The Summer Children (The Collector #3)(9)

So she thought her mama must have been able to hear, when her daddy groaned and shouted and talked and talked like he couldn’t keep the words in.

Her mama must have been able to hear.

But she never saw her mama at night.

She only saw Daddy.


“Well, you’re all here disgustingly early.”

I flap a hand toward Sterling’s voice, too tired to lift my head up from the conference table and look at her. After a moment, hands curl my fingers around a sturdy paper cup with heat bleeding through.

Okay, that might be worth lifting my head for.

And it’s good coffee, too, with vanilla creamer, not the utter crap made in the kitchenette of the break room or the cafeteria. This is not Bureau-funded coffee. I let the smell and taste pull me upright and see Eddison gulping his own cup of jet fuel. Sterling watches, a wry smile tugging her lips, and then hands him another one. Vic gets one that smells of the hazelnut creamer he loves but won’t use at work because real agents drink coffee black, or some such nonsense.

Sterling’s been with us for eight months, a transplant from the Denver field office, but somehow we’re still caught in that weird transition where we simultaneously can’t imagine the team without her and are still figuring out how the team works with her in it. She absolutely belongs here, both in skill set and in temperament, but it’s . . . well. Strange.

Vic sits back in his chair with a sigh, absently moving through a series of stretches with his left arm to help keep some flexibility around the giant fucking scar in his chest, also known as the reason Sterling joined our team. It’s been a year since he got shot defending a child murderer we’d just arrested. Vic got shot, my hands were covered in blood trying to keep pressure on the wound until the ambulance got there, and Eddison had to arrest a grieving father for shooting a federal agent.

It was a very bad day.

Things for Vic were touch and go for longer than any of us like to recall, and the brass used the long recovery to finally force him to accept the promotion to unit chief. It was either that or retire, and whatever his wife’s secret hopes, Vic isn’t ready for that yet. Fortunately for everyone’s sanity, he used that extra authority to get Eddison and me out of the seminar this morning so we could research the Wilkins family.

Pulling up another chair, Sterling settles in with her giant cup of tea. “So what happened and how can I help?”

For the next couple of hours, the only sounds in the conference room are the click of laptop keys, the squeak of chairs, and the slurp of disappearing coffee. Sterling eventually stands, stretches, and heads back into the bullpen. When she comes back, walking in her strangely silent way, she holds the Keurig from Vic’s office, the box of K-Cups dangling precariously from one crooked finger. Padding up behind Eddison, she waits until he turns the page he’s on.

“Give me a hand?” she asks suddenly.

Eddison yelps and jerks forward, midsection slamming into the edge of the table.

Vic rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

“Bells,” mutters Eddison. “I’m putting goddamn bells on you.”

She grins and drops the box of K-Cups in front of him. “You’re a peach,” she says cheerfully, and comes back around the table to set the machine on the counter. She plugs it in and sets it to work.

As far as we can tell, the FBI has never had a reason to register the Wilkinses’ existence. There are no outstanding warrants, no nefarious backgrounds, nothing that would bring them to the attention of a federal entity. Their extensive law enforcement history seems to be on a purely local level. So why was Ronnie brought to my home?

As my stomach starts complaining that I’ve had too much caffeine in the hours since breakfast, I send Siobhan a text to check in with her, see how she’s doing now that some of the shock might have worn off. Inviting her out to lunch at least makes it look less like I’m hovering, and more like apologizing.

She texts back the location of my car and that my keys are with the front desk.

“Lunch with Siobhan?” asks Sterling.

“Not unless I want it frozen.”

She winces in sympathy. “Delivery it is, then.”

A quick rock-paper-scissors tournament twenty-five minutes later leaves Eddison with the job of going down to meet the delivery guy, but he’s no more than stood up when one of the trainee agents on front-desk duty hip checks her way into the conference room overburdened with bags and a large cardboard file box. Eddison helps her get the bags of food safely onto the table before everything topples over.

“Thanks,” she says, blushing a little.

Sterling and I look at each other, and she rolls her eyes heavenward. Vic just looks resigned. There is something about Eddison that is catnip to the female baby agents. He’s prickly and damaged and fiercely protective and respectful of the women in his life, and that combination seems to be a siren call. As far as I can tell, it’s not even anything he says or does; simply by existing in the same room, he can make them blush and stammer. The best part is, he genuinely doesn’t notice. He has no clue.

Vic won’t let us tell him.

With a polite thank-you for bringing us the files, Vic gets up and firmly shoos the young woman from the room, physically inserting himself between her and Eddison in order to get her moving out the door.

A snicker escapes from Sterling.

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