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All the Little Children

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Disclaimer: All recognizable characters of Gargoyles and Garyoles: The Goliath Chronicles are the sole property of Buena Vista Television/The Walt Disney Company. No infringement of these copyrights is intended and it is not authorized by the copyright holder. All original characters are the property of the author, WhisperingWolf.

Warning: There will be instances of graphic violence, detailed descriptions of crime scenes, crimes against children, psychological torment, adult language and situations, and nudity. If you have a weak stomach or are easily triggered, hit the back button now. You have been warned.

 

All the Little Children

By WhisperingWolf

Prologue

Breaking Point

 

 

Elisa sighed heavily as she braced her hands against the counter in front of the mirrors. She dropped her head as she drew in a deep breath, holding it until the immediate wave of nausea passed. Tears stung behind her eyes as she blew out the breath she’d been holding, grimacing at the tinge of bile in the air. She’d been chugging Scope mouthwash like an alcoholic just to keep those around her from knowing how sick she’d been getting on this case.

It was one thing if a male cop lost their lunch at a crime scene, but if a female detective did . . . She had worked too long and too hard to be taken seriously by the people around her to risk letting anyone see how sick this case was making her. When other detectives and cops threw up at murder scenes or during an autopsy, she didn’t. She’d learned breathing techniques, stared at the most gruesome pictures she could for hours on end, all but desensitizing herself to blood and gore. But this case . . . with the very first scene she and Matt had been called to, had undone all of it.

She could still remember the smell of the alleyway, the metallic tang of blood, the putrid sweetness of decaying food and rotting animal carcasses. When she closed her eyes, she could still see the reflections of red and blue lights bouncing off the clouded remains of broken windows, hear the reflection of the sirens, the sound distorting as cars approached and left. But what got to her most, was the absolute silence of those around her. No one spoke, no one could speak. It was all anyone could do not to scream . . . not to cry.

Captain Chavez had made the decision from the very beginning to keep any all information about this case out of the media, off the radio waves. She had ordered a complete radio silence including emails or computer-generated reports. Anything that could be hacked, overheard, or recorded was prohibited. Elisa understood why, but the hardest part about it all, was that Captain Chavez—knowing her involvement with the gargoyles—had issued a gag order to both her and Matt. As much as she feared what a human might do in retaliation to the person committing these heinous murders, she was even more afraid of what the gargoyles might do. Not because she didn’t trust them, but because she knew how they reacted to an innocent adult being hurt, and these victims? They hadn’t even reached puberty yet.

Elisa jerked as she slapped a hand over her mouth, spinning around on her heel and running for the nearest open stall. She didn’t even have time to close and lock the door before she was retching again, bile and a tiny bit of water coming up. The tears that had been stinging behind her eyes slid down her cheeks, the crystalline drops burning hot against her skin as she tried desperately to gain control of her rebellious stomach. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if she had been able to see the clan, to see Goliath, but she hadn’t been able to go see him since the gag order was given.

If he saw her in the state she was in now, he would demand to know what had happened, what was wrong, and she knew that she couldn’t tell him. Not seeing him was easier than lying to him, or refusing to speak all together, but not seeing him only made things that much worse. No matter how bad a case had been in the past, no matter how monstrous a case had been, if she couldn’t sleep, all Goliath had to do was hold her safe in the twin embrace of his arms and wings. The demons that haunted her would melt away, the fear and horror would disappear for just a little while, and then she could sleep, trusting in the safety of his protection. She had never realized just how much she had come to rely on him for that . . . until now.

 

~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~

 

Any other precinct, any other city, and the FBI would have been called in by now, Matt Bluestone thought as he stepped toward the ladies’ bathroom. He stopped walking with a sigh, moved to lean his back against the wall on the left side of the door and stood with legs crossed at the ankles, his hands tucked deep into his pants pockets. Pursing his lips as he released a deep sigh, he tipped his head back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling. The hell of it was, he knew why the Feds weren’t getting involved in this one—or any serial case for that matter—that involved their precinct.

If the FBI took on this case, became involved and tried to solve it, they would end up meeting the gargoyles, one way or another. And if any of the Federal agents met one of the clan, they would then have to admit to the reality that the winged creatures existed. But more to the point, he thought, if the FBI admitted to the existence of the gargoyles, then the federal government would be forced to become involved in it and the last thing anyone in any agency wanted to do was have to make the ruling as to whether the gargoyles were legal residents or illegal aliens.

The gargoyles’ existence had become for New York what the Roswell landing had become to New Mexico. No one outside of their city admitted to their existence, and for those who did, they were treated the same as those who had claimed to be victims of alien abductions. Small favors, he reminded himself. For all those who had already tried to capture and experiment on the clan—Xanatos being the most notorious among them—he could be thankful the American government hadn’t tried to throw their hand in the pile. If the Army Research Lab got a hold of any of the gargoyles then it would be game over.

Matt winced in sympathy when he heard the sound of retching coming from inside the ladies’ bathroom and sighed as he slipped his hands from his pants pockets in order to cross his arms over his chest. Two months they’d been on this case already, and each day his partner was looking more haggard than the last. He knew she wasn’t keeping her food down, the woman only making a show of eating when they were at their desks to keep Captain Chavez from getting too suspicious. He considered it a good day when Elisa was able to stomach a few saltines and actually keep them down.

“M.E. called,” he said when the bathroom door opened and Elisa stepped out. “There’s been another body found.” He studied her through narrowed eyes when she remained quiet. Her normal cafe-au-lait complexion had turned sallow with a green undertone, her hair lifeless and flat, even her dark eyes seemed listless and haunted. “You look like Hell warmed over, partner.”

“Where?” Elisa asked as she pushed her dark hair behind her ear, her voice scratchy and weak.

Matt’s eyes widened as he watched her take the travel size bottle of Scope mouthwash from her jacket pocket. No matter how many times he’d watched her do it over the past several weeks, he would never get used to her habit of rinsing her mouth with the stinging blue mint wash only to swallow it down after having done so. He winced as he watched her repeat the process once more and shook his head as he followed her back to their desks in the bull pen.

“I can handle this one alone, if you want to go home,” he offered, only to hold his hands up in defense when she offered him a caustic glare.

“Where?” she repeated her question.

He sighed as he shook his head. “Out by The Cloisters. The guy at the scene said the person who found her thought she was part of the exhibit.”

“She?” Elisa repeated warily, meeting his gaze for a brief second before moving around the room as though she expected demons to jump out of the shadows at her. “It’s another girl? How many does that make?”

Matt sighed. “Four boys . . . ten girls. She’s number eleven, and from the reports, she doesn’t look that old. They said she looks younger than the others. Four—maybe five—tops.”

He pressed his lips together to keep from saying anything when his partner jumped at the sound of calls that began flooding the station. He’d expected it, but she hadn’t. More to the point, he thought, she’d been jumping at everything lately. What he had believed to just be poor sleep was looking more and more like no sleep at all. He didn’t know when the last time she’d gone home was, having been told more than once that she was using the locker room to shower and change, keeping to her desk long after he’d already gone home.

“That gag order we’ve been under, Captain still doesn’t want us talking to the press, not like we would,” he added as he gathered his holstered gun from his desk drawer and secured it to his belt. “But you should be able to tell the clan now. The kid who found the body is a journalism student at NYU. He called his college advisor before calling us, and the advisor called his friend down at the Times, and now her murder’s all over the news. This is the only one the press knew about, or at least it would have been, if the M.E.’s assistant hadn’t decided that fifteen minutes of fame was worth more than his job.”

He studied her when she remained silent, watching as she pinched the bridge of her nose, her brow furrowed as she held her breath. She was trying not to throw up again. Shaking his head as he tapped the back of his hand against the outside of her shoulder, he held out his hand—palm up—and waited until she placed her car keys in his hand. There was no way he was going to let her drive, not in the condition she was in. If he had it his way, she wouldn’t even be here right now. The dark cotton shirt and blue jeans that had once fit her perfectly, accentuating all her natural curves, now hung off her like they were two sizes too big.

“When was the last time you saw the clan?” he asked her quietly as they moved toward the elevator.

“Not since we received the gag order,” she told him tiredly. “Two nights before I got that first letter from ‘Santa’.”

“I can’t believe he’s calling himself that,” Matt snarled through clenched teeth, his brow furrowed. “Forensics still can’t get anything off the letters that psycho’s been sending you?” he asked and watched as Elisa shook her head.

“The last letter he sent . . .” She shook her head, and he frowned at the brightness of tears in her eyes. “He wrote me a sonnet about how he killed Vivian Marsh. He thinks he’s in love with me and treats these murders like he’s sending me flowers,” she cursed, crossing her arms over her chest as the elevator doors closed, separating them from the rest of the people in the building. “He described the way she screamed, the scent of her blood, the sound of her tears.”

The doors to the elevator opened at the ground floor, and Matt frowned at the desk sergeant that was waiting for them.

“Thanks for riding The NYPD Expressway,” the man said as he reached in and hit the button to return them to the floor they had come from. “Please keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times, and when the doors open again, proceed to the Captain’s Cabin for a full briefing.”

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Matt said as the doors closed.

“Last time he did that,” Elisa began with trepidation.

“Son of a bitch dropped two bodies in one night,” Matt finished for her and shook his head. “He’s got to have a partner. No way he doesn’t.”

“Captain,” Elisa greeted the woman when the elevator doors opened.

“He dropped another one,” Captain Chavez said as she handed a folded notecard to Matt. “Reporting Officer got the location wrong and I had to call back out to the deputy on the scene.”

“Son of a bitch,” Matt cursed. “Tell me you’re joking,” he growled.

“Lexington and Sycamore?” Elisa asked as she looked at the notecard. She took the heavyweight paper from Matt, turning it over to see the new address Captain Chavez had written down. Her face paled as her eyes widened. “Twenty-Four Sycamores Park?” she asked as she looked up.

“Be warned,” Chavez told them both, her eyes hard. “The guy on the scene said that this one is the worst one he’s seen. Child is unidentifiable, at least to him. He said the body’s on display and secured to the playset tower the kids use. The one built for the kids ten and under.”

“Oh god, who found the body? Patrol officer?” Matt asked, eyeing Elisa and frowning when he watched her fold her lips in over teeth, biting down as if afraid she would throw up right then and there.

“No.” Chavez blinked as her expression became grim. “A young mother and her two-year old daughter. Thank god that kid’s young enough that she probably won’t remember any of this when she gets older, but her mother wasn’t afforded the same luxury. Get out there and find this guy.”

Matt watched Elisa from the corner of his eye, the pallor of her skin and the way she was barely breathing at all made him worry she might pass out. She didn’t say anything as the doors closed once more, her hand shaking as she reached out for the panel inside the elevator, hitting the button for the bottom floor. If she could just make it through this day, he thought as he shook his head, then maybe she would be okay.

 

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She, Elisa thought as she stood staring at the scene before her. This child was a girl as well. The officer at the scene hadn’t been willing to get close enough to see the one marker left of the child that identified her gender. A tiny white hair clip with a little yellow daisy painted in the middle of it hung from the ends of the girl’s once vibrant corn silk hair, the barrette tucked under the folded, bloodstained collar of the shirt she wore. The clothing was too badly torn, too stained in the child’s own blood to see what designs may have been on it.

The shirt was torn down the middle and spread open, each side secured to the child’s arms with staples. Elisa closed her eyes as she took in a series of deep breaths, releasing them slowly as she reminded herself not to let it show how much this all bothered her. She couldn’t get sick out here at a crime scene, especially not with the news trucks filming and the civilians watching from behind the yellow tape. Opening her eyes when she felt the initial burn of nausea pass, she took a few steps forward and forced herself to look at the child.

Her face had been carefully—skillfully—peeled off. There were no deep lacerations, no bits of skin left in places or any jagged tears in the ring around where the cuts had been made. The skin covering her neck had been split down the center, across the top of her throat, and just above her collarbone, the skin peeled back in a manner that reminded her of a butterfly with its wings spread open. She had been cut down the middle, from sternum to bellybutton, in a perfectly straight line. Her skin had been pulled apart, separated from the muscle underneath. Her small and large intestines had been removed. They weren’t hanging to the ground, or spilling out of her body, they were just gone. The son of a bitch was keeping souvenirs now?

“Found ‘em!” Elisa frowned as she turned her head, looking in the direction of the voice, her eyes widening when the officer the voice belonged to pointed at the swing set. “Mark, get shots of this. Paul, bag and tag ‘em when he’s done.”

“Oh my god,” she whispered as bile burned in the back of her throat.

The girl’s intestines had been wrapped around the chains on one of the swings, the organ stretched out and wrapped smoothly like a ribbon only to be tied in a bow at the bottom. Elisa shook her head as she turned away, unable to look at anything else. Her brow furrowed when her eyes caught the edge of something buried in the sand. Moving slowly as she crouched down to get a better look, she brushed a tiny bit of the sand away from the edge of the thing, only to stumble back as she scrambled to her feet, her eyes wide.

“Elisa?” Matt called out to her as he jogged toward her and she held out her arm to keep him from stepping on the item.

“Her face,” she said, her voice choked as she turned away. “I can’t—I can’t,” she shook her head as she stepped away, her breaths coming faster as the back of her throat burned.

“C’mon,” Matt said as he tucked his notebook into the pocket of his trench coat before grabbing her shoulders and leading her away from the crime scene. “Nobody’s gonna think any less of you for this,” he told her when she shook her head. “Here,” he said as he led her over to a bench where she could sit down.

She couldn’t hear over the buzzing in her ears, the world spinning around her as spots danced in her vision. She knew she was sitting because she was no longer moving, her body bent forward over her thighs, her hands braced on her knees as she struggled to breathe. The voices and noises around her began coming at her from a distance, her mind struggling to comprehend what they were, and she jerked, crying out when someone touched her shoulder.

“Maza!”

Elisa squeezed her eyes closed as she bent lower, blowing out a deep breath as she fought against the nausea twisting her insides.

“Get her out of here, Bluestone,” Chavez commanded, her voice coming to Elisa at a distance.

“No,” Elisa choked out, trying to push herself to her feet only to be pushed back down by both her partner and her captain. “I’m fine.”

“The hell you are, Maza,” Chavez argued. Elisa grimaced as she looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. “Oh hell. Take her home, Bluestone. Both of you need at least a few days off—"

“Captain, I’m fine!” Elisa argue as she rose to her feet, only to fall back down to the bench she’d been sitting on, the world around her spinning once more.

“No, you’re not,” the older woman insisted. “You two have been pulling doubles and been on-call since all this started. I can’t get the FBI to return my calls about this case, not that I expected them to.” The woman sighed as she shook her head. “Whoever thought that gargoyles would be real, or that the Feds would be afraid of them?”

“They’re not afraid, per say,” Matt replied and met Elisa’s gaze when she looked up at him with a frown. “Thing is, if they take this case, or any case, in our precinct, then there’s a damn good chance that at least one of them will meet the gargoyles. If that happens, then what they were able to discount as mass hysteria in the same way they could Roswell junkies, now becomes something that they have to file a report on. They file a report, it goes to the DOJ. And the DOJ—"

“Would never willingly admit to non-human intelligent sentient creatures that were not robots created by humans,” Elisa finished, and Matt nodded with a sigh. “So, no matter what Hail Mary pass we call, we’re on our own with this.” She shook her head before turning her attention on Captain Chavez. “You can’t bench me, Capt—"

“Oh yes, I can. For the next twenty-four hours—at least—you two are to go home and get some sleep. Come back in tomorrow morning, and if either of you still looks dead on your feet,” she said, pausing as she gave both detectives a hard stare, “then you’ll be out for the rest of the week. You two are the best detectives I have, and the only two who’ve been able to handle this case with any sense of sanity. But I will not risk your health in the process. I need you both at your best.”

 

~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~

 

Elisa blinked, frowned as she stared at the dash of her car. They were moving, Matt behind the wheel and her strapped in the passenger seat. She didn’t remember getting in the car. For that matter, she didn’t remember getting up from the park bench at the crime scene.

“You’re awake,” Matt said as he slowed for a red light. “You were pretty out of it at the scene. You didn’t respond at all when she and I helped you up from the bench and to the car. Chavez nearly had my head on a platter for not telling her how bad your condition was sooner. We got you into the car but as soon as you sat down, you passed out. You’ve been ordered off for the next two days, no arguments,” he said when she opened her mouth.

Elisa shook her head as she turned her attention out the window, remained silent as she rested her temple against the cool glass. “Yeah, well . . . you can remind Chavez that she’s not the one getting the ‘love notes’,” she said. The sarcasm she had intended to inflect was missing, the sound of her voice reflecting how exhausted she was, how defeated she felt. “It started with one body, one little kid who was barely eight years old. It just looked like he had a bunch of paper cuts. The M.E. said he bled out . . . Now? That girl back at the park . . . She was lucky if she even made it to four years old. Each victim is younger, each one more fragile looking than the last and the things he’s doing to them . . . the way he’s torturing them . . . he’s enjoying it.”

“Got a call while you were still out. They were able to identify her, Nina something. The radio garbled the last name,” he told her with a sigh. “She would have been four in two months.” She could hear the leather of the steering wheel creak as he fisted his hands and was certain his knuckles were white but lacked the energy to look to confirm it for herself. “The victim this time, she was the only one that got lucky.”

Elisa’s head snapped up, her dark eyes full of fire as she pinned Matt with a glare. “How can you say that? You saw what he did to her!”

“I say that because the preliminary exam at the scene, M.E. said there were signs of anaphylaxis and that from the look of the wounds, they were done post mortem. The other kids had traces of sedatives in them, he knocked them out before he took them, that’s why no one ever reported a child screaming, but that girl back there? She died before he cut into her. She was already dead by the time he started his little carving job. I think that’s why her corpse was so mangled, and why he dropped two bodies. He got mad that she died before he could torture her. She never felt a thing, partner.”

Elisa choked out a breath, her eyes wide as she stared straight ahead. Tears stung behind her eyes, spilling onto her cheeks. She covered her mouth with her hands as she began to cry, out of remorse or relief, she wasn’t certain which, all she knew was that at least one child had been spared the pain of that monster’s cruelty.

“Where are we going?” she asked a few minutes later, drying her tears with the back of her hands.

“I don’t know,” he answered her as he pulled over, slipping the car into a parking space of an old restaurant.

The business had closed years ago, the parking lot littered with trash, weeds growing through the cracked and broken concrete. The building was gone, but the sign remained—Uncle Joe’s Fish and Chips. Elisa stared at the cracked and broken sign, unable to remember a time when this place had been anything else. She’d never seen the building when it was standing, only pictures of it in a few bars in the area, and barely anyone remembered the place who wasn’t at retiring age or over.

Why did it even matter what it used to be, she thought, her brow furrowing as she stared at the sign, unable to take her eyes off of it. It was nothing but a broken down old lot left to the misery of time. There were more important things to worry about. Children were being killed and all she could think about was this dumb place? What was wrong with her?

“Elisa!” Matt called after her as she unsnapped her seatbelt and ran from the car.

In that moment, she hated the sign. Hated that it was just another broken thing left forgotten and abandoned. She hated that it was there, that no one cared, but more than anything, she thought as she picked up a softball sized chunk of broken cement and hurled it at what remained of the sign, she hated herself for hating it. She opened her mouth wide and screamed at the sign, but couldn’t hear the sound of her own voice, her lungs burning as she sucked in the air around her but felt none of it fill her starving lungs.

She didn’t know she was crying until she found herself wrapped in Matt’s arms, his hand cupping the back of her head as he held her tightly, her face pressed into his shoulder. His arms tightened around her waist when her knees buckled, her gasps for air turning into heaving sobs. She shouldn’t be crying, she cursed herself, pounding her fist against his chest. He didn’t try to catch her hand, didn’t try to stop her, he simply took her abuse and somehow that made her hurt all the more.

None of these children had to die. If she had done her damn job to start with, they would all still be alive, and here she was crying about it. What right did she have? Who was she to cry, to grieve, when her family wasn’t the one torn apart? It wasn’t her child who had died. She was the one to blame for all of this. Those bastard’s letters were proof enough of that, so why was she the one who couldn’t keep it together?

“It’s okay, Elisa,” Matt soothed her, his words breaking through the fog of grief and anger clouding her mind. “It’s okay, I’ve got you.”

She wanted to yell at him, but she couldn’t. She realized slowly that both of her hands were fisted in the cloth of the trench coat over his back but she couldn’t remember wrapping her arms around him. She was clinging to him, feeling as if she’d fall off a great precipice into some bottomless abyss if she didn’t, but she couldn’t even remember how they’d gotten here. This moment, this place, this . . . none of this should have happened.

Elisa felt her hands grow cold, her heart stilling in her chest as one singular thought took hold in her mind. It wasn’t even her thought to start with, just something she’d overheard one of the beat cops from days saying to a forensic tech when she’d been dropping off one of the letters she’d received from the serial killer who fancied himself in love with her.

‘You gotta admit, Carl, it’s probably more attention than she’s seen in the past decade. You ask me, I think she likes getting those notes. Makes her feel all special. Bet ya it’s why she hasn’t tried to solve this case yet.’

Was he right? she asked herself. The man’s words wouldn’t stop looping in her head, wouldn’t go away, and the more she heard them the more she wondered if he had been right. Bile rose in the back of her throat, thick and vicious, her stomach twisting in knots. Elisa pushed Matt away hard enough that the man stumbled as she turned and ran as far away as she could—only making it a few steps—before her stomach rebelled completely. She didn’t hear him approach behind her, but suddenly he was there, rubbing her back, holding her hair, and comforting her as best he could while she retched, the meager contents of her stomach spilling out onto the broken concrete.

“Better?” he asked a few moments later when the dry heaves had finally stopped, her stomach no longer spasming out of control.

“I think so,” she croaked, her voice weak and shaking.

“Come on,” he said, holding her to his side as he led her back to her car. “I’m taking you to the clan. I’ll be lucky to make it through the night in one piece once Goliath gets a look at you.”

“Just take me home,” she whispered as she helped her settle in the passenger seat. She couldn’t move her arms, blinking slowly as she watched Matt lean over her in the car in order to clip her seatbelt in place. ”I’ll be fine.”

Matt sighed as he straightened. “You stopped being fine about two months ago,” he said as he shut her door. “Just hang on a little longer for me, partner,” he told her as he settled behind the wheel, turning the key to start the engine.

 

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Matt pressed down on the clutch as he pulled back on the column shifter, putting the car in gear. Putting his arm along the back of the bench seat as he looked behind him, he stilled, blinked as he looked back to Elisa. She was asleep by his side and, as he gave himself permission to truly look at her, he couldn’t help but wonder how he’d let it get this bad without stepping in before. Her eyes were sunken in, her skin was sallow, almost chalky compared to her normal complexion. The once alluring curves of her cheekbones and jaw had become angular and hard in her loss of weight. His eyes fell from her face, his gaze slipping across her collarbone and he winced at the sharp angles, the bold lines that had once been gentle arcs and curves. Even her hands, he thought with a sigh. He could count the number of bones in the back of her hands.

“I wouldn’t blame Goliath one bit if he decided to hang me off the Eyre building by my ankles,” he said to himself as he turned back to look behind him, checking for cars before pulling out into traffic.

 

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AN.: There are those of you who may remember this story very differently from the first time it was posted back in 2005 on the Gargoyles FanFiction Archive. After 13 years, and many hundreds of thousands of words on many other stories, I have evolved as a writer and came back to give this one another go. The other (unedited) chapters will seem a bit incongruent with this one until all the edits have been done. I have two other active projects right now, so updates may be slow. I thank you for your patience as I work on them. To any of you who have come back to reread this between then and now, or who are just now reading it for the first time, thank you for stopping by.

 

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: All recognizable characters of Gargoyles and Gargoyles: The Goliath Chronicles are the sole property of Buena Vista Television/The Walt Disney Company. No infringement of these copyrights is intended and it is not authorized by the copyright holder. All original characters are the property of the author, WhisperingWolf.

Warning: There will be instances of graphic violence, detailed descriptions of crime scenes, crimes against children, psychological torment, adult language and situations, and nudity. If you have a weak stomach or are easily triggered, hit the back button now. You have been warned.

Summary: Elisa's health is greatly affected by a new case she and Matt are working - a serial killer with a taste for young children who fancies himself in love with Elisa. With the killer sending Elisa "love" letters and calling the victims his "gifts to her", can the clan convince Elisa the deaths aren't her fault when a victim hits too close to home?

 

All the Little Children

By WhisperingWolf

Chapter 1

Nightmares

 

 

Captain Chavez turned her head as she watched one of the crime scene techs step away, slipping under the yellow plastic tape that marked off the scene. She closed her eyes when she heard the telltale sounds of retching, the man’s groan that sounded as physically exhausted as he was emotionally. Releasing a heavy sigh, she grimaced inwardly at the breath she pulled in, the metallic scent of blood that lingered heavily in the air.

Beneath the 13th Century doorway of the Langon Chapel, lay the body of a child. By anyone’s best estimate, the child was female and under five years old when she’d been killed. Her face had been made unidentifiable, the bruising and swelling showing that the child had been severely beaten before she was scalped. Her clothing had been removed, torn away, if the pieces left behind were anything to go by. And if that hadn’t been bad enough, she thought as she stared at the body left exposed as the M.E. did his on-site examination, the palms of the child’s hands, her forehead, and her left shoulder directly over her heart had been branded.

“The reddening and swelling around the burns show that the brands were performed antemortem. The brand on the left palm appears to have been performed first as the mark is slightly larger around the outside than any of the others—possibly from the victim’s struggles. All other binding marks around the body appear darker and wider than the left wrist indicating that the binds were further secured to hold the victim in place after the first brand was made,” the M.E. said, speaking into a small voice recorder he held.

She heard the click as he paused the recorder, watching as he lifted his arm to wipe his brow before he turned his head to look back at her. He blinked at her as if waiting an answer to a question, and she arched her brow in return.

“The victims are getting younger,” he pointed out. “We’re three days shy of December right now. The rate this guy has been going,” he said, his eyes wide as he shook his head slowly, “he’ll be dropping infants by Christmas.”

“Give me something to go on, one piece of evidence that could point back to whoever it is,” she returned, and clenched her jaw when the man heaved a sigh.

“Don’t you think my team and I have been looking for that? For as horrible and messy as these crime scenes are, they’re also incredibly neat. There isn’t a drop of blood out of place. Everything is exactly where he wants it to be,” he replied, only to still as he frowned.

“What?” Chavez asked, her tone clipped as she narrowed her eyes, studying the man’s expression.

“It’s all exact,” he repeated.

“Yes, you said that,” she returned with an arch of her brow.

“Like an artist, but he cleans the scene of anything that could relate back to him, as if he knows exactly how we operate,” he said, narrowing his gaze as he stood and looked out at the crowd behind her.

“You think it’s one of us?” she asked, closing her eyes against the sight of the child on the ground.

“At the very least, it’s someone who has studied or is currently studying criminology,” he replied before turning his attention back to the victim and resuming his preliminary report.

She turned away with a shake of her head, unable to take the site of the child anymore. Maria Chavez, Captain of Detectives, NYPD 23rd Precinct, Homicide Division. That was what her badge read, her business cards, even her office letterhead. She had risen fast through the ranks, becoming a Captain when she was just shy of her thirtieth birthday. With all of the political drama—the deal making and trading favors, schmoozing the higher ups and beating her head against theirs in turn—she had never realized until that moment just how much her position shielded her from the perils of the front lines.

Seeing the pictures, reading the reports, there was a level of separation that protected her from the horror of the reality, something not afforded to her this night—morning, she corrected herself as she glanced down at the watch on her wrist. It was barely seven AM, the sun had finally risen over the horizon, the flood lamps for the crime scene being turned off and moved away as the molten gold of the burgeoning day chased away the darkness of the night left behind. Blowing out a heavy breath as she combed her fingers through her thick short reddish-brown hair, she turned to greet the world outside only to blink when the cellphone in her pocket rang.

“Chavez,” she answered, holding the device to her ear as she stepped outside.

“Captain, it’s Officer Morgan. Look, I uh . . .” He fell silent with a sigh. “I think you should come down to the scene here. Detective Maza, she’s not doing so well.”

Captain Chavez stared silently out at the waves she could see on the edge of the horizon. “You’ve known Maza since she was a child, Morgan. Tell me what you’re not saying.”

He grunted, cleared his throat, the sound of it somehow reluctant. “She looks ready to collapse. You can’t see it under the shadows and fluorescents at the station, or out on the scenes at night, but in the light of day . . . she looks like hell. You and I both know that those . . . friends she has . . . friends we both know, won’t be too happy about her condition.”

She sighed heavily as she nodded, bowing her head as she lifted her hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. “The kid who stumbled on the scene here, and the woman who found your victim, the news is all over this. The gag order is null and voided by that, at least for her and them. If they can help us at all . . . “ she trailed off, letting her thought hang unfinished in the air.

“What about your concern before? That they might not be satisfied with an arrest?” he asked, his tone surprised.

“Let me ask you this, Officer Morgan,” she returned. “At this point, are you satisfied with taking this monster alive?”

He sighed heavily, the voices in the background on his end of the call becoming louder, more excited. “No,” he said after a long moment. “No, I’m not.”

 

~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~

 

“Damnit,” she hissed with a shake of her head, grunting as she was tossed forward by the harsh stop when she slammed on her brakes.

There was no question in her mind as to what Elisa’s condition was or how well she was handling this case at all. She should’ve seen the signs before now, Chavez cursed herself as she jerked the gear shift on the steering column into park, grinding the gears with the force of it before jumping from the car. Under the bright light of the early morning sun, she could see the pallor of Elisa’s face, the woman’s sunken eyes, the shadows beneath—barely hidden by layers of makeup the woman normally didn’t wear—that betrayed her inability to sleep.

She could see the lines of the detective’s collarbones, standing out so clearly to her now as though the woman’s body was giving its own open testimony for how fragile she had become. The same denim jeans and dark shirt she’d become so used to seeing Elisa in—an outfit that in some manner had become a uniform of sorts—only added to the growing list of evidence betraying the woman’s condition. The cotton shirt that should have fit snuggly rippled in the slow breeze of the morning. Pants that she had rarely seen accompanied by a belt had one now, if only to hold them in place, and the familiar bomber jacket the younger woman always wore looked more like a protective shroud and less like a familiar old friend.

“Why the hell didn’t I see it before?” Captain Chavez asked as she shook her head, blinking when she heard Officer Morgan clear his throat.

“I’d say that answer’s pretty obvious, Captain,” he offered with a shrug. “She didn’t want you to know. Everything she’s dealt with over the years, even in just the past few since we learned of the gargoyles, has been more than any one person can normally handle, but her?” he asked as he nodded to the detective in question. “Not only has she handled all of it with grace, but most of it without anyone ever knowing. Hell, it wasn’t Elisa who told me of the gargoyles. And it wasn’t Elisa who told me what happened to her brother.”

“No,” Captain Chavez agreed with a heavy sigh. “No, it wasn’t.”

And maybe that was what bothered her the most, she thought as she stepped across the park, slipping under the crime scene tape as she fixed her eyes on her two best detectives. It had been Bluestone who had outed Elisa’s relationship with the gargoyles. It had been Derek, himself, who had told her what had happened to him at the hands of Xanatos and Dr. Sevarius. It had been Hudson who she had met in the ruins of the clocktower above the station when she had discovered the Lay-Z-Boy chair and the old TV in the rubble. And it had been Hudson who had told her about the clan and all Elisa had done—and sacrificed—to protect them. It had been Hudson who had comforted her when the entire world had seemed to be falling around her, between her own injuries, her—at the time—pending divorce and the ensuing custody battle for her daughter.

It had been Broadway who had flown by one night and found her sitting in the abandoned recliner in the clocktower ruins—too tired to move, her heart hurting too much to even consider doing anything at all—who had taken her home. He hadn’t asked her for any information, knowing where she lived without having to ask, and had cooked her dinner while she’d unloaded on him, crying for a life that had felt like little more than a lie while sitting on the couch with her arms wrapped around Bronx’s shoulders. The beast hadn’t tried to pull away, hadn’t made her feel frightened at all as she’d leaned against him, crying into his neck until she’d fallen asleep.

The gargoyles—the three she had met, anyway—offered such a silent strength, carrying with them a sense of dignity, an aura of protection that soothed away the jagged edges of her psyche, providing for her a sanctuary in which to find peace when the world had become too much for her to bear. And her troubles, Captain Chavez thought as she watched Elisa stumble back from the playset where the body of the victim had been secured with barbed wire, were nothing compared to what Elisa had been through, just in the past few years alone.

A divorce, a custody battle, a city that was out of control at times, those were the normal things, the stressors that any person could find themselves buried under the weight of. Having a brother who was turned into a mutant—a man-turned-creature who would never again be able to walk down Fifth Avenue in the daylight or take his girlfriend for a night of dinner and dancing—a clan of gargoyles who looked to her for protection and guidance in a world so utterly foreign to them that the very things everyone else took for granted every day—electricity, phone lines, running water, to name a few—were strange and fascinating to them. These were just a few of the things Elisa had dealt with and never spoken of.

Hell, she thought as she closed her eyes, clenched her jaw. If she hadn’t been there with Elisa when Tony Dracon had made his threat against her, she very much doubted Elisa would have said anything about that, either. She knew that Elisa had dismissed the threat as nothing more than Dracon trying to make himself look good in front of a rival, but she hadn’t been as certain. It still bothered her that Elisa had scoffed at the surveillance detail she had assigned to watch the detective’s apartment, as though the protection was unneeded. It certainly hadn’t helped matters that barely two days after Dracon had made his threat against Elisa, the first body had dropped.

Captain Chavez was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of Elisa’s startled curse. She shook her head as she called out to her, barking the detective’s name in the hopes of snapping her out of the panic attack she was quickly spinning into. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the blood drain from Elisa’s face, unable to silence the thought that Elisa looked like she might faint. Captain Chavez jogged the few remaining steps as she watched Bluestone help his partner to one of the benches, holding her arm as he helped Elisa sit down. The captain shook her head as she ordered Matt to take her away from the scene, arching her brow at the stubborn glare Elisa gave her, the woman’s head snapping up as she tried to refuse the order.

“I’m fine!” Elisa ground out, wincing as she leaned forward slightly, her hand moving to cover her stomach.

Chavez realized the movements were made unconsciously, Elisa unaware of the gestures that revealed how unwell she truly was. “The hell you are, Maza,” she countered, her brows furrowed, her eyes narrowed as she stared at Elisa. “Oh hell, take her home, Bluestone. Both of you need at least a few days off—"

“Captain, I’m fine!” Elisa snapped as she rose quickly to her feet only to fall back down again, resting heavily on the bench and staring blankly as she held her eyes open wide.

No, you are not,” Chavez insisted, using the same tone with Elisa that she often used with her own daughter, blaming herself for not having seen before what should have been so obvious to her. “You two have been pulling doubles and been on-call since all this started. I can’t get the FBI to return my calls about this case, not that I expected them to.” She sighed as she shook her head. “Whoever thought that gargoyles would be real, or that the Feds would be afraid of them?”

“They’re not afraid, per say,” Matt replied and met Elisa’s gaze when she looked up at him with a frown. “Thing is, if they take this case, or any case, in our precinct, then there’s a damn good chance that at least one of them will meet the gargoyles. If that happens, then what they were able to discount as mass hysteria in the same way they could Roswell junkies, now becomes something that they have to file a report on. They file a report, it goes to the DOJ. And the DOJ—"

“Would never willingly admit to non-human intelligent sentient creatures that were not robots or some other form of artificial life created by humans,” Elisa finished, and Matt nodded with a sigh. “So, no matter what Hail Mary pass we call, we’re on our own with this.” Chavez narrowed her eyes at the stubborn set of Elisa’s jaw, the stiff posture of the woman’s shoulders, and prepared herself for the argument she was about to receive. “You can’t bench me, Capt—"

“Oh yes, I can,” she interrupted Elisa, forestalling any further argument. “For the next twenty-four hours, you two are to go home and get some sleep. Come back in tomorrow morning, and if either of you still looks dead on your feet,” she said, pausing as she gave both detectives a hard stare, “then you’ll be out for the rest of the week. And Elisa,” she said, stressing the woman’s name and using what her daughter often referred to as ‘mom tone’. “Sleeping in the station won’t cut it,” she warned before she closed her eyes and shook her head, meeting both their gazes in turn a moment later. “You two are the best detectives I have, and the only two who’ve been able to handle this case with any sense of sanity. But I will not risk your health in the process. I need you both at your best.”

“Captain, what about--?” Matt jerked his head toward Elisa, leaving his question unfinished.

She nodded as she heaved a sigh. “Officer Morgan has volunteered to take on extra shifts to provide surveillance of your apartment,” she said, turning her head to meet Elisa’s blank stare. “I have two other officers who have been rotating during the day to watch your building, but whoever Dracon’s decided to send after you, they’re not seeing anyone out of place.”

“Dracon.” Elisa scoffed as she turned her face away. “For all the upgrades done to the outside,” she offered with a grimace, “that building has been there since nineteen-oh-eight. There’s more than one entrance, and—if he’s as much of New York history buff as he claims to be—he likely knows that there are secret entrances through the basement that once served as a speakeasy in the twenties.” Elisa closed her eyes, lifted her brows high on her forehead as she shook her head. “Hell, there are old abandoned tunnels under the building that once served as hidden passages for rum runners. It’s all been converted into part of the sewer system, but if you know where to look, it’s not that hard to gain access. That’s why I told you not to bother with the surveillance. Besides that, Dracon’s too arrogant to do anything even considered halfway covert—at least where it concerns me, that is. He’d make whatever he did a big production.” Elisa said as she met Chavez’s gaze. “So, watching the front door isn’t going to do anyone a damn bit of good. Someone sitting outside to watch the building is little more than window dressing when there are at least five different entrances that have no cameras at all, and no good angles for anyone to watch them without being seen.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?” Captain Chavez demanded.

“I did,” Elisa bit out, grimacing as she closed her eyes. “I gave you that book on the history of the building I live in. Figured all the pictures and diagrams in that would have been more than enough to get my point across.”

She watched Elisa stand up, opening her mouth to give voice to another argument, only to collapse. Captain Chavez and Bluestone caught the woman on either side, supporting her as they half-walked half-carried her to the car. For as much of a comfort to her as the gargoyles had been on the few scattered interactions she’d had with them, how much more of a comfort were they to Elisa, and when was the last time the woman had seen any of them?

“Two days for you both, at least,” she commanded Matt as she lowered Elisa to the front passenger seat of the Ford Fairlane. “I don’t care what argument she gives you, what excuse she has planned. Hell, I don’t care if you have to take her keys and throw them in the Hudson, just make sure she doesn’t come in for the next forty-eight hours,” she commanded the man, shaking her head when she realized Elisa had passed out and lifted the woman’s legs into the car before closing the door.

Matt Bluestone dropped his head, his jaw moving back and forth before he looked up at her, his blue eyes hard and angry, but lurking in the background, she could see his fear. “What about the letters she’s been getting?” he asked, and Chavez frowned as she shook her head.

“Those are the coming to the precinct,” she denied with confusion.

“They were,” he emphasized the past tense. “Last three have been slid under her apartment door. No return address, no stamp, no postage or courier markings. She’s found them when she’s gone home long enough to shower and change. It’s why she’s taken to sleeping at the precinct.”

“Are you kidding me?” she all but snarled.

“Elisa didn’t tell you,” he said, his tone making it clear his statement wasn’t a question as he shook his head wryly. “Of course, she didn’t. Because that would’ve taken the focus off the victims.” He sighed heavily.

“We had the surveillance set up because of the threats Tony Dracon made against her. You’re telling me that this son of a bitch knows where she lives?” Captain Chavez demanded, hoping she’d heard wrong only to feel her rage intensify as she watched Matt nod slowly. “You make damn sure she isn’t left alone,” she instructed, her tone brooking no argument. “And at this point, Detective Bluestone, I am not opposed to someone approaching our mutual friend about hiring a bodyguard for her.”

He nodded slowly in response as he slipped behind the wheel and closed the door, the engine roaring to life a moment later. Elisa would balk at any protection detail assigned to her, try her best to lose them, and she knew why, but this was the last straw. There needed to be a detail assigned to all entrances of her apartment building and outside her apartment door, even if Elisa decided to spend her night at her partner’s apartment or with the clan. Tony Dracon was too high profile to hide himself, and too arrogant to use a secret entrance. But if this killer they were currently hunting—the same son of a bitch who fancied himself in love with Detective Maza—took the time to hand deliver the messages to Elisa’s door, then the least she could do was make damn certain Elisa wasn’t left unguarded.

“Captain,” Officer Morgan called out to her as he approached from her left and she turned to face the older uniformed man.

“Yeah, Morgan,” she replied with a heavy sigh, blinking her eyes wide as she met his gaze.

“We got an ID on the victim,” he said. She looked behind him to the mutilated child the coroner’s people were carefully pulling down from the playset. “She was a student at Chesterfield Academy,” he informed her, nodding to the gothic stone structure behind her. “There was part of a badge left on her clothing that I could make out. My daughter in law teaches there so I called over to her,” he told her and she nodded slowly. “The girl’s name is Nina Marks. Technically, she’s a Chinese national – born there – but her mother’s American, Kaitlyn Marks, a doctor working at XanaCorp Industries.”

“I’ll make the notification,” she said as she took the slip of paper he tore out of his notebook. “Chesterfield Academy?” she repeated after a moment, frowning as she looked back to where the body was being laid down inside a body bag. “She doesn’t look old enough to be school-aged. How old was she, Morgan?”

“Carla—my daughter in law,” he clarified, “said Nina was there on a scholarship granted by XanaCorp. She was ahead of most kids her age—very smart, bilingual—so they accepted her into the school earlier than they normally would.”

“How old?” she repeated the question and watched him sigh.

“Three months shy of her fifth birthday,” he told her, his tone defeated. “She was on an overnight field trip that the school took to the planetarium. They got back to the school around one in the morning, put the kids down around two. They weren’t scheduled to wake the kids to go home for another few hours yet. They didn’t even know she was missing until I called.”

“How could they not know?” Captain Chavez demanded of him, anger burning hot inside her. “You’re saying that he just walked into one of the most guarded schools and took her without anyone noticing?”

He shook his head as he held her gaze, his dark eyes hard as stone. “I’ve been working the canvas on each of these cases with Maza and Bluestone,” he reminded her. “The only people who are supposed to have been on staff tonight—or any of the other times a child has been taken—were support staff. Janitors, security guards, night nurses, or in this case, teachers and a few clergymen—since it is a Catholic school.”

She shook her head as she frowned. “He’s never once taken a child directly from their parents,” she recounted as she thought about all the victims. “Each one of them has been taken from a hospital, a school, or some other kind of public place. Why?”

“Bluestone thinks he’s showing off, showing he can get in anywhere he wants,” Morgan offered with a sigh. “Elisa thinks it’s because parents would be more careful and make more noise faster if their child was taken from them directly or from their home.” He shook his head slowly. “Surveillance cameras aren’t catching him, and not one person involved has mentioned noticing anything unusual surrounding the time a child has been taken.”

“Meaning that he has at least one partner,” she said, narrowing her eyes in thought.

“An operation like this?” he said as he looked back at the crime scene behind them. “Matt and Elisa have looked at everything between the cases and their going theory is that he’s a master of disguise. In two of the cases, the support staff was all female—and the women were not the same from place to place.”

“Meaning he could be anyone, and because he’s taking young children, he doesn’t need to be physically powerful,” she said, doing her best to hide the horror she felt.

“He could even be one of us,” Morgan replied with a nod as he cast his eyes around the crowd. “Jimmy,” he said nodding to the crime scene tech holding the camera, “has been getting pictures of the crowds at the last seven scenes. I know that they want to look for a common face that doesn’t belong but if he is a master of disguise . . . “

“Then he could be made up as a different person each time and we’d never know it,” she finished when he trailed off. “Damnit,” she cursed, pinching the bridge of her nose before shaking her head as she dropped her hand. “Okay. I’ll head over the Eyre building to make the notification. Maza and Bluestone are off for the next two days. If you need something or a new body drops, call me, not them.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Morgan confirmed with a nod.

 

~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~

 

It was nearing eight in the morning when Captain Chavez pulled into the parking structure of the Eyre building, rolling down her window to show the security guard her badge. It didn’t take her more than a few minutes to park her sedan. Bowing her head as she turned the key to silence the engine, she closed her eyes, the tip of her tongue peeking out to wet her dry lips.

It had been years since the last time she’d done a notification, spoken to a parent or loved one to tell them about the death of a child or parent or lover. Children were always the hardest, she recalled, drawing in a slow deep breath and feeling the telltale sting behind her eyes. Her greatest fear was that one day she would be the one receiving the notification of her daughter’s death, especially now that Teresa was going back and forth between New York City and Los Angeles to spend time with her father.

“Come on, Maria,” she told herself as she pulled her keys from the ignition and tucked them into her coat pocket, “you can’t sit out here all day.”

The sound of the car door opening was shocking in the quiet of the concrete structure, the echo of it closing making her jump slightly. How long had it been since she’d paid attention to the noise of her own car door opening and closing, she wondered, her eyes narrowed as she focused her gaze on the polished steel doors of the elevator in the distance. When was the last time she’d counted her steps, she thought, her eyes narrowing as the number forty-three whispered in her mind as she reached up to press the button for the elevator.

Coping mechanisms, that’s what she’d been told they were, she recalled as she thought back to the last time she’d spoken with her cousin, Taylor. A well-respected psychologist in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Taylor had always been a little judgmental of her being a cop, Maria thought with a shake of her head. She had been relentless those first five years on the force, always trying to get her to leave, to get a career in something better—something safer. And the last time she’d spoken with her cousin, when she’d made the mistake of telling Taylor that she’d found herself counting the steps from her car to an elevator, or from the door of a building back to her car but had no idea why she’d formed the habit, Taylor had all but demanded that Maria quit her job.

“Why am I thinking about this now?” she asked aloud, shaking her head as she stepped into the elevator, pressing the button for the building’s lobby and watching as the metal doors closed in front of her. “What good does any of this do? That was ages ago! Damnit.”

“Ah, good morning, Captain Chavez,” David Xanatos greeted her as she stepped out of the elevator, his assistant standing silent by his side, a tablet in hand. “When the security guard informed the front desk of your pending arrival, I thought I would save you the trouble of finding me,” he told her with a pleasant smile.

“I have cleared a few minutes in Mr. Xanatos’ schedule to—”

“That won’t be necessary,” she interrupted Owen as she stepped into the lobby, her low heels clicking against the polished tile floor. “I’m not here to see either of you,” she informed the men, watching as the almost playful brightness left Xanatos’ expression slowly.

“This isn’t about my business,” he said slowly, studying her through narrowed eyes, the furrow of his brow—dare she say—concerned.

“No, it’s not,” she confirmed, taking in a deep breath as she steeled herself, the air releasing in a heavy exhalation. “I’m here to see Dr. Kaitlyn Marks,” she informed them.

“Dr. Marks?” Xanatos repeated with a frown. “She’s a new addition, but it’s never been your style or Detective Maza’s to go after an underling. What is your business with her?” he asked, and Captain Chavez stared at him silently, realizing that what she had judged to be suspicion was, in fact, a protective kind of concern.

“I think that’s something I need to talk with her about first,” she denied him. “Where would I find her?”

“Owen,” Xanatos called to the man by his side in a commanding tone. “Take the good Captain to see Dr. Marks and stay with her while she speaks with her. He may not appear so,” he said as he turned his attention back to Captain Chavez, “but Owen is fully versed in corporate and even criminal law.”

“As you wish, Mr. Xanatos,” Owen said pleasantly as he stepped forward, pressing the button to call for the elevator. “After you, Captain,” he said cordially when the doors opened.

Captain Chavez stepped into the elevator and turned around, watching as Owen stepped in after her. She knew that David Xanatos and Owen Burnett rubbed Elisa the wrong way, Xanatos’ wife Fox did as well, to an extent but she’d never had a problem with any of them herself. If she were being honest with herself, Maria thought with a quirk of her brow, she suspected that the animosity Elisa felt was due more to an unacknowledged feeling of comradery than anything else. After all, dressed in suits and fancy clothes or not, Xanatos, his wife, and his assistant were warriors. Perhaps, one the wrong side of the fight more often than not, but warriors all the same.

It was easier to think of these things, wasn’t it? Distracting herself with thoughts of the mundane, subject matter that was safe and inconsequential, when the truth was so much uglier. It had been so long since she’d done a notification. She’d still been pregnant with Teresa, not even showing, when she’d last gone to inform Henrietta and Clive Douglas that their twenty-two-year old daughter had died at NYU. That notification had very nearly broken her, not because of the manner in which the young woman had died—protecting her roommate from a jealous and protective ex-lover—but because all she had been able to think about for days after was the very real possibility that someday she might be the parent receiving the news.

“If I may,” Owen continued a moment later when the doors closed around them. “Is there anything Mr. Xanatos needs to be made aware of?” he asked her, narrowing his eyes when she clenched her jaw. “If this is about her immigration status, I assure you—"

“It’s not about that,” she interrupted him, her tone quiet and almost carefully neutral.

She wasn’t going to tell him anything at all, Owen realized as he glanced up without moving his head, watching as the floors blinked by, the numbers brightening and dimming as they rose higher. Whatever was going on, he thought as the elevator slowed to a stop, bouncing slightly before it dinged, this was more than a simple matter of paperwork and the longer she stayed silent, the more foreboding it felt.

You sure are getting worked up over this,’ Puck spoke to him. Owen narrowed his eyes as he tried to close his mind to Puck’s thoughts. ‘Try as you might, you cant ignore me,’ the trickster called to him with a scoff. ‘I am you and you are me. Not that youll ever have as much personality as I do. I really should have given you more.

Be quiet,’ Owen instructed as he followed Captain Chavez out of the elevator.

“This way, Captain,” he called to her, leading her down the hall, past several laboratories set aside for medical, genetic, and pharmaceutical research. “Dr. Marks is actually part of a specialized division. Mr. Xanatos recruited her himself while he was in Xinjiang Province a few months ago.”

“What does she do here?” Captain Chavez asked, following his lead in the casual conversation.

“She has knowledge of both western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine as well as being well versed in medicinal plants and traditional horticulture not seen outside of the region where we met her,” he said, recounting the young woman’s resume. “But what Mr. Xanatos found most fascinating, was her knowledge and skill in working with and gaining the trust of the Turkic Uyghur people. No outsider had ever been allowed in as much as she was. From what he was told, there were three separate tribes among the people that were known to have their own . . .skirmishes . . . every now and again, and she was able to form peace between them.”

“How?”

He chuckled at the captain’s question. “That is an answer that no one seems to know, not even Dr. Marks herself. I asked her that question once myself and all that she would say was that they took her and her friend in during one of the darkest moments in both their lives and cared for them both as if they had always been part of the tribe. An alliance was formed around them, Dr. Marks doesn’t know why but the one word that the members of the tribe kept repeating translated to ‘ordained’.”

“Ordained?” Captain Chavez asked with a curious frown.

“The same word also translated as ‘prophecy’, depending on how it was used in a sentence, of course,” he allowed with a tilt of his head.

Captain Chavez remained silent, nodding her head once as they came to a stop in front of a small office. “Is there a conference or meeting room we could use for privacy?” she asked and Owned turned to look at her with a frown. “Preferably a room with solid walls,” she said as she eyed the clear glass enclosures.

“Of course,” he agreed with a cordial nod. “Dr. Marks,” he called to the woman in question as he opened the door to her office. “If you would please come with us.”

“May I ask what this is about?” the young woman asked as she stepped into the hall, her strawberry blonde hair a richer, warmer tone than most, her natural gentle curls more of a deep burnt honey blonde highlighted by strands of red-gold. “Please don’t think me rude, but I will need to leave soon to get my daughter,” she said as Owen led the women into a nearby conference room, the three white walls accented by a window offering a view of the New York City skyline. “I . . .”

He turned back with a frown when Dr. Marks fell silent, his eyes narrowing as he watched her. He knew he wasn’t mistaken, he could feel the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck rise as the air grew thick around him, the tension and fear from the young woman matched only by the caution and regret he could feel coming from Captain Chavez.

“No,” Dr. Marks said, shaking her head slowly as she backed away. “No!” she shouted, her breaths drawn in faster as she began to shake, her body trembling.

“Dr. Marks?” he called to her in confusion, catching her around the waist when she fell and helping her into one of the chairs.

“I am so sorry,” Captain Chavez whispered.

Owen felt himself freeze in place as the emotions he felt from the two women began to make a horrifying kind of sense. “Nina,” he whispered the child’s name, not even realizing he’d spoken until the woman seated beside him released an aching sob.

Nina?’ Puck whispered inside his mind, the trickster stilling as he was caught somewhere between disbelief and anger. ‘That precious little thing that played with Alex when we were in China? That tiny little girl that sang him lullabies on the plane?

“How?” Owen found himself asking before he could stop himself, blinking when he realized he was slowly petting the woman’s hair as Dr. Marks leaned against his side from the chair she sat in beside him, her face buried against his waist. “How did she die?” he repeated as he tried to pull back, only to find that his body wouldn’t obey his commands, the need both he and Puck felt to offer the grieving mother comfort overriding any sense of propriety he may possess.

“There is nothing that can bring her back, nothing that can take away your pain,” Captain Chavez began slowly, lifting her gaze to meet his before returning her attention to Dr. Marks. “But mercy was on her side last night,” she said softly, regretfully. “She died instantly. She never knew any pain or fear, and from the preliminary exam, the coroner’s best estimate is that she wasn’t even awake when she was injected.”

“Injected?” Owen asked, glancing down at the woman beside him before meeting the captain’s gaze once more.

“Nina died from anaphylactic shock brought on by an allergic reaction to a currently unknown substance,” the captain informed them. “It was a sedative of some kind, we’re just not sure which one yet. Further tests will tell.”

“What aren’t you telling me?” Dr. Marks asked as she sniffled, pulling away from Owen as she wiped her eyes.

Captain Chavez remain silent, her lips pressed together in a thin line as she bowed her head, her eyes closing as she gripped the folder in her lap tight enough that her knuckles turned white, before she finally looked up once more. “I don’t know what your personal beliefs are, Dr. Marks—”

“Kaitlyn,” the woman interrupted. “Call me Kaitlyn. Why are my beliefs important?” she asked with a frown, and even Owen had to admit the comment seemed strange.

“. . . I would recommend—strongly—that you have Nina’s body cremated. Don’t ask for her to be prepared for burial. An autopsy will be done as is protocol in the manner that she died, but it would be better for you if you . . . if she were cremated.”

Owen’s brows drew together slowly as he stared at Captain Chavez, studying the darkness of her eyes, the reluctance in her expression as she carefully withdrew an evidence bag containing a small bloodstained barrette. He watched her hand the evidence bag to Kaitlyn, the woman reaching for it with a gasp, only to hesitate, pulling her hand away for just a moment before moving forward to take the plastic bag.

“This was Nina’s,” she confirmed, holding the edge of the barrette in one hand as she smoothed the fingertips of her other hand over the bag covering the tiny white hairclip with a yellow flower in the center of it. “Why are you showing me this?” Kaitlyn asked as she looked up with a frown. “Why aren’t you showing me a picture of her body? Why didn’t you call me down to identify her?” she asked with a shake of her head.

“Captain?” Owen asked when Chavez remained silent.

“You don’t want to see her—"

“Yes, I do!” Kaitlyn interrupted the captain’s attempt to comfort her, her eyes narrowing as her brow furrowed. “I want to see my baby!”

“No, Kaitlyn, you don’t,” the captain interrupted, her tone apologetic. “You truly don’t. You don’t want to remember her like that.”

“And if she were your daughter?” Kaitlyn growled as she clutched the bag in her hand. “Would you be satisfied with what you’re telling me?” she demanded.

“No,” Captain Chavez denied after a long moment, sighing heavily as she reached into the folder, closing her eyes as she gripped something. “I need to hear you repeat what I told you about how she died,” she said as she looked up at Kaitlyn, her hand still hidden in the folder. “I need to know you understand it.”

Kaitlyn shook her head in confusion as she looked up at Owen, meeting the man’s gaze briefly before returning her attention to the police captain. “You said she died instantly, from an allergy attack,” she said slowly.

“Say it again,” Captain Chavez instructed quietly.

“She died ins—instantly,” Kaitlyn repeated, faltering on the last word only to shake her head as she paled. “What happened to my baby?” she whispered horrified.

Owen watched as Captain Chavez withdrew the thick piece of photopaper slowly from the folder, laying it on the conference table between herself and Kaitlyn. He narrowed his eyes as he stared at the image, his mind slowing to a crawl as he tried to process what he was seeing. It was a nearby park he’d taken Alex to a few times in the past, the arrangement of the swing set and jungle gym familiar. What was secured to the playset though . . . He shook his head slowly as his eyes widened, studying the angry lines of the barbed wire pulled tight, the torn clothing and missing skin.

What the fuck is that?’ Puck snarled inside his mind. Owen remained silent, unable to speak, unable to think, barely able to draw in a breath as he stared at the image.

“Where’s her face?” Kaitlyn asked slowly, her voice wooden, almost numb. “That’s not my baby. That’s not her face. My Nina has a face that child doesn’t,” she insisted, her words coming faster as she began to rock ever so slightly, her tone changing from an absence of emotion, to a nearly overwhelming denial. “My baby has a face,” she repeated with a shake of her head.

“We were able to confirm with the student ID,” Captain Chavez said slowly as she pulled out another photo, a bodiless face lying partially hidden in the mulch covering the ground.

Owen stepped back as Kaitlyn shot from the table, racing for the door and breaking out into the hall before he could call after her. He heard Xanatos’ voice, the man’s alarmed tone as he called after Kaitlyn seconds before the man stepped into the conference room.

“What the hell is the meaning of this?” he snapped as Captain Chavez stood from the table.

“She’s going to need time off,” she told him.

Owen blinked rapidly as he shook himself mentally. “And counseling,” he added as he turned to meet Xanatos’ gaze. “Nina was . . . “ He fell silent as he shook his head. Killed wasn’t right, murdered sounded almost nice for what had happened. “Nina is dead,” he said simply, watching as the man’s eyes widened.

What?

~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~

 

Xanatos stepped forward, his eyes wide beneath a furrowed brow, his expression shifting so quickly back and forth between anger and disbelief and worry only to cycle back to anger and all the way through again that it left Captain Chavez silent as she stared at him, watching him move. He came closer to the conference table, his muscles trembling from how tightly he held himself, only to turn his face away at an angle, his eyes locked on the two pictures lying on the table, and the bagged hairclip next to them. He reached out, narrowing his eyes as he snatched the photo off the table, staring at what remained of Nina’s body, her mutilated corpse made worse by the simple fact that, as a result of her face having been removed, her blue eyes were left open wide.

“. . . Who? . . “ he snarled, the single word a struggle for him to get out.

“We don’t know,” Captain Chavez said slowly, meeting his gaze when his eyes snapped to her. “She’s the latest victim,” she told him slowly, watching as his rage returned in full force, his muscles trembling as he restrained himself. “We don’t know what it is about the victims that ties them together, why they’re chosen, or why more of them are female than male.”

“What do you know?” Xanatos asked.

She had to give him credit for at least sounding calm, Chavez thought. “Unfortunately,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Not much. Whoever is doing this is smart, careful, cleans up after themselves and somehow, no matter how rough the scene is, no matter what materials have been used to secure the bodies, there’s not even a trace of evidence left behind.”

Bodies,” the billionaire repeated with a growl. “How many?”

“Nina makes sixteen.”

How many?” Owen ground out.

Captain Chavez blinked as she stared at the blond man, almost certain she’d seen his eyes glow bright green around the edges. It had to have been a trick of the light, she thought, there was no way such a thing could have happened. Then again, she allowed as she blinked a few times, two years ago she never would have believed that it was possible that gargoyles actually existed.

“Sixteen,” she repeated. “Twelve girls, four boys. And not one of them lived to see their seventh birthday.”

“And you’ve done nothing to stop this?” Owen snapped, closing his eyes as he fisted his right hand.

“Don’t, there’s no need,” Captain Chavez said, holding up her hand when Owen looked ready to apologize for his outburst. “Believe me, I’ve heard worse and I feel the same way both of you do.”

“Why haven’t we heard about this until now?” Xanatos demanded.

“Because they were keeping it from the media.” They all turned to look at the woman standing in the doorway, her face pale and drawn, her eyes impossibly wide—from shock or grief, Chavez couldn’t tell. “As bad as this is, if the media started plastering this everywhere, there could be copycats.”

“That’s what we were worried about, yes,” Captain Chavez admitted with a nod.

“Kaitlyn,” Xanatos spoke her name as he moved to her side. “Kaitlyn, I am so sorry,” he told her.

The woman nodded slowly as she lifted her hand to cover her mouth, new tears falling from her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, an aching sob breaking from her as Xanatos pulled her into his arms, holding her as she cried.

“I have to go,” Captain Chavez said as she gathered the photos back together, slipping them inside the folder she was carrying. “Gentlemen,” she said as she looked between Owen and Xanatos, “if Elisa finds her way here, please look after for me and remind her that she is not to come in for the next forty-eight hours. Believe me,” she said when she received their frowns of confusion, “if you see her, you’ll understand why.”

 

~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~

 

It was nearing ten-thirty when Matt Bluestone slowed the car down to turn into the small parking area and pulled into a spot with a perfect view of the beach. Elisa was still asleep in the passenger seat beside him, her body turned sideways with her feet pulled up on the bench seat in front of her. He couldn’t remember when she had moved, he thought as he studied her, frowning at the thought that she looked worse now than she had earlier.

Everyone—from Captain Chavez down to the kid whose name he barely remembered that took the crime scene photos—all of them had asked him how he was handling the case, how he could still be so put together. Elisa as well, for that matter, but he realized now why that question bothered him so damn much. Why it had the ability to anger him beyond measure in the blink of an eye. It wasn’t that he believed the question to be insensitive—it wasn’t. It was that no one had ever asked Elisa if she was all right. Not even him.

Everyone else saw the bodies, the aftermath, the carnage. But Elisa? She had been the one receiving letters from the killer this whole time. The sick bastard thought he was romancing her with the children he killed. How many times in those letters had he read the same line repeated over and over—Did you like your present? I picked it out especially for you.—like the killer thought what he was doing was somehow romantic.

It was one thing to blame yourself for not stopping a crime when a pattern could be seen, but this? Bluestone thought with a shake of his head. The killer treated the dead children as pieces of art, each child suffering more than the last, and all the while that son of a bitch was using the torture and death to woo Elisa. He reached out to her when she moaned softly, her eyes fluttering without opening. She released a heavy breath, curling in tighter on herself as she moved, began to fall, and he shushed her gently as he reached out to hold her shoulders, lowering her gently to lie on her side next to him, her head pillowed on his thigh, before sweeping her hair back over her shoulder.

Fragile, he thought as he stared at her, that was what bothered him so much. Out of all the cases they’d worked together, all the threats made to her by the Quarrymen, by Xanatos—before his son had been born—by Tony Dracon, and so many others and not one of them had ever made Elisa look fragile. The times she’d been shot, the times she’d taken a good hit in a fight or been roughed up by an explosion, even the times she’d been in the hospital, she hadn’t ever looked so . . . lost.

The sound of the waves crashing against the shore called to him, the surge of the ocean hypnotic and soothing. Reaching for the button on the console, he waited silently, watching as the hardtop of the car folded back, hiding itself away. The brine of the ocean air rushed over him, ruffling his hair as he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. The tinge of salt on the wind comforted him, the sound of the ocean waves bringing him a subdued sense of peace even as the edges of darker thoughts prodded at his subconscious.

He looked down when he felt Elisa move, watching as she curled in tighter on herself, her head slipping off his lap to rest on the seat. Matt blinked as he was pulled away from the peaceful moment, unable to turn his mind away from the question that seemed to have appeared on its own. There was a photo collage in the evidence collected for this case—a series of photographs detailing the torture and murder of Camellia Vargas, the third victim. Even now, he wasn’t sure how the collage had been found, the framed board and all the attached photos dusted for prints only to turn up nothing. Elisa had never said anything about it, the crime scene techs had never mentioned how it had been found and neither had anyone else.

“Oh God,” he whispered in horror, his wide-eyed gaze turning down slowly to the sleeping woman lying across the seat beside him.

It was then that the mysterious piece of evidence began to make sense and he hurriedly unclipped the seatbelt across his lap before stumbling from the car, barely making it to the rusted metal drum that served as a trash barrel. He held onto the rim of it as he threw up, his stomach twisting violently as he retched. That horrifying array of photographs detailing every step of that child’s brutal murder had been a ‘gift’ to Elisa from the murderer, that was why no one knew where it came from.

“Matt?”

He spit into the barrel before swiping the back of his hand across his mouth and turned to look back at Elisa, finding her sitting up with her body turned sideways in the seat, the low scratchy tone of her voice heavy with confusion as she stared at him. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me?” he demanded before he could stop himself, watching her frown as she shook her head, her dark gaze glassy. “That damn collage,” he reminded her, the edge of a growl darkening his tone. “Where the hell did that bastard leave it, anyway?” he demanded of her as he returned to the car, watching as she leaned her shoulder against the back of the bench seat, blinking slowly and pulling her knees to her chest as she wrapped her arms around her legs.

“My apartment,” she answered quietly. “In my bedroom.”

“. . . What?” He stared at her in disbelief, shaking his head as he opened the door, sitting back down in the driver’s seat and turned, angling his body to face her. “I thought you said the letters only started coming to your apartment two weeks ago,” he reminded her, unable to keep the hostility out of his tone. “What the hell else didnt you tell me?”

Elisa was quiet for so long that he didn’t think she would answer him. “Sometimes he calls me,” she said quietly, her voice barely a whisper. “I had the tech guys try and run a trace but it was always a different number, a different burner phone. He never stays on long enough for them to triangulate the signal to even get a location,” she told him, staring at her the tops of her knees, the ocean, the car, anywhere but him as though she was afraid to meet his gaze, afraid of what she’d find if she did. “At first, I just passed it off . . . it was never anything more than heavy breathing and I didn’t really think anything of it . . . After a while . . . he started talking . . . describing the murders in abstract detail, like he was talking about a painting or a sculpture or . . . “ She fell quiet as she shook her head, her chin trembling. “He, uh . . . one night, when I went home . . . I think it was the fifth victim? The sixth? I’m not sure . . . He dropped two bodies that night—maybe it was both—I don’t know. He . . . “

“He what?” Matt asked when she grew quiet, watching as she dashed the back of her hand across her face, drying her tears as though she thought she had no right to them. “Elisa?”

“He put the call on speaker,” she told him. “He said he was holding a concert for me,” she told him softly, folding her lips in over her teeth as she trembled.

Oh God no,’ Matt thought as he stared at her.

“I could hear them screaming . . . their cries . . . I heard them begging,” she said, rocking back and forth slowly, though she seemed unaware of it. The hollowness of her voice, the vacancy in her eyes, it tore at him with every word she spoke, every breath she took. Matt reached out, dragging her into his arms, holding her against his side, in a futile effort to protect her. “I uh . . . When I came into the station that night . . . after that call . . . Jones McKenney . . .”

“The guy from days? That beat cop who’s always had it in for you?” he asked when she grew quiet, and watched her nod.

“He was talking with Carl from the CSU when I walked by. I heard him say that I . . . that I must be enjoying the attention . . . that I wasn’t trying to find the guy doing this because—because it was more attention than I’d had from anyone . . . “ She shook her head as she pushed away from Matt, squeezing her eyes closed as she beat the heel of her hand against her forehead once, twice, a third time before he caught her wrist, his grip gentle but firm. “I can’t make his words go away!” she ground out as she looked up at him with wide eyes. “Why can’t I make his words go away?” she begged of him.

The rage that filled him was drowned out by his worry for her. As much as he wanted to be able to comfort her, he wasn’t the one she needed and he knew that, too. Shaking his head as he looked away from her, he started the car, pressing the button on the dash to put the hard top of the convertible back in place before fastening his seatbelt.

“I’m gonna beat that son of a bitch,” he cursed darkly before nodding to her seat. “Buckle up, partner,” he instructed her, waiting for her to click her belt into place before he backed out of the parking space and headed back toward the highway.

 

 

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: All recognizable characters of Gargoyles and Gargoyles: The Goliath Chronicles are the sole property of Buena Vista Television/The Walt Disney Company. No infringement of these copyrights is intended and it is not authorized by the copyright holder. All original characters are the property of the author, WhisperingWolf.

Warning: There will be instances of graphic violence, detailed descriptions of crime scenes, crimes against children, psychological torment, adult language and situations, and nudity. If you have a weak stomach or are easily triggered, hit the back button now. You have been warned.

Summary: Elisa's health is greatly affected by a new case she and Matt are working - a serial killer with a taste for young children who fancies himself in love with Elisa. With the killer sending Elisa "love" letters and calling the victims his "gifts to her", can the clan convince Elisa the deaths aren't her fault when a victim hits too close to home?

 

 

All the Little Children

By WhisperingWolf

Chapter 2

Silent Echoes

 

 

The echo of a giggle caught his attention, his brows furrowing as he looked up from the computer screen in front of him. His lips twitched as he fought to keep the amusement he felt from showing on his face, and scooted carefully back in his desk chair, moving slowly to ensure that he didn’t accidentally hurt the child hiding beneath his desk.

“Young Miss Marks,” Owen said in greeting, his tone as expressionless as his face. “I do believe you are supposed to be with Maihlyn until your mother is finished working for the day,” he reminded her.

Nina giggled as she smiled at him. “Aunt Maihlyn is with Mama,” she told him with a shrug.

“She is?” he asked with a frown.

Nina nodded with wide eyes. “Mama’s trying to—” she paused for a moment, her lips turned out into a pout as her brows knotted together.

Owen blinked at the rush of words that came at him next, a mix of the Mandarin Chinese he had learned for the business trips he often accompanied Mr. Xanatos on, and the language spoken in the village they had found Nina and her family in. He arched one brow as Nina spoke again, repeating the same words she had before, only slower this time, but the only word he truly understood was Mandarin. It had five different meanings depending on how it was used and written, but he hadn’t understood a single word that Nina had spoken around it.

Owen pressed his lips together, heaving a mental sigh at the sound of Puck laughing inside his head. Either the damn trickster understood what Nina had said and wasn’t sharing, or he found the entire situation amusing. The latter was most likely, he thought with a twitch of his lips.

“And you decided to sneak away to come to see me?” he asked with an arch of his brow.

“I like your stories,” she said, her lips twisting to the side. Her gaze fell as she leaned forward, one small hand grabbing onto the end of his tie as she looked at his chest. “I like your stories, too,” she whispered with a grin.

Owen closed his eyes as he stood up from his seat at the conference table, his stone fist planted firmly against the polished wood as he turned away. He could feel the anger rising inside of him, twisting and turning like a tornado, burning as though it were made of fire and not wind. Puck was railing against the binds of his own enchantment, the constraints placed upon him by Oberon himself, and for the first time that he could remember, he could feel with unquestioned certainty that he was strong enough to break free of the chains. Alex might be safe, sleeping soundly in the nursery, but the cracks around his concealment that had begun to form were getting larger, and where Owen had always tempered Puck’s rage in the past, he reveled in it now.

‘That’s because you want revenge as much as I do,’ Puck said. Owen could almost see the expression on the fey trickster’s face, the arch of one silver-white brow, the hard set of his blue eyes.

“Nina died instantly, injected by an—as of yet—unknown substance that she had an allergic reaction to. She went into anaphylactic shock and died in her sleep, never knowing any pain, never knowing any fear,” he said to himself, mouthing the words that only held sound in his own mind.

How many times had Owen repeated that to himself, just in the past five minutes alone? But the knowledge of her death didn’t temper the fury he felt at what was done to her body, because he knew—he knew—that if she hadn’t died instantly, Nina would have died only when the killer had exhausted himself with her.

‘It doesn’t matter that she died instantly, or that any of the damage done happened postmortem. What does matter is what that little girl meant to us. All those times Nina hid beneath your desk, or snuck into your office asking for nothing more of you than a story. All those times that she sat in Alex’s nursery while I was training him in his magic, and all the stories of Avalon that fascinated her. You want me to exact a price for what was done to her just as much as I do,’ Puck spoke to him, his voice hard and cold.

Owen’s eyes narrowed. He could feel Puck trying his hardest to widen the fissures in the invisible barrier that existed between himself and the fey who had created him. The trickster was doing his damnedest to get out. The feel of his rage, the ice-cold fury that took his breath away and made him dizzy with the very possibility of revenge. . . Could it be possible? With all that had happened in the past few years, could Puck have actually grown stronger than Oberon?

‘It’s not so much that I’m stronger than Oberon—I don’t know if I ever could be—but you, Owen? You’re the one tearing down the walls of this concealment spell, not me. You’re the one unlocking the door,’ Puck told him with certainty. ‘Oberon commanded me not to come out unless Alex was afraid. He never said anything about you not tearing down the concealment on your own. I doubt he ever even considered that a possibility.’

‘It isn’t just Nina. How many other children died screaming?’ Owen demanded, unable to open his eyes yet for fear of scaring the woman beside him. She was silent now, but only because she was in shock. ‘How many hours did those other children spend in terror, in pain, because of this monster?’

‘Who am I?’ Puck demanded, his tone cold. ‘Beneath the tricks, beneath the spells, beyond David Xanatos, his family, the gargoyles, beyond all of it. Who. Am. I?’

‘The guardian of children.’

“Owen?”

He flinched, the sound of her voice breaking him from his thoughts. Owen clenched his jaw as he swallowed back his rage, waiting just a moment longer before he trusted himself enough to open his eyes and look at the woman seated behind him. Her voice had been so quiet, so rough, that he wondered if she was even aware that she’d spoken at all. She didn’t say anything further when he turned toward her, didn’t look up at him or move from her seat. He released a slow exhalation through his nose as he did the only thing he could think of.

“Kaitlyn,” Owen called to her gently as he knelt beside her chair, his right hand on her forearm as he studied her.

She moved slowly, as though she couldn’t quite tell what was real and what wasn’t, looking at him absently, her heather grey eyes wide and unfocused. “Tell me I fell asleep,” she begged of him as her gaze slowly changed, focusing on his face, meeting his eyes as she begged him to tell her it was all a lie. “Tell me that one of my experiments went wrong and I had a bad trip on some kind of a hallucinogen. Tell me anything else, but don’t tell me that actually happened,” she begged of him, lifting a trembling hand to cover her mouth.

He opened his mouth, but the words wouldn’t come. He couldn’t lie to her, but he couldn’t offer her anything else, either. What power did words hold here? What could he say that wouldn’t sound like some trivial platitude?

‘Just do it, Owen, because I can’t,’ Puck said, his voice at once both full of anger and sorrow.

Owen offered a mental nod as he closed his eyes for a moment before he met Kaitlyn’s gaze and reached out to her. He wasn’t sure what he expected, but the rush of agonizing grief he felt when she crashed against his chest and buried her face into the curve of his shoulder, rocked him to the very depths of his core. He closed his eyes, tightening his arms around her as she sobbed, cupping the back of her head with his good hand as he held her close, half afraid she would shatter beyond repair if he loosened his hold even the slightest bit.

 “Nina used to sneak into Alex’s nursery at bedtime, when Puck was telling him stories about Avalon,” Owen told her softly, uncertain why he was offering the information.

Kaitlyn sniffled as she pulled back, meeting Owen’s gaze with a trembling watery smile. “I know. She loved his stories, she always said it was her favorite time of the day. Somewhere between our flights from China back here to New York and all the layovers, you and Puck became her heroes. There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t tell me about something that one or both of you had done. She told me once that you sang to her.”

Owen glanced away, feeling a bit uncomfortable at the knowledge Nina had told her mother that. “She did?” he asked, looking up to meet Kaitlyn’s gaze when she touched his cheek.

“She said you had a pretty voice,” she told him, before shaking her head and looking toward the bay window on the far side of the room. “It’s bright outside. Sunny,” she told him. Owen frowned as he studied her. “It’s a nice day and that just makes me so angry. How stupid is that?”

“It’s not stupid,” he replied, standing slowly and offering her a hand to help her up. “You’re grieving,” he reminded her as she took his hand and stood next to him. “Kaitlyn?” he called to her when she stilled, her eyes widening as she covered her mouth with her hand.

“Maihlyn,” she said, blinking quickly as tears hung on the edges of her lashes. “I haven’t told Maihlyn. She’s expecting Nina to come home at any moment, to sit with her and—and—”

“Please,” he gently interrupted her. “Allow me,” he offered. “If I can be of any assistance in this time,” he said, shaking his head as he blinked, his brows drawing together.

He was so used to having his emotions under such tight control that what he felt now seemed out of place. At once, he both wanted to scream in rage and hold onto Kaitlyn as he grieved for Nina, but neither were appropriate. Nina had been a friend to him and to Puck, but she wasn’t his daughter, nor was Kaitlyn his—anything.

‘Not that you haven’t thought about it. There were so many times you almost asked her to dinner or to share a glass of wine at the end of the day,’ Puck reminded him. ‘And so, what if it isn’t appropriate? Who gives a flying fuck about appropriate right now?

“You know, Nina could see you,” Kaitlyn said, touching Owen’s chest. His brows furrowed in question as he met her gaze. “Before the turbulence, before Alex got scared, before—”

“Before I became Puck,” he finished for her, the furrow between his brows growing deeper as he tilted his head.

Kaitlyn nodded. “The first day you all came to the village, she told me you were two people.” She released a short hum as she smiled, the expression bittersweet. “That’s what she kept repeating in that broken little language of hers.” Her lips pulled up to one side as she lifted one hand to smooth away a fallen tear. “Nina created her own language out of the old traditional Uyghur language the elders spoke, the more modern Uyghur the children she played with spoke, and the Madarin Maihlyn and I speak. It’s why no one but myself and Maihlyn could ever understand her unless she spoke English,” she told him with a shrug. “But that first day when she saw you, she was fascinated—excited. It’s why she was always following you around. Not Mr. Xanatos—you.”

“She could see—? Could you?” he asked as he stepped into the hall, following after her.

“I used to,” she admitted, ducking her head as she crossed her arms over her chest. “When I was a kid—when I was her age—I could see things that didn’t make sense, I knew things that I had no reasonable explanation for knowing. My grandmother could see—” she shook her head as she fell silent. She tipped her head up to meet his gaze, her brow furrowed. “Sometimes, I think she could see everything. There was a lot she didn’t tell me.”

“Could your mother?” he asked curiously.

‘Told you Nina could see me,’ Puck interjected with satisfaction. ‘I knew there was something about her. Something about all of them. I just never could figure out what it was.’

Kaitlyn shook her head as she reached for the elevator when they were close enough to it. “My mom wasn’t—” She shook her head, tightening her arms around herself in a wholly protective manner. “She wasn’t. . . “ She paused again, taking a deep breath before releasing it in a heavy exhalation. “When I was a child, I could see things I didn’t understand—the spirits of people who had passed, dreams and flashes of things that had yet to come. It’s hard to remember now, but I’m almost certain that I could make things come to me—books or drinks or toys—whatever I wanted, if my desire for it was strong enough, it would come to me without me having to go get it.”

Owen studied her, his brow furrowed in equal parts wonder and confusion. She had power—just as he had sensed in Nina—but it was buried so deeply in Kaitlyn now that it was hard to detect.

“I knew Grandma could see things, too,” Kaitlyn said, glancing up at Owen before looking down at her hands, “and I always wanted to spend time with her so that she could explain it all to me. I told my mom about it all one day. I even remember showing her what I could do. The things she said to me, the Bible verses she . . . I can still remember the sound of it all. Instead of trying to help me, my mother moved us across the country to get away from my grandmother. She always insisted that I was just imagining things and that once I was away from her for a while that I would stop imagining things, too. But when that didn’t work, she had me committed to a child psychiatric unit. I learned how to pretend to be normal, how to close my eyes to it all and ignore it, but I never learned how to turn it back on. When I was eighteen, I left home for college, and I never looked back.”

Owen nodded silently as he followed her into the elevator, pressing the button that would take them up to the castle. Of all the employees Mr. Xanatos had sought after, all those he had personally recruited from other companies, out of college or high school, and even those like the woman next to him who had been scouted from other countries—Kaitlyn and her assistant, Maihlyn, were the only ones he had ever granted living quarters inside the building. They were certainly the only ones—aside from Owen himself—that Mr. Xanatos provided private residences to inside the castle.

Maihlyn had always made him curious. The woman was never seen without her robe and scarf on, the handwoven hooded cloak was long enough that a good two inches pooled on the ground at all points, hiding her feet from view. The sleeves of the robe went down past her hands, and the ties in front kept the cloth from ever parting to reveal anything aside from the smallest flash of fabric beneath. The way she wore her scarf beneath the billowing hood of the robe hid almost everything about her, aside from her eyes. All Kaitlyn had ever told them was that Maihlyn had been injured and was self-conscious about how she looked, but there was something else about her that bothered him.

He frowned as he glanced up at the digital display, watching as the numbers changed with every floor the elevator passed. No, he thought, bothered wasn’t the correct term, he wasn’t upset so much as he was curious. She rarely spoke, never took meals with any of them and, as far as he knew, Kaitlyn was the only person who had ever seen Maihlyn’s hands. It was as though the young assistant was hiding every part of her physical appearance that would mark her as being different, as being—

‘Not human,’ Owen whispered to himself. ‘A gargoyle, perhaps?’

‘You would have noticed if she turned to stone, and she didn’t,’ Puck pointed out. ‘There’s magic around her, or something else powerful, but I didn’t sense any enchantments. Not a Child of Avalon, but definitely something powerful.’

“Kaitlyn, Maihlyn isn’t human, is she?” he asked before he could stop himself, and turned his head to look at the woman beside him.

Kaitlyn pressed her lips together as she released a slow breath. Her silence spoke volumes, but the look in her eye when she met his gaze said the rest. “Her story isn’t mine to tell, and I wouldn’t betray her trust to tell it without her consent.”

Owen offered her a slow nod in return. “May I ask you something?” he requested, and watched as she tilted her head curiously. “You know who I am, and you’ve been subjected to a few of young Mr. Xanatos’ stories while we were in China, and after we returned here.”

She nodded silently, only to release a deep slow breath when he remained silent. “You want to know why I don’t come out at night,” she said, before looking up at the polished steel ceiling of the elevator. “You want to know if I believe the stories of the “gargles” to be true or just the fantasy of a child—” she turned her head to the side, meeting Owen’s gaze from the corner of her eye as she offered him a teasing grin “—who has a rather mythical caretaker.”

Owen raised his right hand in a fist, forcing a cough to cover up his amusement. “Yes,” he said simply.

Kaitlyn nodded slowly, rubbing her lips together, before turning her attention to the doors in front of them as the elevator came to a stop. “To invite one secret in, is to risk another being found out. Neither are mine to tell, but I cannot know both, without them finding out about each other.”

Owen arched a brow. ‘And people say you talk in riddles,’ he said to Puck, remaining silent where he stood beside Kaitlyn. “After you,” he said when the doors opened.

“I—” Kaitlyn stilled, her eyes widening as her face paled when the Great Room of Castle Wyvern came into view. “I don’t know that I can go back there yet,” she told him as she took a small step back.

Owen stood silent as he studied her. There was more reluctance than fear in her expression, and he could understand why. For as much as she had cried earlier, she had finally seemed to gain some control over her emotions, but all it would take was one thing—a familiar sound or scent, perhaps even the sight of something—that triggered a memory of her daughter and it would all come rushing back. He had already promised to tell Maihlyn about what had happened.

Of course, he thought as he closed his eyes. The child’s father. It had never occurred to him to ask about Nina’s father before, it had always just been the three of them—Maihlyn, Kailtyn, and Nina—but with all that had happened, it was only reasonable to assume that Kaitlyn would have to inform him. Pressing his lips together as he lifted his right hand parallel to the floor, palm up, he waited for Kaitlyn to place her hand in his before he guided her from the elevator and into the vast stone hall.

“You don’t have to return to your living quarters,” he offered with understanding, watching as her hand slipped from his. “Why not tour the castle?” he suggested. “During the day, you can see more than you can in the shadows of night.”

“A tour,” she repeated absently with a slow nod, almost as though her mind had drifted somewhere else. “I could do that,” she agreed.

Owen’s brows drew together as he bowed his head, pressing his lips into a thin line before he looked up to watch as Kaitlyn moved around beside him, her gaze fixated on the giant tapestry that hung on the wall. “Kaitlyn,” he called to her, meeting her gaze briefly when she looked back at him. He waited until she turned to give him her full attention before continuing. “If you would prefer, if it would make things easier,” he began, only to fall silent, clenching his jaw against the awkwardness of the offer he was trying to make. “That is to say,” he said as he met her gaze, “if you would like myself or Mr. Xanatos to inform her father—”

“No!” she interrupted rather sharply, her eyes impossibly wide.

Owen stilled as he watched her cross her arms over her chest tightly, bowing her head as she stepped back to put distance between the two of them. There had been no reluctance on her part earlier when he had offered to tell Maihlyn, and her reaction now only confused him. Nina hadn’t looked half-Chinese, was it possible that she hadn’t told Nina’s father she was pregnant before she’d left for China all those years ago?

“No,” she said again, her tone softer, but he could still hear the upset in her voice.

“It was not my intention to upset you,” he offered the apology. “I’m sorry if I’ve overstepped my bounds,” he said.

He watched as she folded in on herself further, the way her crossed arms tightened as she bowed her head. She didn’t look angry, he thought as he narrowed his eyes. She looked. . .

‘Scared,’ Puck said, neither one of them noticing Xanatos approaching from the shadows of the stairwell.

“I was raped.” Owen blinked, unsure if he’d actually heard what he thought he had, and watched as Kaitlyn lifted her head slowly, her eyes opening as she met his gaze. It didn’t escape his attention that she appeared to be bracing herself. “I was raped, Owen. That’s how I became pregnant with Nina.”

Her voice may have been soft—loud enough for him to hear but not loud enough for it to carry past them to anyone else—but there had been no mistaking what she had said. Every muscle stilled, turning to stone as he held her gaze for one heartbeat, and then another, before he closed his eyes slowly. He could feel the muscle in his jaw ticking, his teeth aching from how tightly he clenched them, and held his breath. It took effort to force down his own rage, not to mention the strength it took to keep Puck contained as the fey inside him snarled, battling against the cage of the magic that held him at bay.

“Should—anyone ever make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe,” Owen said slowly, each word measured and controlled as he opened his eyes to meet her gaze, “come to me immediately. Do not worry about anyone else. Come to me.”

Kaitlyn nodded, her brow furrowing only to smooth out a few seconds later. He could see the gratitude in her eyes, but whether it was from his offer, or his understanding, he couldn’t be certain. He wanted to reach out to her, touch her shoulder, her arm—something—to reassure her, but his indecision held him still. She bit her lip as she nodded again, a hint of a smile twitching her lips as she tilted her head, her gaze falling to his chest as though she were seeing something that he wasn’t.

“Thank you,” she said softly, a soft hum of amusement sounding from her. It lasted only a second, barely enough to be heard before it was gone again. “Nina was always fond of you,” she told him, meeting his gaze before reaching out to touch his chest, a few inches below the knot of his tie. “And your other half.”

“We were both fond of her as well,” Owen returned, his brow furrowing as he felt a series of small cracks forming inside of him, the power that seeped through making him feel lightheaded. “I—”

His eyes widened as the cracks became fissures, the world around him turning into a series of elongated lights and colors as the power shifted. It hadn’t been that hard to take control, certainly not when Owen himself had shared the same rage and desire to avenge Nina—and now her mother—that he had, Puck thought as he breathed in deeply before opening his eyes. He met the gaze of the human woman in front of him, watching as she covered her mouth with one hand as she released a broken sob, and reached out to her. She may be taller than he was, but his magic more than made up for that as he floated in front of her, holding her tightly as she trembled in his arms, and clenched his jaw against her tears he could feel against skin, her grief scalding him.

Kaitlyn had never looked at him with any kind of distrust or suspicion, and Nina. . . Nina had seen him within Owen long before he’d ever emerged to reveal himself to her mother or Maihlyn. That bright young child had welcomed him in with open arms and never once questioned if any of his stories of Avalon were real or embellished. Hell, Nina was the only person who had ever asked his counterpart, Owen, what he wanted. Her question so innocent, but asked with such sincerity that not even Owen had known how to answer her.

Owen looked down to the left side of his desk, one pale brow arching as he studied the small girl standing beside his chair. “Can I help you, Miss Marks?” he asked, his lips twitching with amusement when she wrinkled her nose in displeasure. “Nina,” he corrected, and watched her smile.

“I want a story,” she told him with wide eyes.

Owen frowned. “It will be hours yet before Puck will be telling his stories to young Mr. Xanatos.”

“Not from Puck, silly,” she countered with a giggle. “From you!”

“From me?” he repeated dumbly. “I’m not very gifted with storytelling,” he said, pressing his lips together when he realized that she wouldn’t leave him unless he at least attempted what she was asking for. “All right,” he said as he pushed away from his desk just enough to make room and lifted her up to sit on his knee. “What kind of story would you like?”

She tilted her head back to look at him with her wide blue eyes. “What did you want to be when you grew up?” she asked.

The question was so innocent, something any child would ask, and yet it still had the power to shake him to his core. “What did I want to be?” he repeated as he blinked at her.

‘Free,’ Puck whispered to him. ‘That’s all I ever wanted to be. Free to explore, free from the constraints of Avalon, free from Oberon’s demands and sanctions.’

“Freedom,” Owen repeated quietly, and looked down when he felt Nina cuddle against his side, her little hand toying with the end of his tie.

“Then tell me a story about freedom.”

Puck closed his eyes as the memory faded away, air rushing from him as he released the breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “She used to tug on my forelock,” he said quietly, needing to break the silence but uncertain why he had chosen to say what he had. “When I would tell Alex stories of Avalon, she would be tucked in my right arm, and he in the left. She always wrapped her hand around my forelock when she was falling asleep.”

Kaitlyn sniffled as she pulled back. “She loved your stories,” she whispered as tears spilled upon her cheeks. “She always loved watching you spin from one form to the other. She even said you made the teacups dance.”

Puck smiled as he nodded, his breath rolling out in a dry sob. “From Beauty and the Beast,” he told her, smiling when she laughed through a sob. “Little Mother,” he said sadly, shaking his head in regret. “I’m so sorry,” he offered. “What can I do?”

Kaitlyn sniffled as she smoothed away her tears with her fingers, but more fell to take their place. “I don’t suppose you could bring my baby back?” she asked him. He narrowed his eyes, his brow furrowing in regret as he shook his head slowly. “I didn’t think so,” she said softly, closing her eyes as she swallowed back her tears. “Whoever did this,” she said a moment later, her voice steadier, louder than before, yet still soft and subdued. “They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again. The police have tried but they’re not—” She fell silent as she bowed her head, licking her lips before meeting his gaze. “Don’t let this son of a bitch get away with it, Puck. Please don’t let him get away with it.”

His rage returned tenfold, burning inside of him, every cell and fiber of his being infused with power so ancient and untamed that he fairly vibrated with the intensity of it, the word around him in shades of emerald as his eyes glowed. He could feel the darkness swelling within him, the rage turning to hate and something so malevolent and cold that he revealed in the power of it all. “The one who did this will face my wrath,” he promised her with a low snarl.

“Mine as well.” Kaitlyn turned her head to meet Xanatos’ gaze. He nodded to her and she returned the gesture. “Pardon the interruption, but I need Owen,” he said as he met Puck’s gaze. The fey nodded as he closed his eyes, spinning in place once more as he became Owen Burnett. “Kaitlyn,” he said as he stepped closer to them, “please take as much time off as you need. When you’re ready to talk to someone,” he said, leaving his statement unfinished as he met her gaze.

“I’ll let you know,” she said, and turned back to find Owen Burnette once more in front of her. “Thank you again, Owen.”

“Dr. Marks,” he replied with a cordial bow of his head. “Mr. Xanatos,” he said, meeting his employer’s gaze as they stepped into the elevator, the doors closing around them. “I will arrange the conference call and set up the presentation for you, but there is something I must attend to while you host the meeting.”

Xanatos nodded, his gaze slipping to the side for a moment before returning to meet Owen’s. “I understand,” he replied. “I don’t think she’s in any condition to say the words,” he said, his brow furrowing as he blinked. “Not even to herself, yet. Offer her assistant my deepest condolences. If there is anything either of them need. . . “

“Of course,” Owen said with a nod.

“And Owen?” The assistant turned his head to meet Xanatos’ gaze with a curious frown. “Grief affects people in different ways. I know how close the three of you were—you, Kaitlyn, and Nina. I can manage on my own, so, if you need time—”

Owen nodded, but remained silent, unable to speak as he looked toward the elevator doors, watching as they opened, and followed Xanatos out into the hall.

 

~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~

 

She hadn’t asked Matt where he was driving, and maybe she should have, Elisa thought as she stared at the elevator panel on the wall. She folded her arms across her chest in a wholly protective manner as she pressed herself back into the corner of the metal car. This was the last place she needed to be, but it was where he had left her, taking her car with him after he’d walked her to the elevator in the parking garage and pressed the button that would take her up to the castle on top of the building.

Elisa frowned as she clenched her jaw. She should be out there looking for this monster, or back at the precinct looking over the evidence from all the crime scenes to find any kind of similarities. There had to be something left behind, anything that would shed a light on the identity of the killer. She lifted one hand to her face, rubbing her fingertips over her brow before gripping her temples in her hand. Maybe if she went back to the actual crime scenes she would find something, she thought, refusing to believe that whoever was doing this was skilled enough to be as invisible as they seemed.

She narrowed her eyes, grimacing as the elevator bounced to a stop at the sixteenth floor, her stomach turning as she closed her eyes. Maybe there was something before all of this—here in New York, or in another state somewhere—that would show a similar or elevating pattern. The killer hadn’t started out at this level of depravity. The victims each showed a level of practiced skill which meant there had to be earlier killings, victims that, when lined up chronologically, would show a clear evolution of this evil.

“I bet you’re excited, aren’t you?”

Elisa’s head snapped up as she looked to the woman next to her with wide eyes, only to blink quickly, her brow furrowing a moment later as she took in a calming breath. Some part of her hadn’t fully realized that the reason the elevator had stopped was because it was gaining passengers. Maybe she should have, she thought as she took in a steadying breath, wincing at the twisting in her stomach, the endless nausea that would lessen its grip on her but never lose it.

And the question about being excited? It hit her like a punch in the gut, but there was some comfort to be gained from the knowledge that the brunette wasn’t speaking to her at all, rather the ash-blonde who had stepped into the elevator with her a few moments ago. Both women were young, less than thirty, by her best estimate. Elisa shook her head slightly to clear her gathering fog as she looked up, blinking as she tuned into the conversation taking place beside her.

“How old is Serena now?” the brunette asked.

“She’s going to be four,” the other woman said with a smile, tucking her ash blonde hair behind her ear. “I thought I would take her to the park after work. She loves the swings, and climbing on that monkey bar dome thing they have.”

Elisa froze as she watched the blonde pull a photo from the back of the lanyard hanging around her neck. The tiny little three-by-four-inch photo had been tucked behind the blonde’s ID card in the clear laminate pouch. The child in that photo had her mother’s peaches-and-cream complexion, her hair a lighter blonde. Her cheeks were rosy, her pale lips parted in a wide toothy smile as she stared at something in the distance—her mother, perhaps, or a prop the photographer had been holding. But it was the child’s eyes that held Elisa captive. They were the same brilliant cerulean blue that the girl’s had been at the crime scene this morning.

Her stomach twisted viciously as she froze, her eyes widening as the image of Nina’s mutilated corpse flared to life in her mind’s eye. The smell of the blood—sweet with the tang of copper, the color of it, still brilliant crimson in the places where it was remained wet and almost black in others where it had coagulated under the exposure of the early morning air. She reached out, slapping her hand against the panel of numbers. Her stomach twisted, bile rising in the back of her throat as she bit back a groan. Her breath came in fast shallow pants as she repeatedly jammed her finger against the button for the next floor until the car stopped, bouncing in place as it dinged.

“You all right, honey?” the brunette asked her, as if she’d just noticed her presence, as Elisa tried to force the elevator doors open faster.

Bathroom,” Elisa choked out, and ran in the direction the woman pointed.

She slapped her hand over her mouth as tears stung her eyes, and doubled over with one arm across her stomach. Elisa held her breath as she squeezed her eyes closed, grunting when she felt someone wrap their arm around her shoulders, holding her close to their side as a door was shoved open. She was certain she would have fallen by now if it hadn’t been for the other woman holding her against her side, steadying her as she was led into the bathroom.

She wasn’t going to make it into one of the stalls, Elisa thought, her face burning with embarrassment as she reached for the counter, bracing her hands on the smooth surface only seconds before she lost the fight against her rebellious stomach. She closed her eyes against the pain of the nausea, the burn of the bile as it rose up the back of her throat again and again.

“Shh,” the woman soothed her, a hand rubbing against her back as her hair was held back from her face. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said as she reached out, holding one hand in front of the motion detector to turn on the faucet, the water washing the sickness away.

“Fox?” Elisa groaned, her voice barely a whisper as she forced her eyes open, wincing against the bright fluorescent light.

“What the hell happened to you, Elisa?” Fox asked, her brows furrowed as she met Elisa’s gaze in the mirror. “When was the last time you ate anything? Or slept, for that matter?”

Elisa winced as she cupped her hands beneath the faucet, gathering the water in her hands, and rinsed her mouth before spitting into the sink a moment later. She gathered more water in her hands, splashing it on her face, scrubbing her fingers against her skin before rinsing her face again, only to realize a moment too late that she’d removed much of the concealer that had hidden just how bad she really looked.

Fox gasped when Elisa stared into the mirror in front of her, the detective watching as the woman beside her stared at her in horror.

“We have a doctor on call here for the gargoyles, he looks after Alex and I, as well. I’ll call him to see you,” Fox said, her tone leaving little room for argument.

“I’m fine,” Elisa choked out as she straightened, a high-pitched ringing filling her ears as she blinked rapidly, hoping to chase it and the vertigo away.

“The hell you are.”

 

~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~

 

His brows furrowed as he blinked and reached up to take off his glasses, holding the temples of the left side snug against his abdomen with his stone wrist as he removed the handkerchief from his pocket and cleaned the lenses with his right hand. The silence was startling. He hadn’t realized before how much of a difference it made—Nina’s presence—but now that she was gone . . . Owen took in a steadying breath as he tucked the bit of cloth back into his pocket and replaced the glasses back on his nose.

Owen frowned as he looked up from the tablet in his hand, narrowing his eyes as he studied the expression on his employer’s face. He could tell the Xanatos was trying to hide any emotion from his face, but he could still see it there in the barely hidden twitch of the man’s lips that his beard couldn’t hide. Amusement. Resisting the urge to shake his head, or scowl, the blond man returned his attention to the digital display in front of him.

“Yes, that is correct. Dr. Marks, her daughter, and her assistant have been residing with me in my suite,” he said nonchalantly. “I have the room, and I’m hardly ever there as it is. They may as well enjoy it.”

He didn’t need to look up to know that Xanatos was stroking his beard in thought. “Owen, I’ve made a decision.”

Owen narrowed his eyes. That statement alone should have been enough reason to give him pause, but like the dutiful assistant that he was, he asked the question anyway. “And what decision would that be, Mr. Xanatos?”

“Dr. Marks and her family will have rooms inside the castle,” the billionaire declared. “Don’t ask me why, yet, I don’t fully understand it myself, but I know that they belong there. Oh, and Owen?” The assistant looked up to meet the man’s gaze, a single brow arched in question. “Consider it your personal gift to them—choosing and furnishing their rooms. Whether you tell any of them or not is up to you.”

He had dragged his feet on the task, Owen thought as he turned his gaze toward the one embellishment that he had purchased from his own account and not used the business account for. The surface had been polished until it shone, the glossy black lacquered wood holding a mirror finish. It was dusted, polished, and waxed each morning and again each evening. He knew, because Dr. Marks had told him so, telling him once in conversation that the repetitive action seemed to calm Maihlyn, a steadying kind of therapy that helped with the woman’s anxiety.

The silence was startling. At this time of day, even if he had only come to escort Nina back to her family’s quarters, there was always the sound of something—music left playing, a video left on, both usually something of Nina’s. How many of the songs from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had he memorized already, simply because he’d heard them so many times?

The piano. . . He frowned as he turned his head, blinking rapidly as he stared at the silent instrument. It was silent. It was never silent. As soon as Nina would step into the apartment, she was always at the piano, trying to play one song or another, plucking out notes, her hands too small to make the chords needed to play a song.

Kaitlyn was the one with the gift, producing the music written by artists from Beethoven to Sheryl Crow, letting her daughter sit on her lap or on the closed lid of the instrument, he recalled, his mouth pulling up at one corner in a fleeting bittersweet grin as he studied the Steinway baby grand piano. He wasn’t sure if it was Nina’s influence or not, the way her mother would invite him to come sit with her on the bench while he held Nina and she played one song or another, the music easing her daughter to sleep when she was restless.

He could still remember the weight of her gaze, how it felt when her eyes met his, and her insistence that he call her by her first name and not her formal title. He could still hear the songs she played for her daughter and Maihlyn during their layover in the London airport, the melodies haunting him like so many ghosts. The plane they had been on needed refueling and an engine check after their travel from China. It had been the first time either Nina or Maihlyn had traveled by airplane, and it was the first time Owen could remember actually feeling the suffocating anxiety from Kaitlyn’s assistant. The woman had never said a word and, to any who looked on, she appeared unphased, but he—or rather Puck—had been able to feel her fear.

“Excuse me, Sir.” Owen looked up with a frown, blinking at the distant sound of Kaitlyn’s voice and watched as she conversed with a member of the airport staff. “Would it be too much trouble to ask for the lid of the keys to be opened? It’s been a long journey for us, and the piano is the only thing that calms my daughter.”

“Of course, not, miss,” the man said, his accent marking him as being from Surrey.

Owen watched as the man walked beside Kaitlyn, Nina clinging to her mother’s hand with wide eyes as she turned around, searching the crowd. He hadn’t been certain what or who the child was looking for until her eyes came to rest on him. She relaxed almost instantly, and he arched a brow, only to narrow his eyes a moment later at the amusement he could feel coming from Puck.

‘At some point,’ Puck told him with certainty, ‘that little girl decided you were hers. Of all the people she could have bonded to—Xanatos, Fox, Alex—she chose us.’

“Mr. Burnette?” Owen blinked as he was pulled from his thoughts, turning his head to meet Kaitlyn’s gaze. “If you wouldn’t mind?” He shook his head silently in confusion. “Maihlyn’s hands sometimes get too stiff for her to bend, and Nina’s arms aren’t long enough yet.”

“I may not be very much help,” he said, nodding to his stone fist. He’d never regretted his decision before—even as annoying as having a stone hand could be, he’d never resented it—until now.

“It’s all right,” Kaitlyn replied, the gentle upturn of her lips comforting him, soothing away his worry. “You only need one hand for this,” she assured him.

“As you wish,” he returned as he stepped toward her, refusing to look back even though he could feel both Xanatos’ and Fox’s gazes trained on him.

He nodded when Kaitlyn patted the wooden bench beside her, and sat down, only to release a sigh and shake his head when Nina immediately climbed into his lap. Why that child had decided to take a liking to him, he doubted he would ever know.

“There’s supposed to be a harmonica with this, but I’ve figured out how to make up the difference, I just need you to play the low register rhythm,” Kaitlyn told him, marking the keys and explaining what he would need to do before she placed her hands over the keys. Within the first few bars of music, he knew what the song was, his lips parting seconds before Kaitlyn began to sing. “It’s nine o’clock on Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in. There’s an old man sittin’ next to me, making love to his tonic and gin.”

“He says son ‘son can you play me a memory. I’m not really sure how it goes. But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes’,” Owen sang, surprising even himself. He’d had no intention of singing, but the words came anyway, as though the song itself had compelled him to sing.

“Thank you for waiting.”

Owen blinked as he turned his attention toward the hall, the soft sound of Maihlyn’s voice pulling him from his thoughts, and he nodded quietly in return.

“Normally, I would be with Kaitlyn in the laboratory, but today is. . . rough,” she said, pausing as though finding the right word.

“Dr. Marks did inform me that you have mobility issues,” he replied as he met her honey-brown gaze.

He could barely see her face, the scarf she had covering her nose and mouth, was tucked into the folds where it wrapped around her head. He couldn’t recall a time he had ever seen her without the layers of scarves and robes that covered her from head to foot, trailing inches along the ground on all sides, and leaving only a three-inch opening across her eyes. Even her hands were covered by gloves or billowing sleeves.

“Mr. Burnette,” Maihlyn called to him, narrowing her eyes as she studied him. “Where’s Nina? Why are you here without her?”

Owen’s lips parted as he drew in the breath needed to speak, but he found himself unable to say anything at all. He stood frozen as he watched Maihlyn’s eyes widen, her head slowly shaking back and forth in horror as she stared at him. She took a step back when he moved to comfort her, her disbelief giving way to fury, her eyes glowing fierce and crimson as she released an agonized howling roar.