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Ava Bixby sat behind her desk, watching the large-boned blond woman twist the tissue Ava had just handed her. The blotchiness of her face and the puffiness of her eyes seemed out of place against the battle fatigues she was wearing. But she'd been relating a horrific incident, one that had happened only three weeks ago and would make any woman cry, even a tough military type.
"Take your time," Ava said soothingly. She knew the right tone to use. She dealt with victims every day. It was her job. They hadn't all suffered rape, of course, but most had been directly affected by violent crime. Her partners, Skye Willis and Sheridan Granger, had firsthand experience. Ava had experience with it, toojust in a different way.
Kalyna Harter had introduced herself as a staff sergeant E-5 in the air force and looked Ukrainian, as her first name suggested. But she spoke with no accent, leading Ava to believe she'd immigrated to the United States when she was a child. A light dusting of freckles covered her nose and she wore her fine blond hair straight down her back. She would've been beautiful, except that her features were a little large or incongruous or
something. Ava couldn't figure out what made her face such a near miss.
"I'm sorry, it's" Kalyna sniffed "difficult to talk about this."
"I understand." Although Ava had never been physically attacked, she'd felt the effects of criminal behavior. She knew from what her mother had done how badly it hurt everyone associated with it, even those who weren't the intended target.
"Hehe seemed like a nice guy, you know?" Kalyna was saying. "I mean, I've flown with him for three months. He's never said or done anything that made me think he might be dangerous. Besides, why would any guy with a body like that have to resort to force?"
Ava's mind had wandered, as it always did when she thought of her mother. She was tired, had less control today. It was Monday morning, but she'd spent most of the weekend working, as usual. Sometimes she didn't allow herself enough of a break from all this and she became almost
Picking up her pen, she focused, trying to shake off the heavy sense of loss and betrayal that weighed her down when she least expected it. She missed her motherand felt guilty for missing someone who could do what Zelinda had done. "Rape's not about sex, Ms."
"Please, call me Kalyna."
"Kalyna. It's about power. And rapists come in all shapes and sizes. But" she dropped her pen again "I'm not quite sure how to help you. This is a military matter. You've already mentioned that their investigators are working on it."
"It happened at my apartment, and my apartment is off base. That means the civilian police could prosecute, too."
A sharp knock interrupted.
"Excuse me." Ava lifted a hand. "Come in," she called.
Skye Willis poked her head into the room. With her golden tan and long, well-toned limbs, she didn't need makeup or fancy clothes, but she always dressed nicely. Today she was wearing a summer dress and had her blond hair pulled back. Sheridan was with her. She wasn't nearly as tall or toned as Skyeshe was a little more voluptuous but every bit as pretty. Her unusual, almost violet-colored eyes and dark hair drew attention wherever she went.
Ava felt very plain next to her partners. With dishwater-blond hair, eyes that were neither brown nor greenjust a murky in-betweenand a body that was thin to the point of boniness, she couldn't compare with their kind of beauty. Maybe that was why she settled for boxy business suits. She accepted what she was, didn't try to compete.
"We're heading over to Starbucks," Skye announced.
"Can we get you two some coffee?" Sheridan chimed in.
Ava glanced questioningly at Kalyna.
"I'm fine," she murmured.
"So am I," Ava told them.
Skye must've noticed Kalyna's blotchy face and realized they were in the middle of a serious conversation because she lowered her voice. "Okay, sorry for the interruption," she said, and Sheridan waved quickly as they left.
"Those people work here, too?" Kalyna asked.
"They started the charity." Ava had worked at The Last Stand for two years, but Skye, Sheridan and a woman named Jasmine Fornier were the ones who'd conceived of the idea and gotten it up and running. An excellent forensic profiler, Jasmine still did some consultingfor them and for othersbut she'd since married and moved to Louisiana, which was why there'd been a job opening for Ava.
"So it's just the three of you?"
"Yes, plus a bevy of professionals from psychologists to bodyguards, most of whom donate their time. In addition, we have a handful of volunteers."
"I didn't know that. When I called, I was simply given an appointment with you."
"I'm single, so I put in a few more hours each week. And I focus mostly on casework and less on administration and fundraising."
In an attempt to guide the conversation back to where they'd left off, Ava looked at her notes. "So
you were saying something about the civilian police."
"I was saying they could prosecute, too," Kalyna responded. "But they don't want to get involved. They don't think it's necessary to spend taxpayers' money to prosecute the captain twice, so they've decided to let the military handle it."
"You don't want the military to handle it?"
"I don't trust the air force. They'd do anything to avoid a scandal, even if it means letting Luke off. He's one of their best pilots, an officer. That's quite an investment. I'm just an enlisted airmanand a woman at that."
Ava could easily believe the military would rather keep this quiet. But would they really investigate less thoroughly than they should?
As she deliberated, fresh tears welled up in Kalyna's eyes. "That's what you're here for, isn't it? To help people like mepeople who have all the cards stacked against them and can't get justice?"
"That's what we're here for." Ava used the same soothing voice she'd used before, but there were a couple of things that bothered her about this case. The air force wouldn't be happy to have a civilian organization looking over their shoulder. Even the prosecutors she'd be trying to assist would probably stonewall her. Maybe that wouldn't be so much of a problem if she knew how the military worked or had any contacts there, but she didn't. And neither did the others at TLS. She had to be careful where she allocated the charity's assets, had to make sure that she didn't waste any of the money they so painstakingly raised. There were far more people needing help than they had the resources to cover. With the economic downturn, she and Skye and Sheridan had decided they could get involved only in instances of dire need or potential threat. Otherwise, they'd put themselves out of business and wouldn't be able to do anything for anyone.
But this case was a classic David versus Goliath. Always a sucker for the underdog, Ava felt tempted to accept the assignment. Maybe it was the sight of this woman wearing battle fatiguesknowing she had to compete in a uniquely male world. Or maybe it was the memory of Bella Fitzgerald, her very first client, which haunted Ava to this day
"So you'll help me?" Kalyna clarified.
Kalyna's situation qualified under both the need and threat tenets. But Ava still wasn't convinced The Last Stand could make a difference. Would it merely drain her time and TLS funds, resulting in no better outcome than if she hadn't jumped in? She had to be sensible, couldn't let what'd happened to Bella provoke her into taking every rape case, regardless of practical considerations.
After removing some pictures from her purse, Kalyna shoved them across the desk. "Look what he did to me."
The photographs showed Kalyna beneath harsh white lights, wearing a hospital gown. Several bruises darkened her face, her eye was swollen almost shut and she had a fat lip. At that moment, Ava saw Bella, not Kalyna Bella in a similar environment, lying pale and lifeless beneath a sheet.
"How did you get these?"
"There are several of each in my file. I insisted the E.R. doctor give me a set. She leaned forward. "Will you help me? Please, help me."
Ava swore, but only to herself. She couldn't say no, refused to risk letting another woman die the way Bella had. "I'll do what I can," she promised, then spoke up to counter Kalyna's immediate relief. "But you have to understand that I've never worked with anyone in the military before. I have no idea what we might encounter, but I'm sure the rules are different than I've dealt with in the past. The military is a whole other world."
"Just knowing you've got my back should keep them honest," Kalyna said. "You're always in the paper, and they're afraid of the media."
"That's how you found us?" Ava asked. "You read about us in the paper?"
"And I've heard you mentioned on the news."
That explained it. Sacramento had shut down its two air force bases years ago, and Travis was an hour's drive to the west, in Fairfield. Although Ava rarely even saw an airman, at least in uniform, she and her partners had worked some pretty high-profile cases. The publicity increased donations, as well as notoriety. But, if the air force intended to protect their captain, they'd be a formidable foe, especially if the civilian police declined to get involved.
It would all depend on the evidence, Ava decided. If she could gather enough evidencea witness who saw Luke leave just before Kalyna called for help, proof of injuries on him that Kalyna had inflicted while defending herself, a past history of date rape or other problems no one could save Luke Trussell.
"Give me the spelling of his last name and anything else you know about him," she said, "right down to the color of his underwear."
It wasn't a mistake. After three weeks of spending long hours being interrogated by the police or meeting with the defense attorney he'd hiredthe best civilian attorney he could findLuke had come to the realization that the trouble Kalyna Harter had caused him wasn't going to go away without a bitter, drawn-out fight. It didn't matter that he was innocent. The Office of Special Investigations planned to prosecute, which meant he'd actually sit in a court-martial accused of raping a woman. It was so unreal, he couldn't believe it.
And he still hadn't told his family.
Determined to get off the couch, where he'd been busy kicking himself for going home with Kalyna in the first place, he prowled around his apartment. As much as he preferred to keep his folks ignorant of his predicament, he had to call them before they heard the news from someone else. So far, he hadn't seen a report of his "crime" in the paper, but his father was retired military, and military circles were tight-knit. It was only a matter of time. Judging by the number of questions and comments he was getting on base, word was spreading fast.
With a sigh, Luke checked the clock hanging on the wall. It was after eleven on a Monday night. Too late; his parents would be in bed. But suddenly he couldn't put off contacting them any longer. He needed their support even more than he loathed admitting that he'd gone home with Kalyna Harter. That he'd made what she was doing possible.
He wished he could speak to them face-to-face. His folks lived in San Diegoonly a seven-hour drive away. He could be there by morning. But he wasn't allowed to leave town. He was lucky E. Golnick hadn't locked him up in the Solano County jail. If not for his commanding officer, she would've tried. As it was, Luke had been grounded from flying, pending resolution of the case. He currently had a desk job, which he hated.
A phone call was the best he could do. And he needed to make that call sooner rather than later. He'd put it off too long already.
Taking a deep breath, he picked up the phone and dialed.
His mother answered almost immediately. "Hello?"
"Yeah, it's me."
"You scared me. Getting a call at this hour, I thought your sister might've caused another fender bender."
"What's Jenny doing out so late on a weeknight?"
"It's not her curfew yet. Besides, it's summer and she only went to the movies. How are you?"
His mother's genuine concern made him choke up. Frustrated by his weakness, he swiped impatiently at his watery eyes. "I've been better. Is Dad around?"
"He's here with me, watching TV. Why? Is everything okay?"
Luke swallowed hard. "Any chance you could get him on the extension? I need to speak to both of you."
He felt his mother's trepidation. "You haven't been hurt
"No, it's something else." To him, something worse, because it defamed his character. He knew they'd feel the same way.
" she mumbled. Then he heard her ask his father to get on the line. "It's Luke. Something's wrong."
"Luke?" His father's voice boomed in his ear, filled with protective anger, even though Ed had no idea could probably never guesswhat was wrong.
"You okay, son?"
The lump in Luke's throat grew larger, adding embarrassment to a list of other emotions. He had to wrestle with himself just to gain control of his voice. "I'm okay," he managed to say.
"Tell me what's wrong."
"There's a woman here, at Travis, a sergeant. She's actually my crew chief," he said with a disbelieving laugh. "She's claiming"
"You haven't gotten her pregnant!"
"No, it's not that." He prayed it wasn't, anyway. As far as he was concerned, that was about the only way his situation could get worse. He'd worn a condom, although Kalyna had insisted she was clean and on the pill. But a condom seemed like meager protection now. They'd found his semen in her body. What would he do if she wound up pregnant? "This woman's telling the police I raped her."
His mother gasped, but his father met his announcement with stunned silence.
"Dad?" Luke said.
"What do you have to say about that?" Edward finally asked.
"I didn't do it."
"You're one hundred percent certain?"