The Ides of Matt:
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every month from the 14th-20th.
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When gingerbread competitions are played for the highest stakes!
Connell will soon rule the world of prime-time cooking shows. He possesses the chops, the charm, and the winning recipe. Or so he thinks until he ends up murdered by his own gingerbread village during a live Christmas broadcast.
Kate Stark’s team of heroes will never look at Santa’s North Pole workshop the same way again.
He should have practiced under studio lights before the actual competition. Then Connell would have accounted for the heat of the big television spots. It over-softened butter. It slowed the cooling rate of the hundreds of pieces of gingerbread cookie he had to bake, causing several of them to overcook just from residual heat. It even increased set times for the royal icing that he was counting on to glue his walls and roof together.
The heat also made him sweat on national television. He wasn’t going to be one of those guys who sweat into his food during a cooking show and grossed out the television audience.
Instead he tied a dishtowel across his forehead like a white boy playing kitchen samurai. How was this look supposed to get him his slot on national TV? Unless he made it a thing. So, he would try making it a thing when the interviewer came around the next time and hope that it worked.
Paul Stark was Mr. Genial Host. Tall, blondly handsome, and a notorious playboy, he was also half-owner of the most successful cooking television network out there. Connell wanted a piece of that. Maybe he should dye his carrot-red hair to match Paul’s. Though he wasn’t the one Connell had to impress, but rather his twin sister Kate Stark. She was the real force behind the network’s success.
Here he came, working down the line. Geoffrey, Oliver, himself, and then the delectable Juliana—the showgirl piece of the grand finale. She hadn’t gotten in just for looking hot, he had to keep reminding himself. She was an artist in the kitchen, fast and meticulous. The only real threat to his win.
A cute little Asian chick trotted along behind Stark with a closeup camera. Would he get one, too? A tiny, tight-bodied servant of his own? Easy money said Paul got himself a piece of that.
“I like the look,” Paul picked up another kitchen towel, hot pink instead of plain white like Connell’s, and tried wrapping it around his own forehead before turning to the camera to model it. “Think it’s me?”
The camera girl rolled her eyes at him, even as she filmed his antics. Maybe he wasn’t getting a piece of that.
“So not!” Connell didn’t want anyone stealing the look if it worked for him, but he remembered this guy was the host in time to make it funny.
Paul made a pretend pout. “Looks good on you though. Why is that?”
“We already had an Italian contender, Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid.” One of Dad’s favorite movies watched repeatedly over his ever-increasing beer belly.
Coulda been me.
Sure, Dad, if you ever got off your ass to do more than burp and fart. His dad could have also been the CEO of GM and the President of the United States according to him. Instead he was a marginally-employed longshoreman, with a secretarial wife, a son, and a daughter who all hated his guts.
“Maybe it’s time we had a red-headed Irish Kitchen-Towel Samurai,” Connell suggested. Kitchen-Towel Ninja? Nah, Samurai sounded better. Not bad for a first shot at an onscreen trademark.
It earned him a laugh from Paul that had all been for the camera but had somehow felt as if it was all for him as well. Asian chick didn’t even crack a smile. But a glance at the judge’s table showed that all three of them did. A very good sign.
Too bad one of them wasn’t the great Kate Stark, but it was a sure bet that she was watching the show for new talent.
Right here, lady!
He got back to work on his gingerbread scene.
Rikka Albert didn’t punch the twerp’s nose. But if he ogled her ass or her breasts (such as they were) one more time, she might reconsider.
However, second, it would probably be bad form for a cameraperson to take down a contestant on national live television. And first, she didn’t want to risk hurting her new hundred-thousand-dollar toy.
Kate always gave her the best presents, this time a RED Weapon 8k camera with Zeiss optics. The camera was massive overkill for a cooking competition, but the Cooks’ Christmas Gingerbread Grand Finale show made for a good shakedown test and Rikka was loving it.
She often joined Kate in the field for her more complex shoots for Cooks Network shows and, in those cases, resolution could really help bigtime. Why if she’d had this while they were filming at that G-8 meeting… But they hadn’t. However, if her RED baby kept performing this well, she’d sure be ready the next time Kate stumbled into some international disaster.
Assuming Kate kept keeping her around. Rikka had never had a friend for more than a passing moment or two. The Black Hat hacker part of her was in the past, technically, but it didn’t lend itself to trusting others. Twice now Kate had washed her through the Witness Protection Program and no way was she going to screw it up this time. There were too many good things going for her. Kate actually treated her like a friend, which Rikka still didn’t know how to process.
Focus on the show.
Paul had been working down the line: Geoffrey, Oliver, and Connell.
Then he moved on to flirt with the elegant Juliana. Why couldn’t she be tall and elegant like that?
Rikka would normally move in to act as a buffer to Paul’s unstoppable charm. Rikka had considered talking to some genetic engineers to see if it could be excised, but she doubted it. Besides, was emasculating Paul really worth the trouble? Probably not.
Before she could step over to Juliana’s work area, she felt the room pressure change. No one should be allowed in or out of the studio except during commercial breaks, but she looked up and there he was.
Sam Fierro was six-foot-a-jillion of lovely Marine Force Recon (retired) who ran the best butcher shop in Brooklyn. Of course he could enter the studio anytime he wanted to—because if he chose to be clandestine, all the guards in the world would never see him go by despite his massive frame.
He stopped just inside the door and crossed his arms.
If she was the swooning type, she’d swoon right here and now. She wasn’t, but considered doing it anyway just to watch his reaction. They’d been lovers for over a year, but Sam never pressured her for more than she was willing to give. He was just there. A new inexplicable constant in her life, just like Kate.
Rather than fainting with delight, she sent him a big wink and wondered how fast this show would be over. Maybe if she punched the Connell twerp, who she could again feel staring at her ass, that would end it sooner. But Kate wouldn’t be amused, which was actually the real reason she didn’t attack him.
Paul was busy hustling Juliana, so Rikka scooted over and slipped her aptly named RED Weapon camera right in between Paul and the harried contestant.
Connell took a moment to shake out his hands and unkink his back from bending over the counter for almost six hours. Just ten minutes left, precisely on schedule, he allowed himself a few seconds to scan the scene.
Clearly Geoffrey and Oliver belonged to a whole other subclass of baker and he didn’t even waste time looking in their direction.
However, to his left, Paul Stark was now on his shit list even if he was half-owner of the network. The guy should never have been hitting on Juliana. That was going to be his turf. Thankfully, Paul and little Asian camera babe were now moving on for the “final word with the judges” segment.
Juliana’s perfection made her the one to beat—and he wasn’t thinking of only her body. Her design work was really pretty. Not that he was actually worried or anything.
After he won, he’d ask her out for a celebratory dinner. If he played down his own win and kept focusing on “We’re the top two!”, maybe he could upgrade it to a celebratory fuck. She was one hot Latina and her dark skin looked damn good in a white chef’s coat—it would look even better spread beneath him on white sheets. She was the only one of the four finalists whose coat was still spotless, because she was just that precise. But he’d bet she was super hot in bed, just like that movie star Michelle Rodriguez who kicked so much ass in the Fast & Furious and Avatar, and all those other Caribbean babes. Let just the women across the border—that was his solution to the immigration crisis—but only the hot, single ones without kids.
He turned back to his own creation.
He’d considered taking on the definitive Herculean task of making the White House. But then he’d be compared to each of the ones produced by those Presidential master chefs over the decades. In these turbulent political times—was there any other kind anymore?—he’d thought about “honoring” the “good old days” and recreating Mount Rushmore. But the carved granite was so monotone.
The International Space Station with massive solar wings covered in edible gold had been tempting.
Ultimately, targeting maximum audience appeal, he’d gone for the humorous. He’d created the North Pole.
Santa’s home with red walls made with food dye in corn syrup-blond gingerbread. A smoky curl of brandy snap coming out of the red velvet cake chimney. Happy scenes visible through each window…except he’d left the bedroom dark where he imagined Mrs. Claus with her white-fur trimmed red dress hiked up to her waist and her jolly ass raised high waiting for Santa’s return. Did the man have a candy cane for a prick? Maybe it was a great big one like the pole planted in the center of Connell’s North Pole landscape. Hey Santa. Got your big dick right here on display.
The reindeer barn was a fanciful world of Finnish-carved gingerbread. The elves’ workshop a fantasy of a chocolate-worked roof with sea salt seasoning sprinkled over the top, that seemed to float above see-through sugar lattice walls revealing marzipan elves at gingerbread workbenches making over a dozen kinds of to-scale cookies. His favorite were the fingertip-sized chocolate chip ones.
Santa’s candy cane “Pole” towered above them all.
By plan, Sam had arrived for just the last half hour of the show, right when the broadcast had switched from pre-recorded to live.
The first five hours of the competition were edited on the fly to fill the first half hour of the hour-long broadcast. Then, from one commercial break to the next, the show had shifted to a live format, which always increased the tension and hooked the viewers. The sprint to the finish and the judging were live. It was a format that Kate had perfected and the other networks still hadn’t figured out how to pull off decently.
He stayed by the door and appreciated the magnetic attraction that had Rikka turning to flash one of her electric smiles at him before he’d even stepped all the way through the door. He was always equally aware of her.
His muscles felt good; they still burned from the long day of butchering. He’d started at four this morning so that he could be free for dinner and an evening with Rikka.
He scanned the studio: audience spread in a single row of chairs to either side of the exit door he waited beside.
Just ahead stood the two floor cameras. They were free-rolling and came up to his chin. Each camera head about the size of a FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired missile, with twin control handles dropping to the rear. The operators steered them a bit like motorcycles.
The sixteen-foot-high studio space had a simple metal pipe grid mounted close to the ceiling—lighting instruments hung down from it. They were on the 29th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in the heart of Manhattan, so the floor above would be the Cooks Network corporate offices, including Kate’s. For a moment he wondered if Paul ever actually used his.
The show was a surprisingly small operation, just two floor cameras and Rikka’s close-up rig. Two producers on the floor, two operators in the control room, eighteen guests, four contestants, three judges, Paul as emcee, and himself. It always looked so much bigger on TV.
The whole focus was on the four contestants of course.
The leftmost contestant’s entry was a trainwreck—literally. His gingerbread locomotive was five-feet long and over a foot high. No detail was missing: crank arms, steam whistle, even an engineer leaning out the window. Sam had learned enough from hanging out with Rikka to know that he’d taken a real judging risk—he’d used silver dragées for the rivets which the FDA declared as inedible even though they were listed as a food item. And he’d scorched the gingerbread for the wheels, which were now cracking and breaking as he tried to place them alongside the engine. Even as Sam watched, a cry of horror sounded from the small audience and Rikka’s camera was zooming in. The coal car collapsed sideways like an empty box folding flat. The black currant “coal” spilled off the table and across the floor as the baker cursed fluently and began sliding about on them as they squished.
The second one had gone for height, an intricate reproduction of the Chrysler Building. Probably trying to stick his brown nose right up to Kate’s ass. He was always amazed when people thought that would work on Kate. It might on Paul, but never his sister. They lived together in a fabulous multi-level condo, tucked into the top three floors, inside the fluted Art Deco taper of the Chrysler Building’s pinnacle. Unlike the first contestant’s train, it was standing—six feet tall and architecturally accurate. But, even to Sam’s untrained eye, it looked like a seven-year-old had built it: spilling seam glue and crooked gargoyles.
The third guy in the row had clearly gone all out with an elaborate North Pole village that he’d have to move closer and inspect later. Lots of detail there.
And in the last one. The pretty Latina had made a snowy cottage scene with a fanciful little gingerbread home. Like the woman, utterly elegant. It had far more taste than the more elaborate village beside her. It had sparkling coconut snow, with melted-candy windows, that actually had images of the happy scenes inside. Her “stained glass” was lit by a tiny indoor Christmas tree. Outside, she had a far larger one adorned with tiny macaroons in a dozen colors. The snowy rooftop even had Santa’s sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
He had no say in the matter, but he’d vote for the tiny snowbound cottage.
Sam wondered if it was the sort of place Rikka might like to go some Christmas. That was an interesting thought.
Connell brushed the last of the royal icing over Santa’s roof where Santa would be getting his later tonight just as he himself would—in the form of the hot Juliana—definitely a Christmas treat for himself. He’d already teased her into tasting several of his micro-cookies, the last right from his fingertips (he’d timed his request for her opinion for when both her hands were covered in dough). Like a well-trained girl, she taken it with those lush lips and told him how good it was—he’d worked hard to get a big flavor punch in each tiny cookie.
If she was really good to him, maybe he’d invite her as a guest on one of his shows as a consolation prize. Maybe, if he played his sugar right, he could get the tight-assed Asian camera girl too.
The consistency of his last batch of royal icing was strange—maybe he’d mis-measured the amount of glycerin that he’d added for extra shine. Or maybe it was the heat from those damn studio lights. He was out of time to tinker with it, so he spread it more thickly over the main slope of Santa’s roof than he’d planned. Connell wanted the finishing touch to be the final surprise, so he’d timed this last task to the second during practice.
On the final slope of the roof’s surface, he quickly set ten-millimeter Sixlet sugar pearls. Each almost a half-inch across, he was able to rapidly transform the roof into a flag for the North Pole that he’d designed—a slightly surprised looking Rudolph face on a field of white “snow” with an oversized red jawbreaker for a nose. He’d premade cookie cutters in the right shapes so that he could frame a section, like Rudolph’s fur, and rapidly fill in brown Sixlets in an even layer. Another frame, filled with snowy whites for the background. It let him place hundreds of them in just minutes.
It was the total “Awww!” moment. As the camera chick shifted to get the best angle on it without getting in the way, Connell knew it was replaying on the big overhead monitors when he heard just those exact sounds from the audience and judges.
The colored Sixlets settled into the royal icing. They were sliding a little due to the runniness. Not enough to distort Rudolph’s expression yet, but it might. And his nose appeared to be dissolving.
Connell glanced at the clock.
Geoffrey was weeping over his trainwreck.
Oliver’s nose actually was brown from where he’d smeared some gingerbread on it as he struggled to make his Chrysler Building less feeble.
Juliana was raising her hands above her head to show that she was finished. Her generous breasts pushed against that immaculate white chef’s coat in a luscious curve.
Connell snapped on his hair dryer to set the royal icing and leaned in close to watch against overheating.
Unknown to Connell, the heat was the final factor in the chemical reaction.
The jawbreaker had been replaced with a thinly coated shell that dissolved rapidly in the citric acid of the orange juice that Connell had added to the icing for flavor. Once the surface was breached, it released a small flood from its interior of combined sulfuric and nitric acid. These acids mixed quickly with the excess glycerin in the icing.
The application of heat was sufficient to complete the reaction.
Had the roof of Santa’s bedroom been less well supported, or made of thinner gingerbread, the result would have been little different.
The imperfect admixture of nitric and sulfuric acids with glycerin, and the application of heat, was still sufficient to ignite as it formed nitroglycerin.
Three seconds to go, the unstable compound blew up explosively.
At two seconds, the sugar-coated chocolate Sixlets launched from the sturdy roof in rough formation. Five hundred and seventy-three brightly colored, hard candy pellets with tasty chocolate centers ripped off the parts of Connell’s face that the explosion hadn’t already burned away. The sixty-two that entered his open mouth didn’t kill him, but the thirty-eight that punched out his eyes and entered his brain would in just a few more seconds.
At one second, Connell knew he wasn’t going to get Juliana naked after all.
The revelation was cut short when he collapsed forward as the final buzzer sounded, shattering his gingerbread display and impaling himself on Santa’s candy-cane dick.
He was so screwed.
Sam watched the panic unfold. Some people didn’t take well to bloody deaths at close quarters. Almost twenty years in Marine Force Recon had inured him.
The audience, a small cluster of the competitors’ family and friends, screamed and ran. Not a one of them ran toward the bleeding chef. Man must have been real popular. A few clustered around each of the other three. The rest rushed toward the exit door—where Sam stood, casually blocking it with crossed arms and a no-nonsense military presence.
The people at the lead of those seeking escape tried to stop before they slammed into him, but the crowd pressure was too much and they were knocked forward.
With a quick forward swing of his crossed arms, he tipped them back.
Because they were so tightly packed, they mostly fell over backward like dominos. The people at the very rear managed to stumble to a stop before they too were caught up in the cascade of flailing humanity.
Rikka Albert set aside her camera and soon had everyone herded back into their seats. Though she was a head shorter than anyone else there, they soon discovered that the tiny Japanese woman was a force to be reckoned with and was only running the camera because she enjoyed playing with expensive toys.
Damn but that woman was amazing. Nothing flapped her confidence.
Of course, you had to be at a serious kick-ass level to be Kate Stark’s right hand. She should be the pint-sized heroine in one of those old Kung Fu movies, except she wasn’t much of a fighter. However, she was a sushi master, something his third-generation butcher heritage could really appreciate, in addition to being one of the world’s top five computer hackers.
However, it appeared that his plan of taking her out to dinner right after the show wasn’t going to happen.
The studio was still in chaos.
Floor producers rushed around as if they could make a difference. The cameramen knew their jobs and made sure that the control room had feeds from the finished gingerbread projects in case they needed something to broadcast other than bloody death.
Paul, for once in his life, wasn’t being Mr. Useless, but was keeping the judges and the other three contestants calm. Relatively. Shock was still running pretty high.
Thankfully all cell phones had to be checked outside the door, so no one would be pumping this imagery straight from the studio to the world.
Sam rocked back on his heels to consider the situation.
What if the person hadn’t been caught on camera?
That would require someone who understood camera angles well enough to avoid them. They would also need access to the prep materials to have rigged the explosion. A suicide on national TV seemed unlikely, which meant the dead chef was murdered.
He could feel Kate Stark rushing up behind him. Something about her he could always sense despite her ability to move so silently. Tall, as lovely as her brother Paul was handsome, and always in control. Even though she rarely cracked a smile, the camera loved her as did the network fans.
“What this time?” She stepped up beside him.
He glanced down at her, but she wasn’t looking to him for an answer. Instead she did a quick scan of the room and assessed it for herself.
“Oh, Kate,” Rikka rushed up. “You missed a good one—well, in a horrible way. Connell’s entire roof blew up in his face, literally. It’s too bad. He was a contender. Definitely had second place tied up and might have had a shot at winning, though my vote would totally be with Juliana. Besides, she has much better camera appeal. You could tell that Connell was gunning hard for Juliana—took me some tricky camera work to not show that. Keep playing off Juliana’s innate kindness. He was sort of a slime mold.”
“Did you see anything out of place, Sam?”
He was touched that Kate asked him. Their relationship over the years had rarely been an easy one. Regrettably, he could only shrug. There’d been something that his Marine Force Recon training had sensed while he’d been busy watching Rikka move about the studio, but he wasn’t sure quite what.
“I’ll watch the door,” Kate nodded for him to go ahead and inspect the scene while she took over blocking the door.
It was a hell of a concession. Sure he had twenty years of serving in Marine Force Recon, but Kate Stark had made it all the way to the vice-presidential protection detail before she’d lost a protectee. Didn’t bother him any—guy had been an asshole. Had bothered Kate a lot, so she’d quit the Secret Service and taken over her parents’ television network instead, turning it into a major operation along the way.
Sam waved Rikka forward and she began describing what she’d seen as she moved toward him.
“The two contestants to camera left were wholly focused on their own creations. They barely looked at each other once things started going wrong. Seeing the quality of work that Connell and Juliana were doing kept them really focused.”
Sam glanced at her. Her observation skills were as sharp as her computer ones.
“Connell is the victim. Juliana is the pretty one. She had several interactions with the victim.”
If the culprit had indeed avoided the camera… The EMTs and police would be only minutes out. Whatever he was going to learn, he had to learn it fast.
He glanced again at the pipe-grid ceiling. It seemed unlikely that any reasonable delivery point for incendiaries could come from above, so he dismissed it.
It would have been too obvious if one of the cameramen had left his post, so he dismissed them from consideration and stepped past the two primary camera positions. Rikka and Paul had the best access to all the workbenches as the roving interview and close-up team—but he’d trust Rikka with his own life.
And, reluctantly, he crossed Paul off the list. He didn’t trust the guy enough to even consider using him in a throwing comparison to see if he trusted him more than how far he could throw him—about 175, Sam could probably get twenty-five feet of clear air before Paul landed, and Sam definitely didn’t trust him that far. But the guy was Kate’s brother and would never do anything, intentionally, to screw up his twin sister. In his own weird way, he was very protective of her.
Predictably, Paul had moved over to console Juliana. That was his specialty—women wilted around him. All except Rikka.
“Hey, Stark,” Rikka called out to Paul so that everyone in the studio could hear. “No hitting on freaked-out contestants or I’ll bust you into little pieces.”
“Speaking of freaks, Rikka!” Paul retorted out of habit but he was holding out a handkerchief to the weeping woman.
Sam noticed that he didn’t argue that Rikka could bust him into little pieces, which showed he had some brains.
Juliana had also had reasonable access to Connell’s workstation.
Had anyone in the audience?
He didn’t trust the other two contestants. Too stone-faced.
But none of them were the pattern he’d somehow felt.
Rikka stepped up to the edge of the wreckage caused by the blast and Connell’s collapse. She’d liked the cozy miniature North Pole scene and it was sad to see it crushed. As she’d filmed its creation, she’d imagined curling up there alone where no one would ever find her again. Thanks to Kate she should be safe now, but the Witness Protection Program had guaranteed that she had no past. Not that it had been so wonderful as to be worth remembering but, still, not having one sucked.
Of course, Connell’s little scene had been coldly calculated to please. Now he was a bloody mess that only moments before had been an asshole.
Her inner creep detector had been highly tuned by her past. At that level, people like Paul Stark didn’t even make the grade—he wasn’t even a bad one, just full of himself. Connell had definitely rung Rikka’s “Bad” bells. Whereas Sam Fierro rang her good bells in ways she hadn’t known existed. She could almost regret her past as a Black Hat hacker because he was such a fine upstanding example of everything she wasn’t—third generation butcher and third-gen Marine Force Recon.
“What’s up with that shit anyway?” Rikka turned to face Sam squarely.
He raised an eyebrow at her.
“Okay, question for another time. I know. I know. I’m making about as little sense as ever. But one of these days, you’re going to have to explain why you’re with me. Or maybe I need to explain myself to me. I don’t know. Something. You know that I—”
Sam tipped up his bare wrist as if looking at a watch.
Too kind to cut her off verbally. She rested her hand briefly on where the watch would sit to acknowledge his kindness.
Deep breath, Rikka. Focus. Not exactly her best skill when away from a keyboard.
“So what blew up?”
Sam leaned in, sniffing the air, then nodded to himself.
Kate joined them from the door, Building Security was on site now.
He tapped his nose, Rikka and Kate leaned in together.
Rikka didn’t smell anything except something that made her want to sneeze.
“Acid,” Kate knew what it was, of course, because she was so awesome.
Sam pointed at a line that had been burned into the model’s snowy “ground” where some liquid had drained off the roof’s edge and burned a long thin line into the marshmallow fluff.
“Sulfuric acid fumes are what’s making your nose itch,” Kate explained. “Not exactly your typical baking ingredient. Mixed with a few other things, including the glycerin in the royal icing, Connell created nitroglycerine. The moment he added heat,” she of course had noticed the hair dryer even though she hadn’t been here, “he was doomed.”
Rikka stepped back to grab her camera, then filmed the details in the snow. Which was a little gross, because of how Connell still lay impaled by his winter wonderland.
“Wait a minute. If something blew up in his face, wouldn’t he fall backward rather than forward?”
In answer, Sam poked a finger hard enough in her belly to have her doubling over forward in surprise. Before she could fall flat on her face, he smacked a hand against her forehead. He didn’t do it hard, just enough to slow her forward momentum. Just when she almost had her balance back, Kate hit her behind the knees.
“Hey!” Rikka would have dropped to the floor if Sam hadn’t wrapped those big hands of his around her shoulders.
Kate continued as if she hadn’t just been all sneaky, “The blast itself wasn’t all that powerful, just enough to launch a lot of small candies. The ones that blew into his brain probably cut his autonomic nerve system. His knees gave out when he lost control of his whole lower body. He didn’t fall forward, so much as collapse down before he could pull away.”
Kate definitely freaked Rikka out sometimes. She seemed to know even more about how to kill people than Sam. Herself? Rikka could cut up a dead fish like nobody’s business—she’d earned her title of itamae sushi master fair and square. But the fish was already dead and clean before it arrived on her cutting board.
“So, who drops a cookie chef on national TV? Like…a ginger snap.” She cracked herself up and laughed, even if there was still a bloody corpse lying before them.
Sam listened to all of the interviews. The police had tried to do those individually with no other peripheral witnesses. Sam had simply leaned against the back wall of the conference room they took over for interrogations and crossed his arms over his chest.
When one of them had tried to engage him, he’d rolled up his shirt sleeves. One forearm had the skull and crossed oars of Marine Recon. His other forearm had the Latin motto: Celer, Silens, Mortalis—Swift, Silent, Deadly.
He didn’t need to translate it for them, they seemed to get the idea and left him alone.
But still no satisfying the itch of the broken pattern he’d seen somewhere.
Every audience member had been accounted for as a particular contestant’s relative or friend.
It wasn’t until they were done and the forensic guys were gone, that Kate’s crew was authorized to come in and clean up the studio. A special team took care of the murder scene, but they had to reset the other workstations as well for the next show being filmed tomorrow—if the contestants dared to show up.
“Let’s get out of here,” Rikka looked exhausted. Being the close-up camera operator, she had been questioned last and longest. Longer even than Paul Stark or Juliana.
It was past midnight, so getting her to eat something and tucking her in bed was going to be their evening together. Or rather their early morning.
He didn’t mind. Sam enjoyed watching her sleep. Her vibrant energy would taper off slowly, until she was simply at peace. That was why he’d spent twenty years in Recon, so that people like Rikka Albert could sleep in peace.
As they headed out of the studio, he glanced over his shoulder before stepping out the main door.
Like a galvanic shock, there was the pattern he’d been missing.
“What is it?” Rikka had made it well down the hallway before she noticed he was missing from her side and doubled back.
Together they watched the suppliers set up for a sugar sculpture competition. The multiple ovens and cookie sheets for baking the big pieces of gingerbread were quickly rolled away. In their place, a wide variety of pots and thermometers were set onto cooking ranges for the melting of sugar.
Everything moved like clockwork, with the smooth efficiency of a Marine Force Recon team preparing for a mission far behind enemy lines.
Except for one person. Her movements were just a little out of sync.
“Should I call someone?” Rikka saw it as well, which confirmed his assessment.
The police and coroner were long gone. Kate had returned to her offices. Paul had escorted the lovely Juliana out the door, and probably straight up to the family penthouse. Sam knew from the stories that Paul would actually be in love with her and treat her royally for as long as it lasted. Then he would mourn until the next “love of his life” came along. He’d even make sure that Juliana got a fair audition with his sister—for Kate made all of the station’s casting decisions herself. Her instincts about what worked and who was sympathetic to the camera were impeccable.
In answer, Sam simply walked back into the studio. Walked until he was standing directly in the way of the woman setting up the replacement for Connell’s workstation.
When the woman sighed, Sam reached out a finger to brush at her hair. The goth-dark wig shifted aside to reveal brilliantly red hair. He’d wager that the thick makeup would also cover fair and freckled skin like Connell’s.
“You’re such a good man, Sam Fierro.” Rikka curled up against him. It wouldn’t be for long; she had another show in a few hours. Trading in her old life—with both the FBI and foe-hackers always chasing her tail—had turned out to be one of the best things she’d ever done. And soon, before the sun rose, she knew that Sam would leave his bed to return to his butcher and charcuterie shop. At least until the next time trouble came their way, then he would turn into the biggest, staunchest ally any woman could ask for.
She pictured how he had simply stood dead still in the studio and waited until the young woman had started to speak on her own.
Rikka’s slimy jerk detector had been right on the money about Connell.
His sister had given herself a Christmas present: freedom from her soullessly evil older brother. Apparently he’d been a morality-free zone since childhood.
When she finished her confession—right down to the chemistry she’d studied and finagling the job for Connell’s show—she’d offered herself to Sam to take to the police. He’d instead, after she’d washed off the makeup and tossed the wig, led her up to Kate’s office.
Kate had still been there, as if she’d been waiting for them. Maybe she was.
She’d offered a Sam-style silent-and-questioning look before gesturing Connell’s sister to take a chair.
Rikka answered for the girl’s sake, “She decided it was time to stop living in the past.” Sam had then guided her out the door and left the two women to talk about the future. It didn’t seem as if either one was interested in talking about the past.
Maybe that was good advice, even if she didn’t know how to apply it to herself.
Sam had taken her home, to his home above the butcher shop, and they’d curled up together.
“I don’t quite get why you let a murderer go. I mean she did kill her own brother. I’m not saying you were wrong, I liked her, but isn’t it still murder?”
Sam didn’t stop with his slow smoothing of her hair down her back as she continued to lay on him with her ear to his chest. It was as if he was too mesmerized by her feel to think of anything else. She liked having that power over him.
“Of course, in a way, I suppose that she was just…sort of the instrument of his own death. If he hadn’t molested his own sister all those years, she never would have killed him. And she was smart enough that she would have gotten away with it if you hadn’t noticed how she didn’t quite fit in. I suppose that in a way, he did commit suicide on national TV.”
Sam patted her butt in acknowledgement that he agreed. The sex had definitely left him far beyond speech, but it typically wound her way up. He was a man of hidden talents and she did her best to return the favor.
Imagine! Christmas with a lover. With her lover.
Rikka had never spent Christmas with anyone, but knew she would this year. Not just with her friend Kate at the Starks’ notoriously fabulous and exclusive Christmas party, but also with Sam.
A home for Christmas. Juliana had built one out of gingerbread and Connell’s sister had blown a path to a new one of her own.
A home? It was too big a thought for now but, for the first time, Rikka could think about the future rather than the burden of her own past. She wanted to let Sam know just how special he was for giving her such a gift.
“What would you like for Christmas, Sam?”
He curled one of his arms about her waist and crushed her against him.
“I mean in addition to that.” She wasn’t the giggling sort, but could definitely feel him squeezing a happy sigh out of her.
He shrugged, then brushed a finger down her nose and she knew that she was enough for him just as he was for her. But she wanted to show him that as well.
“I’ll bake something for you. Something yummy and…Christmasy,” she teased him.
She kissed him before leaning down to whisper in his ear. “I promise—no gingerbread.”
That earned her one of his wonderfully rare, slow, deep laughs as he held her tight. The best Christmas present of all.
Copyright © 2019 by M.L. Buchman (all rights reserved)
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2019 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
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