2nd Strike – Misty Evans, Adrienne Giordano

fter a crazy, surreal day at work, the last thing I want to do is jump into a fresh case. The universe has different plans. Welcome to my world. I’m Charlize Schock, private investigator, and, like my last name, shock is what I experience as the next few seconds unfold. The air outside is that in-between state of early spring—not truly warm, yet not cold either. The night is cool and crisp, but I feel the heat of summer approaching. My sister, Meg, and I are just leaving the office when a young boy wheels into the parking lot of Schock Investigations on a bicycle. “Who’s that?” she asks. She survived an attack by a psychotic killer earlier today and needs a relaxing bath and twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep. I could use the same. “No idea.” I motion for her to stay at the car and grumble when she ignores me. We walk forward as I ask, “Can I help you? Are you lost?” “Are you Charlie Schock?” Under the parking lot’s solar lights, he looks to be a teenager. Curfew’s in an hour. The whole thing seems off, my gut warning me he saw the news about us and Billy Ray Wilson and wants an interview for his class project.

“We’re closed. Call our number and leave a message. We’ll get back to you.” Or we won’t, if you’re a freak. Some days, I hate myself for being so paranoid, but it comes with the territory. As a former FBI profiler with a Ph.D. in forensic psychology, the list of nutjobs in my background is extensive. My meter is sensitive and it’s in the red zone at the moment. “I left a message.

Several in fact.” He gets off the bike, releasing the kickstand, and reaches into his jacket. “You didn’t return them.” Gun. It’s my first instinct and I back up, putting my hand on the butt of my own weapon. At the same time, I throw my other arm out to protect Meg. Instinct. She’s my little sister. The kid pulls out a folded piece of paper and holds it out to me. “I need your help.

” The magic words. The ones I can never resist, especially when I move closer and see the pleading look in his eyes. Maybe the shadows under them are from the ghostly lighting, or maybe he hasn’t slept in a while either. My fingers itch to reach for the paper hovering in the air between us. Meg moves by my side, sizing up the situation. “With what, kid?” I ask, dropping my protective arm. “I need you to explain this.” He unfolds the white, official looking sheet and holds it out again. “I’ve been over these tests results a dozen times, and I understand what they mean, but they don’t make sense.” I see DNA markers, three sets of them.

“Why is that?” He shifts his weight, those eyes still imploring me to take the paper. “I’m Ethan Havers. Do you remember me?” It only takes a heartbeat for the name to click and then I look the boy over from head to toe. “Carl and Lily Havers’ son?” He nods. The first kidnapping case I caught as an FBI agent. “Wait, Carl Havers, the talk show host?” Meg studies Ethan inquisitively. “I did the age progression on you.” Fifteen years ago, Carl was an up and coming reporter for a local D.C. news channel.

His good looks and winning on-air personality moved him swiftly into the anchor seat, where he’s been ever since. His wife, Lily, also a TV personality, gained wide audience appeal when she became pregnant with their first and only child. “I chose to do my final project in Biology on DNA,” Ethan says. “My family’s DNA. But there’s a big, big problem, Charlie.” I take the results from Ethan’s hand. A few days after he was born, he was kidnapped by his babysitter. I returned him to his parents seven years later after tracking her down. Meg did, indeed, create the image of what Ethan looked like at that time, and it led to me finding him. “What is it, Ethan?” But I know before he even answers.

The DNA markers of Carl, Lily, and Ethan dance before my eyes. Meg studies them over my shoulder. “They don’t match,” the kid says softly. His voice is rough, almost as if he’s about to cry. “My DNA didn’t come from my mom and…from them.” “Holy shit,” Meg says. Holy shit is right. I look up and meet his eyes, speechless. My stomach bottoms out. “You returned me to the wrong parents, Charlie,” he whispers.

“I’m not Ethan Havers.” Meg looks at me as if she can read my mind. She can. “I’m sure there’s an explanation,” she says. I’m sure there is but it could be a damn poor one. I bite back my frustration that the Havers refused to do DNA testing eight years ago when I brought Ethan to them. They were convinced he was their son and all the evidence pointed to that as well. “Why don’t you go on home?” I suggest to Meg. My thoughts are running ahead of me, ninety miles an hour. “Ethan and I have some catching up to do.

” “The hell I will.” She motions at the back door to our building. “We need to get to the bottom of this.” Meg is my sister, my best friend, my rock. She’s an accomplished forensic sculptor who barely survived Billy Ray’s attack a few hours ago, but here she is, ready to dive into my mess as if it’s just another day—or night at this point—at the office. If the results in my hand are accurate, there is no bottom to find. There will be hell to pay, and my ass will be the one doing it. The Bureau won’t take any responsibility, nor help me fix this, since I no longer work for them. “My dad did a news segment where he submitted his DNA to see what countries his family originated from and revealed the results on his show,” Ethan says softly. “He convinced Mom to do it, too.

It was really interesting because Dad thought he was English—British, you know?—and German. His results showed he’s forty percent Norwegian and doesn’t have a drop of German in him.” Many people discover similar results. I’ve seen it hundreds of times as a genealogy hobbyist. “That’s why you wanted to do it for your final.” He nods. “Most of the kids already knew my parents’ results because of the news segments. It was fun.” His gaze goes to the paper. “I thought it’d be cool to see how much of each of their DNAs I had.

” I take a deep breath, stopping the spinning hamster wheel in my brain. I’m getting ahead of myself. I did not make a mistake eight years ago. I saw the age progression Meg did and it was nearly an exact match to Ethan. There’s a simple explanation. There has to be. Sleep would allude me now even if I went home and crawled into bed. Meg and I exchange a glance and she nods, reading my mind again. Looks like we have a new case. Except we don’t take cases from minors.

Hmm. Giving Ethan a reassuring smile, I motion for him to follow. “Let’s go inside.” Schock Investigations contains three offices, Meg’s art/workroom, a tiny kitchenette, bathroom, and the receptionist area. I tap buttons on my phone to turn off our security and use my key to let us in. Meg goes in first, slapping on the lights, Ethan in her wake. His backpack is high-end, expensive, just like his designer jeans and sneakers. Although Meg and I are both single with no kids, she’s got a maternal streak and chats with him about the weather, curfew, etc., as I lock us in, turn the alarm back on—the brush with a serial killer has my paranoia in overdrive—and grab a water for Ethan. Meg sits in one of the two chairs across from my desk.

Ethan takes the other. His backpack now rests against the desk, and he accepts the bottle when I hand it to him, but doesn’t open it. I’m far from being a DNA expert, but my side hustle is reuniting lost families, which involves studying genetic results and family trees. While my father is the one who ignited this hobby for me when I was a kid, Ethan’s case all those years ago is the reason I plunged back into tracking people’s ancestry as an adult. Everyone is quiet as I study the paper. It’s not a complete evaluation, but it paints a clear picture all the same. There is a brief, impersonal written analysis and I read it several times, trying to wrap my brain around this situation. When I finally look up, Meg stares a hole through me. Ethan has set the water on the desk, crossed one ankle over his knee and is picking at the rubber on his sneaker. “I can’t tell my parents about this,” he says quietly.

“They’re having problems…with their marriage…and this would be, like, too much on top of everything else.” He glances at me, guilt clouding his face. “It’s my fault—I mean, I’m the reason it’s on the rocks. Seeing this?” He points to the paper and shakes his head. “Way, way too much.” Too much, indeed. Unfortunately, his parents will have to be told if we’re going to pursue the truth. Ethan uncrosses his legs and sits forward, rubbing his hands on his jeans. “How did you figure out who the kidnapper—Amelia—was?” he asks. “How did you know for sure I was theirs when you found me?” He deserves to know, but his parents should be the ones to share that information.

The case is long closed, and many of the specific details where suppressed from the public, even though it was big news in the media. He’s probably already done a search and found numerous pages of hits. It garnered world-wide attention, but legally, I’m on shaky ground, unless I get the FBI, and/or the U.S. district attorney to sign off on it. “Look, Ethan, inaccuracies crop up from time to time. The legitimate testing companies do their best to provide accurate information, but samples get contaminated, software glitches occur, or there can be a biological element that doesn’t jive, and just needs further analysis.” “Like what?” There’s a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “Have you studied chimeras in biology class?” He shakes his head. I give him a Charlie Schock assignment.

“Go home and look up genetic chimeras. There’s a famous trial case—Lydia Fairchild. Tests proved her children weren’t biological matches even though she claimed they were. Eventually, prosecutors discovered she carried two sets of DNA—weird, right? But it’s possible, and that type of thing can screw up results. I’ll look into the lab and verify their procedures, but the thing I recommend is running a new test at a different facility and comparing the results. That’ll require consent from your parents and samples from all of you again.” He reaches for the backpack and withdraws a paper and a plastic zipper bag with three hairbrushes in it. “I have the original consent form and hair from all of us.” Smart kid. “Sorry, but no.

I need new consents, but let’s not do anything until I talk to the lab and look into possible reasons the results don’t match, okay? Go home, stop worrying—there’s a simple answer to this—and I’ll call you tomorrow.” “But—” His protest is cut off by a sharp dinging from my phone. The security camera out back has caught someone pulling into the parking lot. I open the app and watch as JJ Carrington parks and gets out of his big, black SUV. He saunters to the back door, waving at the camera. I shut off the alarm and sigh. Meg sits forward, her face creasing with concern. “What is it?” It was only two days ago when Billy Ray walked into our offices as if he owned the place. I’m not the only one whose paranoia is going crazy right now. “Nothing,” I lie.

JJ is the U.S. attorney for D.C., and some days I swear he can read my mind as easily as Meg. Have I somehow conjured him up by thinking about this case? At my sister’s distressed look, I ease her mind. “It’s JJ.” The man is my Achilles’ heel. My body gives a little cheer seeing him, and I curse under my breath. “I’ll be back in a moment.

” At the door, I unlock it but only open it far enough to speak to him. “What?” Over six feet with dark hair and eyes the color of a perfect summer sky, he gives me a sexy grin. “Can I come in?” “Meg and I were just on our way out.” “I swung by your place and you weren’t there. Just wanted to make sure everything is okay.” Right. I can read his mind too. He wanted to see if I’d let him stay the night. “Everything’s fine.” Another lie, but I’m not ready to tell him about Ethan.

“I’ll call you tomorrow.” Without another word, he grabs my hand, and pulls me out the door and into his arms. “I can’t wait until then.” W 2 Meg hile my sister is busy doing whatever it is the two of them do, I study Ethan’s face. His chestnut hair falls below his ears and curls at his neck. His eyebrows are dark, an exact match to his hair, and his deep brown eyes hold the misery of a teenager lost in too many thoughts. I give him a gentle smack on the shoulder. “Ethan, we’ll figure this out. Between Charlie and me, we know enough DNA experts to form a summit.” For a few seconds, he plucks at the leg of his jeans, his gaze fixed on his moving fingers like locked-on radar.

He won’t look at me and I suspect he’s holding back tears. Proud young man. Probably also terrified. He has a right to whatever roller coaster of emotions he’s feeling right now. His world has been flipped, his identity along with it. Before I speak, I take a second to consider the situation. This, even for the Schock sisters, is a new one. Add in the exhaustion that comes from surviving a psycho killer’s attack and I’m hardly at my best. Ethan’s father is a nationally known newscaster turned morning show host. At seven each morning, Americans welcome Carl Havers into their lives.

A respected journalist who’s visited war-torn countries, interviewed presidents, kings, and bombing victims, Carl stopped chasing big stories after Charlie and the FBI brought Ethan home almost eight years ago. In an effort to rebuild his family, he walked away from the adrenaline rush— and awards—that came with groundbreaking stories opting instead for a seat at the anchor desk. Now he’s home each night. For his son, who he’d missed years with. For that, people love him. His looks don’t hurt. A classic heartthrob, his borderline Greek God features send housewives everywhere into fantasyland each morning. The network execs sure don’t mind. Not with their top ratings. To the outside world, Carl and family have sifted through devastation to create a perfect life.

And now his son sits in front of me, wondering who the hell he is. “Ethan?” Finally, he peers at me, his gaze shimmering and my heart snaps in two. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. “Of course you don’t. That’s okay. Right now, I want you to take a breath. We’re here to help you.” “I can’t tell my parents. I can’t. My mom is…” This is tricky territory.

Ethan is a minor and he’s asking us to withhold information from his parents. Given the situation and his father’s high-profile status, I’m fairly astounded that I am, in fact, willing to be his co-conspirator. My logic is simple. If the press gets hold of this it will be, in short, a feeding frenzy. Reporters will gnaw the flesh off this kid’s bones and we can’t let that happen. I lean forward. For a hundredth of a second, I pause. Reconsider what I’m about to say. I’m no rocket scientist, but I am smart. It appears, so is Ethan.

He could run with any information I give him and that responsibility will land on me. Worse, my sister will eviscerate me. The lecture alone will wreck me. Is it worth the risk? I stare into his shiny eyes and hate the misery. The boy needs answers and we can help him. “Okay, bud, here’s an idea. A couple months ago we worked with a genetic genealogist.” He blinks at me. “A what? I mean. I know what they are, but what’s the genetic part?” “She’s basically a genealogist that’s leveled-up.

She understands DNA and uses databases to find potential matches. Once she sorts those out, she starts narrowing down relatives. We solved a cold-case based on her building a family tree from a DNA analysis.” Ethan perks up, his dark eyes widening a fraction. I have his attention. I knew I would, but the stab of guilt doesn’t stop me. “Cool,” he says. “Yep. On the last case she worked for us, she found our suspect through a woman who’d entered her DNA test results into a free online database. The genealogy companies charge, but the public one doesn’t.

” A publicly accessible database, GenCo, is the brainchild of a couple of amateur genealogists who wanted to provide folks with a free resource to track their heritage. As word of the site grew, more and more people uploaded their DNA results into the GenCo database. What started as a hobby for a couple of retired guys, turned into a controversial tool for law enforcement. Now, anyone loading results could potentially link a distant relative, like the cold case we’d worked, to a crime. Somewhere in the process, privacy laws became a gray area that might be exactly what we need to protect Ethan’s identity. “So,” Ethan says, “anyone can enter their results?” They sure can. “Pretty much. Users have to be eighteen though.” “Crap.” He shakes his head and winces.

“Sorry. My mom hates when I use bad language.” I wave that off. Heaven knows I’ve heard and said a whole lot worse. “Don’t worry about it.” “What happened with that case? The one the genealogy lady worked on?” “We got insanely lucky. Ann Marie entered our suspect’s profile into the public database and found a strong paternal match. We looked into all the men in the woman’s lineage and eventually found a cousin whose DNA matched what was found on the victim.” At that, Ethan straightens up. “We could put my results in.

” “Not without your parents’ permission. You’re not eighteen.” The kid slumps back. We’re stuck here. As much as I’d love to have Ann Marie enter his results into GenCo, I can’t. Morally, it’s not right. Not without his parents. They all deserve the truth, but at what cost? “Ethan, I know you don’t want to tell them about this, but I think you have to. It’s their life, too. And they can help you work through this.

If you were my son, I’d want to know.” He whips his head back and forth. “No. I won’t. I can’t. Mom will freak. She’s crazy right now. I don’t know what she’d do and if something happens it’ll be my fault and—” “—whoa.” I put my hands up to silence our visitor. The energy in the room explodes and my already frayed nerves crackle.

Ethan’s anxiety, if left unchecked, will escalate. Having suffered from panic attacks, I know the insanity that comes with them. The hell of raging, irrational thoughts that leave the sufferer gasping for air and terrified. “Take a breath, Ethan. In through your nose and out your mouth. Nice and easy.” I keep my voice low and even and soon he’s breathing in sync with the cadence of my words. After a minute, he lifts his chin and pushes his shoulders back. “Are you okay?” He nods. “Sorry.

” “Don’t apologize. This is a horrible situation for someone your age. An adult would struggle with this. Believe me.” “What do I do now?” I check my watch. Almost ten. We have to get him home. “It’s late. I think you should go before your parents start to worry. In fact, let’s throw your bike in my van and I’ll drive you.

” “No. They can’t see me getting out of your car.” He whips his head back and forth again. I’m losing him. I reach over, squeeze his arm. “Relax. I’ll drop you off down the street. They won’t even see me.” He pauses, obviously considering my suggestion. There’s no way I’m letting him trek home on his bike in the dark.

Not in this condition. He’s distracted and worried and if something happened to him, I’d never forgive myself. “Okay,” he finally says. A chime sounds. After a recent break-in, my sister upgraded our security system and now all the entrance doors make a different sound. The chime is our back door. Seconds later, Charlie appears in the doorway. “Hi. Sorry.” “No problem.

Is the Emperor gone?” JJ’s nickname in the world of D.C. law enforcement is the Emperor of Cold Cases. I’m not sure there’s been one yet he hasn’t thrown every ounce of his energy into. There’s something in him that won’t let a victim go without justice. He isn’t always successful, but it doesn’t keep him from trying. Charlie snorts at my use of his nickname. “He just left.” “You’re sure? I told Ethan we’d put his bike in my van and I’d take him home. If JJ is out there, you need to get rid of him before he sees us with a kid and starts asking questions.

” My sister gives me the bitch-face she’s perfected over the years. “Meg, I watched him drive off. Believe me, he’s the last person I want getting wind of this. We don’t need the U.S. attorney involved until we know more.” “Perfect.” I hold up the reports Ethan just handed me. “I’m about to copy these and then we’ll go.” “Okay.

If we can get Ethan’s parents to agree to another test, I’ll reach out to a couple private labs and see if they can put a rush on those hairbrushes. With any luck, we’ll have an answer in a few days and can compare the new results with the old ones.” She turns to Ethan. “And then we should know.” “A 3 Charlie ssuming the DNA test results are legit and the lab didn’t make a mistake, I may need a lawyer,” I tell Meg after we drop off Ethan and meet back at our duplex. We face each other from across our respective front porches, the matching outside lights illuminating our faces. Hers is tight with fatigue and concern. She’s a few inches shorter than me, about the same weight, but she has curves. Me, not so much. Concern for me and Ethan shows on her features.

Before she can say anything, I continue. “First, we have to decide if we’re taking him on as a client. Legally, we can’t call him that. Minors can’t hire investigators without their parents’ consent. They can’t enter into legal contracts, and since he’s my problem, it may be better if I handle this situation alone. I can shield you from the fallout as much as possible.” Her fatigued face is sharp with sudden anger. “Charlize Lauren Schock, what the hell is the matter with you?” This confuses me. “Huh?” She rolls her eyes as if I’m dense. Maybe I am.

“We’re helping the kid—we, as in you and me.” She waggles a hand between us. “We’re a team, that’s how we work. Stop with the nonsense about shielding me. I helped with Ethan’s case all those years ago; I’m as much involved with it as you are, and minor or not, he’s our client. He’s not a stranger who walked in off the street. In my book, this is simply a continuation of the original case. We’ll involve them if and when the time comes, but until then, Ethan is our first concern.” I love my sister and her viewpoint on so many things, but I score extremely high in the responsibility department. Part of me wants to run over and throw my arms around her for the support; the other wants to protect her at all costs.

“If this is screwed up, and he isn’t their son, I could be in big trouble, Meg. I’m not taking you down with me.” As in, I’ll ruin my outstanding reputation, look like a failure in front of the world, lose JJ, and potentially send Schock Sisters Investigations down in flames. Somehow, I know she’s reading my mind. She feels the low grade panic I’m fighting. Her face softens. “Why didn’t the Havers do a DNA test when you found Ethan?” “Everyone urged them to, but we had the kidnapper’s confession and your age progression sketch was a close match.” On the seven-year anniversary, Carl had been involved with a nationwide missing kids’ organization. He went to the FBI and asked if he could get an age progression drawing to take on the show, hoping to bring media attention once more to his quest. Meg was wellknown for her skills and my boss sent Carl to her.

Her sketch got us the tip about where Ethan was living. She nods. “The next door neighbor recognized him from my work, right?” “When we confronted Amelia Norris, she admitted kidnapping him. She’d been his babysitter. Claimed his mother didn’t want him, but after her confession, she committed suicide.” Meg snaps her fingers. “That’s right! She shot herself in front of Ethan, didn’t she?” A shake of her head and a sigh. “The boy needed therapy and had a hard time adjusting to his new life with Carl and Lily. No surprise.” I ache for him, even now. “The media attention was overwhelming and Lily insisted he was hers. The evidence backed it up.” I shrug. “We couldn’t force them to perform DNA tests.” “How could this be your fault, then? If anyone is to blame, it’s Carl and Lily.” I lean on the railing, grabbing the rope my sister has thrown me. “The thing is, these are famous people with a story the world loved eight years ago and still does. The FBI will look for a scapegoat and so will Carl and Lily. Since I’m no longer with the Bureau, they’ll throw me under the bus, sure as I’m standing here. It was my first case as lead investigator, and I know I did everything by the book, as did the rest of the team, but if he isn’t their child, we now have two mysteries to solve—who is the real Ethan Havers, and who are the parents of the boy who came to our office tonight? Without the kidnapper, we don’t have answers to either.” “Then that’s where we start,” she says. “Until we determine for sure Ethan is not who we believe him to be, we start with the crime that occurred—the kidnapping—and focus on learning more about Amelia Norris. No one can stop us from doing that, and she’s the key to both mysteries.” The FBI didn’t worry too much about her—the kidnapping was solved, the boy returned. Happy ending, closed case. Move on to the next hundreds of open kidnapping cases. I still remember how I walked on air for weeks after that. I’ll never forget the joy on Lily’s face when I accompanied the social worker to deliver Ethan to their house. He was scared and very shy, but when she knelt down and opened her arms to him, he fell into them like he’d known her his whole life. How could he not be her son? “Do you still have the notes from that case?” Meg asks. “You know I do.” I have file cabinets of my personal notes on all the FBI cases I worked. They’re organized alphabetically and by year, cross-matched and color-coded, in my spare bedroom. “I’ll get them out and take them to the office in the morning.” “Good. Get some sleep.” Meg unlocks her front door. “If we end up needing a lawyer, we’ll get that DelRay woman. She’s an ass-kicker.” “Jackie?” We worked a case with the defense attorney a few months ago, and that title is putting it mildly. Again, I could hug my sister. “You’re brilliant. I’ll give her a call first thing tomorrow, see if I can put her on retainer, just in case.” Meg yawns but pauses before she goes inside. “What did JJ want?” What does he always want? I almost say it out loud. Instead, I skirt the idea he wanted to come home with me to celebrate the fact I’m still alive and he looks like the star he is in the judicial world because Meg and I caught a serial killer with his help. I also don’t mention the soul-sucking kiss he laid on me in the parking lot. “I scared him pretty bad today taking on Billy Ray. He wanted to double check I was okay. That’s all.” The mention of the killer makes Meg shiver. “I hope the bastard rots in prison. I’m glad JJ came by to check on you.” She winks and goes in, calling, “Goodnight.” “Goodnight,” I mumble and let myself into my side of the duplex. I reset the alarm, lean back against the door, and close my eyes. My home is dark and quiet, the first peace I’ve had in a while. I should take a hot bath and go to bed, get some sleep like Meg instructed. The next few days will most likely be chaos. That’s my plan, until I walk past the spare bedroom. I flip on the overhead light and the filing cabinets—lined up like diligent soldiers—gleam like magnets. I feel their pull. Twenty minutes later, I have the Havers’ files spread on the floor. I grab a glass of wine and start reading.

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