, and when I made the mistake of mentioning my insomnia, I now have two people overreacting to it. I’m fine. I don’t think Bavelier is at all involved in my lack of sleep, and while I’m glad this had nothing to do with any cults, I know I wasn’t much help.”
“You did talk to the daughter,” Shaelynn reminded him. “What did you get out of that?”
“Other than a renewed hatred for you?”
“Not much. She hated her father, didn’t want him going into politics, and she didn’t have much use for someone she thought was helping him.”
Kaplan let out a breath. “If you think of anything else, give me a call. I’d appreciate anything that might help me find those girls.”
Nolan took the card from her with a nod. “I assure you, if I had anything I thought would help, you’d have it, confidentiality be damned. I just… don’t know anything helpful.”
Shaelynn wasn’t sure if the agent believed that. She didn’t know if she herself did, though she didn’t think he was crazy enough to try and pursue that on his own, not with his insomnia and everything else, but she didn’t know what went on in his head these days.
Kaplan started toward the door. Nolan turned the card over in his fingers. “Agent?”
“Either of those brothers of your husband single? I’ve got a sister I’d love to get rid of.”
“You sure you don’t know anything else about her case?”
“The daughter was extremely hostile and had a colorful vocabulary, but that’s not going to help anything. It might suggest that she was more of a runaway than any kind of victim, but I don’t know that we—that she—can assume that. Kaplan’s case. Not mine. Not yours. I’d give her information if I had it, but I don’t have it. I don’t know what to tell her other than I hope she finds those girls before it’s too late.” Nolan rubbed the back of his neck as he leaned over the stove, turning on the back burner and the kettle. “I can’t believe you’d think I’d keep something from them. What do you take me for?”
“Someone who handles things his own way and always has,” Shaelynn said, walking up behind him. He tried not to jump when she put her hands on his shoulders, fingers working down into his skin. She was good at this, had done it for him before when they trained together and after, but not since the day she left the first time. They weren’t those kids anymore. “You are very tense.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t want me to work that out on the mats.”
“You haven’t slept. Nora’s right. That’s not fair, and I’m not Ambrose.”
Nolan flinched. Shaelynn let go of him and went to the counter leaning against it. “Yeah, I never managed to forget him, either. One silver lining, if you want to call it that, is knowing that he was killed in the raid on the compound.”
Nolan closed his eyes. He hadn’t found much comfort in that, though he doubted he would have found it if their trainer had lived and was locked away for the rest of his life, either. He didn’t know that he could ever get rid of that rhetoric they were shoving down them at the same time as they tried to turn them into soldiers.
“You have all those luxuries at the office, and you still make coffee over the stove?”
“I know just how I like it. None of the machines can make it like I do, no matter how ‘smart’ they are or how many features they have.” He shrugged. “Old habits, I guess. I was doing this back before I liked coffee, back with Mom before the drugs, before your father…”
“You ever think about what it would have been like if he hadn’t found her and convinced her to join him?”
Nolan grimaced. “I try not to. Things were bad enough in the cult, but she was in a bad downward spiral. Her addiction was so bad she barely functioned, and she didn’t make a lot of money like that—the time was coming when she was going to overdose. Social services could have taken us away, I guess, and that’s somehow the best outcome. I don’t want to think much about the others.”
“I had that nightmare again last month. Haven’t had it in over five years, but there it was, the one where we never got out of there… Pissed me off so bad—I am tired of it having that much hold over me—over any of us.”
He snorted. “And we’re the lucky ones. Nora never had to get married, you weren’t one of his wives because you were his daughter, and I somehow ended up the head of our ‘house’ and didn’t get executed for being a bad child soldier.”
“Dream was different this time.”
He stiffened. “I died?”
“No. You drank the Kool-Aid.”
He didn’t think it could have hurt more if he’d been shot again. Boath had tried to indoctrinate him, and Ambrose had done his best in the training to help break him as well. He’d come close a few times, close to breaking, to giving in. “I think you should go back home, Shaelynn. I’m sure I will find a way to sleep again, and it was never your concern.”
“I don’t think I ever really thought about it in those terms before—oh, everyone called you a hero when we got out, people praised you and said you were something special, and the ones that were loyal to my father hated you as the worst kind of traitor—but I never stopped and thought about how much of an impact you had on all of us.”
“Motivational speeches were never your style. What gives? If you were going to have some kind of… moment over me, shouldn’t it have been when I got shot? All of this is rather… late.”
She looked at him, shrugging. “You’re not the only one who can get philosophical, and I was never good at timing.”
“Liar. You’re trying to make me feel better after that whole Kool-Aid comment.”
“Do I get coffee?”
He looked at her. “I shouldn’t give you this because you did make that damned Kool-Aid comment in the first place, but if you and I held grudges, where the hell would we be now?”
“Dead,” she said, and he would have winced if he hadn’t known that answer before he asked the question. In a messed up way, they’d saved each other back then, and that stupid bond left them stuck together when anyone sane would have parted company the moment they were free and stayed that way. “Cups?”
He pointed to the cupboard above her head. She reached up for one, taking it down and shaking her head. “You continue to surprise me. I wouldn’t have pegged you as a guy with cartoons on his coffee mugs.”
“Shrinks said I never developed emotionally. You should see my comic collection.”