The Summer Children (The Collector #3)(10)

Eddison glances up from untying the knots on the plastic bags. “What?”

Sterling loses it, which sets me off, and even Vic is chuckling and shaking his head as he closes the door.

“What’s so funny?”

“Can you please pass the chopsticks?” Sterling asks sweetly. When he does so, she flutters her eyelashes. “Thanks,” she says, exaggerating the baby agent’s starstruck tone.

Vic chokes a little but doesn’t comment, just hands me my food and a fork, because I’m too damn hungry for chopsticks.

That’s the thing about Sterling, really. She’s twenty-seven but looks maybe seventeen, all big blue eyes and blonde prettiness. Despite the badge and the gun and the severe black-and-white work attire, never any color to soften or flatter, she routinely gets asked if she’s here to visit her father. She’s never going to pull off more than sweet and innocent, so she doesn’t try, just perfects that harmless appearance so everyone underestimates her.

It’s beautiful.

She also came to us immune to the Eddison catnip. Her very first day in Quantico, she silently walked up behind us and scared the hell out of him by saying hello, and while he was trying to unclench his fingers from the edge of his desk, she met my eyes and winked.

It made me feel so much better about having someone new on a team that hadn’t changed for almost ten years.

We eat quickly and clean up so we don’t get food on the files. I open the box sent over by Mignone and cringe. “Mierda,” I sigh. “This is a lot of paper for a ten-year-old.”

From her seat, Sterling sits up very, very straight and cranes her neck to see. “That whole thing?”

“No. It’s also got the police reports from the domestic disturbances and the mom’s hospital records. Still.” I haul out the two folders marked with Ronnie’s name, both so large they have to be clipped shut with the most massive binder clips I have ever seen, and drop them on the table. They land with a significant whump. “That’s Ronnie.”

She leans closer, reading the top of one of the folders. “They named him Ronnie.”

“Well, yeah, that’s why—”

“No, I mean, they named him Ronnie. Not Ron or Ronald and call him Ronnie. They named him Ronnie.”

“That’s an unfortunate thing to do to a child,” mutters Eddison.

I look up at him, lift the stack a couple of inches, and let it drop again.

“Fair point.”

Sterling takes the folders with Sandra Wilkins’s hospital records, and Vic and Eddison split the substantial pile of police reports between them, leaving me with the Social Services file.

There’s a point in this job when you expect things to become less heartbreaking. You struggle through your first cases, expecting that at some point in the misty future, you’ll become inured to it all the way your partners are, that what you see and read will affect you less. One day, you’ll see a child who’s suffered abuse they can’t even name, and it won’t shatter part of you.

It never happens.

You learn how to work through it, how to hide it, how to make it useful. You learn that your partners aren’t inured to it; they just conceal it better than you do. You learn to let it motivate you, but it never stops wounding. And the thing is, you know better than almost anyone else, because it’s your job, that the system isn’t perfect, but it tries its best.

Dios mío, it tries its best.

And then there are times, like now, when you realize its best is nowhere near good enough.

Four times. Four times Ronnie Wilkins was removed from his home by Social Services because of physical abuse, and every time he was returned. The first time he was given back because his mother left his father, and Ronnie was taken to her at her mother’s. Except two months later, she went back to her husband and brought Ronnie with her. The second time was because his parents submitted paperwork showing that his father was undergoing counseling and anger management, sessions that stopped as soon as they had Ronnie back. The third time, his grandmother had to drop the custody suit because Daniel Wilkins came over with a baseball bat, beat the hell out of her car, and once again, just a few weeks ago, because Ronnie simply couldn’t admit to the abuse, wouldn’t tell the social worker how he got so badly hurt he had to be hospitalized.

This poor child kept getting delivered straight back to hell.

We chase Vic out of the office at six, but the rest of us stay until nine-thirty to finish scanning the last of the Wilkinses’ records, by which point I’m seriously contemplating opening a K-Cup and drinking the sludge for pure caffeine, and I stay slumped and half-dozing in my chair as Sterling and Eddison clean up around me. It’s not remotely fair of me; Eddison has been awake as long as I have. When I try to help, though, he snaps my hand with a rubber band.

Eddison drives me to his place, and we bicker the entire time in order to keep me awake. We’re frequently short on sleep, especially during a case, and we’ve learned tricks to keep ourselves going. Still, it’s a relief to pull up to his building.

Eddison’s apartment is mostly bland, even a little sterile. You have to hunt for the things that make it look lived-in: the worn patches on the black leather couch, the small divot in the coffee table where he kicked too hard while watching a baseball game. Honestly, the things that make it look almost like a home are all gifts. Priya gave him the dining room table, after she made him help her rescue it from a closing Mexican restaurant. The brightly, chaotically painted tiles on top give the space its only burst of color. She also took the pictures that surround the large television, portraits of Special Agent Ken in his travels.

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