*Warning: Although fictionalized, this is based on a true story and some of the scenes described may be too graphic for young readers. Please use ‘reader’ discretion.

Cold Dead Eyes

By: Lelani

Prologue:

She lay perfectly still, barely allowing herself the movement necessary for breath. She felt the warmth of her own blood as it oozed from the knife wound on her neck. Listening... She strained to hear any indication that the man was still near. She listened for any sign that her friend was still alive. Listening... Her fear was overwhelming; it was all she could do not to cry out. Listening... She heard the wind in the trees and nocturnal animals scurrying about. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t hear the sound of another human. Slowly, ever so slowly, she lifted her head. The movement caused her pain as the wound was opened wider letting her blood flow faster. As she looked up, all she could think was that if she saw those cold dead eyes watching her, she wouldn’t live long enough for him to have the sick pleasure of killing her, she would die instantly. Her eyes scanned the dark forest; there was no sign of the madman who had done such dreadful things that she couldn’t bear to recall them. Lifting her torso from the ground, she saw her friend. Or what was left of her. She didn’t crawl over to her to search for a pulse; there was no need. The grizzly scene verified her greatest fear; her best friend was dead. She wasn’t pretending to be dead as she herself had. She had one goal now, get help.

The Walker Ranch Wednesday Morning 3:00 a.m.

Ranger Cordell Walker is lying in bed, his wife of just over a year curled beside him. Both are in a deep sleep until the phone rings. Walker sits up instantly awake and ready for action. He reaches for the phone silencing its persistent ringing.

“Walker.”

“Ranger Walker, this is Sergeant Rice of the Dallas Police Department.”
“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Ranger, I’ve got something here I’m going to need some help on. It’s bad.”

“What is it?”
“Two young girls were camping out in the woods behind their housing area. A man found them and well... one of the girls is dead. The other managed to get to the nearest house and get some help. She’s at St. Matthews now; her throat was slashed. Ranger, the girls were twelve.”

“Where are you?”

“Still at the murder scene, the woods behind Horse Haven Estates. Closest cross street is Bridle Lane.”

“I’m on my way.”

Walker hangs up and reaches for his jeans. His wife turns on the light on her nightstand and sits up.

“What is it?”

“Two young girls, one murdered the other is in the hospital.”

“I’ll call Trivette for you and have him meet you there.”

“No, let him sleep a couple more hours. Call Sydney and have her get to St. Matthews. I don’t know what shape the girl that lived is in, but if she can talk...”

“I’ll call her.”

Walker looks over at his wife, seeing her tousled hair and creamy pale skin. He leans over to kiss her smooth cheek.

“Sorry honey, I had plans for a more pleasant wake up call.”

Just then, the sound of their daughter’s cries come across the baby monitor. “Sounds like Angela has plans of her own,” Alex says with a rueful smile.

“I’ll bring her in to you,” Walker says as he pads barefoot across the hall to the nursery. Alex can hear him talking to their three-month-old infant. She dials Sydney’s home number and fills her in and then she makes a quick trip to the bathroom and is back in bed waiting when he brings Angela to her.

Walker hands the baby to Alex and then heads to the bathroom himself. He is dressed and ready to leave in minutes. He stands in the bathroom door gazing at the picture of his wife nursing their beautiful infant in the soft glow of the lamp. He shakes his head in wonder and is pulled to them once more. His finger trails from Alex’s shoulder, down her breast and finally softly caresses his daughter’s cheek.

“I’ll see you two later, get some sleep.”

“That’s not even in question,” says his wife through a yawn.

“I love you both,” he says with a kiss to his wife’s soft lips. With a last look of regret, he turns and heads out the door to deal with the ugly scene that awaits him.

Horse Haven Estates 3:45 a.m.

Walker pulls up to the crime scene in his gray Dodge Ram. He gets out and puts his hat on his head. He enjoys the comfort it gives him as he strides to what he knows will be a difficult scene.

“Ranger Walker?” a uniformed policeman greets him.

“Yes, Sergeant Rice?”

“Yes sir. Sorry to call you out of bed like this, but I think the Rangers are going to end up with this case anyway. My Captain is going to skin me for handing it to you on a silver platter, but to tell you the truth, I have a feeling this goes way beyond the department’s resources.”

“What have you got so far?”
“Well, two twelve-year-old girls were having a summer camp out in the woods. They were getting ready for a weeklong Girl Scout camping trip and were trying out the new gear they had purchased. Near as we can tell, the murderer happened on them and this was an opportunistic killing.”

“Any reason to believe he hadn’t been stalking one or both of them?”

“Well, we found a makeshift camp up there a bit. Looks like a drifter who settled for the night. Anyway, I don’t know how he found the girls, but he slit the throat of Amber Kelley. She played dead laying face down in the dirt and leaves and not moving. Melissa Snow was bound and gagged and then raped. He stabbed her, I don’t know how many times, but he nearly severed one of her arms.”

“And this Amber was able to get away?”

“Yeah, when she was sure he was gone, she crawled out of the woods and managed to walk to the nearest house. She was weak and had blood all over her, but she was talking.”

“And the parents of Melissa? Where are they?”

“The house over there. I had two of my officers take them back home. I didn’t let them see the body, there are some things no one should have to see.”

“Well, I better see it.”

Sergeant Rice leads Walker over to the body of the young girl. The question of whether or not she was sexually assaulted is answered immediately. The stab wounds are all on her upper torso, but there is blood down on the insides of her thighs. She is well developed for such a young girl, but clearly she was an innocent when she was brutally raped. Walker looks at her disfigured face and long curly dark brown hair and wonders if she had been as pretty as he imagined. There was no way to tell by what had been left of her.

“Make sure to keep this area clear except for the M.E. and the C.S.I. team. Don’t let any officers in for a ‘look see.’ The fewer people, the more chance of getting some hard evidence. Also, post a guard at the makeshift campsite you found until all the evidence from it is gathered. I’m going to go talk with the parents.”

A female officer who has been stationed there lets Walker into the back door of the home of Rebecca and Scott Snow. They are seated on the couch in the living room holding each other and crying. Walker approaches them in his usual stealth mode.

“Mr. and Mrs. Snow, I’m Ranger Walker, I’m very sorry for your loss.”

The two grieving parents look up at him and Scott acknowledges him with a slight nod.

“I need to know everything you can tell me.”

“Why, is it going to bring Melissa back?” Rebecca all but shouts.

“No ma’am. There is nothing I can do or say that will bring your daughter back to you. I can’t erase what happened here tonight and if I could, I would. The only comfort I can offer you is my word to do everything in my power to find the man who did this and bring him to justice.”

Rebecca is clearly soothed by Walker’s sincere and honest speech. She looks into his eyes and finds warmth and kindness there. She sees something else too, something that makes her believe that he will find her daughter’s murderer.

“I’m sorry Ranger Walker. I just can’t believe this has happened to my little girl...” fresh tears course down her cheeks and her husband tries to comfort her.

“Did you see anyone around? Anyone who didn’t belong here?”

“Do you really think I would have let my twelve year old daughter camp out in the woods if I had?” Scott Snow asks in frustration.

“I think that you felt that you were in a safe neighborhood and that your daughter was only a few hundred yards away on the outskirts of woods she has played in since she was able to walk.”

The Snow’s look at the quiet spoken Ranger. There is no judgment in his eyes. The guilt they feel is from within, not from the man who seems to know so much about them after only a few minutes. They don’t know that Walker has looked around the house as he entered and saw the signs of a well established home. The slightest details are noted by the man trained to notice them. The marks on the kitchen wall documenting the growth of two children from the time they were toddlers tells him that they have lived here for several years, probably a decade.

“I’m sorry Ranger,” Scott Snow apologizes. “We aren’t handling this well, are we? Melissa and Amber have played together since they met in the first grade. They are best friends and they do everything together. They were in Brownies together and now Girl Scouts. They sing together in the Youth Choir at our church. If Melissa wasn’t at Amber’s, Amber was here. I took them shopping today for a tent and sleeping bags for their Girl Scout camping trip. They were supposed to go to Lake Solano for a week before the summer ended. Janice, Amber’s mother, is a single mom and so I said I would take the girls. They were with me all afternoon and I didn’t see anyone who looked suspicious. When we got home, they begged to go out and sleep in the woods. You’re right, they played there all the time, all the kids do. They set up their campsite and I went to check and make sure they had done everything right. They came in and Rebecca made them dinner. Our son, Scotty, was upset that he couldn’t sleep out with them, but the girls are... were at that age where eight year old boys aren’t welcome.”

Walker stands and walks over to a large bookcase and lifts a photograph of a rounded dark haired girl and a lanky blond girl. “Is this Melissa and Amber?” he asks.

“Yes, they’ve been best friends for so long that we consider Amber almost a third child. She lives in an apartment with her mother not too far from here. Her mother works full time and Amber often comes straight here after school. Janice picks her up when she gets off work. Poor Amber, she must be so torn up by this,” Rebecca Snow states.

“I’m going to take another look outside and then I’ll go to the hospital and check on her and see if she can tell me anything further.”

“They wouldn’t let us see her, they wouldn’t let us see our little girl,” Rebecca states as sobs rack her body.

Walker hands the picture to her and says, “Mrs. Snow that isn’t your little girl lying out there. Her body is all that’s left. Hold your daughter in your heart and when you think of her, picture her like this.” He didn’t add that he didn’t want her to picture her as she now looked, he didn’t need to. Walker quietly left the heartbroken parents and headed back out to the edge of the woods.

St. Matthews Hospital 5:30 a.m.

Sydney is standing in the waiting room doing what the room is designed for, waiting. Walker enters and walks up to speak with her.

“Hi Syd, have you gotten to talk to Amber yet?”

“Just briefly. They took her up to surgery to close the knife wound to her neck. I can’t believe she managed to walk to a neighbor’s house and get help in the condition she was in. Not to mention the fact that she had the sense to play dead until her attacker left.”

“Yeah, she’s a pretty amazing twelve year old. Did you have a chance to question her?”

“All I got was a vague description of the man. She said that he was about 5’10” and 180 pounds. Her clearest memory was of his eyes. She said that his eyes were a light blue color, almost clear. She called them ‘cold dead eyes.’ Other than that, she said that he had long brown hair, a beard and was wearing dungarees and an old overcoat. That’s all I got before they gave her a sedative to get her ready for general anesthesia and surgery. The doctor said that she would be in surgery for an hour or two and then she would be in recovery for a couple hours after that. Her mother doesn’t know anything, Amber had gone to spend the night at her friend’s house.”

“Yeah, Melissa Snow, I talked with her parents. Amber and Melissa were trying out their new tent and sleeping bags in the woods behind Melissa’s house. It looks like a drifter found them and he slit Amber’s throat and then raped and killed Melissa. It was brutal.”

“Well, I’ll go into headquarters and get the description out to all local law enforcement agencies. Let’s hope Amber can give us more to go on when she comes out of surgery.”

“Yeah. Why don’t you go talk to her mother and let her know that we’ll be back later in the morning? I’ll go back to the crime scene now that it’s almost daylight. I want to scan the area and see if there’s anything that I missed in the dark. I appreciate you coming and taking care of this end for me. I had a feeling that Amber might relate better to a woman after her ordeal.”
“Sure, no problem. I’ll come back later with a sketch artist and see what else we can get.”

“Okay, I’ll see you at headquarters later.”

Ranger Headquarters 2:00 p.m.

Sydney walks in with a grim smile.

“How’d she do?” Trivette asks.

Sydney holds up the sketch of the suspect. “Pretty darn good, at least she seemed sure that this is what he looks like.”

“Okay, let’s run him through our database and see if we can match him to any mug shots. I also want this picture distributed to the local news stations. The sooner we get a lead, the better chance we have of catching this guy and making the charges stick,” Walker says.

Gage and Sydney get busy distributing the sketch while Trivette heads back to his computer and downloads the key features to bring up convicts with similar characteristics. Then he goes face by face to try and come up with close matches. The fewer pictures he has to show Amber, the better the chances of her picking out their suspect.

Walker heads down the hall to Alex’s office. She was in court all morning and then went to the HOPE Center to nurse Angela during her lunch break. He hasn’t seen his wife since early that morning and he wants to spend some time with her. He knocks gently on the door and peeks his head in.

Alex looks up from the file she is working on and smiles when she sees him. “Hi Cowboy, are you riding in to rescue me from this tedious work?”

Walker smiles as he comes over and sits in the chair in front of her desk. “I just needed another dose of your smile. It’s been a rough day and you’re the best medicine I know of.”

“Tell me about it,” she offers as she surveys his features, noticing the tired lines around his eyes and the tightness around his mouth.

“The little girl who was killed had been brutally raped. I can’t imagine the pain and terror she must have endured. After he finished, he stabbed her upper body viciously. It was like he got off on the violence. I don’t know, maybe he did. Meanwhile, her friend had had her throat slit and was forced to lie face down and play dead while all this was going on.”

“How is she?”

“She’s going to be okay. She lost a lot of blood and she has a deep wound to her throat, but physically she’ll heal.”

“Was she able to talk about it?”

“Yeah, Sydney talked to her and got a composite sketch of the suspect. We’ll see how accurate it is if, no when, we find him. The son of a bitch needs to die. I have my reservations about the death penalty, but then someone like this comes along and I don’t see why we should waste perfectly good oxygen letting him breathe.”

“You know, I could justify a trip to the hospital to talk with Amber. When you catch this guy, I’ll undoubtedly get the case. If I talk to her now while things are fresh in her mind, I might be able to get more details.”

“I know you and you have an ulterior motive, what is it?”

Alex smiles at her husband, he does know her, better than anyone else living. “I thought that I could find out if there’s any way we can help her and her mother. I don’t know their situation, but if there’s something the HOPE Center can do or if I can arrange counseling, whatever...”

“Just when I think I can’t possibly love you any more than I already do, you go and say or do something that makes me fall deeper in love with you,” Walker says with an earnest look.

“I love you too, Cowboy. Let’s go to the hospital and see what we can find out.”


St. Matthew’s Hospital 2:30 p.m.

Rebecca and Scott Snow are at St. Matthews visiting Amber and giving her their love. They tell her that she did the right thing by pretending to be dead.

“But maybe if I tried to help Melissa, maybe she would be okay,” Amber sobs into Rebecca Snow’s chest.

“Don’t you dare think that Amber Kelley. If you had tried to help Melissa, then you would be dead too and the police wouldn’t have a description of the horrible man who did this. Melissa knew that you loved her and there was just no way you could have saved her. You did the right thing.”

Alex has tears forming in her eyes as she listens to Melissa’s mother exonerate Amber from her guilt over her friend’s death.

Scott Snow is the first to notice the Walkers in the doorway. “Ranger Walker, have you got any news yet?”

“Not yet, but with Amber’s description, we hope to have a lead very soon. We’ve sent the picture out to all the law enforcement agencies in Texas and we have the sketch she gave us on the news starting at 4:00 this afternoon. I don’t know when we’ll catch this guy, but we will catch him.”

“Please catch him before he does this to any other family,” Janice Kelley says with conviction.

“This case is the number one priority of Texas Rangers Company B,” Walker reassures her. “I’d like all of you to meet my wife, Deputy District Attorney Alex Cahill-Walker. Alex, this is Scott and Rebecca Snow.” He turns to Janice and Amber, “and I haven’t had the pleasure, but I’m Ranger Walker, I’ll be heading the manhunt for the man who hurt you Amber.”

Amber lay in the hospital bed with a bandage encircling her neck and fluids dripping into IV’s attached to her arm. “Thank you Ranger,” she answers him shyly.

“Amber, I wondered if you would mind talking to Alex and giving her some details. When we catch this guy, she’s gonna need all the information she can get to prosecute him.”

Janice asks if she can stay and Alex offers to let Amber decide that. Amber agrees that her mother can stay, but she seems reluctant to talk in front of the Snows. Walker picks up on her sensitivity to them hearing what she has to say and he escorts them to the waiting room to give them the latest updates on the case and to answer their questions about the procedures that will be followed.

The Walker Ranch 5:30 p.m.

Walker looks at his wife who sits across the table from him. She is toying with her food and hasn’t managed more than a couple of bites. Walker is holding Angela and dodging her attempts to grasp his beard. She manages to grasp hold every once in a while and tugs at the red hair that covers his lower face. He responds by kissing the tiny fist, but his eyes keep returning to survey his wife.

“You haven’t said much and you’re not eating. Want to talk about it?” he asks.

Alex looks up and watches as Angela gets a good handful of hair and pulls with all the might in her tiny arms. She smiles at her daughter’s antics and at the tenderness with which Walker responds. “Later, after Angela goes down, we’ll talk. I know she probably can’t understand us, but there are some things I don’t want her little ears exposed to.”

Walker nods in agreement and returns to the game his daughter is determined to play.

Later, Walker emerges from his shower and walks into the nursery where Alex rocks her baby and sings her a soft sweet lullaby. He stands in the doorway of the nursery clad only in a bath towel and waits for Alex to put Angela in the crib. He then walks over and brushes a gentle kiss to her tiny brow and puts his arm around Alex. He guides her out of the nursery and into the master bedroom where he gathers her into a tight embrace.

Alex buries her face into his broad chest and inhales the combined scent of soap and man. Her arms reach up and wrap around his neck as he strokes her back through the satiny gown she wears.

“Tell me,” he says, echoing her words to him from earlier that day. She’d helped him and now he was determined to return the favor.

Alex sighs into his chest and then does as he asks and tells him of Amber’s torturous ordeal. She tells him how the man approached them asking if they had anything to eat. They had granola bars and willingly gave them to him, but when Amber bent over to retrieve her water bottle and offer him a drink, he grabbed her from behind and slit her throat. She had told Alex that she was initially stunned and lay there bleeding profusely while Melissa screamed. Then she continued to lie there as the man bound and gagged Melissa. All she could hear then was the whimpers of pain and the occasional grunts from the rapist. Amber had then told Alex of the sound of the knife plunging into her friend. Alex’s tears soaked her husbands chest as she completed the story of how Amber had finally gotten the courage to look around and had found the remains of her best friend and had struggled to get to the house to find help.

“Cry it out sweetheart, it’s okay, let it go,” Walker’s soothing words to his wife as she continues to cry are accompanied by his tight embrace and kisses placed on her hair and temple.

Alex finally cries all of her tears and steps back slightly, “I’m sorry,” she tells him and then tugs at the towel that is around his waist, pulling it off of him. She uses the towel to dry her face and then dries his chest. “I guess you got two showers tonight,” she says with the beginnings of a smile.

Walker smiles back at her and pulls her back into his embrace. “I’m sorry I brought you into this. It was hard enough seeing the sick degradation that exists in this world before we had Angela. Now, it’s like I identify with the Snows and with Janice Kelley. The entire time I spoke to them, I kept thinking, what would I do if it were Angela that this horrible thing had happened to? How would I be able to handle the horror that those parents have to live through knowing that despite their best efforts, they weren’t there when their little girls needed them most?”

“Oh Walker, we can’t do this to ourselves. It’s your job to catch criminals so that they can’t do these horrible things again. And it’s my job to make sure that they are locked up and kept away from innocents like Amber and Melissa. But as parents, it’s just our job to love our daughter and give her the best life possible. If we started to keep her from experiencing new things and cocooned her from life, then we wouldn’t be able to give her the best life possible.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Do me a favor?”

“If you’ll do me one,” she agrees.

“What’s yours?”
“You first.”

“If I ever get overly protective, let me know.”

Alex laughs softly, “honey, if our daughter is one quarter as stubborn as you and I, she’ll let you know herself.”

Walker smiles into her hair, “what favor can I do for you?”
“Make love to me. Remind me of how good and wonderful life can be,” she whispers.

“I can do that,” he agrees as he bends his head to her soft lips and begins a slow loving embrace that will last long into the night.

Ranger Headquarters Friday 10:00 a.m.

Gage and Sydney sit at their desks writing up a bust they had made. Walker and Trivette enter and Trivette goes to his computer immediately to check for e-mail messages while Walker flops tiredly into his chair.

“Tough morning, boss?” Gage asks.

“Frustrating morning. I really thought we’d get a break in this case by now.”

“Well, Amber wasn’t able to pick out a mug shot that matched the killer, so maybe he doesn’t have a record,” Sydney suggests.

“Maybe, but I doubt it. You don’t do something this elaborate and this despicable without building up to it. There have to be other minor crimes that the guy has committed prior to this major one. And chances are, he’s been caught somewhere along the way,” Walker disagrees with her suggestion.

The phone on Walker’s desk rings and he has to inform the Snows that they still are no closer to solving this case.

“Those parents are barely holding it together,” he observes when he gets off the phone. “I can’t even imagine myself in their shoes.”

“Don’t try,” Gage advises. “Some things shouldn’t be imagined. It’s not like a person can prepare for a tragedy like the one they’ve suffered.”

“Yeah, but I wish I could give them some hope that the case will soon be solved. Melissa’s funeral is tomorrow. I’d like to be able to tell her parents that we have some idea who killed her,” Walker says with a sigh.

“Maybe you can,” Trivette interrupts.

Walker sits upright instantly, “you got something?”

“I got a hit from a police station in Wichita, Kansas. Seems the Police Chief there recognized the sketch that was sent out. He says the man is named Randall Montgomery. He has arrested on suspicion of rape and murder of a young waitress, but they weren’t able to prove it was him. It was before the days of DNA testing and there wasn’t enough conclusive evidence to charge him with the crime. The Police Chief said that he knew in his gut that the man was guilty, but he couldn’t convince the DA to prosecute.”

“He must not have the ‘in’ with the DA’s office that Walker has,” Gage jokes.

Walker shoots him a look that silences the younger Ranger and he asks Trivette, “do they have a picture of this Randall Montgomery?”

“Yeah, he said that he faxed us the mug shots.”

Sydney gets up and heads to the fax machine and flips through the pile of faxes until she finds the one from Wichita. “Maybe we could get this together with some other ones and I’ll take them over to Amber and see if she can pick him out. He sure looks like the suspect she described,” she notes.

“Sounds like a plan Syd. Why don’t you go alone? I don’t think Amber feels comfortable around men right now. Let me know if she makes a positive ID and we’ll add his name and picture to the news reports going out on him. Trivette, can you find out if there is any DNA on him? I know they couldn’t use it before, but if they took a sample, we may be able to match it to what was found on Melissa. I want as much evidence as I can get on this guy as soon as possible. This is one case that does not need to be dragged through the courts for months and years. The sooner we can get a conviction in this, the better for Amber and the girls’ families.”

Sydney leaves to go to the hospital and Trivette gets to work on his computer. Walker heads to Alex’s office to update her and Gage returns to the paperwork he and Sydney were working on together.

The Snow’s Residence

Walker and Trivette are standing on the porch waiting for someone to respond to the doorbell. A young boy opens the door and looks at them with large green eyes.

“Are you Scotty?” Walker asks.

The boy nods his head, not speaking.

“Hi Scotty, my name is Ranger Walker and this is my partner, Ranger Trivette. Are your parents home?”

Scotty nods his head ‘yes’ again and the only change in his expression is the widening of his eyes.

“Scotty, who’s at the door? I told you not to open the door without your mom or I,” Scott Snow comes to the door quickly. “Ranger Walker, come in. I didn’t know it was you. Scotty, don’t open the door again unless your mom or I are there okay son?”

Scotty looks up at his dad and says, “why? I always open the door.”

Walker knows that the change is a direct result of Melissa’s murder. He can’t blame the man, he lost a daughter, he wasn’t going to take any chances with his young son. These were the kinds of issues that Alex’s victim’s support groups dealt with. Without help, the Snow’s could become extremely paranoid and smother Scotty with concern. Chances were that at some point he would rebel and then he might intentionally put himself in danger. It was a fine line that parents had to tread; keeping their children safe from harm and letting them explore their world. Tragedies like the one the Snow’s had just suffered could cause a huge imbalance.

“Mr. Snow, I had some news about the case that I wanted to share with you and your wife. This is my partner, James Trivette by the way,” Walker introduces Trivette.

After they exchange pleasantries, they are seated in the living room while Scott goes to get his wife. Walker looks around him and remembers the moment barely forty-eight hours ago when he had to try to get information from the Snows at the worst possible moment.

Rebecca Snow enters the room with her husband. She is pale and gaunt and looks to have aged ten years and lost twenty pounds. She is an attractive woman, but looking at her now, Walker decides that she could only be described as frail and tragic.

“Mrs. Snow, it’s good to see you again. This is my partner, James Trivette.”

Rebecca nods her head at Trivette, “Rangers, please call us by our first names. You have become such a part of our lives, it seems silly for you to be so formal.”

“Thank you, Rebecca. Everyone, including my wife, calls me Walker. My partner goes by Jimmy.” Walker pauses and then pulls out the photograph and hands it to Rebecca and Scott. Young Scotty has been sent to play in his room. “We got this photo from police in Wichita. We showed it along with several others to Amber and she positively identified it as being the man who attacked her and Melissa.”

Scott is holding the photo in a hand that shakes and his wife is staring at it with no facial expression. Whatever she is feeling is buried deep within her.

“His name is Randall Montgomery. He has a few minor convictions, nothing serious. He was arrested in Wichita during the investigation into the rape and murder of a young waitress there. They didn’t have enough evidence to press charges, but we are comparing DNA samples with those from Melissa. We hope to have a very strong case against him when he goes to trial. You met my wife, she is planning to ask for the death penalty.”

“Do you know where he is?” Scott asks.

“No, but we will. His picture will be on national newscasts tonight. We’ll find him. Men like him live on the fringe of society; they don’t stay in one place too long. He usually does day labor here and there. He never holds a steady job. He probably robs to supplement his income. His only convictions were for petty theft. Now we wait for someone to see him and to call us and give us a lead. It will happen.”

The couple nods and thanks the Rangers for coming and updating them in person; they didn’t have to. Rebecca tells Walker that the funeral for Melissa will be at three in the afternoon and he is welcome to come. She includes Jimmy and Alex in the invitation.

“Alex and I will be there,” Walker promises. “Trivette is going to man the phones tomorrow hoping to get a good tip.”

Oak Grove Funeral Home Saturday 3:00 p.m.

The Chapel at the mortuary is filled with family and friends of the Snow family. The pastor from their church gives a stirring eulogy for the young victim. There are friends of Melissa from her church choir, her Girl Scout Troop and her former classmates from the previous year, her last in elementary school as a sixth grader. Amber sits in the front sandwiched between her mother and Rebecca Snow. After a stirring speech, the guests follow the hearse on foot to the graveside. There is a large oak tree with widespread limbs that will shelter Melissa’s grave.

Walker stands next to Alex clasping her hand. A prayer is said and the youth choir sings Amazing Grace. Flowers are placed on the coffin and then the mourners offer their condolences to the Snows and slowly drift away. Alex’s cell phone rings and she answers it and hands it to Walker telling him that it’s Jimmy.

“Walker, I think we might have him. He was spotted at a mini-mart. The person at the counter called it in. I’ve seen the security video and it’s definitely Randall Montgomery. I’ve got Gage and Sydney leading a manhunt in the area. He’s down near the stockyards. We’re canvassing the area and there are squad cars, mounted police and foot patrol out in force.”

“Thanks, Jimmy. I’ll drop Alex off and I’ll be right there. Where should I meet you?”

Jimmy hesitates, “I’m just outside of C.D.’s.”

“Okay,” is all Walker is able to say. He hasn’t been to C.D.’s since turning off the light and walking out the day of his funeral. It has been sold, to an old friend of C.D.’s and is still operating under the same name. It’s just been too painful to go there.

“Alex, they’ve spotted him down near C.D.’s. I’ll drop you at HOPE Center and head on over there. Do you want to wait for me or get Josie to drive you and Angela home?”

Alex looks thoughtful and then decides, “I’ll stay at the Center until this evening. If you do get him, I’ll want to hear his initial testimony and file the charges against him.”

“Okay, let’s let the Snows know why we have to leave so abruptly and get going.”

“Walker?”

“Yeah?”

“Wouldn’t it be ironic if C.D. helped us catch this guy?”

“No Alex, it wouldn’t be ironic, it would be just like old times.”

Alex looks up at her husband and they share a wistful smile and then head toward the Snows.

C.D.’s Bar and Grill Saturday 7:00 p.m.

Walker and Trivette sit in a booth looking at a map of the stockyards and discussing the most likely places Montgomery could be holed up. There is the usual Saturday night crowd beginning to filter in for dinner. Later there will be live music and dancing, but there is a loyal dinner clientele that comes in early. Walker is sitting with his back to the door when he feels a prickle on his neck. He turns slowly and sees the subject of all the manpower on the streets nonchalantly stroll in. He sits at the bar and orders beer and chili.

 Walker sits observing the suspect as Jonesy gives Walker a look and plops a frothing mug of beer on the counter. Jonesy is a retired beat cop and is best described as a black version of C.D. He is rotund and graying with a library full of stories of his days on the police force. He retired as a Sergeant after a back injury sidelined him. He had continued as a Desk Sergeant for some time until C.D.’s death when he saw the opportunity to do something he loved, cook and swap war stories with other law enforcement officers. C.D.’s still attracted the same crowd of cops, lawyers and Rangers as when C.D. was alive. The only missing faces were those of C.D.’s closest friends who had found it too painful to come to a place that they associated with their friend and mentor.

Walker stands and casually saunters over to the bar.

“Jonesy, you got any pretzels?” he asks.

“There’s some back in the storeroom, you want me to get you some?”

“Nah, that’s okay, don’t trouble yourself. I don’t have time to eat ‘em anyway. I got a suspect under surveillance and I gotta stay alert.”

“How’s that? You got a suspect you can see from where you’re standing?”

“Sure do. He’s a real slimeball. He raped and killed a little girl and tried to kill another one by slitting her throat. Funny thing though, that little girl outsmarted him and was just pretending to be dead. She gave us a great description and we identified him as one Randall Montgomery.”

“You think there’s gonna be gunfire when you take the SOB down?”

“Well, I don’t know, Jonesy. I guess that all depends on him. My partner is just over there at the table with his weapon drawn and you know Trivette, he’s got that itchy trigger finger. Thing is, my wife is sure looking forward to prosecuting this creep and I’d hate to have to tell her that Trivette sent him to the morgue before she got the chance.”

“Yeah, I’ve met your wife; she sure has a temper. ‘Course you’re not much better. How many suspects have you sent to the emergency room to get patched up before they could be prosecuted? I remember watching you kick the living daylights out of a man once and he was only guilty of straight robbery.”

“Yeah, I remember that. The man made me mad though; he resisted arrest. You know how I feel about that.”

“That roundhouse kick of yours left him in no doubt as to how you felt about it. I saw you arrest the same man again a couple years later. He’d learned his lesson and just went all peaceful like. You think this Montgomery fella is gonna be smart about it?”

“I sure hope not. I haven’t had the chance to give someone a good butt kickin’ in a couple days at least. And you know what Jonesy?”

“What?”

“I saw that little girl or what was left of her. I can’t think of anything I’d like more than to beat the tar out of the man who did that. You know Jonesy; I think it would be worth having my wife mad at me and just let Trivette shoot him. You know it sure would save the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Randall Montgomery is all but wetting his pants as the Ranger stands behind his left shoulder and converses with the bartender. He raises his hands in the air and says, “I give, don’t shoot!”

“Shoot!” Walker says loudly.

“No! Don’t shoot! I give, I give!” Montgomery shouts.

“Oh, I meant darn. I’m trying to watch my language with a new baby in the house. I was really looking forward to letting you feel my boot right about here,” Walker says at he jabs his finger at the man's jaw.

Trivette comes over and slaps cuffs on the man, reads him his rights and leads him out to the Ram parked in front of the Bar and Grill.

“Thanks Jonesy,” Walker says to the man.

“Hey, I was glad to play along. Haven’t had that much fun in a month of Sundays.”

“Who was playing?” Walker says and heads out.

Justice Building Interrogation Room 9:00 p.m.

Alex looks at Walker, “ready?”

“I’m right behind you counselor.”

The two walk in to the barren room where Randall Montgomery sits with his hands cuffed and folded on the table.

“Randall Montgomery, I’m ADA Alex Cahill-Walker. I know that you’ve been read your rights, but I am going to read them to you again. I plan to ask for the death penalty for what you did to those little girls. I also have DNA evidence from a rape/murder of a young woman in Wichita. As soon as I get the results, I will be able to establish a pattern. Raping and murdering women and little girls. Is that how you get your kicks?”

Randall Montgomery lifts his head and looks Alex straight in the eyes. She has to stifle a gasp as she looks at the light blue eyes. They are almost clear. Looking at them, she’s reminded of the look of glacier ice. The color is frozen deep within the core under tons of ice. ‘Cold dead eyes’, she remembers Amber’s description of them. Alex can only agree.

“Yeah, raping and murdering. I’ve gotten good at it over the years, real good. I bet I could solve more unsolved murder cases than you have in your entire career,” he taunts Walker.

Walker reads the man his rights once more and Alex waits until he’s finished.

“So do you want to confess and save us all a lot of time and trouble?”

“You take the death penalty off the table and I’ll tell all.”

“Not going to happen. The people you’ve killed will remain dead, whether or not you confess. I’ve got enough to convict you and there’s not a jury in the world that wouldn’t give you the death penalty. Don’t forget; you’re in Texas. We’re just one step beyond vigilante law here. We don’t believe in pampering our convicted murderers.”

Alex looks at the man in the dirty clothes with long greasy hair and untrimmed facial hair. He sits there thinking about his options. He looks at the husband and wife team and comes to a conclusion.

“All right, I’ll tell you about some other murders I know about. I’ll even tell you who committed them if and when you get me convicted and I get the death penalty. I’m not sure how many I know about. Some where’s up around fifty is my guess. Course I don’t know if some qualify for murder or just mercy killings. Like that newborn baby I heard was killed. I mean, his mother died as he came out and he did take a few breaths before... my friend  hit him with the crowbar.”

Alex blanches visibly, but her years of training keep what she’s feeling from her voice.

“I’ve got a great witness. Amber is determined to see you pay for what you did to her best friend. She heard it all and she’s a brave young girl. I won’t have any trouble getting a conviction.”

With that, she and Walker exit the room. They head to Ranger Headquarters where Walker has Trivette do a search for a case involving the horrific details Montgomery had described. It was another two hours, but Trivette had a match.

“It was twenty one years ago. He killed a family of five. The woman was seven months pregnant and he had raped and beaten her with a crowbar. He also raped her seven-year-old daughter. The husband was killed along with a ten-year-old boy. The woman gave birth; labor was begun by the assault on her. The baby was born alive, but was beaten to death with the same crowbar that killed the rest of the family. It’s been an unsolved case for all these years.”

Walker looks at the other Rangers assembled around Trivette’s desk and then he looks at his wife.

“This case isn’t over, it’s just beginning.”

*To be continued...

*All the usual disclaimers apply


Cold Dead Eyes

Part II

By: Lelani

Justice Building Alex’s Office Tuesday 3:00 p.m.

“I don’t understand,” Janice Kelley says to ADA Alex-Cahill Walker in a frustrated tone. “He raped and murdered Melissa and he tried to murder my daughter, why haven’t you prosecuted him?”

“Mrs. Kelley, I understand your frustration, I do. This is just one of those times when my hands are tied by the law. If we get Randall Montgomery convicted of murder and sentenced to death, then the Texas Rangers won’t be able to take him out of prison to help solve other crimes.”

“I don’t care about other crimes! I want this man sentenced to death and kept under lock and key. If the Ranger’s are flying him all over the country, then there’s all sorts of opportunities for him to get free. He could come back after Amber, she’s the only eyewitness you have.”

“I know that you’re frightened, you have every right to be, but I assure you, Montgomery is not going to get the opportunity to harm Amber or anyone else ever again.”

“Right, you’re just gonna let him go on a sightseeing trip paid for by the government.”

“Mrs. Kelley, it’s Texas State law that a man on death row cannot be taken out of jail. If we complete this trial without giving the Rangers a chance to solve some of the other cases Montgomery is confessing to, then there will be many mothers who go to bed another night wondering what happened to their daughter. If we can give some of them closure, I think it’s worth the delay of the trial.”

“What about Amber’s closure? She has slept with me in my bed since that night. She wakes up screaming night after night. No offense Mrs. Walker, but I think you have a conflict of interest here.”

“I’m not sure I follow you,” Alex responds trying to remain both patient and understanding.

“Your husband is sure going to be some hero if he gets Montgomery to close cases that are twenty years old. You’re sacrificing Amber for your husband’s glory.”

Alex takes in a deep breath and counts to ten. “My husband leaves with Montgomery and three other Rangers tomorrow morning to visit former crime scenes. Montgomery has given details in every single case indicating that he is the killer. I’m giving the Rangers two weeks to get as much information as possible and then the trial will begin. According to our law, Randall Montgomery is entitled to a speedy trial and he’ll get it. In the meantime, I want to spend time preparing Amber for the trial and going over her testimony with her. You’re right, she is my only eyewitness and she’s very young. I need her to be strong and to answer some really tough questions. I think that she would benefit from spending time with a friend of mine who counsels victims of violent crimes. I think you should both spend time with her. She’s a clinical psychologist and she facilitates several victim support groups at the HOPE Center. For now, I would recommend that Amber see her privately. Of course you will be welcome to accompany her to the sessions, at least until Sharon asks to see Amber alone. It’s up to you Mrs. Kelley, but there is help out there for both you and Amber. As much as you want Randall Montgomery sentenced to death, it’s not going to end this for you or your daughter. It’s going to take a long time to heal from what this man did.”

“How would you know? Have you ever gone to bed dreaming of the man who attacked you and fearing that he would come back?” Janice Kelley asks in frustration.

Alex answers very quietly and the brevity of her response silences Janice Kelley as nothing else could, “yes.”

Janice Kelley sits back in her chair. She doesn’t know the story, but she can see that Alex has been through an awful ordeal and she knows first-hand what Amber is going through. “Okay, I guess I don’t have a choice. It’s just that neither Amber nor I feel safe in our apartment. I guess I could move, but I just don’t have the energy right now.”

Alex looks at her contemplatively, “I may have a temporary solution. I run HOPE House, a nonprofit community center. There’s housing there for victims of domestic abuse and we’ve also sheltered other people who just needed a place to stay for awhile. There’s a lot of really good and caring people there and the change of scenery may do both you and Amber good. It’s a very safe place. There’s a daycare there and my daughter stays there during the day. I could arrange for you and Amber to stay in one of the rooms until the trial is over. Maybe after that, you and Amber can decide if you want to move or not. What do you say?”

Janice Kelley thinks for a moment and then says, “I appreciate the offer. Can I go see the place before I give you my answer?”

“I’ll take you there now if you like,” Alex volunteers.

“Thank you, Mrs. Walker. I heard that you went the extra distance for people, I guess it’s really true.”

“Thank you and please call me Alex.”

“All right Alex, let’s go see this HOPE House.” 

HOPE House 4:00 p.m.

Josie is walking down the stairs with Janice Kelley. She had shown her the spacious room with two beds that she had available for her and Amber to stay in. Janice was impressed with the furnishings. She expected a nonprofit organization to have secondhand furniture and to look shabby. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, she decided that the furniture was newer and better quality than she had in her own home. As she and Josie descend back to the first floor, Alex emerges from her office where she had been nursing Angela.

“This is your daughter?” Janice asks as she offers her finger to the tiny fist that waves in the air.

“Yes, this is Angela. She’s just over three months now and she runs her daddy’s and my lives,” Alex says with a smile and eyes filled with love as she gazes at her infant.

“She looks a lot like you,” Janice comments.

“That’s what her daddy says,” Alex agrees. “What did you think of the room?”

“It’s beautiful and you’re right, I would feel safer here until after the trial. It might help us avoid the media too. They’ve been pretty relentless trying to get interviews.”

“Well, why don’t I get Julio to drive you over to pack some things and then he can pick Amber up from the Snow’s and bring you both here. I can arrange to get someone to pick up your car and drive it here as well so that no one will be able to follow you.”

“Isn’t that a lot of trouble?”

“We’re set up for things like this. Often the people who stay here don’t want someone to know where they are until the law is able to step in and put a husband or boyfriend in jail.”

Janice nods her acceptance of the plan.

“Josie, I’m gonna go ahead and take Angela with me. I wanted to get home early today anyway. With Walker leaving tomorrow, I thought I’d fix him something special this evening.”

“Okay Alex, have fun,” Josie says knowing that Alex isn’t talking food.

 The Walker Ranch 5:30 p.m.

Walker pulls into the driveway and parks his Dodge Ram. He heads into the house and finds a note on the door. It says, ‘Shower and pull on some comfy jeans and meet us in the meadow.’ He smiles as he crumples up the note and heads upstairs.

Alex is lying on a blanket in a field of wildflowers enjoying the late summer warmth. Angela is beside her mouthing a chew toy and gurgling her happiness. Alex’s horse Angel lifts her head from the sweet grass and whinny’s notifying Alex of Walker’s arrival on Ranger. She stays where she is as he approaches and loosens his horse’s girth strap and ground ties him near Angel. He strides over to the blanket and sprawls out on his back on the other side of Angela.

“Now this is how to end a day,” he says as he rolls onto his side to face his wife and daughter.

“No, but that will have to wait until the little one goes to sleep,” his wife contradicts him.

“Really Mrs. Walker and just what do you have in mind?”

“Wait and see Cowboy,” she tells him with a seductive smile. “Why don’t you take off your boots and stay awhile,” she offers.

Walker does as she suggests and takes his boots off and sets them on the grass. He then spends the next hour talking to his infant daughter and telling her stories that his Uncle Ray had told him when he was a boy. Angela seems fascinated as her eyes track the bearded face of her father. Alex lies with her head propped on her hand and watches the exchange.

“Hungry Cowboy?” she asks him.

“Yeah, but I thought we had to wait until Angela fell asleep,” he says with a grin.

“Not for the dinner I brought,” she says in a scolding voice that he doesn’t buy for a minute.

Alex opens the picnic basket she’s brought and lays out the roast beef sandwiches, macaroni salad and watermelon pieces she packed. They sit up on the blanket and eat the meal as Angela watches the changing colors of the heavens with fascination. Alex hands Walker a couple of homemade chocolate chip cookies and takes one for herself.

“These will always remind me of Lucas,” Walker says.

“Me too, but they’re happy memories.”

Walker nods realizing that what she says is true. Enough time has passed that when he thinks of Lucas, it’s his smile and inquisitive nature that he remembers rather than the sadness that surrounded his death.

Alex finishes her cookie and swallows the milk the doctor has told her to drink to replenish the calcium she loses from nursing Angela. No sooner has she quenched her thirst than her daughter begins to demand her supper. Alex shares a smile with Walker as she undoes the buttons on her blouse while he picks Angela up and hands her to her. Walker shifts so that he is leaning against the tree stump that Alex spread the blanket next to and pulls her back against him. This is his favorite position and he wraps his arms around her and supports Angela’s weight as she suckles from her mother.

After Angela finishes her evening meal, Alex’s burps her and rocks her to sleep. She gently lays her into the infant seat that she has brought with her and covers her with the soft blanket she packed. She begins to do up the buttons of her shirt, but Walker’s hands still hers. She leans back against him and they gaze at the stars in the heavens.

“This time tomorrow night, I’ll be in Los Angeles missing you terribly,” he tells her.

“Tell me your itinerary again,” she asks him seeking reassurance from the mundane sound of the schedule knowing that each stop represents one or more victims.

“We land in LA at 11:00 a.m. their time since we’re gaining time. We have a rental car arranged and we’ll go to Van Nuys where Montgomery says his friend killed his first victim. Then we go to the Burbank Airport and hop a flight to San Francisco and drive down to the wharf where he says his friend raped and murdered his second victim. We’ll head up to the Sacramento area and check out a dual homicide scene where he says his friend bludgeoned an elderly couple to death for some money. Then we check into a motel for the night and I’ll call you from there unless it’s too late.”

“Call me, no matter what. I want to hear your voice.”

“Honey, Angela’s still not always good about sleeping through the night. If I call and wake you too, you’re not going to get much sleep. Besides, after three days on the West Coast, we head back toward Central Time and then in a week we’ll be in the same time zone.”

“Walker, promise me you’ll call me everyday before you go to bed. I don’t care what the time is. I won’t sleep well without you beside me anyway and just hearing your voice will help.”

“Okay Alex, I promise. The rest of my itinerary is on the refrigerator door. You’ll be able to track my movements everyday. We’ve mapped out all of the crime scenes that we feel we can get to in two weeks. It’s not much time.”

“That depends on your perspective, it seems like forever to me.”

Walker smiles and kisses her hair. His hands have finished opening her blouse and despite the normalcy of their conversation, he has been busy exploring her soft skin.

She turns to him and reaches up to press a kiss to his lips. Her hands are busy with the buttons of his shirt as she continues to kiss him and he threads his fingers through her hair. The kiss deepens as they give in to the need to be as close as two people can be. They know that it will be two long lonely weeks before they are reunited and the intensity of their caresses are heightened by the knowledge.

“Walker, please... make love to me,” Alex moans against his mouth.

“Anytime, anywhere my love,” he answers.

The stars and the three-quarter moon light the meadow. The sweet smell of crushed grass and wildflowers permeates the air. The sounds of crickets serenade the two lovers as they close out all of these sights, sounds and scents and lose themselves in each other.

 LAX Airport Wednesday 11:30 a.m.

Ranger Chen has gone to retrieve the rental car as Ranger Cooper collects the minimal luggage they are traveling with. Rangers Trivette and Walker stand on either side of their prisoner with airport police adding support. Cooper and Chen load the van with the bags and Walker drives with Trivette riding shotgun and Chen and Cooper sitting in the back of the van with Randall Montgomery who is shackled. They are escorted by L.A.P.D. out of the airport and onto the 405 freeway. They head toward the San Fernando Valley and within the hour are at the crime scene.

Randall Montgomery leads them to a motel where he says his friend got into a knife fight with a young man he stabbed. The case has remained open for twenty-one years. The man bled to death on the street corner and his identity was a mystery until he was reported missing a week later. After listening to Montgomery describe the fight and the scene, the local police are satisfied that he indeed is the man they have been seeking all these years. The group loads back up into the van and are escorted to the Burbank Airport.

The next stop is a repeat of the first. The Rangers stand guard as Randall Montgomery explains how his friend lured the young waitress to the back of the seafood restaurant where she worked. She resisted him at some point and his passion turned to anger. Again, he used a knife to kill his victim, only this time she was unarmed and he raped her before killing her. They loaded back into the van and drove to Sacramento where Montgomery had killed an elderly couple on vacation in a RV ten years prior. He had come back to California on a job with a work crew laying light rail. He’d tired of the manual labor and he saw what he decided was an easy target. This was much later in his career and his torture of the elderly couple was gruesome. He stole the jewelry and cash they had on them and had taken off to the north. He’d been arrested in Nevada for petty theft six months later and had spent some time in jail there.

At each crime scene, Randall Montgomery talked about how his friend had committed the crimes and later described them to him. There was no doubt that he spoke in the third person only because he had yet to be convicted of a capital crime. No one doubted that his story would change once he was sentenced to death in the rape and murder of Melissa Snow.

It was seven o’clock that night when the Ranger’s checked into their motel. Chen and Cooper went back to the local jail where they had imprisoned Montgomery for the night to check that he was secure. Walker called Alex while Trivette showered.

“Alex?”

“Walker, it’s so good to hear your voice. It seems so much longer than just this morning that you left.”

“I know, especially on this end.”

“How’s it going?”

“Well, Montgomery described four murders at three crime scenes and the local police were satisfied in each case that he indeed was the murderer. If Texas doesn’t put him to death, there are plenty others waiting in line.”

“They won’t get the chance. I intend to see him held fully responsible for what he did to Amber and Melissa.”

“How is Amber?”

“She and her mother are settling into HOPE House. Her mother is still working, but Amber is taking a little time off. She’s latched on to Josie and she has fallen in love with Angela. Josie said that she’s a great help in the nursery and I think it’s good for her. Sharon Clark is going to see her and Janice together tomorrow. I don’t want to push for detailed testimony until I get Sharon’s okay. Amber says that she’s ready to testify, but I don’t think she’s aware of how hard it will be.”

“I trust you to help her through it. How’s my little angel?”

“Anything but. She misses her daddy and she let me know about it. She just went down before you called.”

“I’ll try to call earlier tomorrow. Maybe you can put me on the speaker phone and I can tell her a bedtime story.”

“For a man who resisted every single technological upgrade I made to the ranch, you sure are taking full advantage of them. The next thing I know, you’ll be borrowing my computer.”

“Not likely. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine, just lonely. This sure is a big bed when you’re not here. Do you think you can tell me a bedtime story?”

Walker chuckles in her ear giving her a thrill that courses through her body. “Trivette just walked in. I better go take my shower so we can get something to eat. Kiss Angela for me.”

“I will. Walker?”

“Yeah.”

“I love you.”

“I know.”

“Walker...”

“I love you Alex,” he whispers into the phone.

Alex laughs softly. She knows that it’s hard for him to express his feelings for her in front of others, but his whisper is so sexy, it makes up for it. “G’night.”

“Sleep well honey,” he finishes and hangs up.

Turning to Trivette, he says, “I’m gonna take a quick shower and then I’ll be ready to head out to get something to eat. The phone’s all yours.”

“I don’t have anyone to call.”

“What? Isn’t Ericka expecting a call?”
“I doubt it based on the discussion we had last night.”
Walker looks at his partner now understanding the ‘hang dog’ expression he’s worn all day. “Trouble in paradise?”

“Ericka’s not happy that Chen came on this trip.”
“Chen? Why would she care if Chen came?”
“She’s got it into her head that there’s something going on between Lisse and me.”

“How did she get that idea?”

“Well...”

“Trivette, what did you do?”
“I was mad and I sort of hinted that there were women who didn’t mind the fact that I was a Ranger and had to put in all the hours that I do.”

“And?”
“And when she pressed for a name, Lisse Chen just sort of popped out of my mouth.”
“Trivette, after all the years of giving me unwanted advice, you did something as dumb as suggesting that there was something between yourself and a female coworker?”
“Hey, I know it was dumb, but I told her that it wasn’t true and I thought it was all done with until this trip came up. She thought Gage and Syd would be going with us and when you said that you were bringing Chen and Cooper instead, it sort of rubbed her the wrong way.”
“Chen and Cooper are too green to leave in Dallas without supervision. Gage and Syd are seasoned Rangers and I have confidence that they can handle anything that comes up. I’d rather have the rookies where I can keep an eye on them.”
“I know, you’re reasons make sense to me. Try explaining that to Ericka.”

“What do you know about women? It took you seven years to get the love of your life to marry you.”

“Trivette, I can call Alex back and let her tell you the same thing.”

“No, I’ll call Ericka. I’m telling you though, she’s not going to be happy to hear from me.”

“Then say what she wants to hear and make her happy. Make it quick too, I’m hungry and I’m tired. This time change isn’t agreeing with me.”

HOPE House Thursday 6:30 p.m.

Alex is introducing Amber and her mother to Dr. Sharon Clark while Josie stands by buckling Angela into her infant seat.

“Janice, Amber, this is Dr. Sharon Clark. She’s a clinical psychologist, which is a fancy way of saying that she’s someone you can talk to and try and sort out some of the things that have happened to you and the way they make you feel. I’ve asked Sharon to help you with this because what you’re going to have to go through on the stand will be difficult and I want to make sure that you’re ready. I’ll let you all get acquainted and then in a few days, I’ll join you and have Sharon sit in while I take you through your testimony.”

“Why?” Amber asked Alex, curious about the process.

“Well, Sharon is trained to know when things are too much for you. She’ll be able to tell me what you can and can’t handle. Amber, you’ve been through so much, I don’t want to make it worse. There may be some questions that you shouldn’t be asked. There’ll be some that I have to ask and Sharon may be able to help you answer them. Your mom tells me that you have trouble sleeping at night.”

“Yeah,” Amber admitted.

“Well, maybe Sharon can help you bring some of those fears into the light where you can talk about them and face them. Then when you get frightened, you can use some of the techniques she’ll show you to help you work through those fears. I know that this is hard to understand, but it works. I know.”

“How do you know? Did something bad happen to you?” Amber asks, curious. She had come to like and respect the beautiful lady lawyer. She was nice and friendly and she seemed so confident. If something bad had happened to her and she was still able to have a handsome husband and a beautiful baby and smile so much, well, maybe she could too.

“There was a man who did some very bad things to me and to other people. He killed a lot of people and it was very awful. I had trouble sleeping at night too. Sharon helped me a lot. Other people helped me too, my friends, people I cared about and who cared about me. It’s just that at first, I wasn’t able to face those people. It took time and Sharon was the first person I felt comfortable talking to for awhile.”

“Did Ranger Walker catch the bad man?”

“Yes he did, with his partner Ranger Trivette’s help.”

“Is he in jail now?”
“No, he was, but he managed to take a lot of people including myself hostage in a courtroom. Walker shot him and he died.”

“Can that happen to me?”

“No, I’m going to have Rangers in the courtroom the whole time along with the other officers so that he can’t hurt anyone.”

“Okay.”

Dr. Sharon Clark stepped forward. “Amber, why don’t we go into the office so we can talk. I know that Alex needs to get Angela home.”

“Can my mom come?”
“Sure.”

The three leave the entryway and head into a conference room.

Alex looks at Josie. “That was a hard one. I wanted to tell her enough so that she knew I understood how she felt, but I couldn’t tell her that the man who tormented me came after me on three different occasions, once when he was released from jail on a technicality and once during a sanity hearing.”

“You did a good job. You didn’t lie to her, but there’s no reason to give her details that will only increase her fears.”
“Yeah, thanks, I appreciate the support. Well, I better get Walker’s little angel home.”

“Walker’s angel? I thought she was yours too.”

“Not when her daddy’s gone. She cried for two hours last night. I thought we were getting past the evening fussy stage, but she didn’t respond to anything I did. Walker said he’d try to call earlier tonight and tell her a bedtime story.”

Josie smiles at Alex as she bends to lift the infant seat up. “Was her mommy crying right along with her?”
“You think that was the problem?” Alex smiles.

“I think you’re both missing the man.”
“If you told me, even a couple years ago, that I would have this much trouble being separated from Walker for two weeks, I would have never believed you.”

“Well, you’re a new mommy and you’re technically a newlywed. To tell you the truth though, I think you and Walker are one of those couples who just isn’t complete unless they’re together.”
“I think you’re right. I’ll see you in the morning. Thanks again for all your help.”

“Hey, that’s what friends are for. Goodnight.”

Alex heads out to the car for the drive back to her empty house.

Walker Ranch 9:30 p.m.

The phone rings and Alex who is walking with a screaming baby pressed against her shoulder answers it, praying it’s Walker.

“Whoa, I guess I called at just the right time,” the familiar voice greets his beleaguered wife.

“Hold on, I’m putting you on speaker,” she says as she shifts Angela and pushes the button. “Can you hear all right?”

“Well, I hear Angela loud and clear. What’s the matter Angel? Are you giving your mommy a hard time while daddy’s gone? I miss you too sweetheart. Now, settle down and I’ll tell you a story.”

Alex continues to shift her feet back and forth, rocking Angela in a comforting manner as Walker’s soothing voice recites an Indian legend that he has known since childhood.

“I don’t know if I should be grateful or jealous,” she says as he winds the story down.

“Is she asleep?”

“Yes, finally. I don’t know how you do it, but thank god for modern technology and telephones. How are things going?”

“Rough. We went to a scene where a young woman disappeared nineteen years ago. Montgomery took us to where he buried her. Trivette and I just got back from telling her mother. They’ll have to verify the identity of the remains using dental records or DNA, but there’s little doubt that it’s a match.”

“You’re in Oregon?”

“Yeah, but we start heading east in the morning. For every crime we resolve; I have a feeling there are two more Montgomery has either forgotten or hasn’t bothered to confess to. We’ll get as far as Denver by tomorrow night.”

“Sounds rough, I’ll try not to complain about how difficult my life is.”

“Complain away, I like hearing your voice and I want you to share your day with me.”

“Nothing spectacular happened. I had to take a couple depositions, but mostly I’m researching precedents for Montgomery’s trial. I want to be ready for the defense attorney to try and put holes in Amber’s testimony. I had Sharon start working with Amber this evening. I can go easy on her on the stand, but I don’t know about the cross examination by the defense attorney, it could get ugly.”

“I can’t imagine the judge will allow that, not after what she’s already endured.”

“Yeah, I know, but I have to be prepared just in case and I want her as ready as possible too.”

“You’ll do great. I know you will. You’re the most prepared ADA in the whole of Tarrant County, possibly the state of Texas.”

“Flatterer. What is it that you want?”

Shivers went through Alex at Walker’s chuckle. “You. I guess I’ll have to wait awhile though. In the meantime, I need a favor.”

“How’d I know that?”

“It’s really a favor for Trivette.”

“Jimmy? What does Jimmy need?”

“Apparently he opened his big mouth during a disagreement with Ericka and alluded to the fact that there may be something between him and Ranger Chen.”

“Jimmy’s an idiot.”

“Yeah, I told him that. Anyway, he tried talking to Ericka last night, but based on his mood all day today, it didn’t go well.”

“So you want me to intervene?”

“Well... I thought maybe you and Syd could invite her to lunch or something and talk to her about the type of life she’s signing on for. I thought Sydney could tell her what it’s like being a Ranger and you could tell her what it’s like being married to one.”

“Hey, I’m game. I’ll ask Sydney if she’s in the mood to meddle.”

“Knowing the two of you, I’d say that’s not in question.”

“Okay darling, watch yourself. You don’t want to be in the dog house when you get home.”
“Have I told you lately how much I love you?”
“I take it there’s no one within hearing distance of the phone?”

“Alex, you know I have trouble expressing myself. I’m getting better though aren’t I?”
“You are and I love you for trying.”

“I better get going, I told the others I’d meet them downstairs for dinner. This time change has got me so turned around. I feel like I should be going to bed, not eating dinner.”

“You go eat and I’ll go to bed. Angela’s getting heavy anyway.”

“Kiss her for me, I’ll pay you back when I get home.”

“You got it Cowboy. I love you.”

“I love you too, goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Alex pushes the button to hang the phone up and heads upstairs with Angela who truly does look angelic, when she’s asleep.

Marina Cafe Friday 1:00 p.m.

Alex and Sydney are seated at a table waiting for Ericka to arrive.

“I’m glad you were able to join us Syd. This is going to be awkward and I really appreciate your support.”

“Trivette’s an idiot. Lisse Chen is gorgeous, any woman would be jealous of her even without her fiancé hinting that there’s something going on between them.”

“Yeah, I think Jimmy has pretty much conceded the fact that he really blew it this time. He’s never been in a long term relationship before though and he hasn’t learned all the rules.”

“Well, he better study fast if he plans to marry her. Have they said anything about setting a date yet?”

“No, I think they sort of surprised themselves by getting engaged. With Ericka just moving back to Dallas and starting a new career, I think they need a little time.”

“Just as long as they don’t wait as long as you and Walker did.”
“Don’t blame me; blame him. I tried for years to get him down the aisle. I didn’t think it would ever happen. Oh, here’s Ericka.”

Ericka smiles a little nervously as she approaches the table and takes a seat.

“Hi Ericka, we haven’t ordered yet, so if you want to look at the menu, we can order and then stick our noses into your love life.”

Ericka’s eyebrows shoot up at Alex’s bluntness. She isn’t used to how outspoken she is and is still a little uneasy around her. Sydney makes her even more uneasy. She likes her, but can’t understand her career choice. At first she’d been a little intimidated, but she didn’t let on. She is a strong woman herself, but she’s young and a little green still. She had seen the looks that passed between Sydney and Gage and she knew that she was no threat to her relationship with Jimmy. Then just when she started gaining some confidence, along came Lisse Chen. The woman was amazingly beautiful in a sleek way. Ericka had been told that she herself was cute and perky, but she didn’t hope to compete with the Asian beauty that was Lisse Chen. She’d made the mistake of letting Jimmy know she was a little concerned about all the hours he was spending with her while she was in training. Then they had their first big fight since getting engaged and he’d thrown her name into the ring. Ericka is still smarting from that and she is certain that Alex and Sydney know.

The three women give their order to the waitress and then Alex starts off the conversation.

“So, Walker tells me that Jimmy said something really stupid to you and now you’re hurt and angry and Jimmy’s moping around driving Walker nuts. So how can we fix it?”

Ericka looks at Alex and begins to laugh. “You sure don’t mince words do you?”

“I can’t afford to. I had to take an extra long lunch break in order to feed Angela and be able to meet with you. If I took an hour to get to the point, I wouldn’t get to eat.”

“Ericka, you don’t have to tell us anything, but we are your friends and we’d like to help,” Sydney chimed in.

“Thank you, but I feel that you’re Jimmy’s friends first.”

“Well, Jimmy is the brother I never wanted, but that doesn’t mean I don’t support you. After all, he is a man and that’s already a strike against him,” Sydney tells Ericka as she dips the fresh baked bread into the olive oil and begins to munch on it.

“Ericka, what Sydney is trying to say is that yes, we are Jimmy’s friends. Actually, we’re more than that, we’re family. I can’t tell you all the times I went to Jimmy for advice or just for someone to talk to when Walker and I were going through rocky times. You’re Jimmy’s fiancée and he plans to marry you, which makes you one of the family. We’re just glad he fell in love with you. Trust me, before you, his taste in women left a lot to be desired.”

“So I’ve heard. He certainly seemed to think it was necessary to do a lot of sampling before figuring out what his taste is.”

Alex smiles, “perhaps, but that’s how you can tell that he does know. I’ve seen him infatuated by women before, but I’ve never seen him in love; at least until you. When you went away, you broke his heart. He’s barely dated since you left. It’s like he came back to life when you came back into his life. I wish I could tell you how much he loves you, but I guess that only time and experience will tell you that.”

Ericka looks at Alex and then Sydney and then she gazes down to the table and heaves a great big sigh. “I know he loves me. I guess I’m really just feeling a little inadequate right now,” she confesses.

“Why is that?” Sydney asks.

Ericka glances back up at the two women and sees their earnest faces. She makes a decision to trust her instincts and to open up to them. “You know I’ve been working for ‘The People’s Advocate.’ When I signed on I thought I would really be helping people, but it’s just not working that way.”

“I thought you were working as a law clerk there. I know that they take on cases no one else will. They’re a nonprofit agency with a good reputation for representing people the system has given up on.”

“Yeah, but they’ve had problems with funding and they can’t do what their mission statement says they’ll do. I just think that I’m spinning my wheels there. I want to help people, but I need to be able to eat too and at the rate they’re going, they aren’t going to be able to pay me.”

“I didn’t know it was so bad. I heard that they were having some difficulty, but nothing that serious,” Alex says.

“Well, I don’t think they want to go public with it because they think the rest of their funding resources will dry up. Anyway, it’s really a case of poor management and they’ve cleaned house and hired a new director. He’s the one who hired me, but he has an uphill battle and it looks like they aren’t going to be able to keep me, at least not full time.”

“And that’s why you’re mad at Jimmy?” Alex asks.

“No, I’m mad at him because he’s an idiot,” Ericka states emphatically.

Sydney and Alex share a smile. “Come on, tell us why you’re really mad at him.”

“Oh, we were arguing and I was mad because he had canceled on me again. I guess I got spoiled when he was laid up and now that he’s back to work fulltime, I feel really left out. He’s been so excited about being able to get back out in the field and just when things are going really wrong for me in my job, things are going right for him in his. Gosh, I sound so awful. I was being jealous and petty and I said something about him not giving me the time of day because his precious career meant more to him than I did. He said some things back and then he said that other women didn’t mind the hours a Ranger puts in. I thought he was going to name you Alex, but instead he said Lisse Chen. As if the woman isn’t beautiful and brilliant and lethal enough, I don’t need him throwing her name in my face about that too.”

“But, Lisse and Jimmy aren’t... I mean they work together, but...” Sydney isn’t sure how to reassure Ericka, so she stumbles through a denial that there is anything going on between them.

“I know. I mean, deep down I know and if I was feeling a little better about myself and my own career, I wouldn’t be so sensitive, but...”

“I just had a brilliant idea,” Alex says.

The other two look at her expectantly.

“You know that I’ve been feeling pulled in way too many directions lately,” she begins.

“Yeah...” Sydney agrees wondering what this has to do with Ericka’s plight.

“Part of the problem is that I’m committed to too many things and I don’t know how to back off. I just can’t ease up on work. Especially coming back from maternity leave, but I just haven’t felt good about the amount of time I spend with Angela since I’ve been back. Then of course there’s Walker. Our relationship has suffered the most. Don’t get me wrong, when we’re together everything is good... great! But, we just don’t have that much time together.”

“So how do you plan to fix that?” Sydney asks still not following Alex’s train of thought.

“Ericka, you have the skills needed to do several of the things I currently do at HOPE House. I was thinking just the other day that I needed to hire someone. Josie is wonderful, but she’s just overwhelmed with work. We’ve expanded our programs and I’ve had to cut back on what I do. So... Ericka, maybe you could work at HOPE House. We can work out the details, but basically, I need someone to give legal advice to people, usually that means directing them to the proper people and sometimes that means ‘The People’s Advocate’ and sometimes it will mean me. There are people with other problems too who just need to be directed to the community resource that can best help them. Then of course, there’s the grant writing. HOPE House is financially secure, but if we want to expand, we have to get grants from federal, state and private sources to put the programs in place. I can probably give you ideas of who to look to for funding for ‘The People’s Advocate.’ So... what do you say? Does that sound like something that would interest you? At least for awhile until you decide if it’s the direction you want to go in or find something you like better.”

Ericka sat looking at Alex. She felt as if a tornado had just come through the restaurant and twisted her life inside out. “I need to find out more information and I need to talk to Jimmy about it, but... it sounds like a wonderful opportunity. I would still want to work at ‘The People’s Advocate’ part time. I really enjoy the research that goes into the cases they handle, but if I could do both on a part time basis, it just might work.”

“Good, that’s settled, so can we talk about the men in our lives and why they drive us crazy?” Sydney turns the conversation back to the original topic.

Alex smiles, “speak for yourself, my man is perfect.”

“Really, and how would you know that? Seen him lately?”

Alex chuckles at Sydney’s cheekiness. “You know I haven’t, but before he left on this case, things were... well let’s just say I have no complaints.”

“How do you do it, Alex?” Ericka asks.

“Do what?”
“Put up with his schedule, his late nights, early mornings, trips out of town.”

“Well... to tell you the truth, it is difficult. It’s one of the reasons we held off our wedding. Walker wanted to make sure I could handle his job. He talked a great deal about the hours he puts in and that’s difficult, but the hardest part for me is the situations he is put into by his job. Like now, he’s helping a man relive his killing spree. I know that Walker is going to have a lot to deal with when he gets back. Which means that he’ll need more time to himself, which means I won’t see him much... You’re right Sydney, I need a good gripe session too.”

Sydney smiles at Alex, knowing that her relationship with Walker is very secure and that they’ll work out any bumps in the road. Her relationship with Gage is another matter.

“Well at least with Walker, you can make him open up to you eventually. Gage is another story. Every time I think we’re getting closer, he turns and runs the other way.”

“Be fair Sydney, you do the same thing to him,” Alex reminds her.

“Hey, we’re bashing men here, not analyzing our own faults,” Sydney defends herself with a smile.

“Wow, I guess Jimmy’s not so bad. I thought he was the only one who stayed away long hours and then refused to share what he was going through,” Ericka informs her new friends.

“Sometimes, we don’t share what we see at work because we want to protect the people we love,” Sydney gives the perspective of a Ranger.

“What protection? I know that this case is getting to Jimmy, but he won’t talk to me about it.”

“Would you want him to come home and describe the crimes this guy committed over the dinner table?” Sydney asks her.

“No, but I want him to share things with me. I know that he deals with some really ugly stuff, I just want to help him work through it.”

“You know, I never realized how ugly some of the stuff Walker and I talk about is until we had Angela to consider. We agreed not to talk about things in front of her and it’s hard. I ask him about his day and he starts to tell me and then he says he’ll tell me after Angela goes down. So then he asks about my day and I have to say the same thing,” Alex states.

“I think it’s good that you don’t talk about it in front of Angela and maybe it’s good that you realize how much your professional lives creep into your personal lives. I guess that’s one of the problems of working in the same field. Maybe I do have an advantage after all. I’ve been jealous of your inside track, both of you, but now that I look at it differently, I don’t know that I’m not the fortunate one.”

Alex looks at Sydney, “god I’m depressed.”

“Yeah, me too,” Sydney agrees.

“I feel better. Thanks, you guys really helped me see things in a new light,” Ericka says to her glum friends.

“Anytime,” Alex says morosely.

“Yeah, glad we could help,” Sydney adds despondent.

Ericka looks at her plate with her food nearly untouched. She picks up her fork and begins eating with gusto. Alex and Sydney lay their forks down; suddenly they’re not so hungry.

Walker Ranch 9:30 p.m.

The phone on the nightstand rings and Alex reaches over from where she’s reading in bed and answers it. “Hello?”

“Hello yourself. Hey, it’s quiet, where’s Angela?”

“She went down early tonight. She ate a late supper and then she fell asleep about ten minutes ago and is in her crib.”
“That’s great! Maybe she’s outgrowing this stage of crying at night.”

“Maybe.”

“You don’t sound too happy about it.”
“No, I’m glad she went down early, I wanted to talk to you.”

“Alex, I’m sorry, but I just called to say goodnight to Angela and to tell you that I can’t talk tonight. We just finished excavating a grave where Montgomery buried a young runaway. The clothing matches the description her parents gave seventeen years ago and I need to go tell them that we found her.”
“It’s waited seventeen years, can’t it wait a little while longer?”

“If you were that parent, would you want to sleep one more night wondering where your daughter was?”

“No, of course not, I’m sorry. But why do you have to be the one to tell them?”
“I don’t know Alex, I just feel that I need to do that.”

“So you only had time to call and tell Angela goodnight.”

“Uh huh... Alex, did you talk to Ericka today?”
“Yeah, why?”
“Because Jimmy has been walking around grinning ever since he got off the phone with her. He’s taking a shower now, I hope he doesn’t drown he’s smiling so big.”

“Oh, well glad I could help.”

“Alex?”
“Yeah?”
“Honey, I know something’s wrong, I just don’t have the time to talk about it right now and it’ll be too late by the time I get back. Are you going to be okay until I can call tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I won’t be here tomorrow though. I’m going on that weekend retreat with my women’s group.”

“What about Angela? Are you going to be able to take care of her and run the group?”
“I’m superwoman, remember?”
“I know that I think you’re super, but I don’t want you doing too much. When will you be back?”
“Early Sunday afternoon.”
“I’ll call as soon as I get a chance.”

“Okay.”

“Alex, I love you.”
“Yeah, I love you too.”

Alex hangs up the phone and slumps down in the bed dejected.

Walker Ranch Sunday 1:30 p.m.

Alex pulls into the driveway and lets herself out of the Dodge Durango Walker had bought for her after her first SUV had been demolished on the train tracks. It ‘s a light gold color called ‘Champagne’ and parked next to Walker’s silver Dodge Ram, it looks right at home. She opens the back to lift Angela out of her car seat when strong hands grab her from behind. Alex lets out a piercing shriek that frightens Angela who begins to wail.

“So much for my surprise,” Walker says chagrined.

“Walker! I could... You scared me half to death!” Alex admonishes him before reaching in to comfort Angela.

“I’m sorry honey, I just wanted to surprise you, not scare you. Come here angel, daddy’s sorry,” he tells his whimpering infant daughter. He lifts her out of Alex’s arms and holds her tiny body against his broad chest tucking her face into his neck. A pang of jealousy shoots through Alex as the thought comes unbidden; ‘he used to cuddle me like that after I was scared.’ Alex silently chastises herself for the stray thought and questions Walker on his sudden appearance.

“What are you doing here? You aren’t due back until next Saturday.”

“I know, but you sounded upset when I talked to you Friday night and I decided that Chen and Cooper could guard our prisoner until Trivette and I join them in the morning.”

“Is that safe?”
“I think so. He’s in jail until tomorrow when they drive to Oklahoma where Jimmy and I will meet them. I figured since they weren’t flying with him, it was safe to leave them in charge. Local police will be escorting them anyway.”

“Why don’t you let me take Angela on in and put her down for her nap. I need to shower and then take a nap myself. This was a long weekend.”

“You do look tired, what happened?”
“Nothing really happened. There was the usual bonding with the women and hikes through the woods; it’s always pretty intense. It’s just that Angela didn’t like sleeping in the porta-crib and you know I never sleep well in a strange bed.”

‘You do when I’m there,” he corrects her.

“Hmmm... would you mind carrying the stuff in?”
Walker looks at the back of the Durango and wonders if Alex packed for an overnight at the cabin or a month in the wilderness.

“What is all of this stuff?”

“Walker, after you go on a trip with an infant, then you can judge. Until then...”

Alex turns to walk to the ranch house.

“Alex?” Walker stops her.

“What?”

“Don’t I even get a hello kiss?”
Alex looks at his face that is wearing such a hurt expression, she almost laughs. “I’m sorry sweetheart. I’m just so tired, I’ll be better company after a nap,” she promises as she walks back to him and kisses him on the lips and then turns to head back to the house.

Two hours later, Alex wakes to the feeling that she is being watched. Walker is stretched out next to her on the bed with his head cradled in his hand staring at her. Her eyes flutter open and she looks up to see him staring at her.

“Hi,” she says with a slight yawn.

“Hi,” he responds.

“Did you take a nap too?”

“Yeah, I woke up a few minutes ago. You looked so peaceful, did you sleep well?”

Alex looks down to see that he has his leg thrown across hers and she has slept cradled against his side. “I always sleep well when you’re here.”

Walker smiles at her and leans forward to kiss her. Alex’s response is the one he’d expected when he first arrived. She is hungry for his kiss and her arms reach out to encircle his neck and bring him down with her. He accepts the invitation as his hands begin removing the nightshirt she’d slipped on after her shower. Their joining is frantic and Alex realizes that there is more to Walker’s return than just wanting to see her and Angela. There would be time to talk, now isn’t it.

Alex slips from Walker’s embrace after he has fallen asleep and pads out of the room to get Angela before she can wake her daddy up. She’d taken a long nap and Alex was grateful, but she won’t sleep at night if she doesn’t get her up soon. Alex switches off the baby monitor and gently wakes the sleeping infant. She feeds and changes her and then wanders downstairs to begin dinner. She places Angela in the swing and sets it in the dining room at an angle so that she can watch her mommy fix dinner.

“I wondered where you two had disappeared to,” Walker says as he enters soundlessly with his bare feet. He walks up to Alex and slips his arms around her waist as she continues stirring the food on the stove and gives her a kiss on the cheek. Alex leans her head back against his bare shoulder for just a moment and savors the feeling of being in his arms.

“I missed you,” he says into her silky hair.

“Oh darling, I missed you so much,” she answers as she turns her head far enough for him to capture her lips in a breathtaking kiss.

Angela makes a demanding sound behind them and Walker lifts his head slightly and chuckles. “It seems my other lady is jealous. I better go spend some time with her.”
“You do that and I’ll finish up dinner,” Alex says as her hand trails across his bare chest. It’s just too irresistible!

They spend a quiet family evening together and when Angela finally goes down, Alex confronts Walker about his reasons for returning home.

“I know you missed us Walker, but there’s more, tell me,” she instructs him.

“Why is it I can’t get anything past you?” he asks as he curls her against his side on the couch.

“Maybe because I know you so well. Something happened since I last spoke with you on the phone, what was it?”

Walker takes in a deep breath and Alex feels her hair stirred as he releases it in a sigh. “The last scene we took Montgomery to. I don’t know Alex, I thought I’d seen it all. I thought I could take anything, but this just got to me. As much as I love being a father, it sure makes me more vulnerable.”

“You were never impervious to the pain of others, you only hid it well. You don’t have to hide your feelings anymore, I’m here to share them with you.”

“Darling, I don’t know that you should have to share this.”
“Cordell Walker, we share everything, good, bad and ugly and don’t you forget it.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“So tell me, what touched you so deeply that you had to fly home and leave two rookie Rangers in charge of one of the most vile men in the history of the world?”

“The last crime scene we visited was the one where the newborn infant was bludgeoned to death. My god Alex, the forensics photos... I can’t even begin to describe the horror. The mother was a tall slender blonde. The baby... it was so tiny...” Walker’s voice peters out and tears slip from his eyes.

Alex too is crying as she puts the rest of the story together herself. “And in your mind, you saw Angela and I superimposed on those photographs didn’t you?” Her hands hold his face as her thumbs wipe the moisture from his cheeks.

He nods his head in response to her supposition and then he wraps her into a crushing embrace. “Alex, I need you, please...” His hands push her away, far enough so that his mouth can find her lips. She tastes the salt of his tears and he kisses her again and again. She knows that her lips will be swollen in the morning, but her only thought is on comforting and reassuring her wounded warrior. His hands tear at her clothing and soon they become one, sharing the pain and sorrow and healing each other.

The same time at Jimmy’s Apartment

Jimmy is propped up against the headboard of his bed and Ericka has her head on his shoulder stroking his smooth chest. Jimmy’s hand is mimicking her motions, but his fingers stroke her bare shoulder.

“I missed you, I’m so glad you’ve forgiven me. I can’t believe I was such an idiot. I’m so sorry for saying what I did about Chen. Honestly, she’s a colleague and nothing more. For one thing, I can’t stand all the bad puns she’s always making.”
“Why, because they’re better than yours?”

“Watch it woman,” he growls at her and she giggles in response.

“Having lunch with Sydney and Alex really helped to put things in perspective. They’re really nice people, I can see why you care about them so much.”
“Yeah, Walker and Alex are the closest family I have.”

“What about your brother?”
“Simon and I get along great and we respect each other. He knows I’m there for him if he needs me and I know it goes both ways. But Alex and Walker are there day in and day out. I’ve gone through so much with them. C.D. was kinda like our father and Walker has always been a big brother. I never had a sister, but Alex is as close as one.”

“What about Gage and Sydney?”
“They’re like the younger siblings. I like playing big brother to them. I don’t know though, they’re heading into dangerous territory.”
“What do you mean?”

“Well, just that they work together and everyone knows they’re in love. When they finally get around to acting on their feelings, well... I don’t know what’s going to happen, but things will undoubtedly change.”
“Are you saying you don’t want them to get together?”
“No, I think they’re perfect for each other. I just can’t imagine mixing a love affair with work. Not when you’re partners in a dangerous job. I don’t even know if the department would let them stay together if they ever became an item. I guess only time will tell. In the meantime, Walker is going to have them help with training Chen and Cooper, so they won’t be spending quite as much time together.”

“How are Chen and Cooper doing with this case you’re working on?”

“Actually, I’m impressed and I know Walker is too or he would have never left them alone with such a dangerous criminal.”

“I can’t believe he let you come back with him.”

“Well, I think he needed to see Alex and he couldn’t justify taking time off without giving me some too. We worked the last crime scene together and let Cooper and Chen skip the gruesome details."

“What was the scene?”
“Honey, you don’t want to know.”
“Yes Jimmy, I do. I want you to feel like you can share things with me. I know you haven’t said much about it, but don’t you know that I’m aware that you’ve been deeply affected by something?”
Jimmy sighs and kisses Ericka’s temple. “It was an entire family murdered, mother, father, son, daughter and newborn infant. Walker and I had to see the pictures and we had to talk to the relatives. For years now they’ve suspected each other, their neighbors and friends. They didn’t know who could have committed such a heinous crime and they were basically destroyed by it. Walker was hit really hard and I have to say, I won’t forget it for years to come.”

“I’m sorry, is there anything I can do?”
“You’re doing it. Just keep loving me.”

“That’s not a problem, I do love you. Want me to prove it?”
“Again?”

“What’s the matter? Not up to the challenge?”
“Ericka, I could spend the rest of the night making love to you.”
“Really? Okay.” Ericka smiles and switches off the lamp on the nightstand as she rolls over onto Jimmy and begins kissing him. He responds instantly and both have trouble staying awake on the drive to the airport in the morning.

Court Room Thursday 3:00 p.m.

Amber is seated in the witness box and Alex is walking the floor in front of her.  Sydney is seated in the judge’s seat and Gage is acting as defense lawyer. Amber’s mother and Dr. Sharon Clark sit in the bench seats observing.

“So Amber, it is your testimony that Randall Montgomery became angry when Melissa handed him the granola bars?”

“Yes, he threw them on the ground.”

“Then what happened?”
“I was getting my bottle of water for him and he grabbed me from behind and that’s when he cut my throat.”

“Had you done anything to provoke him?”

“Umm... what does provoke mean again?”

“Did you do something that made him mad?”
“Oh, no. He asked for food and we gave him what we had. We didn’t have anything else, but I guess he wanted something else. We had already eaten dinner at the Snow’s house and we just had the granola bars for the morning when we woke up and we each had a bottle of water. We were supposed to start junior high and we were trying to watch our weight.”

Alex had trouble not smiling at this. The twelve-year-old was as thin as a rail. Melissa had been more rounded, but could not have been called overweight. The smile left Alex’s face as she remembered that Melissa would not have the opportunity to begin junior high and to worry about teenage girl things like her weight and boys.

“Okay, so he grabbed you from behind and he cut your throat with a knife.”
“Yeah and then he pushed me on the ground. I was so shocked I just laid there.”

“Did you see anything else?”
“No, I just heard the rest of it. When I realized what had happened, I just decided to pretend that I was dead. I was so scared.”
“So you never actually saw him cut you?”
“No, I didn’t see his face, but I saw his arm and I saw the knife.”
“And you didn’t see him hurt Melissa?”
“No, but she was screaming and she was trying to get to me and see if I was okay, but he grabbed her and then he started hurting her.”
“What did he do?”
“I heard him rip her clothes and then she kept saying ‘no, please don’t’, but he didn’t stop. He put something over her mouth, because all I could hear was him saying ‘serves you right you little whore’ and she was crying, but she couldn’t say anything.”

“Then what did you hear?”
“There was a sound... it was so awful... he was stabbing her with the knife... again... and again... it kept going on...” Amber dissolves into tears and Janice tries to rush up to the witness stand to comfort her, but Sharon holds her back.

“Your honor, I’d like to request a recess so that my witness can compose herself.”
“Court will grant a fifteen minute recess,” Sydney says and bangs the gavel.

Sharon then releases Janice and allows her to go to comfort her daughter.

Alex is talking to Amber, telling her that she’s doing a great job and that she can take a break.

Sydney steps down from her perch and walks over to Gage and talks quietly with him.

“I tell you Syd, I don’t want to play the part of the defense attorney. How am I supposed to ask this poor girl any questions? Why can’t you play the defense attorney, I’ll play the judge.”
“Because Gage, the judge is a woman and the defense attorney is a man. Alex told us that she wants this mock trial to be as real as possible. Besides, do you really think I want to be the bad guy here and ask her questions?”

“This is the part of our judicial system that I hate. Amber is a victim and she’s been through more than anyone should have to endure and now we are making her tell all the sordid details again and again. Then the defense attorney gets to stand up and try to undermine her testimony.”

Sydney looks at her partner in sympathy and reaches her hand out to cover his. She gives it a squeeze and he looks at her and smiles a small smile of thanks. Alex calls Sydney over as Amber says that she’s ready to proceed and they continue walking her through the process she will be going through for real on Monday.

Hendersonville, Tennessee Saturday 3:30 p.m.

Trivette and Walker stand on either side of Randall Montgomery as he points to a gully at the bottom of a wooded area. His shackles have been removed for the difficult hike through the uneven terrain. He wears the bright orange suit of a prisoner and his hair hangs down to his shoulders stringy and greasy. Walker has trouble looking at the man. He is filled with such rage after seeing the devastation this one man has left behind. They now suspect that he is responsible for more than fifty murders. Each state they pass through, he makes mention of other murders he was involved in. Montgomery has been careful with his words. He talks about himself in the third person and says that a friend’ committed all the crimes. He was merely a witness or he was told later what happened. Clearly he is protecting himself on the unlikely chance that he isn’t convicted in the rape/murder case in Texas. Walker knows that this is all a set up. Montgomery is giving them enough information to close certain cases, thereby giving credence to his claims that he has more information. He undoubtedly plans to use that as a bargaining chip to extend his life on death row after he is sentenced. If he can get them to postpone his execution in exchange for information to solve unsolved homicides and missing persons reports, he may be able to extend his life for years. Watching this subhuman for the last two weeks has tied Walker’s insides into a knot. He sent Chen and Cooper back to Dallas the day before. They had seen more than enough. After this last crime scene, he and Trivette would escort the man back to Dallas and turn him over to the prison guards there.

A swarm of local police break out shovels and begin digging in the area indicated by the serial killer as the place where he buried Shannon Whitby. She was a fifteen-year-old returning from school one day. The bus dropped her off at the end of the long country driveway that led to her house and she was never seen again. That had been twelve years ago and her parents had never fully resumed their lives after the devastating loss. Police had suggested that she had run away and friends confirmed that Shannon had been going through a rebellious stage. Her parents were strict disciplinarians and she had been put on restriction, which was why she had come straight home that day instead of staying for volleyball practice. She was a star on the team and missing practice meant that she would be ineligible to play in that weeks game. The restriction affected her whole team and Shannon had been very angry and upset by the situation. No one had even thought that Randall Montgomery could have been hitchhiking his way to Nashville and had spotted the lone teen getting off the bus. None of the kids or the bus driver even mentioned seeing the man with the dirty beard and the backpack a half mile further up the rode.

“We’ve got something,” an officer yells out as a dog is pulled away from an area.  There isn’t much left, the gully fills year after year when it rains and most of the evidence has been washed away. What they’ve found is a portion of her right forearm. Weeks later, a forensic lab will confirm that the bone belonged to a girl around fifteen who did something repetitive that caused a callus to form on her forearm. Hitting a volleyball repeatedly could cause such a callus.

All eyes are on the gully and Walker is the only one who notices Randall Montgomery as he tries to sneak away into the undergrowth. Walker watches the man as he edges away and then makes a break for it, running toward the dense foliage. Trivette jogs back up to Walker and sees that Montgomery is no longer there. He starts to shout an alert, but Walker holds his finger up to his lips silencing his partner. He then jerks his head down to the gully, indicating that Trivette should return there. Jimmy sees the look in Walker’s eyes and he knows that his partner has been waiting for just this moment. Two weeks of escorting Montgomery around has eaten at his partner and he has been waiting for the prisoner to make his move. Trivette nods and heads back down to keep the attention focused on the findings in the gully and to keep others from noticing that Montgomery has escaped. Trivette knows that his partner is perfectly capable of keeping the man from getting far.

Walker plays a little cat and mouse game with Montgomery. He circles him and directs him by making noises in the bushes, causing Montgomery to turn another way in his mad dash for freedom. Finally, Walker has directed his escape attempt into a clearing and he stands up from behind a thick bush causing Montgomery to nearly run into him. Montgomery’s adrenaline is pumping and he is completely consumed with rage. He is no longer using thought to guide his actions. He attacks Walker, his arms flailing and lands a fist right in Walker’s left eye. Walker absorbs the blow and rolls to the right simultaneously swinging his leg out and sweeping Montgomery’s legs from under him. Montgomery goes down with a hard thud flat on his back. He is a madman though with superhuman strength and he is consumed by rage and his only goal is to kill Walker. He grabs a rock and lifts it aiming straight for Walker’s head. Walker avoids the blow and jumps to his feet to face his opponent. These two foes are stripped of all signs of civilization. This is good versus evil and neither is aware of anything but the other.

Trivette isn’t able to keep the others occupied for long and they have now found the clearing and encircle the two men. Jimmy stands amazed as each of the officers stands perfectly still and allows this battle to be fought by the two opponents. They watch as if they are at a sporting event, but there is only one possible winner and the stakes are very high.

Montgomery has rage and strength on his side, but Walker has skill and training on his. Each time Montgomery comes for Walker, it is a full on frontal assault. Walker blocks him with a hand to his face, a foot to his abdomen or a side step followed by a blow to the back of his knee. Again and again, Montgomery charges and Walker continues his evasive maneuvers and his jabs, punches and kicks. Both men are breathing hard and the contest is not over as with each blow, Montgomery becomes more determined to kill his foe. He manages to connect an occasional fist or elbow to Walker’s face and torso, but it is clear to all watching who the victor will ultimately be. Montgomery charges one more time and Walker leaps into the air spinning so fast that most can’t follow the motion as his foot comes around and connects with Montgomery’s jaw. The prisoner slumps to the ground unconscious and the men watching wonder if his neck snapped with the impact of Walker’s boot against his jaw. Walker is gasping for breath as he goes to where Montgomery is laying and lifts him off the ground by the front of his orange jumpsuit. “That’s for all the parents who lie in bed night after night blaming themselves for what you did to their children.” He throws the semiconscious man back on the ground and walks away.

Trivette organizes a group of officers to carry Montgomery back to the vehicles parked on the road. He is driven to the jail where a doctor examines him and decides that he can be transported back to Dallas. He has sustained a mild concussion and multiple bruises, but there is no serious damage.

Trivette tries to get Walker to see a doctor, but Walker resists his friend’s attempts. He is planning to go home and nurse his own wounds. The threesome travels back to Dallas in silence. Randall Montgomery is subdued and no longer puts up any resistance as he is led shackled through the airport and boarded onto the plane. His ploy to extend his life just might work, but he hopes that it isn’t Ranger Walker who is involved in taking any of his testimony about his other crimes.

DFW Airport 8:30 p.m.

Alex and Ericka are both at the gate to meet their men. Alex has Angela in her arms and she is fascinated by the sights and sounds as she looks around with big eyes. The Ranger escort is the last off the plane as all other passengers disembark first. Finally, Trivette comes out followed by Montgomery and Walker who brings up the rear. The two women stand back as the group is met by Dallas Police and Montgomery is signed over to their custody. Ericka is nearly bouncing with anticipation as Jimmy finishes his job duties and meanders over to greet his ecstatic fiancée.

“Welcome home,” Ericka says as she jumps straight into his arms. She has begun working at HOPE Center and rattles on a mile a minute filling him in on all the people she’s met and the new things she’s learned. Jimmy looks over the top of her head and winks at Alex and then he escorts Ericka on out to collect his bag at baggage claim.

Walker’s greeting is a bit more subdued. “Hello darling, it’s good to have you home,” Alex tells him as she leans in for a gentle kiss.

Walker smiles as he accepts Angela into his arms and kisses both of his ladies.

“It looks like you’ve got some explaining to do. Bringing my primary suspect in looking like he did. Am I gonna have to write you up Ranger?”

“Hey, I don’t look so hot either,” he defends himself to the Deputy DA.

“We’ll discuss how ‘hot’ you look when we get home,” she tells him.

Walker grins knowing that he’ll have her sympathies even if she isn’t thrilled that he and Montgomery look as if they’ve been in the knock down drag out fight that they were in.

The Walker family arrives home to find the porch light on and Walker carries Angela in one arm with his bag in the other. Alex rushes ahead and opens up the door allowing him to enter.

“Something’s different,” he states immediately.

Alex smiles at his perceptiveness and ushers him on in before responding. “Yeah, I made a couple of changes while you were gone.”

“My lounge chair?” he exclaims in an almost panicked voice.

“It’s right where you left it in the hole you call your den or office or whatever you try to pass it off as.” The small room downstairs where Walker occasionally escapes to is a constant point of contention, but Alex hasn’t touched it.

“So what did you change?”
“Nothing really, it’s just cleaner.”
“What?”
“I made some decisions while you were gone. One, I hired Ericka to take on some of my duties at HOPE House and two, I hired a cleaning service to come in and do the heavy cleaning once a week. I’m home little enough time as it is, I certainly don’t want to spend the time cleaning the house.”
“Oh,” Walker pauses in thought. “I guess that’s a good idea. Did you do a security check on the agency?”

“Yes, Walker. They send two people, a man and a woman once a week while we’re both at work. There are four people who rotate and they have all been given thorough security checks. They aren’t related to anyone you’ve busted or I’ve prosecuted.”
“How can you be so sure?”

“Walker...”
Walker lifts his one empty hand in surrender. “Okay, it’s fine with me. I don’t want you slaving away on the house either. I have other chores for you to do.”
“Oh really? And just what do you have in mind?”
“Wait till Angela’s bedtime and I’ll show you,” he promises her with a leer.

“Now, I want you to promise that you’ll look at ways of lightening your schedule too. I know that sometimes these out of town trips come up and that they can’t be avoided, but on a regular day, I want you home earlier.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

“No argument?” she asks surprised.

Walker looks at the baby he holds in his arms and smiles at her antics. She is trying to remove his nose from his face, determined that it is one of her chew toys. “None whatsoever,” he says.

Alex smiles at her daughter and says, “I’ll heat up her supper, she’s started on squash and she actually likes it. She makes a huge mess though.”

“This I’ve got to see.”
“I’ve found that she’s sleeping through the night so much better now that she’s on solids. Let me tell you though, the diapers are not fun.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Walker chuckles.

Walker feeds Angela and then Alex nurses her until she falls asleep. She lays her beautiful daughter in the crib and heads into her bedroom to find Walker undressing. There are bruises along his ribcage that match those on his face.

“So, are you going to tell me what happened?” she asks.

“Montgomery tried to escape and he didn’t want to be captured.”
“Huh and Jimmy didn’t have a mark on him.”
“I was closer.”
“Uh huh. Tell me another one cowboy.”

“I’d rather take a shower and let you kiss all the sore spots better. You’re really good at that.”

Alex begins to undress. “I guess I could join you in the shower and save time and water.”

“I love the way you think lady.”

Courtroom Monday 9:00 a.m.

Randall Montgomery is led in and he is nearly unrecognizable. His hair has been cut short and he is clean-shaven. He is dressed in a business suit and except for the bruises on his face, there was little about him that Alex recognized. Until she looked into his eyes. They were the same light blue with no feeling displayed in them. Cold dead eyes. Amber grabs Alex’s hand and whimpers softly. Alex leans over to her and whispers.

“You’re safe, Amber. You see Walker sitting right behind Montgomery? And right beside him is his partner, James Trivette, you remember him don’t you? Look up at the front of the room. You see those two men with guns in their holsters? I’m right next to you and your mom and Dr. Clark are right behind you. The Snow’s are here and so is the pastor from your church. Everyone in this courtroom thinks that you are the bravest girl they’ve ever seen and we’re all here for you. I’m going to help walk you through this and I want you to use our secret signal if it gets too hard or you need a break. Okay?”

Amber nods and then looks at Alex and says, “but he doesn’t look the same.”
“Look at his eyes Amber. Is that the same man who did all those horrible things?”
Amber looks and then ducks her head into Alex’s chest. “Yes, that’s him. I’m so scared.”

Alex smoothes her hair back and then gives her a kiss on her head. “You can do this Amber. You’re strong and I know you can do this. Remember when Ranger Gage asked you those questions and I told you to pretend he was in his underwear?”

Amber lifts her head and she is blushing and smiling at the same time. “The ones with the Hershey’s Kisses on them?”

Alex smiles back at her young witness. “Yeah, the ones with the Hershey’s Kisses. Look Amber,” she tells her as she opens her briefcase. Lying folded neatly on top are the boxer shorts with Hershey’s Kisses that she had borrowed from Gage. “When that defense attorney asks you questions, you just think of him standing there wearing these, okay?”
Amber glances over at the portly defense attorney, “he’s no Ranger Gage,” she decides and then smiles up at Alex.

Alex smiles back. ‘She’s going to do just fine,’ she decides to herself.

Courtroom Tuesday 1:30 p.m.

The jury has deliberated since they finished lunch. In all, they have been out for less than two hours.

“Has the jury reached a decision?” Judge Manning asks.

“We have your honor,” the foreman responds.

Everyone sits with suspended breath, as Randall Montgomery is found guilty on all charges. The Snow’s are given the opportunity to tell him what he has done to their family by his vile acts. They have lost their daughter and nothing will bring her back, but now maybe they can begin to rebuild their lives. Janice Kelley is given the opportunity to tell him how he has impacted her and Amber’s lives. She tells him how Amber spends the evening checking locks on doors and windows and planning escape routes in case someone manages to break in. They plan to return home now that the trial is over and the first thing they will do is install a security system so that Amber will feel safe in her own home. Montgomery is sentenced to death and he is led away to await his fate on death row.

HOPE House Saturday 2:00 p.m.

There is a party in Amber’s honor. Her friends from school, church and Girl Scouts are there along with the Rangers and staff of HOPE House who have been involved in helping one little girl face a monster and make him pay for his crimes. Alex is there with Walker and Angela and she is enjoying watching Amber smile and laugh, something that’s been missing from her life for weeks now.

Scott Snow gets everyone’s attention to make a speech. “Randall Montgomery has been destroying the lives of people he comes in contact with for more than twenty years now. The Rangers tell me that he is the prime suspect in over fifty deaths. That's one hundred moms and dads who have to live with the loss of their son or daughter just like my wife and I have to live with the loss of Melissa. Montgomery was asked how he was finally caught in a TV interview and he said that he was caught because he made a mistake and left a witness alive. I think he was caught because one very brave young lady was willing to stand up to his evilness and was brave enough to put him in jail. Amber, thank you for making sure the man who killed my little girl will never again be free.”

Amber stood next to Scott Snow and said her piece. “There is only one good thing that came out of this. Randall Montgomery will NEVER hurt anyone else again.”

Those gathered erupt into applause and Amber is hugged by more people than she was aware she knew. Finally, after things calm down, she makes her way over to Alex and Walker. “I just wanted to thank you both for keeping your promises. Ranger Walker, you caught the man who hurt me. And Alex, you helped me not to be scared. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” they both tell her and then each takes a turn hugging her.

“Alex, do you think I can still come over to HOPE House and help Josie in the daycare?”

“You’re always welcome at HOPE House and I want you to keep seeing Sharon so that she can help you with not feeling scared all the time.”
“I will, I promise.” Amber scampers off to play with her friends and it’s hard to tell that she has been through such an ordeal. She looks like a typical preteen girl.

Walker puts his arm around Alex and pulls her in close to his side. “You are amazing,” he tells his wife.

“You’re not so bad yourself. After this are you going to have the rest of the weekend free for Angela and me?”
“I’m all yours,” he reassures her.

“Mmm that’s just the way I like it,” she says with a smile that ends in a kiss.

“I talked to Lisse Chen. She said that she’s willing to take on some of my Kick Drugs classes. I’ll still teach a couple, but I’ll be more available for you and Angela.”
“A man who does what he’s told, I love it.”

Walker smiles and admits to himself that only his wife can get away with a statement like that. He pulls her back tight against him and kisses her. “I’ll make you pay for that later.”
“Promises, promises.”

The End

*All the usual disclaimers apply*