Perception

It was three in the morning when the phone started ringing again. Twice before it had rung with no one on the other end. Groggily she ran her hand over her face, pushing back her long shiny black hair as she turned over to pick the phone up. "This had better be fucking good or you're going to get an earful."

"Tess?" She recognized the voice as belonging to her partner Malone.

"Yeah, it's me. Like I said this had better be good."

"God, for a twenty-seven year old you sure have a way with words," she heard him say under his breath. "A body was found this morning. Location is the old church on south side. It's the one where you grew up." She could hear Malone breathing deeply like he, too, had just woken up.

"Malone, did you just get up?" She couldn't help but to wonder why the dispatcher hadn't called her first.

"Yeah, they figured I'd have a better bedside manner then you. Guess they were right."

She felt guilty for snapping at him. He didn't deserve it. Tess made a mental note to bring coffee and donuts to his desk next time they were in the office.

"They said they would give us the full details when we arrive. Meet you down there in twenty?"

As she heard him let out a huge yawn, Tess could feel her body waking up though her mind spun on wheels thinking of the murder. "I'll be there in fifteen." Knowing she could be ready to leave in five minutes verses Malone, who would take at least thirty minutes to get dressed and out the door, she asked anyway, "Do you want to carpool?"

She could hear a warm smile in his husky voice as he replied. "Why would I want to pool with a woman who just bit my head off because I called her early in the morning? Huh?"

Hearing the warm smile she could feel herself start to smile in reply. "Hey, I had several phone calls in the night. They didn't stop and I was at the end of my rope. I figured if I got snappy enough I could scare them into stopping. It's probably some teenagers who have nothing better to do. So do you want to carpool?"

As she listened carefully she could hear a woman whisper in the background, "Malone, what's going on? Can't someone else handle this?" With a start, Tess realized that he had company.

"Uh, Malone, why don't we just meet there?" She hadn't known he had anyone with him so she just hung the phone up quickly. Every time they had talked, there had never been anyone with him. Until recently she had never thought of her partner as anything other then a thirty two-year-old man who worked with her. Lately there had been an attraction that drew her attention to him in a more than friendly way. Now the only thing that was on Tess's mind was how she felt an attraction to him. She could see why he would have someone over; he wasn't too bad looking if a person liked the dark mysterious type. Especially with his floppy brown hair, hazel eyes, tall, yeah she could see why. Stop losing your focus Tess, she thought, there's a murder case to solve and you need your brains. Stop thinking of Malone as a man and think of him as your partner, like a brother.

With a shrug she went to get ready. It was going to be one of the coldest nights they had experienced so far that winter.

As she climbed out of her bed cloths and into a dark brown suite she could feel eyes on the back of her neck. Her hair standing on end, she turned and looked around her empty apartment. There was no one in the room. She heard a flapping sound and jumped with a startled gasp before she noticed her window was open and the curtain was flapping. Why would I leave the window open in the middle of winter, she thought as she closed it shut. Then she remembered letting in the stray cat and leaving the window open if it wanted out. Even with the window shut there was still a feeling that something was watching her. Tess was torn between wanting to get to the victim quickly as possible versus trying to figure out what the feeling was. Going to the crime scene won. She quickly tied her black shoes on grabbed her keys and left the apartment like the devil was behind her.

Twelve minutes and thirty seconds, she thought, looking at her watch when she arrived at the scene. Malone, she noticed was not yet there.

From her viewpoint in the car she looked around the site for the chief. When she spotted him, she patted down her dark clothing, making sure nothing was out of place on her thin frame, and double checked her tight bun in the mirror before walking over to him.

"Sir, what's the status?" she asked with her breath fogging in the darkness.

Despite being an older man in his fifties, the Chief still had the look of someone just entering his early forties. Even his hair hadn't gone fully gray yet. "Tess, you're here, good. John's finished up the photos." She looked over and saw the photographer watching her but she turned her attention back to the chief, barely giving John any thought. "Malone's not here yet, so you will have to work on the preliminaries with Ludenski."

She almost groaned aloud, but managed to keep it in cheek. "Please. I can do it by myself, and if I have a problem, then Ludenski can help out."

He gave her a stern look. "Don't even think about it. I have heard it enough, and I'm sick and tired of it. He was first to answer the call and since your partner isn't here, you'll have to work with him. The crime scene needs to be surveyed. It's a messy one and the longer we wait here the longer the trail gets cold. I shouldn't have to tell you this. You know this. And I've had it up to here," he pointed his right hand to his neck, "with the way you and Ludenski don't get along. Last time you worked together it ended up being a fight. Next time it will be desk duty for everyone involved."

She sucked in a breath of cold air and got ready to protest, to tell him that it was Ludenski's fault they didn't get along. As she was about to open up her mouth the Chief gave her a dark glare telling her to keep her mouth shut and hear him out. "Now I want you to get your ass over to the body and see what you can find. Then you can interview the person that found the body. Am I clear?"

Vowing to get even with Malone for being late, Tess just gritted her teeth and clipped a tight, "Yes sir." She turned to walk away and almost stumbled into Ludenski. "Lets go, if you can handle this"

With a buzz cut and the bright blue eyes Ludenski fit the profile of a stereotypical cop. He was the kind of cop who pushed his weight around, a real bully. Seeing her, he smirked, "Oh did the little girl not get her way?"

Tess just smiled and flipped him off. Almost immediately his voice darkened and hatred filled his eyes. "You know with your attitude I should have been promoted before you ever cut your teeth on a murder case."

She rolled her eyes, as if to say not this conversation again and she made a silent prayer this wouldn't get them desk duty. Tess sucked in her breath, went over to him and gave her usual speech, the same one that gotten them into a fistfight the last time the chief had found them together. "Listen, Ludenski, I got promoted and you didn't because I'm damn good at what I do. As she spoke she could see the rage building up where there once was hatred in his eyes, ignoring it she took her finger and pointed it in his chest. "You fucked up the last time. You made a mess out of the crime scene. I'm sorry if I am younger and better then you. This is getting old, so lets just get to the body and find out what happened. Am I clear?" She stood there glaring right up into his eyes.

Quietly, so quiet that she almost missed it, he said, "Someday, bitch, you are going to pay for that attitude of yours and I will be watching you."

Feeling a prickle sensation at the nap of her neck she knew the chief had to be watching them as they talked. She turned to look around for him but there was no one watching them. Only darkness and bright lights surrounded them. Turning back to Ludenski, "Is that a threat Ludenski? Because if it is we can go to the chief, right here, right now."

He took a step back, "No, this isn't a threat but a promise. It will be my word against yours."

"Fine. Lets just get the basics done and by then Malone should be here."

"Fine! I'll be right back, I left my gloves in the car."

As he stomped away to get his gloves, she couldn't help but to say under her breath, "Amateurs. You would think by now he would learn to carry gloves on him, especially to a crime scene." Then pulling on her gloves with a snap, she walked over the body.

The victim was a young female Tess estimated her age to be around 7 or 8. It was hard to tell with half her face ripped away. The child was lying on her back as if to watch the sky go by. Tess noticed that underneath the child's long black hair there was a pool of blood that was no longer growing in size but freezing over in the cold weather as steam continued to rise. Tess lifted up the girl's head and found that the back of the girl's neck had been slashed open with something that wasn't smooth. Poor girl never saw it coming. The ripped skin moved in the breeze as Tess looked around to see what had caused it. She looked up to see Ludenski looking at the child's stomach where there where words written. "One day…"

"Hey Ludenski, what do you make of this?" She asked pointing out the words.

He glared over at her, "Two words that can lead to many things. Is there anything specifically you want me to do?" he grounded out as if it has caused him pain to ask.

Tess pointed a bloody finger at the small crowd that had managed to accumulate despite the freezing weather. "Why don't you grab a notebook and go talk to the crowd, see if anyone had managed to hear or see something beside the old lady that found the body."

Ludenski didn't say a word, but just glared at her further then walked off to face the crowd. Tess didn't do anything but just stayed there kneeling down by the girl's head. After she was done looking at the head and noting the possible angle that the child could have been slashed, she stood up to analyze more of the scene. She was finished when she saw Malone pull up. As she was walking over to his car she again felt eyes on her, but when she turned there was no one.

She saw a little bit of red seeing that her partner was late. This was an important crime scene and he had acted like it was just another day going into the office. Tess made a mental note to buy him a watch next Christmas. She couldn't help a small glint of anger in her eyes when she went to greet him. By the time she reached him he was all smiles, "What the hell are you smiling about?"

"You're so cute when you're mad," he said, grinning wider.

His smile was infectious and she couldn't help but have a soft smile on her face when she returned his banter. "God, Malone, you can be such a pain in the ass."

"Yeah, thanks." She noticed that his gaze focused in on someone standing in the crowd. Malone turned, "Hey Tess, isn't that the guy that you arrested last year for child porn?"

"Who are you looking at, Malone? I don't see anyone." Tess saw him turn and look where he had looked before but there was a puzzled expression on his face.

"Guess it was my imagination. I thought that it was Steve, that guy that we caught trying to sell his niece to his neighbor as a sex slave. I don't remember his last name, just his face and first name."

"Yeah, I know who your talking about. Steve Johnson, but he doesn't get parole till next year." Then she did a quick calculation in her head, "No, he should be out and about now. Good behavior will get them out every time. If you saw him then you saw him, we'll have to check out his house tomorrow. Now that you're here, this is what I've done. I've got the body analyzed, notes taken on it. I didn't want them to bag the body until you got here. Thought you might like to get a look. There is an old lady that needs to be interviewed. She found the body."

"Ok, Tess. How about I look over the body while you interview the old lady."

"Sure."

It wasn't until the sun started to rise was when they where finished at the scene. By the time they said goodnight to each other it was almost eight a.m. and Tess's vision was blurry with lack of sleep. As she unlocked her door the phone started to ring. Thinking that it was Malone needing something. She rushed inside her door not noticing it wasn't locked.

She barely made it to the phone without stepping on the stray cat that was stretched out in front of her couch, "Yeah," she said as a greeting into the phone.

A deep dark voice answered her greeting, "Young, middle and old."

"Who are you," she yelled into her phone, her heart beating a mile a minute.

"Young, middle and old," the voice repeated. It was like a bad recording that wouldn't shut up. Her phone didn't have call back so she dropped the handle and called Malone's number. She let it ring but no one answered the phone. Come on, Malone, answer the damn phone, please. Still no one answered the phone, so Tess quietly took the phone off the hook and went to her bedroom. A little shaken she took her dresser and pushed it up against the door. Laid down still in her suite and fell promptly into a dreamless sleep.

Tess awoke to pounding on the door. "Hold on," she yelled straitning her cloths that had gotten tangled while she slept. She pushed her dresser back to its rightful spot and ran into her living room. The door was pounding with such force it shook the whole apartment. "Hold on," she yelled again at the door. Tess looked in the peephole to see a frantic Malone. "What's wrong Malone?"

He looked worried she noticed, "Tess there's been another murder. I got worried when I called and couldn't get through. Are you ok?"

A little touched by his concern she smiled warmly up at him, "Yeah, there was this weird phone call when I got home this morning that kept repeating saying, young, middle and old. It kind of freaked me out so I took the phone off the hook, secured my room and went to sleep." She paused a moment and looked at her partner who was dressed impecabily in a black business suite that matched his eyes perfectly and realized how rumpled she looked compaired to him. "Let me get dressed and then you can tell me the details."

It took only five minutes for her to get dressed and downstairs. When they where well on their way to the crime scene she asked questions about what had happened. All Malone could say was that it was of a young 20-year-old Asian. As Malone told her of the location, Tess noticed that it was once again near where she had grown up.

It took them thirty minutes to reach the crime scene due to traffic. By the time they reached the crime scene, the body had been there two hours and she felt that time was just being wasted away. This time there were no witnesses and no one had ventured over to the crime scene. Since there were no witnesses and the photographer had just arrived at the scene, they would have to wait for the photos to be taken.

While they waited Malone went to get coffee a couple of blocks down while Tess looked around to get a feel for the area. She walked over to the body careful not to get in the photographers way. The second body was messier than the first, blood splattered the sidewalk as the copper smell of it tinged the air. As soon as the photographer shot his photographs she and Malone could start their work.

Tess went over to the photographer she reached down and patted him on the shoulder to get his attention. "John, are you almost done?"

She saw him look up from where he was kneeling taking another snap shot and shrugged his shoulders, "Don't be annoyed at me Tess. I am just doing my job. I couldn't help the traffic."

She looked at his little squeaky frame with the glasses, "Can you do it faster? The longer we wait for you to finish, the longer the trail gets cold. Even Ludenski knows that."

"Hey Tess," Malcolm said, shouting to get her attention; she hadn't even noticed that he was back yet. "You better be glad that he isn't here to hear what you just said. I don't want to have to do desk duty again."

"Fine," She yelled back at him, and then she turned her attention to John, "Please hurry."

"Sorry, Tess. Do you want to hear my take on all the murders?" She noticed he was very eager to be helpful.

Feeling guilty for being snappish towards John, she replied, "Sure," but while John went on and on about how it was an adolescent boy that was going crazy, she tuned him out. No way a boy could be doing the murders, there was too much strength in the killings. She acted like she was interested only because she still felt guilty. She thanked John for the information, told him that she would consider it and walked over to Malone.

Wordlessly, Malone handed her a second cup of coffee.

She took a long swallow, barely noticing that it was lukewarm. Tess saw that he had a puzzled expression on his face. "What?" she said defensively.

"You look tired, Tess. And you're more moody than your usual self. Something wrong?" She could hear the concern in his voice.

"Yeah, something's wrong. Since we have found the first body there was a strange caller at my house. It ties to the killings. The caller keeps saying young, middle, and old ever since last night. If this doesn't stop, there will be an old victim. The clues point to an older victim will fall to a violent attack in my old neighborhood. Then you see Steve Johnson at a crime scene involving a young child but it's not his voice that I hear."

"Tess, I forgot to tell you this afternoon. The chief had Steve Johnson arrested earlier this morning, right after I saw him. We won't know until we get a lab report on how long this woman has been dead, but your caller couldn't have been him."

"Have you called the phone company to see who is making the calls?"

"No, they haven't bothered me until the person started talking. I was going to call the phone company when I got home from the office yesterday, but then I fell asleep and haven't had time to call. As soon as I finish here, I'll call and find out where the phone calls are coming from."

They stood in silence till the photographer stood up and walked over to them, "Okay Tess, you and Malone can mess it up all you want."

"Great," she said smiling, as she they put on their gloves and walked over to the body together.

Turning her attention to the body she looked it over. It was messy, just like the last one had been. She stopped at the head and saw a chunk of hair had been torn away, leaving a bright-irritated red spot. The face was extremely wet in the cold weather. As she leaned down to examine the face she didn't notice the blood had touched her shoes. Instead, Tess focused on something else. Where the right eye had once stood there was only a hole. White puss ran down the girl's cheek. With a grimace she turned the head and looked to see if there was an exit wound. "Hey Malone there's no exit wound. Whoever did this used a spike of some kind."

"Tess, there are more words on this girl's stomach."

"What does it say?"

"Bitch, all your dreams… Guess the bastard didn't want to finish, he must have been saving the rest of the sentence for another body." Malone replied to her.

"See anything else?" She whispered at him.

Looking up at her, "Nope, why don't you check and see if there is anything under her nails?"

As she reached down to pick up a hand there was a prickle sensation at the back of her neck and when she looked back there was no one but John. She did what he asked without comment and found nothing. "Nothing here to report. There's not much we are going to discover from here except the location and the age of the murderers, which ties my caller to the bodies. Let's just call it a day while the body gets an autopsy done.

She watched as Malone turned towards the guys waiting for them to finish. "Bag her up," he said as they turned to leave the scene.

A day later, and they only had minimal clues. She met up with Malone as he was looking over the photos of the crime scene in their cubicle. "Hey, Tess, I'm thinking that there are clues in the lab results. A hair from the murderer, which could have been missed the first time, the results were run. You mentioned to me that you suspect Ludenski because of the writing on the bodies."

"Malone, you know the test results will be the same. Nothing! Nada! Zip! We just spent two hours there." She looked up from where she had her head bowed and turned her pleading eyes up to him.

Tess rolled her stiff neck around to loosen it up. It was feeling tense. Malone wordlessly got up and started massaging her neck. "Tess, we can go back to the crime scenes and see if we missed anything."

"Sure."

As they were grabbing their jackets, a call came through, saying that another murder had taken place.

By the time they negotiated traffic and gotten to the crime scene three hours had passed and the body had been cold for a long time. Again there were words written on the body. This time it was "will be trashed," on the old woman's stomach. After everything was done and they reached the head quarters it was nearing nine in the evening.

With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Tess got to thinking about the first body and what Ludenski had said to her. "Do you really think Ludenski could have done this?"

He looked at her; she felt his gaze piercing at her. "I remember you telling me why you suspected him and about the phone call, but you should make sure that you're right. This could ruin his career."

Tess threw him a look that plainly said it wouldn't be such a bad idea, she saw him sigh, "It could also ruin our reputation."

That Tess knew would be a bad idea. "Fine, but I drive. The least we can do is intimidate him, if not arrest him." The way over to Ludenski's house they set in silence. The house was dark when they reached his house. Thinking that there could be a danger they both crept up to the back door with their guns out. "Open up, Ludenski!" she yelled at him.

A light turned on and Ludenski answered the door with a smile that didn't reach his eyes, "Why, hello, detectives. What brings you to my humble home? Oh wait, before you answer that why don't you two step in." He took a step back away from the door to let them in.

Malone and Tess put their guns away and stepped into the house cautiously. Malone, she noticed, kept one hand resting on his gun. Once they were inside and before Malone could say anything Tess stepped up in Ludenski's face, "It's over, give yourself up."

Tess watched as an evil grin came across his face. "Ah, I see that you figured out my game." Ludenski gave a little sigh like he was disappointed. "Oh, well. Took you long enough to figure out it was me, didn't you?" He brought his hand out from behind him and smacked Tess full in the face with his gun. Darkness surrounded her as she fell to the ground.

When she awoke, she was on the floor in the middle of the room watching as Ludenski…She tried to focus, everything was fuzzy. As she squinted she noticed that it wasn't Ludenski tying up her partner but John. "What, huh?"

John looked over at her as he finished tying the last knot, "Aw, you're awake this soon? Well, at least now you'll get to see what happens to your partner." He took a long knife out of his pocket and slashed Malone's right wrist from the hand up to his elbow. "I'll do the other one later. And to make things slow I'll just tie this piece of rope around his upper arm making the blood flow a little slower. Prolonging his death. "

She saw black spots dancing before her eyes as she slowly got up from off the floor. Tess had to keep telling herself not to throw up when the room was spinning. When she was finally standing Tess asked him. "Where's Ludenski?"

Wordlessly John pointed behind her. She turned her gaze and saw that Ludenski was down. "Why John?"

"Why? Because he hurt you. That wasn't apart of the agreement," he said in a child like tone.

For all the years that Tess had known him, she had never thought him capable of killing someone. "No, not why did you hurt Ludenski. Why did you kill all the girls?"

He smiled, "To be close to you. All my life I have wanted to be a detective, a part of your circle. I wanted to be a comrade, but everyone walked over me. Of all the detectives you are the one who always talked to me. Asked me my opinions. Ludenski was the one doing the calls; I just wanted to see you. Since I didn't hang out in the same circles, I had to do something. I figured if I kept killing people it would make us work together more."

Astounded, Tess said, "What the fuck, John. You are out of your mind. This doesn't explain why you are killing people who had traits like me and near my old home. Nor where does Ludenski fit into all this mess?"

He laughed an evil sounding laugh, "At first, I didn't plan on killing people who looked like you. The person that was going to die could have been anyone but then I had to pay tribute. It started out that I wanted to get to know you so I went walking down your old haunts. Then I would see people who looked like you after that I would get angry, because I couldn't be with you. So if I couldn't be with you, no one could be with them. I killed them."

"Did you always intend on killing all three ages wither they looked like me or not?"

"No, I overheard Ludenski in the showers one day bragging about how he was scaring you. Saying young, old, and middle. Then it came to me; if I was going to kill it was going to be that way. That day in the showers, I noticed he kept peaking at the other guys. He was so stupid, didn't know that I was watching him. We became lovers within the next couple of weeks."

While he was talking she could see Malone's body laying a few feet away tied and bleeding. She noticed he wasn't awake. Time was pressing in. Malone needed medical attention quickly as possible and they needed to get out of there.

"Let us go John. I will help you find a lawyer." She pleaded with him, hoping that he would let them go.

"No way, you are going to be my final victim. Do you want to hear what I have in mind?" He kept the gun firmly pointed at her chest.

"Not really," she took a deep breath. "John, stop the killings."

He walked over to her and leaned down, caressing her face, "I didn't want it to come to this, but to top off all tributes you have to kill who the tribute is to."

She didn't understand but really didn't want to either. "John, if you don't let us go then you will pay for the killings."

John laughed again, "No, you're wrong, Tess dear. Ludenski will. I make a couple of calls from his phone. It will look like he did it."

"Come on, you don't really want to kill me." Tess felt the small gun that was hidden in her leg holster rub against her, temping her.

He ignored her "Let me tell you what I'm going to do to you, Tess dear,"

Not stopping to think she reached behind her, grabbed her gun, and then fired. He fell over backwards.

She didn't know that he had fired a round off until she felt a sharp stab of pain in her right side. When she reached down to touch it, her hand came away slick with blood. As darkness pressed in she stumbled over to the phone hoping that the dial tone was still there, it was. Quickly she dialed 911 and as she heard the operator say, "911, State your emergency," darkness claimed her.

Tess awoke to light, and the sight of Malone sitting in the chair beside her, with his arm bandaged up to the elbow. "What happened?" she asked groggily.

"Don't you remember?"

It all came back to her, the murders and then the shooting of Ludenski. "Yeah, I remember, how long have I been out?

"Just about a day and a half. They had to do surgery to remove the bullet that was lodged in your side."

"What's going to happen? Ludenski?" Now that she was getting fully awake, she could feel a dull ache in her side.

Sorrow crossed his features. "Ludenski died. There was no way to save him. He was dead before he hit the ground. I never did like the guy, but he was still a part of the force."

"And what about John, do we have to go to trial and all that b.s.?"

He smiled warmly, "Well we got lucky, we won't have to stand trial for killing John, but we are on desk duty until your side is healed. Then it's back to normal." She looked at him good and noticed the dark shadows under his eyes.

"You look tired,"

"Tess, you had me scared. I blacked out when you where negotiating with John. When I awoke I was here in the emergency room while the doctors where talking about someone being taken in to surgery with a fifty-fifty chance. As soon as I found out that was you, I waited around until you woke up to make sure you were ok."

She watched him as he looked down at his hands, "Tess, when I thought that I might lose you…I uh…I was scared. I didn't want to think what life without you would be like."

With a sigh Tess wished she could have made some witty comeback but the drugs where making her too sleepy. As she drifted off to sleep she felt a kiss on her forehead distantly and watched through a drug-induced haze of Malone's face etched in relief.