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Fatal Justice (Chapter 3)

Nick spent the next half hour working the room, visiting with Judson Knott and Richard Manning, the chair and vice chair of the Virginia Democratic Committee, as well as Virginia Governor Mike Zorn and his wife, Judy. While Nick made polite small talk and sipped a glass of wine someone had pressed into his hand, he scanned the room in search of Sam.

"Would you all excuse me?" Nick asked the others. As he made his escape, he realized he didn't see Sam's family either. After circling the big room, he finally ducked into John's office. Of course, it was his office now, but Nick would probably always think of it as John's. He found Sam staring out the window at the Washington Monument off in the distance.

"Hey, babe," he said, closing the door. "I was looking for you."

She turned to him with a small smile. "Here I am."

"Everything all right?"

"Uh-huh. You?"

"Yep. Did your dad leave?"

She nodded. "They all said to tell you congratulations and they'll see you later at the party. Celia wanted my dad to rest up before tonight."

"What're you thinking about?" he asked, as he massaged her shoulders.

She turned to him. "Just about everything that happened to put you in this office."

"We need to put that behind us," Nick said. Touching his lips to hers, he was startled by the charge of desire even though he knew he should be used to it by now. He wondered if it would always be like that between them and suspected it would. Their connection had spanned six years and survived her manipulative ex-husband Peter's efforts to keep them apart. "Everything's new today. It's a new beginning for both of us." His hands shifted from her waist up to cup her face as she ran her tongue over his bottom lip. He gasped. "I wish we could fly away right now, today, to somewhere tropical, where I could do nothing but make love to you for a whole week."

"You'd get tired of me before the week was up."

"No," he whispered, sliding one hand down her back to align her with his erection. "Never."

"Doesn't Congress take a recess around Easter?"

"Yes," he said, nibbling her earlobe.

She trembled. "Let's go then."

"Really? Can you get away?"

"To spend a whole week in bed with you? I think it can be arranged."

He rested his forehead against hers. "But that's months from now."

"We'll both be so busy, the time will fly."

"Once we move into the new place, things will calm down a bit." He'd bought a townhouse three doors from her dad's on Ninth Street so she could be close to her father and to work. "The Realtor is putting my place in Arlington on the market right after the New Year, but we can move into Ninth Street next week."

She shifted out of his embrace and turned back toward the window. "That's good."

He rested his hands on her shoulders. "What's going on inside that head of yours?"

"Nothing."

"Samantha. I know you better than that. What gives?"

"Everything's moving so fast. I'm having trouble catching my breath."

"It's been crazy, I won't deny that, but once we get settled in our place in the city, it'll calm down. And just think, we'll be able to sleep later when we don't have to drive in from Arlington."

"True."

"So then what's the problem?"

With a deep sigh, she turned to face him. "I'm not ready to move in with you yet."

He tried to hide his disappointment from her. "I wanted us to do this together. Set up the house and stuff."

"It'd probably be better if you set things up your way. You're the one who's particular that way."

"How long are we talking? A week? A month?"

"I'm not sure. I just know I'm not ready yet."

A jolt of anger took him by surprise. "Because of Peter." He'd love to get five minutes alone with her asshole ex-husband, but since the guy was in jail for strapping crude bombs to both their cars and nearly killing Sam, that wasn't going to happen.

"Not entirely. More because of me." She rubbed her hand over her belly, a sign that the conversation was stirring up her nervous stomach. "After everything that happened, I'm more cautious than I used to be."

Anxious to stop the stomach thing before it became a full-blown incident, Nick said, "We can talk about it later, babe. Don't let your stomach get going. And by the way, you promised you'd get that checked after you closed the O'Connor case."

"I will. Soon."

He hugged her, loving the way they fit together so perfectly, like two halves of a whole. "I'll hold you to that."

Her cell phone rang, and she pulled back from him to retrieve it from the inside pocket of her suit jacket. "Holland."

Since the phone was on speaker, he heard Freddie Cruz say, "Lieutenant."

"What's going on?"

"Four vics."

Sam winced. "Kids?"

"Three, one a baby."

"Damn."

"Yeah," Freddie said with a weary sigh. "It's bad. The father was seen running from the house covered in blood. But, um, you might want to get over here."

"Why's that?"

"We found a bunch of stuff about your dad's case in the house, newspaper clippings and other stuff about the shooting. I thought you might want to take a look." He rattled off the address.

"I'll be right there." Her eyes became hard and dispassionate, the way they got when she worked a case. She returned the phone to her pocket and looked up at Nick. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Of course not." Nick could see that she had already slipped into her zone. "Do you want me to come with you?"

She shook her head. "You have guests. I'll call you."

Leaning in to kiss her, he said, "Be careful."

"I always am."

Sam did her best to stay calm as a taxi ferried her to the southeast corner of the city. They had waited so long for a break in her father's case. Could this be it? After many disappointments, she refused to allow herself to hope.

Just over two years ago, Deputy Chief Skip Holland had been on his way home from work when he pulled over an erratic driver on G Street. The last thing he remembered was reporting in to dispatch and then approaching the car. A bullet lodged between the C3 and C4 vertebrae had left him a quadriplegic with just one slightly functioning finger on his right hand. A week after the shooting, a mild stroke rendered the left side of his face paralyzed.

They hadn't a single clue – no witnesses, no ballistics since the doctors decided removing the bullet could kill him, the car hadn't had a license plate, and they had no description of the driver since Skip was shot before he saw the driver's face. A long time ago Sam and her colleagues concluded that the only way the case would be solved now was if someone bragged about shooting a cop and one of their snitches passed it along. As the case went cold, Sam had learned not to get her hopes up.

If her newfound media notoriety had any upside it was the opportunity to remind the press that her father's case remained unsolved. Someone knew something. If only they'd come forward. They just needed a thread. One thread to pull and the whole thing would unravel. Her sisters and even her father, to some extent, were resigned to the fact that they might never catch the shooter. Sam would neither rest nor retire as long as the case was unsolved.

Skip had been just ninety days shy of retirement at the time of the shooting. The months that followed were filled with fear and frustration as his family and friends did what they could to help him adjust to his new reality – confined to a wheelchair by day, hooked to a respirator by night and reliant upon the specially outfitted van the union bought for him.

When the taxi pulled up to a dilapidated row house on First Avenue in the violent, poverty-stricken neighborhood of Washington Highlands, Sam retrieved her 9 millimeter handgun from her purse, tucked it into the back of her skirt, and clipped her badge to the lapel of her coat.

Ignoring the crowd of onlookers gathered outside the yellow police tape, she tossed a twenty to the driver and wove her way between cop cars, an ambulance and the medical examiner's van on her way to the chain-link front gate. Pushing the rusty gate open, she hurried up the sagging stairs and almost bumped into Freddie as he emerged from the house looking pale and drawn.

Sam ached for her kind-hearted, compassionate partner who would suffer more than most over a scene like this. She rested a hand on his trench coat-clad shoulder. "Take a few breaths."

He did what he was told, but his complexion was ashen, and his brown eyes were flat with grief and anger. "I just can't imagine how anyone does that to helpless kids. A dad is supposed to protect his kids."

"It's always harder when it's kids." A memory of the child who was killed when she ordered a shootout at a crack house resurfaced suddenly, sending a shudder rippling through her.

"He shot the mother in the kitchen," Freddie said. "Seems like he took her by surprise. No defensive wounds. Point of entry on the back of her left shoulder. McNamara said the bullet probably hit her heart. We found a gun thrown into a box in the back of the bedroom closet. There was another box in the closet that had the clippings about your dad."

Sam watched him struggle with his composure as he proceeded with the rote recitation of the facts.

"The kids were beaten. We found a baseball bat with brain matter on it."

Sam winced. "Do we know him?"

"Clarence Reese, thirty-nine, long list of priors, mostly B&E and drug stuff. Juvie record, too, but nothing violent."

Sam wished she could say she recognized the name. "Next of kin?"

"Gonzo and Arnold found an address for Reese's mother. They left about twenty minutes ago. We've got an APB out for Reese."

The front door opened and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lindsey McNamara emerged behind paramedics wheeling a tiny body in a bag out of the house. Known for her stoicism, Lindsey's green eyes were bright with tears. "Unreal," she whispered on her way by.

Sam squeezed the other woman's arm.

"That's the last one," Freddie said, sounding relieved.

Tearing her eyes off the black bag being loaded into the M.E.'s vehicle, Sam returned her attention to Freddie. "Have you found any connection to my dad in any of Reese's priors?"

"After we came across the stuff about the shooting, Captain Malone ordered a more detailed run of Reese's record. He went back to HQ to move that along."

"Show me what you've got."

As if to fortify himself, Freddie took another deep breath of the cold air before he led Sam into hell.

The smell hit her like a fist to the face. Death. Blood. Bodily waste.

Old toys covered the floor of a spartanly furnished living room dominated by a big-screen TV. Spattered blood coated the screen and the walls behind it. A tan sofa had clearly been ground zero for one of the murders as the cushions were soaked with drying blood.

Crime scene officers sifting through the carnage nodded to her as she entered the room.

"Jesus," Sam whispered, and for once Freddie didn't object to her use of the Lord's name.

He led her past the kitchen where Clarence Reese shot his wife in the back. They went up a flight of stairs to a second floor with three small bedrooms and a tiny bathroom.

Sam noted disarray throughout the house – dishes piled in the kitchen sink, toys everywhere, scuffed walls, pictures hanging at crooked angles, towels and dirty clothes scattered about the floor of the bathroom and a filthy stained rug lining the hallway. Things had been difficult in this household long before today, long before Clarence Reese lost his mind and butchered his family.

In the master bedroom, a king-size bed took up almost every inch of the room. Freddie pulled a box from the closet floor, set it on the bed and then moved aside so Sam could take a closer look.

She slipped on the latex gloves he handed her before she touched yellowing newspaper articles from the aftermath of her father's shooting, carefully clipped from all the local newspapers, as well as coverage taken from the department's website. Under the clippings were photos, and various other news stories about her father's thirty years on the force that ran after the shooting.

"Was it him?" Sam asked in a small voice, glancing up at the family photo that hung over the bed. Nothing about Clarence Reese was familiar to her. He had the stocky build of a former high school football player, coffee-colored skin, brown eyes and a thick shock of dark hair. He was handsome in a quirky sort of way. His wife was white with a plain face, stringy brown hair, dull eyes and a world-weary expression. "Do you think he shot my dad?"

"We don't know, but we're going to find out. You're not the only one who wants to know, believe me. Farnsworth and Conklin were both here," Freddie said of the chief and deputy chief, both of whom were old friends of her father's. "Farnsworth had fire in his eyes when Malone showed him this stuff."

"Let's bag it all and have the lab work it up. Not that the gun will tell us anything about my dad." How she wished they could get at that bullet lodged inside him.

"Malone said the same thing. I was just waiting for you to see it."

With a nod she stepped out of the room so he could tend to the evidence. Drawing a deep breath in through her nose, she blew it out her mouth, a process she had discovered helped to short-circuit the stomach pains before they could spiral out of control. She made the mistake of glancing into what had been the baby's room and quickly looked away from the gruesome scene.

"I don't want my dad to know we found this stuff until we have more," she said.

"I'll put out the word."

"I'd hate to get his hopes up."

"I understand, and so will everyone else."

"If we can't find a connection from Reese's arrest record, we'll have no choice but to ask my dad."

"We can cross that bridge if we come to it, but you're right – there's no need to tell him until we have something solid. Hopefully, we'll find Reese fast and get him into interrogation."

"What was the wife's name?" she asked.

"Tiffany. Kids were Jorge, Ramon and the baby was Maria."

Sam studied the family photo, zeroing in on the plain-looking mother. "She doesn't look like a Tiffany."

"No." Freddie zipped the plastic evidence bag closed and pulled off his gloves. "Let's get out of here. If there's anything else, crime scene will let us know."

She took another long look at the photo of the shattered family before she followed Freddie out of the house.

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