Chapter 1

Janet Whitecoff's first inkling of the trouble that invaded her semi-happy suburban home came when she saw the laundry compartment. It was 6:30 Wednesday morning and she had just trudged blearily downstairs of her four-bedroom house, purchased when she had still been a married woman with hopes of one day having a large, happy, storybook family instead of the single daughter and ex-husband she now had. Her mind, though primarily focused on getting a strong pot of coffee brewing in order to help blast her into another twelve hour shift at the hospital, noted immediately that the two French doors which guarded the laundry cubicle were standing wide open. That was odd. She had done a load of laundry before retiring last night and distinctly remembered closing them. Chrissie, her sixteen year-old daughter, habitually left the two doors open when she was washing something. It had been the subject of many a corrective lecture over the years but the action continued without fail. It was a learned behavior, she knew, picked up from her father who wouldn't close a cabinet door if his life depended on it. But Chrissie was not home this morning. Taking advantage of the first week of Christmas vacation, Chrissie had spent last night at her friend Lisa's house. She was not due home until well after noon today. Or so Janet thought.

Chrissie, in stark contrast to her parents, was a life-long introvert. Though her training was that of a trauma nurse, not a psychologist, Janet never-the-less knew that Chrissie's shyness had resulted both from the divorce of her and Jason when she was but six years old and by the subsequent sheltering that the two of them, both cynical emergency services employees who routinely dealt with humanity at it's worse, had bestowed upon her in a good natured attempt at protection. Though pretty and almost eerily smart, Chrissie had never made friends easily, had never had a boyfriend at all, finding solace it seemed, in books of poetry and literature, which occupied every available space in her room. It was only with the start of her sophomore year at Thomas Edison High School, only three months before, that she had started to socialize with her peers in any capacity. She still hadn't brought home any boys (much to Jason, her father and Janet's ex-husband's relief), but she had taken to hanging out with several of the school's cheerleaders and was even considering trying out for the squad when basketball season rolled around. Though Janet disapproved of cheerleaders and cheerleading, considering them to be female exploitation, and though she didn't particularly like Chrissie's friend Lisa, who was a gorgeous, blonde, airhead, stereotypical cheerleader, she was forced to encourage any endeavor that Chrissie undertook which involved interaction with people other than herself or Jason. For that reason she had given no resistance and only token interrogation when Chrissie had asked her the night before if she could stay at Lisa's. The alleged reason for the sleepover was that they were going to practice some cheerleading moves to see if Chrissie had the rhythm for it. Janet, who had almost twenty years of emergency room nursing, including five spent on the Medi-Flight helicopter and who therefore considered herself pretty wise to the ways of the world, knew that the two girls probably had some ulterior motive in the sleepover. Maybe they wanted to get drunk off the liquor in Lisa's parent's liquor cabinet. Or maybe Lisa was going to turn her daughter on to marijuana for the first time. Janet was not exactly thrilled with these possibilities but knew they were part of every teenager's life. She had to simply hope that she, and Jason who shared joint custody, had raised their daughter well enough that she would choose to stop these dangerous pursuits, if that was what she was doing, at the experimentation stage.

Had Chrissie, for some reason, come home in the middle of the night and done a load of laundry? She could not envision why her daughter would have done such a thing. Curious, but by no means alarmed, she padded over to the laundry cubicle and flipped on the light switch. The fluorescent bulbs flickered to life, bathing the two appliances and part of the hallway in light. It was then that she knew something was wrong.

The sparkling white surface of the silent washing machine was marred by a single red handprint on the lid, right where someone would grasp in order to open it. The red material that made up the stain was unmistakably dried blood. Another smear, smaller and less defined, stood out on the front of the machine. No longer groggy, Janet lifted the lid and peered inside. The machine, she knew, had been empty last night. Now she could see the blue pantsuit and matching sweater Chrissie had left the house in clinging wetly to the sides of the drum.

Her daughter had come home last night or early this morning, had been bleeding, and had thrown her clothes in the washing machine. These facts filled her with dread. What had happened? Where was Chrissie now? Her bedroom was next to Janet's and when she had walked by it less than two minutes before, the door had been standing open, the bed neatly made.

Stepping back away from the washing machine, Janet looked down the hallway towards the family room. Just inside the hall was a guest bathroom. Its door was usually open. It was now closed. She could see a sliver of light peeking out through the gap at the bottom of the door, illuminating a small, straight section of the brown Berber carpet. Stepping closer she saw something else; the ornate crystal doorknob was smudged with something. Already knowing what she would find, she flipped on the hallway light. Under the bright glow of the overhead fluorescent bulb she could plainly see that it was more dried blood on the doorknob.

Before she had time to fully consider the ramifications of this she heard a soft sob, unmistakably Chrissie's, from within the bathroom. It was accompanied by a delicate murmur of bathwater sloshing gently from one side of the tub to another.

"Chrissie?" she called carefully.

"I'm okay, Mom," Chrissie replied softly, though Janet hadn't asked if she was okay, and though her voice sounded worlds away from okay. Her voice sounded defeated, as if she was barely hanging onto control.

"Chrissie, what are you doing home? Why is there blood on the washing machine and the doorknob out here?"

There was nothing for a moment but another splashing sound.

"Chrissie?" Janet repeated, louder this time.

"Lisa and I had..." A sniff. "We had a fight and I came home early. I'm okay. I cut my hand a little on something."

All of Janet's maternal instincts were now screaming at her that something was dreadfully wrong on the other side of the bathroom door. Chrissie's voice, which sounded so un-Chrissie-like, the fact that she was taking a bath at 6:30 in the morning when she had never, even under the greatest stress, felt the need to do such a thing before. The fact that she was taking the bath in the downstairs tub, which was never used, instead of in the larger tub in her own bathroom. The blood on the washing machine. The blood on the doorknob.

"Chrissie," Janet said, reaching out and turning the doorknob, which was locked. "Let me in. What's going on?"

"Nothing, Mom!" Chrissie, who, since she was a toddler, had never raised her voice in anger to either parent, yelled. "I'm just having a bath. I'll..." A sob, cut off in the middle, "I'll be out in a minute."

"Chrissie, open this door right now!" Janet yelled back, nearing a state that could be called panic. What had happened to her daughter?

She heard the sloshing of Chrissie exiting the tub. "I'm okay, Mom," she called out. "I'll be out pretty soon. Don't come in here."

It was the last sentence, 'don't come in here', that prompted Janet into action. Her daughter's voice had said those words with such pitiful desperation. Directly behind her was a coat closet. She threw open the door to it and pushed aside a variety of winterwear, finally locating an empty wire hanger. She pulled it down and, in one swift motion, bent the top of it into a straight line. Turning back around she inserted this into the small hole in the crystal doorknob.

"Chrissie, I'm coming in!" she said, pushing on the hanger and turning the knob at the same time. The hanger worked just as it was supposed to. The knob turned to the right and the door sprang open.

"Mom, no!" Chrissie had time to yell, in full panic, before Janet saw what she was trying to hide.

Janet stared in disbelief, her mind trying desperately to cope with what she was seeing, to find a rational, safe explanation. The bathtub, which was rapidly draining with a gurgling, slurping sound, was half filled with water that was stained pink. There was blood on the porcelain of the toilet, some fresh, some dried, and blood on the side of the tub. Chrissie, standing next to the sink, was looking at Janet with an expression of hopelessness and guilt. An expression that only the damned were meant to wear. Her face was swollen on the left side and her lip was split open and purple. She had a pink bath towel wrapped protectively around her shivering body and as Janet watched in horror, two drops of blood pattered to the floor at her feet.

"Chrissie," Janet whispered, her mouth hanging open. "What happened to you? Where are you bleeding from?"

"It's nothing, Mom," Chrissie croaked. "It's nothing at all."

Then she burst into tears.

Sergeant Jason Whitecoff of the Marshall County Sheriff's Department had just pulled out of the north area substation into the perpetual winter fog that plagued the San Juaquin Valley when the Comm terminal in his patrol car began beeping, indicating an incoming message. He looked at it in annoyance for a moment, yawning, wondering what could possibly require his attention this early. He was the field supervisor for the day shift in Madison Park and as such, he was not accustomed to being sent to routine calls. He would of course handle one if it was pending and there were no patrol units available but currently only two of the ten officers under his command were assigned to anything. The other eight were all on "routine patrol", which, Jason knew, meant they were all sequestered behind various churches, closed down businesses, or county parks reading free newspapers and drinking free coffee obtained from neighborhood convenience stores and fast food joints. He could of course find them if he wanted to. He had worked nearly eight years as a patrol officer in this district before being promoted and had been the area supervisor for the last five. He knew every nook and cranny of Madison Park. But what would be the point? He could name several of his fellow patrol sergeants who took great pleasure in finding the troops doing what they weren't supposed to be doing but Jason had made a vow to himself seven years before when he had accepted the promotion that he would not forget where he had come from. So far he'd kept that vow, which hadn't exactly endeared him to the brass but that had accorded him the unofficial title of most-respected sergeant among the cops he supervised.

He pushed the "NEXT" button on his keyboard to bring up his message. Long experience allowed him to read the screen and continue navigating the green and white Crown Victoria through the suburban streets. It wasn't much of a message but its content was enough to get his heart pounding beneath the kevlar armor vest he wore: TURN ON YOUR CELLPHONE FOR EMERG INCOMING CALL FROM X-WIFE. The sender of the message was the dispatch sergeant.

Frowning, he reached down to make sure the dash mounted cell phone was turned on. It was. What could possibly be so emergent, he wondered uneasily, that Janet had gone through the trouble of calling the dispatch office and talking to the duty sergeant? In the nineteen years he had known her she had never felt the need to do such a thing before. Was it something to do with Chrissie? As unpleasant a thought as that was, it seemed the only logical explanation. They had shared equal custody of her since the divorce and his daughter was unquestioningly the most important thing in his life. All other aspects - career, girlfriends, money - paled in comparison to the love he felt for her. By the time the phone rang two minutes later, his mind had worked him into a state of anxiety more intense than anything his job could ever hope to produce.

"Hello?" he answered, cutting the phone off in the middle of the first ring. "Janet?"

"It's me," said the voice of his ex-wife. Her voice sounded controlled, but only barely so.

"What's going on?" he asked. "Is Chrissie okay?"

"She's in the hospital," Janet said simply.

"The hospital?" he said, thousands of evil possibilities running through his mind. "What happened to her? Is she okay?"

"Jason," she said, her voice breaking, then turning to a sob. "Jason she was..."

"What?" he demanded. "She was what? What happened to her?"

"She was raped," Janet managed to say.

Speechless, Jason's mouth hung open. Surely he had misunderstood her. Surely he had not just been told that his sixteen-year-old daughter had been raped. "What did you say?" he finally spoke.

"She was raped last night," Janet repeated, regaining a little control, "while she was out with her friends."

"My God," he muttered, trying to comprehend. "Is she okay? How bad is she hurt?"

"She'll be all right," Janet told him. "There was some... well some bleeding. And she was beat up a little but she'll be okay." She paused. "Physically anyway."

"Where is she at?" Jason wanted to know.

"We're at Tubman," Janet told him, referring to Harriet Tubman Memorial Hospital in downtown Maldonado. It was the facility where she worked. "Can you come down? Chrissie needs you. I need you too."

"I'll be right there," he answered, then, after a moment. "Does she know who did it?"

"Yes," Janet answered. "She knows. I'll tell you when you get here."

After hanging up with Janet he called his immediate superior, Lieutenant West, to tell him that he was returning to the office and leaving due to a family emergency. He half expected West, one of the more officious pricks the department employed, to give him trouble, not that he was going to let that stop him, but, as it turned out, West was much more accommodating than he would have believed.

"Family emergency?" he asked. "Is it serious?"

"My daughter had, well, an accident. She's in Tubman hospital."

"Your daughter?" he said. "Well don't even bother coming back to the office. Just take your patrol car down there. Leave all of your stuff in it. I'll arrange to have it picked up later."

"Thanks, Bill," Jason told him, already pushing the accelerator to the floor. "I'll do that."

The drive to Tubman took about twenty minutes under normal circumstances. Jason made it in slightly less than thirteen. He parked the patrol car in the restricted area next to the ambulance bay and nearly ran inside.

The triage nurse, a friend of Janet's who gave him a look of quiet sympathy but, thankfully, said nothing about Chrissie, directed him to one of the back treatment areas. He weaved his way through the crowded emergency department, dodging nurses and doctors going about their appointed rounds and finally located his ex-wife standing outside a closed treatment room. Though it had only been eight days since he had last seen her, when they handed Chrissie off according to their custody arrangement, Janet looked like she'd aged ten years since then. Her eyes were swollen and puffy from crying. Her red hair, usually stylishly set whenever she was in public, was a tangled rat's nest atop her head. She wore a pair of faded blue jeans and an old turtleneck that was wrinkled and stained.

"Janet?" he said carefully.

She turned and looked at him, her stare blank and devoid of emotion. "Hi, Jase," she mumbled and then began to tremble all over. Tears began coursing down her face and she broke down.

He went to her, putting his arms around her and holding her the best he could. He could feel the eyes of the emergency room staff, Janet's co-workers, silently appraising the two of them. By now they would all know what had happened. "It's okay," he whispered rhetorically into her ear. "Everything is going to be all right."

She sniffed loudly and then got herself back under control. "I'm sorry," she told him, pulling out of his grasp. "This is all just... just a little too much for me."

"Anytime," he assured her gently. "How's Chrissie doing? Is she in there?"

"Yes." She nodded. "She... they gave her some Demerol for sedation and pain control. The doctor is stitching her up right now."

"How bad is she hurt?"

She trembled on the edge of control for a moment but managed to maintain. "Oh God, Jason, she's..." She took a deep breath. "She's got a huge tear on her perineum from that... that animal. Six stitches at least. She's lost a lot of blood. It was all over the bathroom and in the bathtub. She came home last night and I didn't even wake up. She'd been in there for hours, bleeding and I was in bed, just..." She began sobbing again.

"It's okay," he told her, putting his left arm around her again. "It's not your fault. You can't blame yourself for this. When can we go in and see her again?"

"Not until they're done stitching her," Janet said. "And then they're going to do the EE."

The EE, Jason knew, was medicaleze for the evidentiary exam, a cold, impersonal, and somewhat ruthless poking and probing designed to collect forensic material for the district attorney. It had been known to traumatize the rape victim almost as much as the actual rape.

"I told them I want to be in there for that," Janet said. "I mean... well she's all doped up right now and not feeling much of anything, but I still want to be there for her when they're doing it."

"Of course," Jason said. He looked around, noting that they were the focus of attention of every staff member within visual range. "Look, is there anywhere we can go talk?"

She looked around, seeing for the first time all of the eyes that were upon them. "Sure," she said. "We can go to the nurse's lounge."

She led him through two hallways and to a door with a key-code box on the doorknob. She punched in a code, gaining access, and they entered. The lounge was a semi-large room with a wooden table, six or seven chairs, a television set, a coffeepot, and a microwave. It was currently empty. They entered, closing the door behind them and sat down in two of the chairs.

"Who did this to her?" Jason asked. "Where was she? What happened?"

"It took me a while to get the story out of her," Janet said. "At first she told me that she didn't remember anything. And then she told me that she'd fallen and cut herself somehow. But finally she told me the truth." She shook her head sadly. "She was afraid I'd be mad at her."

Jason nodded, not saying anything.

"Yesterday," Janet went on, "she asked if she could spend the night at her friend Lisa's. You know? The cheerleader she's been hanging out with."

"The one you don't like."

"Right." She nodded. "Well apparently my instincts were right on that count. It seems that the staying the night story was just that. A story. What they really did was hop in Lisa's boyfriend's car and drive to Fresno."

"Fresno?" Jason said, horrified. Fresno was more than forty miles away.

"Right," she replied. "You see, Lisa's boyfriend is a football player with Fresno State and they were having this fraternity party at their dorm house. Lisa talked Chrissie into going with her."

"A frat party," Jason mumbled, remembering with horror the frat parties of his own college days. Chrissie would quite literally be a babe in the woods at such a gathering. "Jesus."

"Uh huh. Once they got there Chrissie had a few beers. Although she didn't say so, I think she might've smoked a little grass. At some point she caught the attention of another one of the football players: Chad Buckingham."

"Chad Buckingham?" Jason asked. "The quarterback?"

"That's him," she confirmed.

"That motherfucker," he spat. Jason had heard of Buckingham's exploits before. Not only his impressive passing record, which for the last two seasons had led the CSUF football team to the divisional playoffs, but also the darker side of the all-American hero, the side that great attempts were made to keep from the public but which, within the tight circle of law enforcement, rumors were always circulating. He had heard tale of several sex scandals of various types, usually involving teenaged girls, usually involving violence.

"It seems," Janet went on, "that Mr. Buckingham was quite charming, eventually luring her to one of the empty bedrooms in the dorm house. There they began "making out", as she put it. She had gone along willingly up until then but then he started trying to take off her clothes. She tried to stop him at that point, wanting to get out of there but he threw her back down on the bed and ripped her sweater off of her. When she resisted, he slapped her around and punched her in the face. She's going to need a couple stitches in her lip from that."

Jason gritted his teeth, clenching his hands together. He could feel the blood rising in his face, making his head throb. "Go on."

"He ripped off her pants and panties and then raped her, you know, in the conventional fashion, for a few minutes. And then he..." She took a deep breath. "And then he rolled her over and..." She couldn't continue, instead, bursting into tears but Jason got her drift anyway.

"It's okay," he soothed, automatically using a calm voice though his mind was seething.

"No it is not!" she shouted. "That piece of shit did that to our daughter! How can you say it's okay? She's got a tear an inch and a half long on her from when he..." She broke into sobs again.

He slid his chair around the table until he was next to her and put his arms around her again. She buried her face in his chest, continuing to hitch and cry for the better part of five minutes before she was able to speak again.

"Afterwards," she finally went on, "he just left her in the bedroom and went back to the party. She was too ashamed to see anybody or do anything. She put the remains of her clothes back on and slipped out the back door. She walked down to a payphone and called a cab. The cab brought her all the way back home and she crept inside and got the sixty-five dollars it cost out of her little savings bank. The whole time she was bleeding from the cuts on her. She went in then and took a bath. That's where I found her."

"Have they taken a police report yet?" Jason asked.

"Not yet," she answered, sniffing. "I imagine they've been called but no one's showed up yet. How is that going to work since it happened in Fresno?"

"Maldonado PD will take the initial report and then when they find out it happened in another jurisdiction they'll forward it to Fresno PD's sex crimes division. The Fresno detectives will get all of the evidence and send a detective down to interview her."

"God what a mess this is. When will they arrest him?"

"Soon," he told her, though he was already starting to form other ideas about that.

A female patrol officer took the report. Young and cute as a button in her dark blue uniform, she looked barely old enough to have met the age requirements for law enforcement employment. Despite her appearance however, she was professional and kind as she took Chrissie's statement, eliciting details from her one by one until she had a complete synopsis of the events that had transpired in Fresno the previous night. After the interview she authorized an evidentiary exam to be performed at the City of Maldonado's expense (they would of course be re-embursed by the City of Fresno). The exam took about an hour. It was performed by one of the emergency room doctors and a nurse. Janet and the young patrol officer were present in the room during the exam; Janet to provide moral support, the police officer to take possession of any evidence that was collected.

After they emerged from the room, Jason pulled the young police officer, who's nametag identified her as RATHBONE, aside.

"So what do you think?" he asked her, referring to the exam.

Since he was a fellow law enforcement officer she spared him the bullshit lines usually reserved for the public and spoke frankly with him. "Well," she told him, "we took all the usual stuff. Vaginal swabs, hair samples..." She hesitated briefly. "Anal swabs. Maybe there are some sperm specimens on one of them but probably not. She bled quite a bit you know, both from her vagina and her anus and she also took a bath afterwards and douched several times. Can't really blame her for that, it's a natural reaction after being raped, but there's a good chance that we won't find any evidence."

He nodded sadly, already having suspected as much.

"As for hair samples from the perpetrator..." She shook her head slowly. "No chance at all. No skin samples under her fingernails either."

"Thanks," he told her mutely.

"I understand she washed her clothes afterwards too."

"That's what I understand," Jason replied.

"That's too bad," she said. "But again, understandable. She's a sixteen-year-old girl and her first instinct was to hide what was done to her. If it's okay with you, I'll have you take me over to your ex-wife's house so I can collect the clothes anyway." She shrugged. "You never know. Maybe something will turn up." She didn't sound very hopeful about this, nor did Jason expect her to be.

He nodded. "I'll get the keys from Janet."

Chrissie was released from the hospital later that day and sent home with Janet. Jason asked for and received an emergency leave of absence from the Sheriff's department for at least two weeks. He could tell, talking to Captain Blanely the patrol commander, that word of what had happened, by one means or another, had already leaked to the MCSD and was common knowledge. That was pretty much as he expected. There were no secrets in the law enforcement community. For the duration of the current crisis it was decided that he would stay at Janet's house, sleeping in the spare bedroom.

It pained both parents terribly to witness the state their daughter had been left in. Though normally shy and withdrawn to a certain degree she was now only a small step this side of catatonic. She wandered up and down the stairs in a daze, speaking only when spoken to, and only then in monosyllable responses. She would often have fits of sobbing which could last anywhere from a few minutes to two hours in duration. Her appetite was next to nothing. She spent nearly eighteen hours out of every twenty-four in a fitful, agitated sleep. The doctor had forbid her to take baths due to the stitches she had but she took no less than four showers a day trying to scrub clean an imaginary filth that stuck to her.

The case assignment had been transferred to the Fresno Police Department's Sex Crimes Division and given to Rick Clarkson, one of the senior detectives there. Jason didn't know what to make of Clarkson. He called him at least twice a day trying to determine the status of the investigation but was unable to pry a single detail of what was going on out of the man. Twenty years of law enforcement had conditioned him to expect a little professional courtesy out of other cops; not being cited when pulled over for speeding (or arrested when pulled over for DUI as a few cops he knew had been), a little extra investigation when one's car, house, boat, or recreational vehicle was broken into, the benefit of the doubt when involved in some physical altercation with another person off duty, and other such things as that. But when it came to the rape investigation, Clarkson gave him nothing that he wouldn't have given a normal member of the public. He let it be known that they were examining the physical evidence, that they had pulled Buckingham into their office and interviewed him at length about the alleged incident, that they had interviewed several participants of the frat party and several of Chrissie's friends that were there. Apart from that, he remained mute on the subject. In the ensuing week they could do nothing but wait and see what would happen, contemplating such things as sending Chrissie to a new school since everyone at her old one would know what had happened to her and taking her in to the doctor in thirty days to test her for pregnancy, venereal disease, and AIDS, as they had been instructed to do.

Finally, on the eighth day after the rape, they received a phone call from him. He asked if it would be convenient if he were to show up their house on the 28th of December at eight o'clock to discuss the status of the case. Jason knew his offer entailed the professional courtesy that he had so long been seeking. Clarkson would not have driven forty miles on a weekend day in order to update an ordinary member of the public in regards to a case. He also realized that Clarkson's offer probably did not mean that good news was forthcoming.

A short man in his early forties, Clarkson showed up precisely at eight o'clock on the agreed upon day. He wore a faded pair of blue jeans, tennis shoes, and an Oakland Raiders T-shirt that hung down below his waist to conceal the gun that was strapped there. His eyes, steely gray, had the cynical gaze that was common to career law enforcement officers and his nose had a variety of burst capillaries, also common to cops, which denoted a heavy drinker.

"Mr. and Mrs. Whitecoff," he said, nodding to them at the front door. "Thank you for having me over."

"Come on in," Janet told him, stepping aside to allow him entry.

They led him over to the oak dining room table and offered him a seat. He took the chair at the head of the table and Janet and Jason sat on either side of him.

"Is Christine home?" he asked.

"Yes," Janet answered. "She's asleep in her room. She sleeps a lot you know."

Clarkson nodded sympathetically.

"Do you need her to come down?" Jason asked. "We could wake her up."

"No, no," he replied, shaking his head. "That uh, won't be necessary." He took a deep breath. "I'm afraid that I don't have terribly good news to share with you."

"Oh?" Jason replied neutrally.

"You see," Clarkson explained, "we've turned the results of our investigation over to the Fresno County DA's office and... the simple fact of the matter is that they're not going to attempt to prosecute Mr. Buckingham for the rape of your daughter."

"What?" Janet nearly screamed at him. "What do you mean that they're not filing charges? He raped her!"

"I'm sorry," Clarkson told her. "I did everything I could, believe me. I have absolutely no love for that slimy little piece of shit. Coupled with the fact that the victim was another cop's daughter, I tried my damnedest. I filed six separate charges on the asshole: forcible rape, forcible sodomy, statutory rape, statutory sodomy, felony sexual battery, and unlawful imprisonment. I interviewed any witness or potential witness I could find. I leaned on the suspect's friends probably a little harder than I should have." He shrugged sadly. "But in the end, I was simply fighting a losing battle. We have no physical evidence that the crime took place. We have no witnesses that can place your daughter in the room with Buckingham. In fact, we have several witnesses, other football players if you can imagine that, that are willing to swear before the throne of God Himself that they were playing a game of quarters with Buckingham when the rape took place. It comes down to your daughter's word against five of Fresno State's star football players."

"So you don't believe her then?" Janet yelled, looking for an easy target to discharge her anger upon.

"On the contrary," Clarkson replied calmly, unoffended by her outburst. "I believe every word your daughter told me. In fact, I suspect she actually downplayed the brutality with which this event took place. You see, I've had dealings with Mr. Buckingham before."

"You have?" Janet asked.

"Oh yes," he told her. "I've filed charges on three separate occasions for similar crimes; always against teenaged girls."

"And what happened?" Janet asked, appalled. "Why isn't he in jail?"

"Well, Mrs. Whitecoff," he explained, "you've got to understand what we're dealing with here. Mr. Buckingham, first of all, is the product of an upper-middle class household in which both parents are attorneys. Second of all, he's the star football player of the local college team, a quarterback that consistently leads this bum-fuck Egypt's group of steroid-popping heroes to victory in the play-offs each year. He's regarded in the local media like Christ right down from the cross. The papers will not print a single bad thing about him. I know, I've tried on several occasions to leak details of the rapes to them in order to at least discredit the prick a little. You see, he's all but assured a spot in the pros after he graduates; probably as a second or third string quarterback on some shitty team like the Colts or the Raiders, but he'll be another pro that the great Fresno State has produced and they're mighty proud of him in Raisenville. If he were anybody else, the DA would've at least filed charges on him on the basis of your daughter's story, although, to be brutally honest, there wouldn't be much chance of a conviction in any case. But with Mr. All-Fresno here," he shook his head sadly, "forget it. The DA doesn't want to risk the bad publicity that such an endeavor would entail. He knows what would happen. The media there in town would jump all over the victim and slaughter her. They'd find every little sorted detail about her life and in the course of two days, everyone in town would think she was some slut who was just trying to smear the reputation of Fresno's finest. They'd make the DA out to be some sort of neo-nazi fascist trying to add notches to his belt."

"So you're saying," Jason, who had remained silent and contemplative throughout the entire conversation, finally spoke up, "that Buckingham is going to walk?"

Clarkson nodded slowly. "I'm afraid so," he said, trying to judge what was going on behind his colleague's eyes. "Again."

Janet and Clarkson spoke for a few more minutes, both about the shoddy state of the American legal system and the general decline society seemed to be in the midst of, but that last question had pretty much ended the consultation. Jason contributed nothing to the conversation, a fact that plainly made Clarkson uneasy.

Eventually, after offering his sincerest apologies, Clarkson bade them farewell and returned to Fresno.

"So that's it then?" Janet said after he had left. She was angrier than he had ever been before in her life. Even when she had found out about Jason's frequent infidelities with a variety of dispatchers and night shift waitresses, the event that had marked the end of their marriage, the emotion was nothing compared to this. "He rapes our daughter, leaves her to fend for herself in a strange city, traumatizes her for life, and he's free just to go off and play in some stupid football game on New Year's Day and then come back to school and rape more girls?"

"No," Jason said quietly, his voice as calm as if he was discussing the weather. "That is not it. I will not let him get away with this."

Janet looked at him with alarm. She knew what that tone meant. The madder Jason got, the more quietly he spoke. "What do you mean, Jase?"

"He's never going to do this again. Never."

"Jason?" she said carefully, feeling like she was poking around with an unexploded bomb. "What are you going to do? You're not thinking about... you know?"

"You want to know what I'm going to do?" he asked, raising his voice slightly. "I'll tell you. I'm going to leave here, drive down to the office and run his name through the computer and find out where he lives. Then I'm gonna drive down there, kick in his door, and empty my 9mm into his fucking head!"

"Jason!" she yelled, frightened. She knew him well enough to know that he was not merely spouting a bunch of macho bullshit. He had every intention of doing precisely what he had just articulated. "You will do no such thing!"

"The hell I won't! He's gonna pay for what he did to Chrissie. If the goddamn system won't do it, then I will!"

"You'll go to prison, Jason," she said, keeping her voice as calm as she could. "You'll lose your pension, everything you've ever worked for. And the media will make you out to be some kind of psychopathic cop."

"I don't care," he said stubbornly. "It'll be worth it."

"It will not!" Janet yelled. He started to say something else but she quickly cut him off. "Will you shut the hell up for a minute and listen to me?" When she saw she had his attention she continued, speaking slowly and reasonably. "Jason, what you're planning is a bad idea. If you go through with it, you'll be arrested and sent to jail. Your face, my face, Chrissie's face will be all over the news for the next year or so. Your trial will probably be on Court TV. You'll be "The Psycho Cop That Killed the Promising Young Football Star". Do you have any idea what that will do to Chrissie? The girl who's honor you're trying to protect? Any hope that she had for living a normal life after this will be gone forever."

"So I should just let this drop?" he shot back. "Let that little fuck go off and win the goddamn Raisin Bowl or whatever the hell they're playing in next week and then go on with his degenerate life? So he can keep on raping teenaged girls? So he can join the Pros next year and increase his hero image and make enough money to hire even better lawyers to get him off when he pulls this shit! Is that what you want?"

Janet took a deep breath, looking at him levelly. "No," she finally answered. "That's not what I want."

"Then we're in agreement," he said. "Good. The prick will be dead by sundown." He pushed his chair away from the table, intending to stand up.

"Wait," she commanded. "What you're planning is not the way to go about this."

"Look, Janet," he said. "I've thought this over all I need to. I don't care about the consequences. He fucked with the wrong family this time."

"Hold on a second, Jason," she said, more firmly this time. "There's another way."

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Oh?"

She could not believe what she was thinking, that she was about to actually put it into words, that she would actually put it into motion. "I simply said that your idea was a bad one. But..." She smiled nervously. "I've got a few ideas of my own."

He looked at her carefully. "Do you now?"

"Have you ever heard the expression, 'beware the fury of a patient man'?"

"I have." He nodded, starting to gleam a small hint of what she was thinking.

"Can you be a patient man, Jason?"

They would remain at the table for the next six hours, just talking.

On January first, the Fresno State football team handily beat their opponents in the NorCal Bowl, capturing their third straight title. Chad Buckingham was named the Most Valuable Player after passing for a record setting three hundred and thirty yards, including three touchdown passes. He also rushed for more than fifty yards including one touchdown run. The team returned to Fresno the following day amid much fanfare and media coverage. One could hardly turn on the television without seeing Buckingham's smiling face staring back. Once Chrissie was watching the news when an interview with the blonde All-American had been played. Before Janet or Jason could click the channel, obliterating the image, she had gone pale as a ghost and had begun to tremble all over. A moment later she was in the bathroom, vomiting what little food she'd managed to consume that day into the toilet. Chrissie took six showers in the eight hours after that.

Jason, though he went to great pains to keep Chrissie from having to witness another such clip, watched every one he could. Seeing his quarry on the cathode tube fueled his hatred and obliterated any second thoughts about what he and Janet had planned before they could be formed. Though he knew it was cruel, he tried to get Janet to watch as many as he could arrange for her to see. His ex-wife was consumed by doubts about the whole deal and seeing Buckingham on television had the same effect on her. He would go it alone if he had to, but he needed Janet if the plan was to be successful.

By the fourth of January, things had returned pretty much to normal. The media found something new to occupy them and the stories about the glorious Fresno State football team petered out. Classes began again at the college and old routines were settled into.

Janet and Jason both remained on emergency leave from their respective employers. Janet so she could stay with Chrissie who, though she was slowly improving as time went by, was still prone to fits of crying and catatonia from time to time. Jason, because he had other things to take care of. He spent every day tailing a certain football player from place to place, learning what he could learn, establishing what patterns there were to establish. Finally, after two weeks of constant daytime and early nighttime surveillance, he felt he had found what he was looking for.

"Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday," he told Janet as they sat at her dining room table one night, nearly a month after Chrissie's rape, "at five o'clock in the afternoon, he goes to the CSUF gym and works out for two hours. On all but one occasion he was alone. He showers afterwards and leaves the gym usually about seven-thirty. At that time of night, the parking lot is typically pretty deserted, especially on Friday nights. Most of the students apparently have better things to do with their time on Fridays. The lighting in the parking lot isn't very good and there's a road that leads out of the parking lot onto Piedmont Avenue without passing through any other part of the campus. From there, it's only a quick jaunt to the freeway."

"Does he drive there?" she asked, considering.

He nodded. "Yeah, in his fucking Mercedes convertible. After he leaves there he generally goes out to some party or another. A real party animal our friend."

"So you think that's where it should start?"

He nodded again. "I think next Friday would be just about perfect. He's almost guaranteed to be expected at a party that night and the gym's bound to be almost deserted."

She remained silent for a moment, thousands of emotions spinning through her mind like a whirlwind. Finally she said. "Okay. Friday night."

For years Janet had gleefully told Jason, Chrissie, and anyone else who would listen to her, that the easiest job in the world belonged to the pilots of the Medi-Flight helicopter she flew on. While the nurses who staffed the chopper worked the same twelve-hour shifts as the pilots, the nurses were required to help out in the emergency room during down periods. The pilots, on the other hand, were simply required to perform a standard mechanical check on the chopper at the beginning of their shift and after each flight. During downtime they did nothing but hang out in a crew area equipped with cable television, a VCR, a bed, a refrigerator, and a small bathroom and shower. They could typically count on a state of blissful relaxation encompassing at least seven hours out of each twelve-hour shift. For all of this they earned more than sixty thousand dollars a year.

At six-thirty in the evening, Wednesday night, two days before what Janet and Jason had began referring to as C-day, Janet parked her four-year old Volvo in the back of the parking lot of a Denny's that sat two blocks from Tubman Hospital. She could plainly see the large twelve-story structure rising above the other medical buildings in the vicinity. From where she sat she would easily be able to observe the chopper leaving its perch behind the building and flying off on a call. She also felt reasonably certain her presence in the twenty-four hour restaurant's parking lot would not be noticed or commented on. On the seat beside her was a large thermos full of strong black coffee since she was not accustomed to staying up late, and an 800 megahertz portable radio that Jason had appropriated a few days before from the Sheriff's Department.

Though the radio belonged to and was primarily used by the Sheriff's Department, it was capable of monitoring every public service agency in Marshall County. Two years ago, using federal grant money, the county had converted everyone over to the 800's, assigning them different channels but making possible what she was now doing. Jason had programmed the radio so it was now scanning the dispatch and tactical channels for the Marshall County Fire Department, the Maldonado City Fire Department, and the Gardenville Fire Department. If any of those agencies called for Medi-Flight tonight, as experience had taught her they were bound to do, she would know not only they had done it, but also why they were doing so.

As the night rolled on she sat patiently and listened to the endless litany of calls for help that were dispatched to the three fire departments. There were garbage can fires, vehicle fires, automobile accidents, fire alarms sounding, public assistance calls, and calls from automatic fire alarm systems. But the vast majority of calls were for medical aids, responses the fire departments detested responding too but which constituted more than eighty-five percent of their calls. Calls for shortness of breath, chest pain, falls, abdominal pain, assaults, and maternity. It went on and on without break, the three agencies putting out, on average, about one call every three minutes or so. The medical aid calls she was not the least bit interested in. What she was listening most for were automobile accident calls, which constituted more than ninety percent of Medi-Flight's emergency responses. Typically, the calls the helicopter responded to would occur in the more rural areas of the county since urban accidents were usually slow speed and did not cause much injury. As the night rolled on she heard fire captains put the helicopter on stand-by three different times. In all three cases it was rural vehicle accidents that had sounded, upon dispatch anyway, that they might be serious. In all three cases that had turned out not to be the case when the first responders had arrived and the helicopter was told to stand down again.

For nearly nine hours she sat out in the parking lot, cursing the Gods That Be that she had picked a slow night for this errand. She could remember going on four flights a shift when she worked the night shift. She sat dejectedly in the car, rubbing her back, which had started to ache dully, from time to time. She went into the Denny's to use the bathroom whenever she felt the need, carrying the radio concealed in her jacket and utilizing a small earplug that Jason had provided. She could not remember a time when she had been more bored and impatient. Finally at two-thirty in the morning, she heard one of the rural fire engines dispatched on a head-on collision on Highway 13 near the small town of Franklin.

That sounded promising, she realized immediately. Known locally as "Blood Alley", Highway 13 was a two-lane road that led from Maldonado's east side to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was the primary route Marshall County citizens took to get to South Lake Tahoe and Reno. People had a habit of trying to pass other people when it wasn't safe to do so on that particular stretch of highway and as a result it had been the scene of many catastrophic crashes over the years. Janet had flown out there at least six times since she had been accepted into the Medi-Flight ranks three years before.

She listened eagerly to the progress of the call. The captain of Marshall County Fire engine 33, himself no doubt a veteran of many such calls, immediately placed Medi-Flight on standby as soon as he pulled out of the station. It took nearly ten minutes before Engine 33 arrived on scene. Another two went by before the captain spoke again on the tactical channel, "I've got one deceased, four immediate, and three delayed patients," he told the fire dispatcher, and anyone else who happened to be listening. "Launch Medi-Flight, dispatch me another engine for the LZ, a truck for extrication, and get me three more ambulances."

"Yes!" Janet said, breathing a sigh of relief, not considering for a moment that she was ecstatic due to the suffering of others. In about five minutes Life-Flight's crew quarters, and more importantly, their supply room, which was connected to the crew quarters, would be completely deserted. And she, as a member of the elite team, possessed a key.

It was three-thirty in the morning when she finally returned home. She entered carrying a large canvas bag on her left shoulder. Jason, who, though still fully dressed, looked as if he had been dozing on the couch, enquired, "Well?"

She smiled tiredly. "It took forever, but I got everything."

"And you don't think they'll notice anything missing?"

"They'll never notice that the medical supplies are gone," she told him, even though they'd been over this point numerous times before. "And the Lifepak won't be noticed missing unless the one on the chopper breaks down."

He nodded. "Good. C-day goes ahead as planned."

They got Janet's mother to stay with Chrissie on Friday. Raised in a Christian household, Laura West had hated her daughter's ex-husband worse than the Goldman family hated OJ Simpson since the day she had been told the reason for the divorce. None-the-less, she accepted at face value their story that they needed the time away from the house in order to scope out a few therapists for Chrissie in order to help her deal with the events that had transpired. They did in fact plan to do just that.

After leaving Janet's house at nine that morning in her Volvo, they drove to Highway 99 and headed north to Fresno. Upon arriving in the raisin capital of the world, the first thing they did was find a Motel 6 on the outskirts of town, near the freeway. They parked the Volvo in the back of an AM\PM parking lot next door to the motel and sat waiting, watching the customers that came and went from the convenience store. It took less than thirty minutes before they found what Jason considered the perfect set-up.

They were driving a battered Toyota Corolla manufactured in the early eighties. The license plates on the car identified them as being from the State of Oregon. Had he been describing them to his colleagues, Jason would undoubtedly have used the term "white trash" at some point. He figured they were probably returning from visiting relatives or friends in the Los Angeles or, more likely based on the looks of them, the Bakersfield area. They appeared to be just what was needed; people who would be hundreds of miles away by the time C-day came to its conclusion.

"Them," Jason said simply, pointing for Janet's benefit.

She nodded silently, trusting to his superior street smarts.

He stepped out of the car and approached them. The man was pumping gas into the Corolla. He wore a pair of blue jeans, a flannel overshirt, and he looked and smelled as if he had not made the acquaintance of running water in at least three days. The woman, a dishwater blonde whose teeth appeared to be badly in need of a dentist, was dressed in a similar matter. Her stomach bulged out alarmingly with a late stage pregnancy. She was sitting in the front seat smoking a cigarette, watching her companion perform his manly duty of refilling the car.

"Howdy," Jason hailed good-naturedly as he approached. He made every effort to appear as friendly as possible.

The man looked him up and down carefully for a moment, his dull blue eyes not bespeaking a great deal of intelligence. "Hi," he finally said. "Can I help you with sum'pin?"

"Perhaps you can," Jason said with a smile. He reached into his pocket and took out a roll of twenty-dollar bills he had withdrawn from an ATM machine the previous day. "I was wondering if maybe you'd be interested in making a quick hundred and fifty dollars."

The man looked at the roll of money in Jason's hand and then back up to Jason's face with suspicion. "What're ya?" he asked. "Some kinda faggot? I don't go in fer that kinda shit, partner."

"No, no," Jason, who had anticipated just such a response, replied. "You misunderstand me. My requirements are not the least bit sexual in nature."

"Oh yeah?" The man answered, attempting a wise-to-the-ways-of-world look that didn't come across very well. "And what might your "requirements" be?"

"It's very simple," Jason explained. "For reasons I don't need to go into, I need to get a motel room over there," he pointed to the Motel 6 building, "without anyone knowing I've done so. I'll give you the cost of the room for one night and seventy-five dollars for yourself if you go over there and register a room under the name..." He thought for a moment. "Oh, say Charles Beaking. When you bring me back the key to the room, I'll give you the other seventy-five dollars."

The man looked at Jason increduoulsly for a moment. "That's it?"

Jason nodded. "That's it."

"A hundred and fifty bucks to do that?" He shook his head in amazement. "Hole-ee shit. Did you hear that, Hon?" he asked his female companion, who had sat silently in the passenger seat puffing thoughtfully on her Marlboro during the entire exchange.

"Yep," she affirmed, taking another drag. "Sounds good to me, Cleatus, if'n that's all he wants."

"That's all I want," Jason assured her.

"Mister," Cleatus said, grinning. "You gots yourself a deal."

He had them pull around to the back of the store, away from Janet and the Volvo. After giving them a few last minute instructions; drilling the name into their heads, telling them to request a room towards the back of the complex, and, for God's sake, not to show any ID to the clerk or to put their home address on the register, he sent them on their way.

Ten minutes later Cleatus and his woman were motoring north on Highway 99 again, a hundred and fifty dollars richer than they had been a few minutes before. Jason watched them go with trepidation. Despite all of the precautions they were taking, he knew that they would be the weak link in the chain he and Janet were forging. If the news of what was about to be done managed to reach them in whatever white-trash haven they lived in up in Oregon, and they were able to put two and two together, and they decided to talk to some cops, they could potentially bring the whole scheme crashing to the ground. The odds were pretty good that none of that would happen and it was a risk that they had decided to take but it still made him nervous.

"Well?" Janet asked when he returned to the car. She was wringing her hands nervously.

He dangled the motel key, which was attached to a small plastic tag with the number 47 printed on it, before her. "So far, so good."

They pulled the Volvo around and parked it on the opposite side of the building from room 47. That way it was both away from view of the highway, the main drag in front of the motel, and nowhere near the room. Before exiting the car they both pulled a pair of latex gloves from a box, part of the supplies that Janet had helped herself to, that sat in the storage console between the seats. They donned the gloves and then each pulled on wool ski caps that completely covered their hair, though Janet had to tuck hers up underneath.

"Are you sure this is necessary?" she asked him, lightly annoyed. "This hat is hotter than hell."

"This isn't a game we're playing," Jason responded. "The absolute worse thing that can happen to us is that we're connected with this motel room after everything is said and done."

"I know, I know." She nodded. "I came up with this part of the plan, remember? I was just wondering if the hats were maybe a little too much."

"There's no such thing as too much," Jason said patiently. "If they find a single one of our hairs in this motel room afterwards, they'll be able to match it to us with DNA sampling. How would we explain how our hairs got into the room?"

"You're right," she conceded tiredly. "I'll wear the hat." She brightened. "For someone who was willing to publicly execute the man and go to prison for it, you're sure being careful now."

He shrugged. "Let's just say you showed me the light. C'mon, let's go check the place out."

They walked quickly around the building, heads down, gloved hands in their pockets, finally coming to the appropriate door. Jason opened it with the key and they walked inside, leaving the door open behind them. It was a standard motel room, not unlike thousands of others across the United States. King size bed equipped with a hideous green bedspread in the middle of the room, a couple of simple chairs. Two reading lamps sat on either side of the bed. A small dresser with a television bolted to the top of it sat across from the beds. A small bathroom was beyond. After a quick look just to make sure the key worked and that everything was as they expected inside, they closed the door and returned to the Volvo. They would not return until the hour was nearly at hand.

They stripped off their gloves and hats in the car and quickly re-accessed Highway 99, heading south once again to Maldonado. Once they entered the city limits, Jason took the main downtown exit. For the next three and a half hours they visited five professional therapists in five different medical office buildings. In each one they enquired on the level of schooling the therapist possessed, his or her experience dealing with teenaged rape victims, and in three of them they were able to talk to the person themselves. After completing this task, Jason drove them to the downtown Hilton hotel and parked the Volvo in the self-parking lot. The two of them walked inside the majestic lobby to the registration desk, which was staffed by a lone, bored looking middle-aged woman.

"Can I help you?" she asked cheerily, flashing a professional smile at them.

"Yes," Jason told her. "We would like one of your suites if there's one available."

"Oh, this time of year, they're all available," she assured him, accessing a screen on her computer terminal. "Would you like an eastern or western exposure?"

"Uh, eastern I guess," Jason replied.

"Smoking or non-smoking?"

"Non smoking."

"How many nights?"

"Just one."

"And your name, sir?" she asked.

"Jason Whitecoff." He spelled it for her.

She typed in this information. "And how will you be paying?"

He opened up his wallet. "With my Visa card," he said, retrieving it and passing it across.

She ran his card through her computer, eventually producing a printout for him to sign. When everything was in order, she passed across an electronic card-lock for room 1823. "There you are, Mr. Whitecoff," she told him. "Eighteenth floor, eastern exposure. One of our nicer rooms."

"Thank you," Jason replied, taking the card-locks.

"Would you like me to call the bell captain for your luggage?" she asked.

Jason gave her a saucy look, tipping her a wink. "No thank you," he said. "We don't have any luggage."

"I see," she replied slowly, barely managing to hang onto her professional face.

"Was that last part really necessary?" Janet asked him in the elevator. Though she said this sternly, Jason could see that she was quite amused.

"Hey," Jason said, smiling. "You want this to be realistic don't you? We have to give the impression of a couple of horndogs."

"That's not too hard for you to do," she assured him, shaking her head.

The room was a stark contrast to the Motel 6 accommodations they had been in earlier. Though it contained a King-size bed, two nightstands, and a dresser with a television bolted to it, that was where the similarities ended. The living area was no less than twice the size and was tastefully decorated with carpet and bedspreads that actually matched. The bathroom contained a sunken Jacuzzi and a small sauna in addition to an oversized shower. The window offered a spectacular view of the downtown Maldonado high-rises and the San Joaquin River beyond them.

"This is nice," Janet commented, looking around. "How come you never took me here when we were married?"

He shrugged. "It wasn't built yet?" he offered.

"You're slime," she replied, not unkindly. "You want to call room service?"

"Sure," he answered, sitting on the edge of the bed and picking up the room service menu. He perused it for a few moments and then picked up the phone, ordering a bottle of expensive champagne, an order of oysters on the half shell, and, as an afterthought, something called a "sensuality kit".

"What the hell is a sensuality kit?" Janet asked him after he hung up the phone.

Reading from the description in the menu, Jason recited, "A collection of body oils, bath beads, and playful love toys designed to enhance the romance of your stay."

"You're shitting me," Janet said. "Why did you order that?"

He grinned. "Just trying to lend credibility to our presence here. Remember, we're supposed to be reconciled lovers swept away in a moment of passion."

She shook her head a little. "I get the feeling you've done this kind of thing before. Give me the phone. It's time to call Mom." She soured a little. "That should be fun."

"I don't envy you," Jason said, passing the telephone over.

She dialed her house, getting her mother on the first ring. After a few questions about Chrissie's health and well being, she told her mother that she and Jason had a few more errands to take care of and were going to have dinner together afterward. Would she mind staying with Chrissie until eleven o'clock or so?

Her mother apparently was not too happy about that. Jason distinctly heard the phrase, "that smooth talking adulterer" come drifting across the room from the phone's earpiece. He was pretty sure she wasn't talking about President Clinton. But in the end Janet calmed her mother down and convinced her that she knew what she was doing. After hanging up she took a deep breath.

"Well that was a blast from the past," she told him. "I haven't lied to my mother since I was a college student."

"It was necessary," Jason assured her.

"Yeah," she replied morosely. "Necessary."

Ten minutes later the room service waiter arrived, making a big display of setting up the champagne in a bucket of ice and laying out the oysters on the table. He then handed a small package, about the size of hardback book and wrapped in pink paper with hearts on it, to Janet. Jason thanked him and tipped him ten bucks.

After he left, Jason picked up the bottle of champagne and, with a pang of regret, poured it down the sink in the bathroom. When he returned, Janet was looking at the plate of oysters.

"You ever have these things before?" she asked, poking at one with her finger.

"Never," Jason answered. "They kind of look like congealed snot, don't they?"

"I can't imagine why people find them romantic," she agreed. "What do we want to do with them?"

He shrugged. "Down the toilet?"

She nodded, picking up the tray and carrying it to the bathroom.

When she returned, she found Jason sitting on the bed, looking through the "sensuality kit". He held up a small dildo. "The love toy," he said. "Centerpiece of the kit."

She smiled. "So what now? We still have a few hours to kill."

He raised his eyebrows. "Well," he said softly, "we could try to make this alibi we're forming really realistic."

She looked at him pointedly for a moment, the man who had once won her heart, the man who had fathered her child and had done his best to help raise her despite the divorce, her co-conspirator in the vigilante justice they were contemplating. She realized that she had always kept a small place in her heart for him, a place that had grown quite a bit since that awful day she had discovered Chrissie in the bathtub nearly a month before. In many ways he was a great man.

"I suppose," she said, walking towards the bed, wondering if she was making a terrible mistake, "that you can never be too careful in matters such as this."

For a little while they were able to forget about the awful thing that had happened to their young daughter and the awful thing they were about to do.

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