CHAPTER ONE

 

April 21, 2009

New York City

 

IT WAS cold. Thanks to the freak front that had just passed, the temperature was in the low twenties. It was windy and it looked like it would start snowing again any second, making the recovery process slower than it would have been under normal weather conditions. Those NYPD divers currently braving the murky, freezing water of the Hudson River in search of possible clues or evidence had Sam’s deepest sympathy.

The tourists, on the other hand, were royally pissing him off. Battery Park was usually a busy area. Not only was the US Coast Guard building at one end, but several ferries departed to a number of tourist destinations as well. Add the Staten Island Ferry terminal at the other end, and chaos was to be expected. But not on a Tuesday at almost six o’clock in the evening. Not when it was this cold and all waterfront tours had been suspended a good three hours ago due to police investigation.

But there they were, every single one holding a digital or cell phone camera, recording what they most likely hoped would be the next viral sensation. Why they thought a body being recovered from the Hudson was worth their time was beyond him. After all, the poor guy was already dead. The locals certainly didn’t give a shit. They just went about their business as usual. But the tourists didn’t. Did they think the NYPD would bring the body over to them for closer inspection if only they waited long enough?

Samuel Shaughnessy turned away and gave his full attention to the body once again. Blond, Caucasian, slim build, five foot six max, maybe late twenties. He was naked; his belly button was pierced, a little sparkling numeral eight resting on his abs. The admissions stamp to Tangerine, a very popular gay club located in the South Street area, was faint but still visible on his left hand.

The stamp was the reason the NYPD had contacted Sam. It pretty much identified the victim as gay, and the uniforms on the scene had been smart enough to put a halt to the NYPD/FBI pissing contest as soon as they saw it.

“This will do for now.” After taking one last picture of the victim, Bobbie Simmons reached for her case and put the camera away. “Looks like Lev didn’t take it easy on this one.”

Lev was the name Sam’s team had given to the serial killer of young gay men, who had a penchant for Bible passages condemning homosexuality. The book of Leviticus appeared to be a favorite of his.

Sam nodded. “Going by what we’ve seen in the reports, he seems to have the most physical trauma so far.”

“So far” actually meant out of seven victims over a six-month period. One in Jersey, one in Pennsylvania, one in Connecticut, and four in NYC.

“So all the victims are NYC residents, Caucasian, male, blond, short, slim, and in their twenties,” Sam said, focusing on the guy’s lower back. “Four… five, if our guess is correct, have been physically abused. And all of them were openly gay.”

He took a closer look at the canvas in which the victim had been wrapped and stared at the details painted on it. His team had been on the case for only two days. They were working nonstop, but Sam had yet to form a concrete theory based on what little evidence they had seen.

Other than the victims’ sexual orientation and items found on or near their bodies—a sparkly belly-button ring in the shape of a numeral eight that was obviously courtesy of Lev, a painting on a small canvas, and a Bible verse—the team really didn’t have much to go on. They had studied the evidence from the previous crime scenes at least four times, but had not been able to connect the victims through their jobs, friends, hobbies… nothing.

“This is significant.” Sam tugged the canvas. “The sparkly numeral eight is the same he left on all the other victims, but the other pieces of canvas were as big as a napkin. Take a look at this one. It’s huge.”

“He left a different Bible passage as well,” Bobbie said.

“Which means the message he’s sending is different this time,” Duncan Kowalski, Sam’s second-in-command, observed. Duncan was one of the smartest men Sam had ever met. His knowledge on just about every possible subject was mind-boggling sometimes. “Looks like the divers are coming out.”

“Might as well,” Sam said. “I doubt they’ll be able to find anything else.”

“Lev’s been extremely careful thus far,” Bobbie agreed. “Whatever he wanted us to find, the victim had it on him.”

“Like this huge canvas,” added Duncan. “You’re right, Sam. We have to figure out what the killer’s trying to say.”

“Something’s definitely changed.” Sam took his cell phone out of his pocket and hit speed dial, getting an immediate answer.

“Are we good to go?”

“Yeah. We’ll meet with the ME in the morning. How are things by you?”

“Normal chaos, courtesy of three hundred tourists and their cameras,” Logan Brandenburg, the team’s primary human behavior analyst, said. “I’m pretty sure they got several close-ups of you, Bobbie, and Duncan. Some of those babies are state-of-the-art, with powerful zooming lenses. No suspicious activity otherwise.” He sounded so disappointed it made Sam smile. “I assume the divers didn’t find anything else?”

“Your assumption is correct, my friend. Bobbie and Duncan are bagging the evidence now. We’ll be at the pier in ten minutes and we’re freezing, so hook us up.”

“You got it.”

He disconnected the call and walked over to the detective in charge of the crime scene, a clown with a big mouth that Sam had known since his days with the NYPD.

“Shaughnessy.”

“Wilson.”

“We pulled the divers out.”

“I noticed,” Sam said, doing his best to resist a sudden, very childish impulse to roll his eyes at the detective.

“They stayed down as long as they could,” Wilson told him. “I don’t think having them freeze their asses off will help you any. What are they going to find that your fine team hasn’t?” he asked with the most annoying mocking laugh Sam had heard in a while. “I mean, it’s been what? A year? It isn’t like you haven’t had plenty of time to find some clues and leads.” He gave Sam an obviously fake, it happens sometimes sympathetic look. “Think you’ll catch the bastard? Looks to me you’re losing your touch.”

Trust this idiot to leave out the fact that his team had only been assigned the case days ago.

He really wanted to beat the smirk off the detective’s ugly mug, but in the interest of professionalism, Sam settled for piercing the guy with his cobalt blue eyes.

His voice was firm and clear when he answered, though, no indication as to how much this smug asshole was getting on his nerves. “Yes, we will catch him.” He stuck his hand out and shook Wilson’s briefly. “We have everything we need. Can you please arrange transport for us?”

Without waiting for an answer, he went back to his teammates. Five minutes later they were boarding one of the NYPD speedboats used to patrol the Hudson and East Rivers. It only took a few minutes to go from Ellis Island to the Battery Park pier where the rest of his team was already waiting, along with the damn tourists and their cameras.

“Here you go, boss.” Alexander Kostas offered him a cup.

“Thanks, man.” Sam took it and raised an eyebrow at the sight of a familiar green logo.

Duncan reached for his own cup. “Oh, yes!”

“If I find flavored and foamy you’re dead,” Sam said, making eye contact with Logan.

“Just plain ol’ black, no sugar,” Logan assured him. “Dark and bitter to match your personality.”

“Bite me.”

“Not tonight, sunshine. I’m working late.”

“They wouldn’t get you anything else.” That came from Bobbie, who had been in permanent conciliatory mode since she became a mother five years ago. “They wouldn’t dare.”

“’Cause they know you’ve got no appreciation for the finest things in life,” Duncan finished with a laugh.

“There you go again, Kowalski, showing your roots,” Sam teased him. “Only a Seattle native would think Starbucks’ pseudo coffee is fine.”

“Or that PC is better than Mac.” Emiko Takahashi, or Mik, was their in-house computer expert and hacker extraordinaire. “If you make such a false statement in my presence ever again, I will hurt you.”

“Let me know if you want help, girl,” Kostas volunteered.

“Starbucks is the best,” insisted Duncan, obviously with no regard for his physical well-being.

“You guys shouldn’t be drinking coffee anyway.” Logan pointed at his own cup. “Chai tea latte is the way to go.”

A collective groan was heard as the team made their way to the two black SUVs waiting for them.

Silence prevailed on the way back to Federal Plaza as everyone gathered their thoughts. It continued once they were surrounded by the controlled chaos that was their split-level squad room. Up a short flight of stairs were the personal, individual offices they hardly ever used, but the first floor was the place where the job got done.

They had computers, assorted electronics, boards with pictures of victims, their files, evidence, theories, profiles, and notes all over the place. There was a huge conference table, snacks-and-drinks station, and a sleeping couch.

This room had been theirs from the moment Sam was given the order to put a highly specialized team together for the Hate Crimes Division of the FBI, a team that specifically dealt with crimes of racialization, of a religious nature, or against the LGBT community.

Sam had personally handpicked his teammates six years ago, and not once had he found a reason to regret his choices. They worked like a well-oiled machine and had a perfect score solving the cases that landed on their desks. Their most recent assignment seemed to be a hard one to crack, but Sam was confident his team would be able to make some significant progress, hopefully before any more victims turned up.

Sam took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, getting comfortable for at least an hour of brainstorming. He knew his team well enough. They needed an idea of why, after leaving six bodies found naked, the perp had decided to wrap victim number seven in a gigantic canvas with a new drawing and his preaching stenciled all over it.

“So, even though this canvas is so big it could be used for maritime purposes, I’m going to take a wild guess and say it’ll match the ones Lev’s used before,” Sam said to no one in particular.

“I agree,” Mik said. “Once I get the report from the lab and confirm they’re the same, I’ll trace its origin and speak with the maker. Maybe they keep records of their buyers.” They all knew canvases could be pretty generic, but Sam had no doubt she would find the maker at the very least.

“See if our victim has been reported missing,” he ordered Bobbie.

“On it, boss.”

“That canvas was treated and stretched and definitely prepared for paintings, not to cover a boat,” Logan said, glancing at Sam. “I remember this from art class.”

“Lovely,” Sam muttered.

“What’s lovely?” asked Kostas. “What am I missing?”

“Nothing.” The whole art thing hit a nerve or five on a very personal level, but Sam wasn’t getting into it. “Our Lev has gone Van Gogh on us.”

“Or he was Van Gogh and decided to go Ted Bundy at some point,” added Duncan. “The canvas is not paint by numbers by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a detailed work consistent with Lev’s religious theme, and although I’m not an art connoisseur, I’m going to say he’s pretty damn good.”

“Mik, how are we doing with the footage collected from the toll plazas? Do you have any suspicious vehicles yet?” Sam turned around and addressed her back because, as usual, she was giving her full attention to her computer screen.

“After watching hundreds of hours of footage, I’ve narrowed my list to ten vehicles. I’m looking into them, but I can tell you I’m most interested in this particular van that has a Chosen Trash Removal, Inc. sign on its side. I have it crossing the Holland Tunnel and the Bayonne, Goethals, Throggs Neck, Brooklyn, and Whitestone bridges as frequently as six times in the same week around the time of each murder. I can also place it on the New Jersey Turnpike and at several traffic lights around the city.”

“Probably looking for victims,” said Bobbie. “Or dump sites.”

“The Holland Tunnel is near Tangerine. That could have been the escape route. Any idea where he went after?” asked Kostas.

“Staten Island, as far as I can tell,” answered Mik. “Chosen Trash Removal, Inc. hasn’t been registered in any state. It doesn’t exist, and I can’t trace the van to any specific owner. The plates are always different. I’ve talked to the people who reported them stolen, but there’s no connection between them either.”

“See if you can place the van near any art supply stores in the city or Staten Island and put out a BOLO with the NYPD,” ordered Sam. “Considering how many times he’s been over the Goethals and Bayonne bridges, there’s a huge chance he’s been operating out of there. With a name like ‘Chosen Trash Removal,’ I’m willing to bet my left nut that’s our guy.”

“He’s most likely not a local,” said Duncan. “Serial killers start out close to where they live or work because they feel emotionally comfortable there. They’d also start in a smaller way—stalking, theft, rape, just to give a few examples, and eventually murder. Lev is organized. There is premeditation, and he’s in total control of the crime scenes, always leaving few to no clues. He’s done this before. We need to move on cross-referencing what we’ve got so far with similar crimes in the national database to the top of our to-do list.”

“Right.” Sam and Logan nodded in agreement. “Get on that ASAP.”

“Upload is complete, guys,” announced Bobbie. “Let’s take a closer look at what we found today.”

Six heads turned simultaneously toward the fifty-two-inch HD monitor used to display digital documents, and for a few minutes, nobody said a word.

No matter how accustomed Sam was to the often grimy, bloody, disturbing images they encountered in their line of work, his stomach still turned every time they came across a new victim, and although this particular victim’s body was in good shape, Sam knew the rest of the guys were just as affected by the sight as he was.

“There’s the fire again,” observed Logan, eyes fixed on a picture of the canvas. “Those are some angry flames he painted.”

“He used a different verse this time,” said Kostas. “‘But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’” Sam saw him read from his notepad and then look at the part of the board where all the verses were written. “First time Lev’s left that one.”

“It’s not Leviticus,” said Duncan. “And it’s incomplete. I’ll let you know the rest as soon as it comes to me.”

“Fitting, I must say, with all the washing and sanctification and the body being recovered from the water,” Sam concluded.

“The sanctification of who, though? The victims or Lev?” Kostas wondered, his eyes fixed on the verse.

“My money’s on Lev,” Logan said.

“Today’s victim’s name is Daniel Harper,” Bobbie said. “He was reported missing by a friend when he failed to show up to the office two days in a row. They went to Tangerine together. This guy told the police Harper was being chatted up by some guy near the first floor bar the last time he caught a glimpse of him.”

“I’ll talk to the friend,” Kostas said. “If we’re lucky, that’s a description of Lev.”

“What’s your take on the canvas he used to wrap the victim with, Duncan?” Logan asked.

Because the pieces of canvas found before were about sixteen inches square and only big enough for the perp to write the biblical passages and paint some flames on, this canvas had tremendous significance. If they could figure out why this victim had gotten special treatment, so to speak, they’d get one step closer to Lev.

“We have a rather disturbing rendition of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, with the three symbolizing pestilence, war, and famine looking distorted in the background while the pale horse symbolizing death takes front and center. That’s clear enough, but the fire isn’t.” Duncan rubbed his face with his hands and focused on the picture of the canvas. “In the Bible, fire is given a spiritual use and is attributed to God. Sacrifices and offerings were made by fire as well, so this victim could be just that, a sacrifice.”

“You mean he sacrificed this victim to God, as opposed to punishing him for his homosexuality?” Bobbie asked.

“It could be either,” Sam answered. “Fire is often associated with hell, God’s everlasting punishment.” He got up and approached the HD monitor, eyes fixed on the picture of the canvas recovered from the river. “But Lev has studied the Bible, and there’s a chance he sees it in a different light. Rather than destroy, fire would cleanse and purify. Take a look at the flames. Same design, same exact pattern in all the drawings. We need to find out if he’s copying it from somewhere and figure out why, because those flames mean something. They’re always the same.”

“‘But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’” Bobbie repeated the verse. “If he used the fire to symbolize cleansing and sanctification, what does the washing mean?”

“Some kind of penitence?” asked Mik, her attention back on her computer.

“Could be either penitence or atonement,” answered Kostas. “Question is, what is he atoning for? The rapes or the killings?”

“‘Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?’” The preaching tone of Duncan’s words caught the team’s attention. “‘Do not be deceived. Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers; none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’ 1 Corinthians 6. Told you guys it’d come to me,” he finished with a huge smile.

“All the victims were law-abiding citizens,” said Kostas. “Sodomites, fornicators, and possibly adulterers are the only applicable terms here.”

“Greedy applies as well,” said Mik, once again not looking at anyone. “The general idea that men think about sex every seven seconds could be interpreted as greed.”

“He’s making atonement for himself,” Logan muttered, staring at the crime scene photos displayed on a board that covered an entire wall.

His eyes narrowed, going back and forth several times and finally settling on the picture of victim number one.

“‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman’ is the verse found on the first three victims. Tokens were found and all the victims had lacerations in their mouths, but they were not raped.”

He got up from his chair and walked to the snack station, choosing his usual granola bar. Logan always did his best thinking when he was munching on something.

“Up to that point it was about disgust toward homosexuals. Then the next four victims were raped and the killings got more violent. According to the ME reports, the severity of the rectal injuries has escalated.” He stood in front of the board and pointed to a picture of the Bible verse found on the next several victims. “‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own hands.’” He turned to look at his teammates. “Now he’s a crusader. This particular verse could mean he is not to be held accountable for the murders, since the victims pretty much brought death onto themselves by having sex with other men.”

“So he’s punishing them for their sins,” Duncan said.

“He’s had emotional cooling off periods between each incident,” Logan continued. “Basic motivation for crimes is manipulation, domination, and control, among others, but for many serial killers the motivation is of a sexual nature. He’s growing bold, which could mean he is feeling superior or his psychosis is getting out of control. Many violent offenders fail to perceive punishment as a deterrent to their actions, so Lev might not be concerned at all about the consequences. But it could also mean he’s feeling desperate. Either way, the success of his killings empowers him, making him feel in control, perhaps for the first time in his life.”

“If he doesn’t think he’s responsible for the murders, why would you think he’s making atonement for himself?” Mik asked Logan, finally looking up from her workstation.

Logan was their best profiler. He was better than Duncan and even Sam, notwithstanding his team leader status. If anyone had a chance of getting inside Lev’s head, it would be Logan.

Sam looked around the room, damn happy his entire team was present for this particular session. It was normal for his team to be spread all over the country more often than not. Sometimes he was even forced to send only one member of his team to far away locations for preliminary assessment of cases. Sam hated to do it, but he had to in order to get more work accomplished. He wished he could keep the entire team on the Leviticus case, but knew it would be very difficult to do so. Not with a caseload as big as theirs.

“And what about the rapes?” Sam heard Bobbie ask. “The cheap number eight in their belly buttons?”

“That’s his signature. It’s what he has to do in order to fulfill his emotional need. See, he doesn’t need to rape his victims in order to kill them, but I think Lev’s issues with his own sexuality are the reason for the sexual assaults, and possibly why he started killing in the first place. As far as the token goes, the only thing I can say for sure is that the number means something to Lev. Most of the victims had pierced navels, but the ones who didn’t had the token sewn onto them.”

“I agree with Duncan’s theory,” said Bobbie. “It’s got to be punishment for their sins.”

“Hatred,” said Logan. “The rapes are about hatred.”

“Not for the victims,” Kostas concluded, probably recognizing the look on Logan’s face. “But for himself.”

“You got that right, Kostas.”

“What exactly do you mean by Lev having issues with his own sexuality?” Mik asked.

“He’s attracted to men.”

“No way!” Mik and Bobbie said at the same time.

“Yeah, makes perfect sense,” Duncan agreed. “He was harder on this one. No pun intended. Something’s changing… setting him off. It’s starting to feel personal.”

“Logan,” Bobbie said. “Do you really think…?”

“He goes to gay clubs. He’s been able to chat up the victims…. I tell you, boys and girls, our self-righteous homophobic killer is fucking queer himself.”

A moment of dead silence followed Logan’s statement. Sam wasn’t surprised that his team needed to take a few seconds to ponder it. Working hate crimes, they dealt with the consequences of lack of education, narrow-mindedness, judgment, ridicule, religious fundamentalism, and intolerance on a daily basis. Self-loathing serial killers, however, did not fit into too many profiles.

“We need to go over all the evidence again,” said Kostas. “Analyze things from this new angle.”

“And we need to go over Tangerine’s security tapes one more time, Kostas,” Mik added. “If we can—”

“Agreed.” Sam interrupted and got up from his chair. “But not tonight. You all go home and get some rest. Clear your minds. We’ll meet tomorrow morning at the lab, nine o’clock sharp. Have a good night, kids.”

There was a chorus of good-nights, and three minutes later only Sam and Logan were left in the squad room. Logan threw his granola-bar wrapper into the garbage can across the room and grabbed his suit jacket from his chair. It went without saying they’d go grab a bite together. Work aside, Sam and Logan were also best friends.

They had met as boxing contenders at one of the bureau’s annual charity events. That night Sam had won the fight, although not by much, and three thousand dollars for his charity of choice. But most importantly, he got to meet Logan.

“You okay with sushi?” Logan asked. “Haven’t had that in a while.”

“Would much rather have a bloody steak, but what the heck. I’ll indulge you.”

“Aren’t you sweet,” Logan deadpanned, and Sam grinned at him.

They made their way to the elevator and once inside, Sam finally asked, “How did you figure it out so soon?” He had no doubt Logan’s conclusion about Lev was spot on.

“Before we can figure out the perpetrator’s identity, we have to get to know the victims,” replied Logan, not needing to ask what Sam was talking about. “All gay and club patrons, all interested enough in Lev to let him buy them drinks. There had to be conversation. It takes time to spike a drink with roofies and get the victim out. Obviously Lev has some game to him. All that, plus today’s body and the verse…. I can’t believe I didn’t see it as soon as I read the first reports.”

“Don’t need to wait for the ME’s report to know how badly Lev hurt this guy.” Sam shook his head in regret. “He was very attractive, too. Cuter than the others by what I could see. My guess is Lev wanted him sexually.”

“And that’s why he raped him so violently,” Logan said under his breath. “Sadistic bastard….”

“Twenty bucks says he didn’t do it with his own dick. Self-loathing homosexual that he is, he would’ve used something else…. The same brush he used to paint the canvas, perhaps.” The elevator doors opened, and they walked into the lobby. Once outside they headed toward their favorite sushi restaurant, located a few blocks away. “Gays hating on gays… that’s just not natural, in my opinion.”

“Not all of us have the capacity to accept our sexuality, Sam.”

“So it is wrong to be a homo but okay to go on a killing spree?”

“For some people it is.”

“That’s such bullshit. I can’t wait to catch this fucking psycho. Send him to prison for the rest of his life. I’d like to see him become the bitch to at least ten very big, extremely hung Doms who will make him walk on his damn knees and eat off the floor after they’ve pissed on it. Let him experience the same shit he’s put his victims through.”

Logan chuckled. “From your mouth to God’s ears, babe.”

“The victims look so much alike they could’ve been clones. Why is that? Do they represent the killer, or someone else? It could be that Lev is into twinks, but somehow I doubt that,” Sam muttered.

“Sadly, we don’t have nearly enough evidence to discard any possibilities yet.”

They reached the restaurant and put a halt to their conversation until they were shown to a table and had placed an order for drinks.

“The victims probably resemble some dude Lev’s been jonesing for,” Sam continued. Sometimes he couldn’t stop thinking about work.

“Could be,” Logan agreed, taking a look at the menu. “I think I’m going to have shrimp and vegetables tempura.”

“It’s very common for self-loathing homosexuals to blame God for making them that way, but I don’t think Lev does.”

“The passages he chose indicate he agrees with society’s interpretation of the Bible.”

“He hates himself for being gay.” Sam played with his own menu, not bothering to look at it. He always ordered the same—a truckload of California rolls.

“And he’s probably doing a good job fighting his carnal instincts, because he’s convinced he’s got a choice,” Logan concluded. “Or maybe I should say he was. Like I mentioned before, the severity of the sexual attacks have escalated in the past months.”

“This means he’s weakening,” Sam concluded, studying Logan’s face carefully. He seemed to have lost color all of a sudden.

“Either that, or Lev’s done fighting his nature and got himself a lover,” Logan said, rubbing his forehead. “The killings could be a sick way of making up for his sin.”

“What? Fuck one dude, kill three others?”

Logan swallowed hard. “Exactly…. And God help the next victim if I’m right.”

“Will you be okay working this case?” Sam leaned forward as he captured and held Logan’s gaze. “If the rape and torture aspects of it are too much to handle, I need you to tell me.”

Logan was an excellent profiler who had personal experience with sexual crimes. That was an issue he needed to address. Sam would hate not being able to count on Logan’s expertise, but he wasn’t willing to risk his best friend’s mental health to solve a case.

Luckily, they also had Duncan, who’d learned a lot from Logan since the team was formed.

“You know you don’t have to work the case, right?” Sam asked when Logan remained stubbornly quiet. “Duncan—”

“Profiling is my job,” Logan said absently, as if reminding himself of his position in the team.

“Duncan could lend you a hand, or I could get assistance from the BAU in Quantico.”

“And where would you tell them your profiler is?”

“Working another case? On vacation? Getting a new nose? I’ll come up with something if I have to.” Sam shrugged, not too worried about the brass. He wasn’t concerned about following protocol right now. “We both know the Leviticus case will expose you to situations that will trigger traumatic memories for you. I have to know if you can handle it.”

“Do you doubt my ability to do my job?” Logan frowned. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“Do you really think I’m going to let you make this about me?” Sam raised an eyebrow. “Be real with me, Lo. Please.”

Logan lowered his gaze. “I’ll be fine.”

Sam nudged Logan’s leg under the table. “Try that again.”

“I’m a psychologist. I have my issues under control.” Logan set his jaw and made strong eye contact. “I can handle it,” he added in a firm tone that left no place for arguments.

Sam stayed silent and watched Logan transform right before his eyes. Ten seconds ago he’d looked pale and uncertain. Now he looked alert and ready to take on the world, as if determination had engulfed him the moment he said he was a psychologist and cranked some kind of autopilot.

The thing was, it probably had.

Logan had an eerie ability to become different people in the blink of an eye. Sam had witnessed the transformation many times, but it never ceased to amazed him… or worry the bejesus out of him.

“I can handle it,” Logan repeated with a reassuring smile. “I promise.”

Sam narrowed his eyes but ultimately decided to let the subject go. He had to trust Logan when it came to work and his own mental health.

The waitress came back with their drinks. After looking up and thanking her, they patiently waited for her to leave more napkins on the table, straighten out the cutlery, offer soup, salad, or bread, comment on the weather and the Yankees, and what Sam and Logan were up to after dinner, all while giving them flirty smiles and a wink or two. It happened every time they went to eat somewhere.

Normally Sam would let the waitresses know, in no uncertain terms, whether he was interested or not, and he wasn’t, since he preferred his women on the tall side, healthy looking, and with plenty of meat on their bones. He liked his men on the slender side, but Asian girls with short, frail bodies, flat chests, and pale skin were not his type. And most definitely they were not Logan’s, which was why Sam got a kick out of watching him flirt with her.

Finally, after what seemed like a good twenty minutes, the waitress took their order and went back to the kitchen.

“I’ll never understand why you insist on doing this, Yu Yu.”

Yu Yu was Sam’s pet name for his best friend. Logan was interested in all things anime and absolutely obsessed with the Yu Yu Hakusho series, about an underworld detective investigating paranormal shit. It was close enough to Logan’s own undercover work investigating shit disturbing enough to be considered out of this world, so Yu Yu it was.

“It’ll make her feel good about herself for days,” Logan said after tasting his tea.

“She’s going to give you her number.”

“And I’ll take it, as I always do.”

“She’ll think you like her.”

“She’s very pretty.”

Sam raised his left eyebrow. “She doesn’t have a dick.”

“Your point?”

“You’re wasting her time by getting her hopes up.”

“By entertaining her advances I gave her a confidence boost. Like I said, she’ll feel good about herself for days and—” He shut his mouth as soon as he saw Sam grin at him like an idiot.

“For days, huh?” Sam teased him. “Someone’s a bit full of himself.”

“You know I didn’t mean it that way.” Logan gave Sam a sheepish smile. “It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with her psyche. It’s a proven fact. Women—”

“Oh please, you don’t know shit about women, no matter how many textbooks on the subject you’ve read. And I’m pretty sure Cosmo doesn’t count.”

“You’re probably right.” Logan grabbed his chopsticks and took them out of the wrapper. “God knows I never learned anything from their quizzes and polls, but I do like their tips for skin care and makeup.”

“You don’t need all the makeup, sweetheart. You’re naturally beautiful.”

“Right.”

It was an old argument. Logan knew what he looked like. He knew guys—and girls—were attracted to him. He knew he could take his pick. But he hardly ever did.

Truth was, Logan Brandenburg, out and proud homosexual, Help Line and LGBT center volunteer, and one of the best undercover agents to ever work for the FBI, was painfully shy, incredibly insecure, and had an inclination to hide behind the characters he impersonated in order to protect himself. Sam knew why. He knew guilt had been messing with Logan’s head for years, yet at times it didn’t make any sense.

“I just wish you’d get over this hang-up, babe.”

Logan sighed. “I’m working on it.”

“Work faster,” Sam ordered, the same way he had done a thousand times in the past. “I want to see you live up to your full potential on a personal level.”

“I know you do.” Logan smiled and briefly covered Sam’s hand with his own, looking around to make sure no one was paying them too close attention. Even though both of them were open about their sexuality, they were still careful with the PDAs. They knew too well what kind of violent reactions they could get from homophobes. “Thank you for caring so much, Sam.”

“Don’t mention it.” And he meant that. He was a solid friend to Logan. The guy knew he could count on Sam, no matter what.

Logan started drumming on the table with his chopsticks. “You want to tell me what all that was about back in the squad room? Don’t think I didn’t notice you looked a little green for a minute when I said the canvas was treated and stretched.”

Sam reached for his glass of water and took a drink.

There were certain things he just didn’t like to talk about. He wasn’t a communicative kind of guy to begin with. He didn’t share his feelings. He made decisions, informed people about them, and expected for that to be the end of it.

Matter of fact, it wasn’t very often he actually had feelings.

Sam’s usual demeanor went from aloof on a good day to haughty on a bad one. He had no problems socializing; he just chose not to. He didn’t look, nor was he, approachable by any stretch of the imagination, which probably explained why he had lots of acquaintances and a very small circle of friends.

He considered all his teammates friends, but out of the bunch, he was closer to Duncan and Kostas. Logan, of course, was in a category all his own.

Sam never understood how that one happened. When they met at the charity event, Logan had been twenty-three and a rookie. Sam had checked him out, decided he was damn cute, and asked him out for a beer, even though back then he’d had no idea which team Logan batted for and it was a rule of Sam’s to never, ever shit where he ate.

A beer turned into five while shooting some pool, followed by a pepperoni pie at Logan’s favorite pizza place. They were fast friends, despite Sam being four years older than Logan and his tendency to remain withdrawn from people that were not immediate family. The general consensus of his persona was selfish, heartless, and all around asshole, but Logan had known there was more to Sam than that.

Never mind the whys, truth was he loved the kid to death and had never tried to hide that fact from him. The sex never happened, not even when Logan came out to him about three weeks into their budding relationship. Both Sam and Logan knew the rest of the team often wondered what the deal was, but even though they never bothered to clarify anything, they both knew they were beyond that.

Sam put the glass down and traced the moisture pattern with his finger. The thing about being so close to someone was you couldn’t bullshit your way out of anything with them. He could tell Logan to mind his own business and knew that Logan would. He understood and accepted Sam’s ways.

Having a best friend didn’t change the fact that he still wasn’t communicative and heart-to-heart conversations gave him hives, but he didn’t keep things from Logan. That was not the way things went down between them.

“It reminded me of Gabi when you mentioned art class,” he admitted in a very low voice.

“Of course.” Logan shook his head a bit. “I should have known.”

“It’s been years, Logan…. Why the fuck can’t I get over this?”

“You want my professional opinion?”

“No. I refuse to do psychology on an empty stomach.” He took a deep breath and sat back on his chair. “But I’ll listen to anything you have to say.”

“You need to talk to her, Sam.”

“Gabi will never forgive me. I’d just waste my time and probably cause her pain and aggravation if I sought her out.” He drank some of his water and put the glass down on the table with a thud. “I need to concentrate on the present. I have a job to do here, and I need to go upstate. I haven’t seen my sister and nephew in months. That’s my life now.”

“Sam….”

“I need to visit them.”

“You need to talk to your ex-wife.”

“I can’t. I can’t face her. Not after what happened.”

“You made a mistake. It’s human nature. Happens all the time to the best of us, and the Lord and everybody within a hundred-mile radius knows you’re most definitely not one of the best human beings out there,” he teased in an attempt to lighten up Sam’s mood.

“I didn’t just make a mistake. It’s not that simple. I betrayed her. And the consequences of that betrayal were—”

“I know the consequences were terrible, but you need to deal with it,” Logan interrupted him. “Mistake, tragedy…. Call it whatever you want, but please look her up and apologize already, if that’s what you feel you need to do.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“It isn’t as hard as you think it’ll be. I know you said she told you off, but it was a long time ago and maybe she’s open to dialogue now. It’s been years, Sam. Years of nothing but blame and guilt. Your feelings have kept you alone, and—”

“I don’t want to be with anyone,” Sam interrupted. “You know I don’t care for relationships.”

But Sam hadn’t always felt that way. Once upon a time, he’d believed love conquered everything. He’d wanted a family and his very own happily ever after. And he’d been so close to having it, too.

Then he’d made the worst call of his life and lost it all.

Now he was older and wiser and had learned the hard way that having a partner meant being partly responsible for their well-being, and that was something he just couldn’t take on.

Which was why he was all about the one-nighters.

It was in everybody’s best interest that he kept things as anonymous as possible and only hooked up when it was understood and agreed upon that nothing would come out of it. He really didn’t want to be bothered with unsolicited attention of the emotional kind.

“I know you don’t want to be in a relationship. I don’t either, so I can hardly blame you. But please, babe, if you never again have one, let it be because you honestly don’t want it and not because you’re scared of the responsibility…. Or because you feel you don’t deserve it.”

“I have to talk to her, don’t I?” Sam asked, resignation ringing clear in his voice.

“If you want to be able to have some peace of mind and move on, then yes, you do.”