Authors: CJ Lyons
“Work.” Another lie. Well, to be fair, the same lie repeated.
“I thought you were glad they hadn’t given you a new assignment.” He wrapped his arms
around her, pulled her closer, his fingers brushing against the K-shaped scar on her
chest. Souvenir from six months ago when she’d tangled with a psychopath. It tingled
beneath his touch. She shifted her weight until his hand came to rest over her breast
instead. So much better. As she was relaxing into his embrace, thinking maybe it was
time for more diversionary sexual fun and games, he broke the mood by saying, “Who
knows where they might send you.”
His voice held a plaintive tone. She tried to lighten things. “Bismarck, North Dakota.”
He sat up straight. “Seriously?”
She managed a smile, although he couldn’t see it in the dark. Bismarck was where the
academy instructors threatened to send agents in training who screwed up. “No. Just
an old FBI joke.”
“I don’t think it’s funny.” He lay back, silent, as his thumb traced circles along
the curve of her shoulder. Usually his touch was enough to relax her, but tonight
it was more of a distraction. One more thing to worry about: leaving him when she
was finally reassigned. Hurting him. Being hurt herself.
This—them—was never supposed to last this long. Way past her usual relationship boundaries,
she was lost without a map.
* * *
When Caitlyn finally drifted to sleep, her dreams were filled with fragments of images,
colliding as she tried to piece them together into a coherent whole. Lena, laughing,
toddling away from Vonnie, who chased after her with a clean diaper … Dad and Eli
Hale siting on the porch but instead of relaxing, rocking their chairs as they sipped
their beers, their heads leaned together in earnest conversation. It was always funny
to see them together like that: pale, carrot-topped Sean Tierney, thin and wiry, head-to-head
with a man almost twice his size, dark chestnut skin, shaved head.
“You girls go play,” her dad had snapped when she and Vonnie bounded up the steps.
“Go on now, leave us be.”
Eli said nothing, just gave Vonnie a sharp look that made her eyes go wide as she
tugged at Caitlyn’s arm, pulling her back down the porch steps. It was a bad time—Eli
was in some kind of trouble and Sean Tierney was the only person who could help him.
That’s what her dad did, he helped folks. Best job in the world, he said.
Caitlyn wanted to be just like him. She led Vonnie around to the side of the porch
where they slid through a gap in the latticework and crouched immediately below their
dads. How could they help if they didn’t know what was going on?
“It’s the truth,” Sean Tierney was saying, his voice raised rather than the calm,
even tone that Caitlyn usually found so comforting. “Why should I stop saying it?”
“Stop being so mule-headed. Everything they have says I did it. I killed that man.
Best thing for all is if I say it, too.” Eli sounded sad, like someone had died or
“That’s crazy! You can’t do that—”
“You let me decide what I can and can’t do,” Eli answered in a grim voice. “I’ll do
whatever it takes to keep my family safe.”
A man’s boots thudded so hard above them dirt rained down on where Vonnie and Caitlyn
crouched. “I’m not going to lie. Especially not if it means sending an innocent man
“Then don’t say anything. You need to shut up and just mind your own business about
it. Hear me?”
“Eli, I can’t—”
“Not asking if you can or can’t, Sean. I’m telling you. This is the way it’s gotta
be.” His voice dropped. “Don’t make me beg, man. I will. But don’t make me do it.”
A woman’s scream drowned out Sean Tierney’s reply. Caitlyn sat up in bed, still half
asleep. Was it a dream?
A thud shook the wall behind her. Paul moaned and rolled over, reaching for her. She
moved his arm away and slipped out of bed, grabbing her service weapon.
“Don’t!” the woman screamed again. The sound of a slap cut her off.
“Caitlyn, where are you going?” Paul whispered as he climbed out of bed and came to
“I need to see what’s happening, help her.”
He grabbed her arm. “Stop. There’s no one to save. They go through this every few
weeks. Get drunk, bust up the place, then make up again.”
“Get the phone, call nine-one-one.”
“I’m telling you there’s no need. Seriously.” He pivoted her to face him. “She’s fine.
First few times I went over myself just to make sure. They’ll break a lot of glass—”
Another thud against the wall punctuated his words. “Scream at each other, but believe
me, there’s nothing you need to involve yourself with. Besides, she gives as good
as she gets.”
She stared at him. Who was he to make that judgment? Did he have any idea how many
women were killed inside their own homes by the men they loved?
“I know why you do it, why you rush in,” he continued. Paul always needed to analyze
everything, just like he did with his X-rays and MRIs.
“I’m not rushing into anything. I’m a trained federal law enforcement officer. This
is my job.”
“It’s survivor’s guilt.”
That got her attention. Divided it between what was going on next door and her plan
of approach. Never good to have your attention torn when dealing with a domestic,
but he couldn’t know that. “What?”
“You feel guilty about that guy dying and you living.” He was talking about her last
case, right before they met. She’d never told him the details, although it had been
in the news. Not all of the facts, but enough for him to fill in the blanks. “It wasn’t
your fault, Caitlyn. You think you owe him something, like somehow you can pay him
back if you go out and save the world. But you don’t owe anyone anything.”
She froze. Caught between Paul and the exit. No cover. Just like her agent in training
earlier today. The sounds from the apartment next door vanished. The pistol in her
hand felt heavy, holding her in place like an anchor.
Paul stepped forward, placed his hands on her shoulders. For once his touch didn’t
bring comfort with it. She shrugged his hands away. “Caitlyn.” His voice was colored
by the slightest hint of irritation—which only pushed her farther from him. “Come
back to bed.”
Suddenly, shivering in the dark, straining to hear if a woman on the other side of
the wall was still alive, clarity lanced through her as sharp as a blade and she knew
what Paul really wanted. “You want me to quit.”
He didn’t even flinch. “You’ve paid your dues, almost got killed yourself. Twice.
I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you.” He reached for her once more,
wrapping his arms around her from behind, his lips brushing the top of her head. His
scent was intoxicating and she almost relented, almost surrendered.
Sounds of a bed squeaking and a woman’s laughter came from the apartment next door.
Not dead. Just loud foreplay. Paul was right. About one thing.
Caitlyn stepped away from his embrace and re-holstered her weapon before turning to
face him. “You’re serious. About me quitting.”
He looked surprised. “You’re so smart, Caitlyn. You could do anything you want. Why
stay in a dead-end job with no chance of advancement when your bosses don’t want you
At that moment he sounded exactly like her mother, constantly disappointed that Caitlyn
hadn’t done more with her life, that she’d chosen to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Exactly like the voice in her head every time her boss called to tell her that OPR
had a few more questions or that her fit rep was delayed again or that the Bureau
was searching for the “right” position for her and it might take a while before she
received another active-duty assignment.
The brass at the FBI didn’t want her there, so why stay? Why wait for them to find
a reason to fire her? Why not just leave?
She wished she had an answer.
Wished even more that she could ignore the resentment smoldering in her, lit by Paul’s
suggestion that she quit. He’d said “we” as if it was his decision as much as hers.
As if it was his life.
Well, hell. At least she was back on familiar territory as far as relationships went.
She knew where this was headed.
He smiled and reached for her when she sat on the bed. She leaned forward, avoiding
his hand, and grabbed her jeans from where she’d hung them on the footboard.
“What are you doing?” Wounded pride undercut his smooth baritone.
“I have to go.”
“At this time of night? Where?”
“North Carolina.” She didn’t bother with her bra, slid her fleece V-neck over her
tank top. Her hair came out flyaway static, red strands shimmering in the dim light
from the window.
“I thought we weren’t going to Charlotte until next month.”
Right. The dreaded trip to see her mom, then on to his folks in Atlanta. “Not Charlotte.
A federal penitentiary outside Raleigh. I have to meet a prisoner.”
Five minutes later she was on the other side of his front door trying to deny the
wave of relief that swamped her. He was a good man, didn’t deserve this shit. Her
She missed him already.
He was most worried about the leopard.
The others had taken to their new homes just fine, like it was meant to be. Well,
except the chimps. They’d outsmarted him that first night. Bernie had locked the cabin
doors but they’d busted out through a window instead. Hadn’t left, though—they seemed
to enjoy playing hide-and-seek, leaping down on him when he was feeding or changing
the straw he’d put down for the others, chattering away at him from rooftops and trees,
scampering from cabin to cabin, exploring. Right at home. Just like the others.
Sure, the three-toed sloth kept gouging at the walls of the cabin it shared with the
lemurs, but as soon as he moved a stack of firewood and some downed tree branches
in there, it was as happy as a trout gulping mayflies. Even the lion, old and weary
and moth-eaten as it was, had settled into its new quarters just fine. Gave a rumble
and a toothless smile every time Bernie opened the cabin door to deliver it fresh
Bernie was beginning to think that maybe, if he could figure out a way to keep the
Reapers from finding out that he was the one who had stolen the animals, maybe he
could actually keep them here with him. Probably not. But it turned out it wasn’t
as easy as he’d imagined, giving stolen wild animals away to a good home. The zoos
he’d called all wanted documents, health records, stuff like that.
Heck, he couldn’t even get the leopard to eat. Bernie had taken extra care with its
home, placing it in the sturdy log cabin main lodge instead of the more flimsy guest
cabins scattered around the grounds. After Bernie boarded up the windows and it couldn’t
claw its way through the lodge’s walls, it tore through the plaster ceiling and holed
up in the rafters. Every time Bernie came near the lodge it made a noise like it was
sick to its stomach, a soft keening that made Bernie’s own stomach clench, his every
instinct warning him to flee.
He couldn’t abandon the poor thing. Not after everything it’d been through, first
with that asshole with the exotic petting “zoo” over in Pigeon Forge, and then after
the Reapers had taken the animals when their keeper defaulted on his loan. The motorcycle
club figured they’d make money with the exotic beasts, so lost and far from the homes
they’d been snatched from. Planned to sell hunters a chance of a lifetime.
So what’d they do once they had the things in cages on the back of a flatbed? Started
shooting. Training them for the chase, Poppy said, using an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle
on the ground below the truck as a target, laughing when the glass flew into the chimps’
cage, sending them screeching and flying up the chain link to the farthest corner.
Bernie loved Poppy, loved all the guys in the motorcycle club. The MC was his family.
But just like his real family, sometimes they could be total assholes.
Maybe the leopard was still in shock. Maybe that was why it wouldn’t eat or come down
from its perch, just lay up there making those noises that rattled his fillings and
made his hair stand upright.
He parked his truck in front of the large two-story log cabin. The Teddy Roosevelt
Lodge had seen better days. Built back in the 1930s in the hope that the new Smoky
Mountains National Park the CCC and WPA were carving out of the mountains would attract
families, it sported fourteen separate cabins spread out along the perimeter backing
the woods as well as the central two-story main building. The land was rugged, the
lodge so high it spent most of the day shrouded in either fog or shadow. It was situated
adjacent to the far northeastern corner of the Cherokee Reservation’s Qualla Boundary,
sandwiched between it and the national park with no room for further development.
The original owner was optimistic the privacy and spectacular view would make building
halfway up the side of a mountain a gamble that would pay off despite the only access
being a treacherous road that would challenge most vehicles.
He’d been wrong. And so the property had languished, turned over a dozen times to
equally enthusiastic developers, until finally Bernie’s dad took it on while making
a bigger deal, and gave it to Bernie, saying, “Even you can’t screw it up any more
than it already is.”
Best thing Dad ever did for his son. Bernie loved the lodge. There were no neighbors
or visitors; no one wanted to drive up the narrow, twisted single-lane road going
nowhere. When life with the Reapers got too rowdy and overwhelming, he could come
here and think and dream.
He imagined the lodge turned into a real home, he and a girl settling down, raising
a bunch of kids who’d grow up with the animals, learning to live together in harmony
with nature. Most of his dream came from movies and TV shows he’d watched as a kid,
old ones from back when his folks were young themselves, like
Gilligan’s Island, Tarzan, Swiss Family Robinson, Doctor Dolittle