Everyone is alone. That is what I have learned, in time.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a man. And when I wake up in the night, and he is there next to me, and I can touch him and maybe wake him and smell him and fuck him, feel him in me as he sweats and his hands wander over me like a badland, I appreciate it. I share the private knowledge that few share (not none, but few) of what his flesh feels like against my flesh. The velvet steel of it. I know our unique sounds, our sharing and wanting and crying out, me and only me, and I feel a certain selfish pride about it all. I am, in those moments, a possessor of secret knowledge. A holder of hidden things.
But in the end, nothing changes the truth: He doesn’t know, in that dark, what I am thinking in my heart of hearts, and I don’t know the same of him. This is the truth. We are all separate islands.
I am okay with that now. There was a time when I fought against the idea, as I guess everyone does. We want to know everything about our partner, share every last detail. We want to read minds and have our mind read. We want to erase all distance between us, become one person.
But we’re not one person. However close we get, some distance will always remain. Love, I’ve come to realize, lies not only in sharing each other but in being at peace with those parts that will never be shared. I turn on my side, my cheek against my hand, and look at my man. He’s beautiful, I think. Not beautiful in a feminine way, but beautiful in the “man” of him. In his quiet ruggedness. He is sleeping deeply, and he sleeps with his mouth closed. I’m afraid to stare at him for too long. He might feel my gaze and wake up. He’s alert that way, because he, like me, knows that death is a real thing. An ever-possible moment. You learn to sleep lightly when you do what we’ve done, see what we’ve seen.
I turn onto my back and look out the open balcony door to the night sky beyond. We’d left the door open so we could hear the ocean. The temperature here allows it. We’re in Hawaii, on a five-day vacation, my first in more than a decade.
We’re staying on the Big Island, the land of fire and ice. When we drove away from Hilo Airport, Tommy and I looked at each other, wondering if maybe we’d made a terrible mistake in our choice of islands. All that had been visible, as far as the eye could see, was black volcanic rock. It was as if we’d landed on the surface of a hostile moon. We’d gotten more hopeful as we approached our resort. Off in the distance we could see Mauna Kea, almost 14,000 feet high and snowcapped. It felt odd to look out the car window and see evidence of snow in Hawaii, but there it was. Trees and sparse grass had begun to clamber out of all that rock, striving for life and giving insight into the changes destined in the geologic future. Someday, the grass would overcome the rock and make it soil and things would change again. Tommy and I and our ancestors would be long gone, but it would happen. Life is always striving. That’s what life does.
The reception area of the resort had taken our breath away. It looked out over the endless ocean and the perfect beaches, and a temperate breeze had kissed our cheeks as if to welcome us here. “Aloha,” the young man at the reception desk said, white teeth against tan skin, seeming to agree with the breeze.
We’ve been here for four days now, doing much of nothing. Hawaii took us in gently, ignoring the blood on our hands, telling us with its beauty to rest for a while. Our hotel room is on the third floor, and our balcony is no more than fifty yards from the ocean. We spend our days lying on the beach and making love and our nights walking on the beach and making love and marveling at the overwhelming panoply of stars in the ancient sky. We watch the sunsets until the moon calls the night sky to the sea.
It’s a temporary peace. We’ll go back to Los Angeles soon, where I head the local branch of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime—or NCAVC. The NCAVC is based in Quantico, Virginia, but someone in every FBI office in every city is assigned as the NCAVC coordinator. In many places, that job is a second hat, worn only occasionally. In Los Angeles, it has been a full-time endeavor, and I’ve been in charge for more than twelve years now, running a four-person team including me.
We’re called in for the worst there is. Men and women who murder men and women and (far too often) children. Serial rapists. The people we hunt rarely do what they do in the heat of the moment. Their actions are not a momentary anomaly but a solution to a need. They do what they do for the joy of it, because emptying out others fills them up like nothing else there is.
I spend my life peering into the darkness these people radiate. It’s a cold blackness, filled with mewls and skittering things, high-pitched screeching laughter, unmentionable moans. I have killed bad men and been hunted by them too. It is my choice and my life, and I wake up to it, I come home from it, I sleep with my man and wake up to it again. So it’s rare that I lift my head and really see the stars. We all live and die under them, but I tend to be most concerned with the dying part. I’ve had dreams of victims, on their backs, hitching final breaths as they gaze up at those ruthless, forever points of light.
Here in Hawaii, I’ve taken time to see the stars. I’ve turned my face to the sky every night and let the stars remind me that something beautiful has already burned far longer than any of man’s ugliness ever will. I close my eyes for a moment and listen. The ocean beats against the shore outside like an unending exhalation of someone greater than us. If I was certain where I stood on God, I’d think of that sound as His heartbeat. But God and I are on shaky ground, and though we’re closer now than we were years before, we rarely speak.
Something is out there, though. Something undeniable and endless rides those waves into the sand, again and again, in rhythm with the world’s metronome. There is a vastness to the ocean in this place, a purity of sound and color and sweetness too unbearably wonderful to be an accident. I’m not sure it cares about us, whatever it is, but perhaps it keeps the world turning while we make our own choices, and perhaps that’s the best we can ask for.
I open my eyes again and move away from Tommy, slow and quiet as I can. I want to go out onto the balcony, but I don’t want to wake him. The sheets silk across my skin and then I’m free of them. My feet find the carpet floor. The moon lights up the room, so locating the bathrobe (which I plan to steal when we leave) is no problem. I shrug it on but don’t belt it, glance one final time at Tommy, and step out onto the balcony.
The moon, always a disinterested witness, shines over everything tonight, covering the world with its soft silvers and gently glowing ambers. It hangs above the ocean like a ragged pearl, and I study it with muted wonder. It’s just a ball of rock that throws off a cold light, but it has such power when the sky dims. I reach up and pretend that I am brushing my fingers through its illuminations. I almost feel them for a moment. Murky rivers of velvet light.
Because of what I do, the moon has lit my way almost as often as the sun, but it lights a path for the monsters as well. They love the moon, the way it fails to really banish the darkness. I love it too, but it’s as much of an adversary as a friend.
The temperature outside is perfect, and I let my eyes roam across the sky. In Los Angeles, stars are small scatterings of brightness on an ocean of blackness. Here, the brightness gives the blackness a run for its money. I’m able to pick out Orion’s belt just above me, and I track across the sky to find the Big Dipper and, from there, the North Star. “Polaris,” I whisper, and smile, remembering my father. Dad was one of those men who get enthusiastic about too many things to ever become really expert in any of them. He played guitar, passably. He wrote short stories that I loved but that were never published. And he loved the night sky and the stories of the stars.
The North Star, I remember him telling me one night, pointing it out. It’s called Polaris or sometimes the Lodestar. Not the brightest star, like many people think. Sirius is the brightest. But Polaris is one of the most important.
I was nine at the time and hadn’t really cared about the stars, but I’d loved my dad, so I had listened and made sure my eyes were wide with wonder. I’m glad I did that now. It made him happy. He was dead before I was twenty-one, and I cherish every memory.
“What you thinking?” the voice murmurs from behind me, thick with sleep.
“My dad. He was into astronomy.”
Tommy comes up and encircles me with his arms. He’s naked and warm. The back of my head finds a place against his chest. I’m only four-ten, so he towers over me in a way that I like.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asks me.
“Not couldn’t,” I murmur. “Not the right word. Just comfortable being awake.”
It’s as if I can hear him smile, and this tells me, like so many other things, how we’re getting closer. We’re picking up each other’s cues, reading the signs beneath the surface. Tommy and I have been together for almost three years now, and it’s been careful and wonderful. In many ways, this unexpected love has saved me.
A little more than three-and-a-half years ago, a man I was hunting, a serial killer by the name of Joseph Sands, broke into my home. He tortured my husband, Matt, in front of me, and then he killed him. He raped and disfigured me, and he also caused the death of Alexa, my ten-year-old daughter.
I spent six months after that wrapped in an agony I can’t truly remember now. I can see it intellectually, but I think we have a protective mechanism that prevents us from actual sense memory of that kind of pain. What I remember is that I wished myself dead and came close to making it happen.
Tommy and I had come together in the aftermath. He was ex–Secret Service, and he owed me a favor. I called in the favor during a case I was on, and somehow we ended up in bed together. It was the last thing I expected. Not just because I was still mourning Matt, not just because Tommy was a drop-dead handsome Latin man, but because of what had been done to me.
Joseph Sands had cut my face with a big old knife, and he’d cut it with a mix of concentration, rage, and glee. He left permanent evidence of himself on me, a branding of blood and steel.
The scar is continuous. It begins in the middle of my forehead, right at the hairline. It goes straight down, hovering above the space between my eyebrows, and then it shoots off to the left at an almost perfect ninety-degree angle. I have no left eyebrow. Sands carved it off as he meandered across my face. The scar travels along my temple and then turns in a lazy loop-de-loop down my cheek. It rips over toward my nose, crossing the bridge of it just barely, then changes its mind, cutting diagonally across my left nostril and zooming in one final, triumphant line past my jaw, down my neck, ending at my collarbone.
I remember, when he’d finished cutting, how he paused. I was screaming, and he looked down at me, his face inches above my own. He nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s good. Got it right the first time.” I had never considered myself beautiful but was always comfortable in my own skin. After that night, I feared the mirror, like the Phantom of the Opera. If I didn’t kill myself, then at the very least I envisioned a life spent locked away from the eyes of the world.
So when Tommy kissed me—and then later, when he took me to my bed and kissed my scars—well . . . it was not the kisses but the unselfconscious heat of his need that undid me. He was a man, a handsome man, and he wanted me. Not because I’d been hurt, not to comfort me, but because he’d fantasized about having me and now he could.
Time has passed, and those first moments have turned into something much bigger. We live together. We love each other and have said so. Bonnie, my adopted daughter, loves him, and he loves her back. Best of all, it’s guiltless, blessed by the ghosts of my past.
“Jesus, this is beautiful,” Tommy whispers. “Isn’t it beautiful, Smoky?” “Unreal.”
“Pretty good idea on my part. Brilliant, maybe.”
I grin. “Watch the ego, buddy. It was a good call, but don’t expect it to bail you out in the future.”
His hands creep around me, finding their way under the bathrobe.
“Guess I’ll just have to count on the sex for that.”
“That . . . could work,” I purr, closing my eyes.
He kisses my neck, and it makes me shiver in the warm air. “So?” he asks.
I turn in to him and angle my head up as an answer. His lips find mine as the moon watches. We kiss, and I feel myself stirring inside as he stirs against me.
“I want it here,” I mumble, my hands in his hair.
He comes up for air, one eyebrow raised.
“Here here? As in on the balcony?”
I point to the long, reclining lounge chair. “There, actually.” I see him scanning the grass below, and I grab his head and pull him down to me again.
“Stop thinking so much. It’s three in the morning. Just us and the moon.”
It doesn’t take much selling. I end up on top, with the moon and the North Star behind me. The ocean talks in its low rumble, and Tommy gazes up at me with a look less of hunger than of passion. Toward the end, I lean down and whisper the three words that used to be so hard to tell any man besides Matt. I see his answer in his eyes, and we fall asleep together on the balcony, draped in the bathrobe.
I wake up in bed, languid and refreshed. I have a dim memory of Tommy carrying me inside sometime in the latening of the night. It’s early now; the sun is rising. For whatever reason, we’ve been waking up before 6:00 a.m. every morning since we arrived in Hawaii. I’m not complaining. Our balcony faces west, so we get to see the sunsets more directly; thus, they are more spectacular. But watching the first light from the sun hitting the water is nothing to sneeze at.
I throw on the trusty bathrobe and walk out onto the balcony.
Tommy’s already brewed a pot of coffee and has it sitting on the balcony table. He’s wearing a pair of jeans and nothing else, and I stir a little at the sight of him. Tommy is all man, about six feet one, with the trademark Latin dark hair and dark eyes. His gaze is somehow both open and guarded, the result of being an honest man who’s killed people. His face is somewhere between rugged and pretty, with a small scar at his left temple.
“You look delicious,” I tell him.
Tommy’s laconic. It’s not that he’s uncommunicative. He just feels that if you can say it with less words, so much the better.
He pours me a cup as I sit down on a chair and pull my knees up to my chin. I take the cup when he offers it to me, sip, roll my eyes in appreciation “Jesus. They still won’t tell you where we can get this stuff?”
“Nope. All they’ll say is that it’s the house blend.”
“Maybe we can take some back with us, get it analyzed by the lab.”
He smiles at me, and we fall into a comfortable silence. I watch the ocean, and time passes without the need to mark it. Clocks seem almost ugly here.
“What are you thinking about?” he asks me.
I glance at him, realize he’s been watching me. “Truth?”
“I was thinking about Matt and Alexa.”
He reaches a hand across the table, touches one of mine, then retreats back to his coffee cup with it. It’s a short gesture, him showing me that he doesn’t mind.
I squint at him over the top of my cup. “This really doesn’t bother you?”
A single dismissive shake of his head. “I’ll never be that guy, Smoky. The guy who gets jealous because you loved the family you had before.” The words bring a lump to my throat. No tears—I’m pretty much past that, these days. “Thanks.”
“So? What were you thinking?”
I sip my coffee and look out across the ocean. Sigh. “I was thinking that Matt and I talked about getting out to Hawaii one day, but we never did. We’d even considered having our honeymoon in Maui, but . . .” I shrug. “We were young, just getting off the ground.”
I smile faintly. “She loved the ocean. This would have ‘boogled her mind,’ as she used to say.”
He’s silent, thinking over what I said. “So remember them,” he finally replies. “That’s kind of like bringing them here, isn’t it?”
The lump again. I reach for his hand and he gives it to me. “Yeah. Kind of.”
We watch the ocean, ignore the clock.
I shake my head. “We’re pretty sappy these days, aren’t we?” He brings my hand to his lips, which are warm from the coffee he’s been drinking. “We’re due.”
He brings up the question again after breakfast, the one and only thing that’s threatened the bliss of our stay while we’ve been here. “You given more thought to telling them?” he asks.
“Nothing’s changed, Tommy,” I say. “I know you don’t like it, but it’s going to have to be our secret for now. You need to respect me on this. It’s a secret I’ve trusted you with, and I’m trusting you to keep it that way.”
His eyes cloud over at my words. I feel irritated and afraid at the same time. I’m still suspicious of our happiness, fearful it’s going to fly away. I look deep into his eyes and try to find the truth there. Whoever said the eyes are the windows of the soul was never a cop, that’s for sure. Cops know better. Until the masks come off, killers have eyes like the rest of us.
“I don’t understand,” he says.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
He looks away, and I can feel his own irritation rolling off him. Then he sighs.
“Fine,” he says. “As long as you promise me it won’t always be the case.”
It seems to satisfy. The tension dissipates, and the lopsided smile, the one that gives me the good-shivers, appears. He cocks his head at me and my heart skips a beat. God, he’s sexy.
“So, how about it?” he asks.
I roll my eyes. “Jeez, Tommy. It’d be nice to see something besides the ceiling while I’m here.”
“How about the inside of the shower?”
“Been there, done that.” Which was true. Twice.
He shrugs, as if to say, What can I do? “It’s a small room, Smoky.” I giggle. “Fine, Mr. Horndog, but I want to go into Kona this afternoon to do some shopping.”
He holds one hand up, places the other on his heart. “Promise.” We’re heading for the bed when I hear the chirp from my cell phone that tells me I’ve received a text message.
“No way,” Tommy groans.
“Hold your horses,” I tell him. “I’ll be right there.”
I pick up the phone and open the message. What I see makes me smile, at first.
It’s raining here, and you’re there in paradise. I should hate you, but all is forgiven as long as you’re engaging in endless rounds of monkey sex. The smile fades as I read the rest.
On the serious side, we just caught up with the big bad man who was stuffing all those dead children into Porta Potties. He was neither big nor bad, no surprise. His name is Timothy Jakes—Tim Tim to his friends. (So he says. I doubt he has any friends. He’s far too creepy.) He blubbered like a baby and wet himself when the cuffs went on. I found that quite satisfying.
Enjoy the sun, honey-love. Be hussified and raise a toast to Tim Tim, who’ll surely be introduced to new and exciting things by Bubba or whoever it is that comprises the prison-rape welcome committee these days.
I close my eyes once, as a feeling of relief rolls through me. The case was open when I left, and it had come with us like an extra piece of luggage with a corpse inside. As beautiful as this place is, all those dead children stood on the far periphery, watching me as I gawked at the stars and communed with the moon. I sense them now, turning away, marching into a faded sea.
“What is it?” Tommy asks from the bed behind me. He’s sensed something.
I flip the phone closed, take a deep breath, and make sure my smile is just a little bit lascivious as I turn around and let my bathrobe fall to the floor.
“Callie. She wanted to make sure we were having lots of monkey sex.”
I’ll tell Tommy the details eventually, but I don’t need to tell him right now. I’m good at this kind of compartmentalization. It’s a skill you learn early on if you want to have a life. I’ve gone from looking at the body of a raped and mutilated twelve-year-old girl to kissing my daughter on the cheek an hour later.
He grins. “I think we’re safe on that account, but let’s make extra sure.”
“I wish we didn’t have to leave tomorrow,” I murmur, as I clamber atop him.
“Why don’t we stay a little longer, then?”
“I’m the co-maid of honor at Callie’s wedding. She’d kill you and then me if I missed it.”
I bend at the waist and breathe into his ear. “Now shut up and do that thing I like so much.”
And he does, and the sun keeps rising and the ocean beats against the sand, and I cherish the minutiae of every moment. But even as we roam against each other, I know this peace is fleeting. We don’t belong here, in this place of too much light. I see other children in my mind, waiting for my return.
Tommy kisses me and I cry out, and the island says good-bye.
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