She swung the door of her office open and shoved Andy's hands away from her, "Let go of me!"
"Sharon you're not thinking clearly," he said cautiously. He'd never seen her like this, not even in the worst fight during her FID days.
Her face was red and her eyes wild, "To hell I'm not. My son is there Andy don't you get that?! He's there!"
He took a step towards her, wanting to comfort her, calm her, "Yes I know he's there, but I also know that Stroh is likely to be there too. You can't just run up to Griffith Park and save him by yourself."
"Watch me," she gritted out between her teeth, her eyes daring him to challenge her.
"Sharon!" He shouted trying to get her to be reasonable.
Mike had followed the pair out of RACR and realized they were in too deep. He turned into the conference room connected to Sharon's office and picked up the phone dialing a familiar number, "Chief, we need you down here now." He opted for Howard over Mason, he was sure he'd hear about it later, but right now they needed someone who Sharon might actually listen to, someone that understood Stroh and families.
Andy moved following Sharon as she opened her desk drawer to pull out her service weapon.
"Stay out of my way Andy," her voice dipped dangerously low.
Andy froze at the tone in her voice, but didn't back down, "No, I won't let you do this. You're risking both your life and Rusty's and I love you both too much to let you go off half-cocked—"
"You're one to talk," she barked back interrupting him.
"Yeah, yeah I am, and you've got the files to prove how wrong I was in the past," he chanced a step forward, "Can you just take one moment and listen to me?"
"Andy I can't wait one more second. Rusty is out there in God knows what condition," she waved her arms in the air.
"Then listen to me," Fritz exclaimed as he barreled into Sharon's office. Mike had given him the bullet points, for once, on his cell as he made his way down from the 10th floor.
Sharon spun around surprised to see all three men standing at her doorway with looks of concern on their faces. She held up her hand to Fritz, "Don't try to convince me you wouldn't be doing the very same thing if it was Brenda he had out there!"
"You're right," he moved into her office, "I probably would. But I would hope that my friends, my colleagues, like you, would help my from myself. Andy is right Sharon and you know it."
She turned her back on her boss, on her fiancée, on her team trying to shut out their words of dissent.
Andy took another step forward, "Listen to Howard," he placed a hand gently to her shoulder but she rebuffed it. He took a step back giving her the space she needed and gave a nod to Fritz to continue.
"Sharon, Stoh has had months, hell years to put together this elaborate plot. Killing people connected to Major Crimes, trying to frame the team. He had to pick the Zoo for a reason, let's take a little bit of time to do our homework and then I'll have McGinnis launch special ops into the area to save Rusty."
Sharon's shoulders dipped a little at the mention of McGinnis, she was a mother too, a mother who had lost a child. No one else in this room could have any idea of what she was feeling. But Rusty wasn't lost, not yet. She had to hope and pray, but she felt in her heart that she would have known if something terrible had happened.
Andy looked back and saw a crack in Sharon's armor, "And Sharon, if we're wrong about this and he's not there then we need you here to coordinate with the team, following up on leads."
He was right, she knew that, but she was having a hard time setting aside her drive as a mother to race out that door. The sun was dipping low on the horizon now, it would be dark soon. She worried if he might be cold. Griffith Park could get chilly at night, even in the summer. An involuntary shiver coursed through her body as she thought about her boy in some hole near the old zoo.
Fritz took a step forward, "If I need to make it an order, I will Sharon. I need you here, and Rusty needs you here."
An order. Everyone in the room knew Fritz had won when he said that, Sharon never disobeyed an order. She might find ways to bend the rules, but she always colored between the lines.
She spun back around to face the trio of men, men who had no idea what inner struggle she was dealing with, "How dare you! He's my son and he needs me there. I told him that I would always come and find him. I would search to the ends of the earth for him. He would never be a missing John Doe because I would always know him." Her voice wavered as she spoke.
Suddenly the men turned to look at one another, maybe they'd given Sharon's nature too much credit. The rules were the rules, until they weren't. Until your child was missing and being held by a sadistic serial killer. Then perhaps there was no rulebook.
For the first time everyone saw a similar drive between Sharon and Brenda. Fritz knew that she could be more reasonable than his wife, and continued to push hoping he was right, "Sharon, I want you to think about this. If you walk out that door you're not only putting your career as a police officer on the line, but your life and the lives of everyone else that may be risked to save you, saving your son."
Andy took a bold step towards her again, closing the space so they were intimately close. It was a move that he knew could set her off, but it was worth the chance, "Sharon," his voice low enough so only she could hear him. She turned to look at him, fire dancing in her emerald eyes, "Think about Rusty. He would do anything protect you, including sacrificing himself." He paused waiting for the realization to cross her face, "You're right he is your son. He's just like you, which is why you can't go."
She blinked back the watery rage that filled her eyes, wanting to argue, wanting to fight with these men, but feeling the wave of rationality begin to hit her.
"But you know what?" He asked, touching her shoulder, "He's my son too. Our son. I'll go out with McGinnis' team. I've worked with them before," he paused. He was right. She thought back to that horrible case, but the kids were saved and Andy was there. Everyone made it out ok. She gave a small nod, took her service weapon off her belt and set it on her desk. It wasn't defeat that she felt, even though part of her felt ganged up on. She realized it was love. Everyone standing in her office loved her and her family so much they were willing to meet her toe to toe in order to save her, to save the family.
"Good," Fritz replied as he took her nod as acceptance of the pseudo-command he'd issued moments ago and turned out of the office. He lifted his phone to his ear and shouted, "McGinnis" as he disappeared into the murder room intent on staging a rescue.
Tao looked at the pair and opted to step out, "I'm just going to alert the others." He muttered as he slipped back down the hall into RACR.
Once her office was quiet and devoid of intruders Andy looked back to her, "I know this isn't what you want." He didn't offer her any platitudes, it would have been an insult.
"You're right it isn't. I should be the one Andy," she turned away from him and moved to her window looking out at the city, wishing her office had a view of Griffith Park.
"Maybe, but that's not what's best," he followed her intent on sticking by her side. This thing could break them, they'd seen it before. A missing child. The guilt. The turmoil. Fear leads to blame. Someone gets hurt even when things do work out. He was determined to beat the statistic.
"I know," she whispered the words and quickly covered her mouth as if to pull the words back in.
He draped his arms over her shoulders and pulled her back into him. She pushed back, but he didn't relinquish. She needed this and he would give it to her. It didn't take her long to relent. She may not have had years of experience relying on someone else, a partner, but she was a quick study. Andy kept hold of her, pouring his strength back into her, "I will bring him back."
"Bring you both back to me," she said spinning around to face him as the realization hit her that Andy was going out there, to confront Stroh. A swell of fear rose from her belly and made her feel like she needed to vomit.
"Babe, you aren't going to lose either of us today," he leaned down and kissed her. He stopped short of adding the I promisebecause it wasn't something he could give her. He'd try his best, they both knew that.
The door opened and they both turned at the noise, "Andy come with me we need to start the debrief with SOB," Fritz said as he poked his head through the door.
Andy nodded, he started to pull away from Sharon but waited until their eyes had met to actually break the touch. There were so many unspoken things that began to fill the room. Look after my kids. Come back to me. I love you. Be safe. Bring Rusty home. There wasn't a need to say any of it, they'd talked about all this before. Over the years, they'd confronted a number of these life and death moments. To say they were used to it would have been trite, but they were at least prepared.
As he pushed the door open wider to step through he looked back at her and gave her a Flynn trademark smile.
Wes stepped out of the cabin, he had to admit it was beautiful up here. After years in deep cover with Nazi-land he'd nearly forgotten what nature looked like, let alone smelled like. "Isn't it a bit creepy that we're standing on the same porch that the mini Stroh stood as a kid?" He asked as he heard Amy follow him out for some fresh air.
She gave him a weird glance, "I was doing really good not thinking about that until you brought it up." It was really easier for her to just focus on the tasks at the moment and not the why. Her eyes looked down the hill, "Are the dogs here?"
He shook his head, "Any minute," he turned to face her and gestured towards her phone "Any news?"
"Julio texted on his way to Pasadena, I guess Mike thinks he found where they might be. We should be looking for anything else that ties back to that picture we found. Apparently it's of the Old LA Zoo," it wasn't a lot to work from but Amy was relying on her positive attitude to get her through the next several hours. There was a lot they still had to sort through here and she worried that they'd stumbled on Pandora's box and she didn't play unlimited music.
"I didn't know there was one before the one we have," Wes leaned against the deck railing and thought back to his own childhood and the few times he and his family had gone to the zoo. He stopped himself from mentioning how much he liked giraffes as a kid.
"Me neither," she shrugged, "I guess the new one was built several miles down the hill - bigger area for the animals." Next to Wes she was nearly the youngest member in the team, Provenza is probably the only one that would have known that she thought.
"Hmm, well fitting for him to be up among the animal cages I guess," he mock laughed trying to enjoy the parallels life sometimes offered up.
"Indeed," she started to say but was interrupted by the sound of trucks coming up the hill. They were bringing in a pair of scent dogs to search the grounds looking for any sign of life, or death. "The dogs are here." The tone in her voice dropped several octaves.
"Yeah," he slipped off the edge of the post he'd been leaning against and made his way down the small embankment to meet the other officers, following behind Amy.
The two K-9 officers jumped out of the Ford Explorers and opened the back doors for the dogs to jump out. They led the coonhound and golden retriever with long black leads up to the cabin and greeted the other officers.
They wasted no time. The officer with the golden retriever was the first to speak, "Do you have an article of the man's clothing?"
Amy searched for words. Man. Rusty was a man. She knew that, but he was like a nephew or a younger brother. A Kid. Wes gave her a look and then answered, "Yeah," he handed over a blue hoodie that Sharon had brought into the station.
"This will work," he opened the bag and let the canine smell it several times as he turned it over and around letting him get the scent. The officer put the sweatshirt back into the bag and handed it back to Wes, immediately, the dog jerked and moved up the hill behind the canyon nose to the ground searching around.
The other officer approached with the large coon and gave a nod. Everyone knew why he was here, it didn't need to be stated. He and the dog began their own search of the property.
Commander McGinnis stood in front of the large conference room staring at her men and took a deep breath. The adrenaline was pumping quickly through her veins as it often did before a mission, but knowing the personal side of what was a stake tonight added an extra element of intensity. A low hum filled the room as the men pilled into their chairs, notebooks in hand. It was a myth that guys on SWAT were all brawn and no brain, this work, their work required meticulous preparation and thorough planning to create the best possible outcome. It was nothing short of cardiovascular surgery with automatic weapons you hoped to not have to use. Threading the needle between pulling the trigger and not was all about their brain, which is why she only took the best the Academy had to offer. The voices hushed as Chief Howard walked in the room with Andy in tow.
"Right," he said, "We have uncovered the possible whereabouts of a missing adult, suspected to be kidnapped by Phillip Stroh." He paused letting the weight of the name fill the room. "Additionally, the victim is Rusty Beck, son of Commander Sharon Raydor. So I don't need to emphasize to you the importance of getting him back safely. He's part of the family."
The room silently nodded in agreement. It was an unwritten code, children and spouses of those on the force were the responsibility of everyone who wore the uniform. They were their family as much as their own flesh and blood.
"Commander," he said gesturing to McGinnis giving her the floor.
She clicked the map that Tao had created and sent down to her, "It is believed that Stroh is holding Rusty here," her laser pointer circled an area around Griffith Park, "It's a four mile hike from the main road. The trail is in good condition. It leads to this," she clicked to zoom in to images that Mike uploaded, "A picnic area for the Old Los Angeles Zoo."
A hand went up in sea of officers, "It's a popular hiking area, I've taken my kids up there. There's no much to hide around are we sure he's there?"
McGinnis gestured to Andy who stepped forward, "Not conclusively no. But our team has uncovered evidence that this spot was significant to Stroh during his childhood and it," he paused trying to find the best words, "has, uh, certainly parallels with Rusty's life. Also the area of Griffith Park fits squarely in Stroh's hunting ground and in fact was known to dump bodies. He feels comfortable there and it is a reasonable assumption that he's returned."
Another hand went up, "That's a lot of land. Griffith Park is over 4,000 acres. Couldn't he be anywhere on that hill?"
Howard jumped in raising his hand to still the conversation, "Yes, we are all aware of how big of a search area we might have, but for now we feel that zeroing in on this specific section," he gestured to McGinnis to show the highlighted box around the former Zoo, "here makes the both the best tactical and logical sense at this time."
Andy added, "The Major Crimes team is spread out over three locations continuing to gather clues on Stroh's possible whereabouts and where he might have taken Rusty and will be actively following up on any other leads and passing them to SOB accordingly."
"It'll be dark by the time we are fully set-up which works in our favor. We will have two helicopters flying over head using infrared to help us locate anyone in the area. The hiking trail closes at sundown, so there should be no one else in the area." She turned to face her two team leads, "Perez you'll lead Red team here," her laser moved across the southern end of the park, "Stuart, Blue team will take the northern. We need to be on the look out for any buildings or structures that might have been abandoned after the zoo closed."
"So what's the plan then, should we come back?" Provenza asked stepping out of the storage locker as he took Andy's call.
"No, Sharon needs you both there searching through every scrap of paper. If we are wrong about this then we need to keep digging," he replied as he turned around the corner from the SOB conference room.
"Right," he wasn't happy about it and didn't hide it from his voice.
"Besides, it's a 4 mile hike," Andy paused, "and you don't hike." He knew why his friend was annoyed, like Sharon he wanted to be there. Everyone on the team felt they should be there.
He would for Rusty. But he didn't say it. "We've found a briefcase that Paige is trying to break into that may have some relevant information that could help. We'll keep going over every inch of this place," it wasn't much but it's all he could offer at the moment.
"Sharon will be staying here to coordinate, so funnel everything through her and Mike," he replied looking back into the conference room knowing he needed to get back.
"How did you convince her?" Provenza didn't hide the surprise from his voice.
"Howard issued an order," it wasn't the full story but he didn't want to get into it now. She'd agreed and that was all that mattered.
"She was always a rule follower," he gave a shrug and looked back at Camile who was still sitting on the floor surrounded by boxes.
"Yes, well for once I'm glad. I think we both know that it's a trap," Andy anxiously brought a hand to his neck checking his pulse. He was fine, it was just habit.
"Without a doubt," he turned back and looked at the row of other storage lockers, "The safest place for her right now is to be at PAB."
"Agreed," he turned back towards the door knowing he needed to get back inside, "I'm going out with SOB." He let the words hang in the air.
"You're what?!" He shouted causing Paige to look up at him. "You're a year out from a heart attack and only three months off desk duty and you think you're up to this?"
"Louie, I have to go," he ran his hand through his hair, "If I don't go she will. I'd rather it be me." His response was full of other meaning.
Provenza couldn't disagree, it was better this way, but he'd rather neither of them were in this situation to begin with and that Rusty's only problem was getting into the law school of his choice. "Okay, just don't do anything I wouldn't do,"
"Yeah, right," he ran his hand down his tie trying to compose himself, "Listen I gotta get back in there, but in case I —"
"Yeah, I know Andy, I know," he whispered before they both hung up.
Howling came from just up the canyon. Both Wes and Amy felt an icy chill coarse through their veins. It was the hound. He'd found something.
Amy looked at her watch, it hadn't taken long for him to locate a body. She and Wes stepped out of the cabin they'd been searching and followed the sound of the deep howl. Other officers followed. They scrambled up a steep hill to a flat plateau and found the dog sitting next to his partner's feet waiting for his next job. The officer knelt and gave him a rub muttering "Good boy" as a reward for doing exactly what he was supposed to do.
There was a slight double depression in the ground, but with the piles of dried leaves covering the area it was hard to notice that it was any different from any other spot. Amy knew that a depression usually meant that the body was already decomposed, after the body turned to just bones the dirt would fill in the space the flesh had left. She let out a breath she'd been holding in, this wasn't Rusty.
Wes pulled out his phone and sent a text to Mike, "Cadaver dog found something, mostly likely an old victim."
The officers waved for the shovels and crime scene team to come up to the hill. The team made quick work of setting up spot lights for their work. They cleared the leaves and delicately mapped out the double depression with string, before taking pictures before putting the shovel in a few inches and lifting up the first scoops of dirt.
Wes's phone dinged, "Rusty?" Was the reply. He quickly typed out, "Nothing yet," and put his phone back in his pocket. This wasn't their crime scene and yet they couldn't pry themselves away, wanting to see who was buried up here. He caught Amy's eye, "Maybe it was some gold miner." They both knew it was doubtful.
Sharon stood in the parking garage where SOB was staging the vehicles with officers and gear. It'd taken nearly an hour for them to finish the briefing and give out assignments. As she watched the men pair off and double-check one another's tactical gear she caught the now Lieutenant Perez's eyes. He walked over towards the Commander, "We'll get him." She nodded and let out a small hum trying to keep her emotions in check. Her eyes drifted over to Andy who was speaking with Commander McGinnis, Perez followed her line of sight, "He's with my team." She already knew this of course, Howard had given her the cliff notes on the plan. She liked Perez, trusted him with her family on more than one occasion, he was a good officer and a legacy. She smiled a Perez, "Don't let him be a hero." He gave a tight nod and made his way back to his unit.
Andy tightened down his vest and double-checked his weapon before re-holstering it. He felt strangely calm in the moment. It felt like a culmination of a lifetime. He'd spent years fighting to get his family back, trying to save a marriage, and put himself back together. After 20 years of sobriety he'd managed to do most of the things he needed to fix, but some how doing this for Sharon, for them felt like the final chess piece to move. Rusty was his son. Sharon was his (almost) wife. They were a family. He'd never been more sure of any decision, and when his eyes met Sharon's he tried to send her all the strength he was feeling in that moment. They didn't have time to talk nor was this the place for a romantic moment instead she gave a nod and mouthed "I love you" which he replied "You too babe." They gave a nod and that was it. He climbed into the explorer with McGinnis and focused on the mission.
Sharon remained fixed in her spot as the men and three women loaded into the two vans and three Ford Explorers. She stayed there as they pulled out of their parking spots and made their way down the garage. It wasn't until she'd lost both sight and sound of the vehicles that she retreated back into the office, up to RACR where she, Howard, and Mike would be keeping an eye on the GPS monitors and helmet cameras. If Howard has his way she wouldn't be allowed to watch any of it, but he'd relented, there was only so much he could ask of her. It wasn't that she didn't understand what he was doing, what they were all doing — protecting her. Her son was being held by a madmen and her fiancée was going to face him, what went down when that happened could be beyond the pale. She shook her head as she stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the 9th floor, she couldn't afford to think about that right now. Her team was separated, spread all across the county and she needed to maintain her focus.
The elevator jolted up and thankfully no one else got on, making the ride up quick. As the doors opened she pulled down on her blazer and stiffened her back then took a step out. Her steps were quiet in the flats she rarely wore. Silently she let her feet take her on a familiar path, allowing herself to slip into the routine, the protocol, the order in which things would transpire. She'd compartmentalize and focus on the tasks she'd be assigned, she could do that. There was a still a chance Stroh wasn't up in the hills or that Rusty wasn't either. They needed to keep following up on other avenues of inquiry, and that was her job. Just stay focused.
Julio flicked his turn signal on and moved off the 210 freeway onto Foothill Blvd. The drive from Palm Springs had been wrought with traffic and he'd crawled from the 57 all the way to his exit. He looked at his phone, he only had 2 more miles to go. Taking the quick right onto Sierra Madre he let out a deep frustrated moan, his millionth of the afternoon, he wasn't a patient man. Julio was used to action and part of him was feeling envious of Andy going out with SOB to the Zoo location. He knew that he had Mark to think about now, but it didn't change the drive in him nor the need for an adrenaline rush. Tapping his wedding ring to the steering wheel he entered the estates surrounding Eaton Canyon Golf Course. It was always interesting to him to compare siblings given how different he and his brother's lives turned out. In this case one ended up here and the other as a raving sociopath.
The one-story ranch house had a long brick paved driveway with an immaculately landscaped lawn. Like step-mother, like step-son he thought as he looked at the sprawling green grass that had to suck up water like the Gobi. He gave the brass knocker a bang and heard rustling though the house as a young boy came and answered the door, "Jason! Wait!" Someone hollered in the background and suddenly a woman in her early forties appeared at the door, "What did I tell you about opening the door without an adult?" She chastised the young blond haired boy.
"It's alright ma'am," he smiled and held up his badge, "Detective Julio Sanchez, LAPD."
The woman straightened her posture and pushed her son behind her, "What can I help you with Detective?"
Julio put his badge back on his belt, "Yes is your husband home?"
The young boy turned and started yelling, "Daddy! Daddy! A policeman is here for you!" And then disappeared into the back of the house.
"Can I ask what this is about?" The woman asked with concern in her voice.
"Uh yes ma'am I was just out to see his step-mother Gwendoline regarding her son, your husband's step-brother Phillip Stroh,"
"Ah, yes, say no more," she opened the door wider to allow Julio inside, "My husband is in his study through there," she gestured down the hall.
"What is it Mike?" Sharon asked.
"They've found skeletal remains out at the cabin," he paused, "female."
Howard put his head in his hands, "How old?"
"Morales will need to confirm, but sounds like early 20s. Most likely been buried for several years,"
"Anything else?" Sharon asked not sure whether she wanted to know.
"Wes and Amy are still combing through the cabin, seems like it's filled with old newspapers and magazines, canned food from the 70s, not much to go on," Mike wished he had more to give her, but it seemed that all of their leads were coming up just a tad short.
"Well that photo might be all we need," Howard said optimistically, "Anything from Julio or Provenza?"
"Julio just made it to the step-brother's place in Pasadena and Provenza said they don't have much except that briefcase that they still can't get into," he zoomed the map out to show the county of LA and not just the city and pointed towards the flashing dots denoting other members of the team.
Howard moved from his position behind Sharon to stand squarely in front of Tao, "Remind me why they haven't cut into it already?"
"Worried about it being boogie trapped," he dipped his shoulders as he spoke.
Howard didn't think that Stroh would spend the time, but he wasn't looking to take any chances with lives on the line, "Send out the bomb squad with their x-ray machines to take a look, no more wasting time."
"Got it," he replied and picked up the phone dialing out to the other unit while simultaneously sending a text to Paige.
Sharon watched the dots move on the monitor, focused on the team moving towards Griffith Park, focused on Andy, "How many minutes out?" She could see for herself that they had at least another ten minutes until they reached the base of the trail and it would be another several minutes for them to reach the search area.
Howard looked at her, "You've got time."
She nodded and walked out of the room headed up to the 11th floor, opting to take the stairs. Her legs were burning by the time she reached the top, grateful for the flats she had on today. The door to the stairwell creaked as she opened it, and found the floor mostly empty as she walked down the familiar hallway towards the chapel. There was a small bowl of holy water near the door that she dipped her hand into it and made the sign of the cross. She wasn't surprised that the room was empty, the space was much the same in the evenings. The pale orange and red skies were fading into purple and filtering into the room, cascading over the understated alter. She knelt before the cross and began reciting familiar words,
"O God, You are the preserver of men, and the keeper of our lives. We commit ourselves to Your perfect care on the journey that awaits us. We pray for a safe and auspicious journey. Give Your angels charge over us to keep us in all our ways. Let no evil befall us, nor any harm come to our dwelling that we leave behind. Although we are uncertain of what the days may bring, may we be prepared for any event or delay, and greet such with patience and understanding. Bless us O Lord, that we may complete our journey safely and successfully under Your ever watchful care."
As she finished the prayer she looked up at the cross and stifled a sob. As hard as she tried to bat them away with her eye lashes the tears kept forming. She kept her eyes fixated on the cross above the alter and asked God to give her the strength to get through this day as he had the last and he would the next. In an hour she might have her son back, but she might not and the thought nearly broke her. Her lips formed an O and she breathed deeply in and out to calm herself. The tears stilled and she knelt off the floor and sat on the first bench in front of the alter. It was the same spot that a few years ago she and Andy had bumped shoulders as the said a few words for Mariana. She had no idea that a year later they would be a couple and burying Alice, life had come full circle that day. The light was growing darker as she looked at her watch, it was time to get back downstairs, SOB would be nearly there. Taking another deep breath she closed her eyes and stood, with a final glance at the cross she left the chapel and headed to the elevators. She had a job to do and she wasn't going to let Rusty, or Andy, or her team down. Not today. Not when it mattered too much.
"Over here," Provenza waived his arms gesturing towards the storage locker.
Two officers from the bomb squad unit pulled in with their equipment, "Where's it at?" A large bald headed man asked as he jumped out of their truck.
"It's right here," Paige said carrying the briefcase towards them. "We think that he may have rigged it to let off an incendiary device destroying the contents. Bombing doesn't fit his MO though."
"Ok, well we can't take your word on that and need to follow protocols," he gestured for her to leave the briefcase where it was and focused on gathering all the equipment they would need from their truck.
Provenza turned away from them and walked away before he said or did something that could get him fired. Paige set the briefcase down and stood back allowing the men to get to work, debating about whether she should stay with the evidence or go check on Provenza.
McGinnis flipped off the lights on her Ford Explorer as she made the final turn up the dirt road. They'd decided to drive three miles up the trail and then hike in the final mile to avoid having lights and noise that could alert Stroh to their presence. The SUV bounced around as it went up the canyon silently. Neither she nor Andy had spoken beyond the details of the case and the mission. Her focus was on running through every detail before the teams deployed and his was clearly on his family. She understood and did her best to give him that space.
Seconds later she saw the bend of trees that denoted the 3 mile marker. The car slid a little in the dirt as she applied the brakes and brought it to a stop. She gathered her things and hopped out. She could still see the dust filtering through the air as the light faded, then turned to see the other vehicles approach.
Andy took a moment to himself alone in the SUV to gather his thoughts. They would be going in silent to keep a low profile, his phone would need to stay off. He took it out of his pocket and sent a quick text message before turning it off. Taking another deep breath he jumped out and found McGinnis standing at the back of the SUV waiting for her team to file in. She turned to him, "Are you ready for this?"
He nodded, "Definitely."
That's all she needed to know. She knew she made the right decision to pair him with Perez, they'd work well together and he'd keep an eye on Andy.
Once the sound of shuffling feet dissipated McGinnis began, "Okay, you all know what's at stake here. Stick to the plan, stick to your partner. Be smart. Be safe."
Perez and Stuart stepped to the flanking McGinnis and Flynn. Perez was the first to speak, "Ok, radios off, body and helmet cams on." He paused while everyone checked their gear. "Let's go." Perez turned to McGinnis and Andy, "Ma'am," he nodded and faced Flynn, "Ready?"
"Let's go," Andy replied and filed in behind Perez and his men as they began to make their way up the dirt trail. It wasn't going to be a hard one mile hike, it was a family friendly walking path that was well-worn from years of visitors. Andy imagined happy mothers and fathers taking their kids up here for the afternoon, enjoying a nice lunch of sub sandwiches and playing in the old habitats. He didn't let his mind wander too far into happier family moments, instead he focused on the incline of the trail itself. He was grateful for the workout routine he and Sharon started after his heart attack. Two years ago he might not have been able to keep up with the guys in SOB.
The briefcase was set up against a small black board with yellow lines in the corners and a foot away the officer placed a portable digital x-ray machine.
"Okay, it's lined up," he said as he double-checked the settings, "We should be good to go."
The group moved back behind the open Ford Explorer. The trunk was filled with equipment. The other officer lifted the top of the laptop and opened several windows before an image of the briefcase suddenly appeared on the screen.
"Here we go," he studied the screen as he moved the mouse over the grayscale image. There seemed to be documents and perhaps some passports. "I don't see—" he started to say and then paused when he found a small thin wire, "Ah ha."
Provenza spun around and squinted at the screen, "Ah ha what? That's my line."
"Right there," the officer pointed, "there appears to be a small wire tied to a tiny battery here."
"And that means what exactly?" Provenza didn't bother to pretend like he wasn't annoyed that these bomb guys couldn't move any faster, it was like they had no idea that someone's life was on the line.
"That you were right to call us," he turned to the other officer, "Let's get the robot."
"NO!" He shouted recalling how Brenda lost her purse that way, "I"m not about to lose evidence because you boys like blowing shit up."
"Sir, we don't intend to blow anything up. The robot is just a precaution. We're going to use the sniffer to get an idea of the chemical signature, that will tell us what type of device he used. I don't see any blocks—"
"That's good right," Paige interrupted the officer's explanation.
"Let the man finish!" Provenza barked.
"As I was saying, I don't see any evidence that this is a bomb, but I do agree that he's probably triggered a small incendiary device to destroy whatever documents are inside. You were right it's a failsafe."
Provenza couldn't believe what he was hearing. Camile was right. Stroh had surprised him. He wasn't about to admit that he was grateful, not right now when he was dying for information that would help to save Rusty, but for once it was nice to have someone who didn't know Stroh the way the rest of the team did. "So what do we do now?"
"Now, you let us get to work," the officer turned back to the computer and began discussing their options with his colleague.
There was nothing either of them could do to actually help, so Provenza made it his duty to watch over these guys to make sure they didn't fuck anything up. After all he had to maintain the chain of evidence, "Right."
"I guess I'll give the Lieutenant an update," Paige said stepping away from the officers and brooding Provenza.
Hunt moved back towards his desk after shaking Julio's hand, and gestured for him to take a seat in one of the dark brown leather chairs across from him, "I'm not sure what else I can tell you that I haven't already volunteered to the FBI."
"Sir, we're not as interested in what you know about Stroh as an adult, we are trying to find out more his childhood. Get an idea of places or people that might have been important to him, it might help us locate him now," Julio paused, "We have reason to believe that he may have taken the son of a police Commander, time is of the essence," his voice was calm but filled with the intensity he often let spill through as emotions got the best of him.
Hunt stood up and dove a hand through is blond hair and paced the room, "I'm quite a bit younger than Phillip. My father didn't marry his mother until Phillip was a senior in high school. I'm not sure I have anything that would help. I only lived with him for a year," he looked at Julio in a way that made him seem as though he was trying to rewrite the sins of an entire family. It was something Julio was intimately familiar with given what his own siblings had gotten into over the years.
"Sir, anything you might remember could be a huge help. Please just think back, is there anything that he mentioned or maybe someone else said? Maybe you saw pictures?" He needed them to stay on track, it would be easy for Hunt to shut down or even get too lost in his own past to be able to really help.
He stopped pacing for a minute, "He used to go up to a cabin. He said it was his uncle's place, but I never met the man. He and his mom had a big fight about it around Spring Break. She wasn't going to let him go."
Julio nodded, "The one up in the Los Angeles National Forest?"
He finally returned to his desk and sat down, taking a sip of what Julio guessed was high-priced scotch, "I guess? Like I said I never went up there, it was Phillip's thing."
He tried not to let the disappointment cross his face, they already knew that the cabin was important to Stroh, but at this point there was no sign he or Rusty or anyone else had been there in years. "That's great," he feigned, "Anything else?" He pressed on.
Hunt set his glass back down on the desk and leaned back in his chair, clearly trying to recall other events from what had to have been a disturbing period in his childhood living with someone like Phillip. After a few moments he spoke up again, "It's probably not relevant, but the summer before he went off to university. He uh, he got a girl pregnant. I don't really know all the details I was only 9 at the time. His mother wanted him to take responsibility for it, but then days later everyone stopped talking about it."
Julio had never heard anything about the possibility that Stroh had a kid, "What happened to the girl? Do you remember her name?"
He shrugged, "Sorry I can't recall any more details. I know it was someone at the same high school he attended."
Julio wrote down this new detail in his notebook and looked up at Hunt as he took another sip from the amber liquid and knew he was going to get anything else from him, "Ok," Julio stood up, "Here's my card. If you think of anything else please call me."
He took the business card and followed Julio out of his study, "I'm sorry I can't help you more. I know what he's done and it terrifies me. He terrifies me. I worry," he paused looking down the hall. Julio followed his gaze, "I worry about my family. That he will try and take all this away from me?"
It was a valid fear Julio thought, his step-brother was a serial killer and he wouldn't put it past him to try and wipe out anyone and everyone that ever knew him. "Do you really think he hates you that much?" He wasn't sure why he asked the question.
"Yes, I do." His voice didn't waiver and Julio stared at him until he elaborated, "I think he always blamed me for taking his mother."
An incredulous look washed over him, "From what I gathered, he and his mother were very close. Did things change when your father and she married?"
"At the time I didn't think it had, but looking back on it and being a parent now, I can see that it did. She doted on me and it was as if Phillip was the step-child. Gwen went out of her way to make me feel at home and loved. My mother died when I was six and I ate up all the affection she had to give. Even though Phillip was getting ready to leave home I think it bothered him, he certainly made it known that he did not want a little brother. At every opportunity he tormented me like I was his play thing, I was never happier than the day they packed him up and sent him off to college. But I think that he might still hold a grudge or something against me, wanting to get back to me for stealing his mom or something,"
"She chose you," he muttered.
"Nothing, thank you Hunt for your time," Julio waved him off he didn't need to know what that meant.
"Do you think he'll come after here? Come after us?" There was no missing the fear from his voice.
"I'm not sure, but I'll contact that Pasadena PD and ask them to send patrol out this way to keep an eye on things," he paused and added "When we get him, you'll be the first to know I promise."
"Thank you, I'd appreciate it," he said holding the door open for Julio to step out into the darkness and head back to PAB to regroup with the rest of the team.
It took fifteen minutes, but they finally reached the top of the trail where everything opened up to a wide area of picnic tables and aged zoo facades. The two teams split up, Stuart used hand gestures to direct his team towards the north side of the former park while Perez did the same to the South. The men were paired up into groups of three and sent in various directions scouting the area looking for any sign of old buildings.
Andy watched as Stuart's team disappeared into the darkness as they continued to slip up the Lower Old Zoo Trail towards Spring Canyon. They had a lot of terrain to cover and it made him feel nervous. The sun was completely gone and there was only a sliver of a moon to guide their path. When he was sure he'd lost sight of the other officers he turned to watch the team he was with begin to split up and head down towards the Upper Old Zoo Trail.
"Ready," Perez asked as he flicked the safety off his weapon.
Andy gave the signal and unholstered his service weapon and followed Perez and Officer Shepard as they move towards the Southwest quadrant on their search grid. The hill side was steep and covered with dried leaves and brush making it slippery to walk on.
"Ew, oh god," Amy shrieked.
"What?!" Wes spun around concerned only to find Amy holding a dead rat by its tail. "Looks like he's been here awhile. Is he mummified?"
"I don't know" she spat out and got up to throw the dead critter out, "I'm not going to check."
Wes set down another stack of newspapers, "Do you think we're going to find anything belonging to Stroh in this place?"
Before Amy could respond the sound of howling came from outside. They both stopped what they were doing and listened, it was the coon. Again. This was the third howl the dog had made since it found the first body earlier. Each time it rang out they'd hoped it was the retriever, that they'd found Rusty alive, but each time they were met with the disappointment of death.
"That makes four," Wes said in a near whisper.
"Yeah, I have a feeling there will be a lot more before we get out of here," it was a somber reality that they were coming to realize that Stroh's dealings with death had to have started a long time before Brenda had any idea that he was doing more than just raping women.
He shifted the stack of newspapers he'd already sifted through to the side making room for the new pile. Because anything could be a reference to Stroh they were doing a quick comb through of articles looking for anything mentioning his name or his family. So far they'd found nothing. They'd bring the newspapers back as evidence and let the techs go through them more closely, but for now it seemed like more wasted energy.
Amy threw the rat in a trash bag and returned to where Wes was sitting on the floor and knelt across from him picking up a stack of papers. "How many more do we have to go through?"
"Feels like for ever," Wes whined the pace of this kind of police work didn't suit him well. Amy gave him a pointed look and he cleared his throat, "Uh well it seems that we are up to 1978 so I can't imagine that there are that many years left in the stacks."
Amy ignored her partner's frustration even though it mirrored her own and she began flipping through the yellowing pages when something caught her eye. "Hey this sounds curious. A girl named Mary Wellington went missing was last seen hiking in the Los Angeles National Forest."
Wes stopped flipping through the sports sections and set his paper down and reached for Amy's, "What else does it say?"
"Search and rescue were deployed, but after two days they still haven't found any sign of her," she looked up at him.
"She could be one of our victim's," he used his thumb to gesture behind the cabin.
"There," Shepard pointed to a tan colored concrete building twenty yards away. It was on the ridge above the gully they were standing in.
Andy felt his heart rate quicken, it had to be the building. After thirty minutes of climbing up and down the terrain this was the only thing that remotely fit the bill. He looked towards Perez who was shaking his head in agreement.
Twenty more yards and I can get my son back. He knew there was a lot more than climbing up this hill to get Rusty back, but he was going to take whatever he could get right now to ignore the burning of his legs and the stinging in his feet. His lungs ached as he pushed himself up the small ridge following behind the other two, younger more able, officers.
They reached the top in silence surrounding the building, listening in the hope that they might hear voices or sounds of life. Several seconds went by and nothing. The trio was about to give up when they heard what sounded like someone or something being dragged. Perez held up his hand and gestured for Shepherd to go around to the rear of the building while he and Andy approached the large steel door.
"Sir," Mike shouted getting the Chief's attention, "I think we may have something." Mike enlarged the screen size on the three cameras attached to Andy, Perez, and Shepard.
Howard moved to the front of the room and looked on as the men encircled the building. Sharon watched in silence as she saw her fiancé get close to saving her son. She wasn't sure the mother in her could watch what was about to unfold.
Andy gestured for Perez to pull the handle of the door open while he covered him. He nodded in silent agreement and counted to three. The door was heavy and took a huge heave in order for him to pull it partially open.
A dim light filtered out of the small space that was barely big enough for one person to squeeze through. Andy pointed his weapon inside and began to advance. There were a few stairs leading down to a large flat area, but Andy couldn't make out anymore from this vantage point.
"Well, it's about time. I was beginning to think I would need to send you a postcard or some formal invitation," a dark but familiar voice called out.
The voice clinched it, they were in the right place. Even though he'd hoped and expected to find Stroh here it still hit him like a two-ton truck. Andy pushed his way inside, swallowing down the fear of what he might find. His eyes struggled to adjust to the light after nearly an hour spent in total darkness. They darted back and forth through the small cold concrete room. His eyes caught movement on the floor. Two. No Four. There were four legs. His brain tried to sort out what he was seeing.
"Hmm, it's just you," the voice spoke out again, echoing in the small space.
"Let them go" Yelled Andy not knowing exactly who they were, but quickly getting an idea. He felt Perez come in behind him.
"Why would I do that? I went through all the trouble of bringing them here, but I must admit that I'm very disappointed," he said finally stepping out from the shadows.
"Yeah well I don't care buddy. Life is a disappointment," Andy growled back.
"I think my plans may need to change now," he moved closer to one of the bodies. As Andy's eyes adjusted he thought it was Rusty. He couldn't tell if he was alive from the angle he was laying. Stroh knelt next to Rusty, "after all it's important to be adaptable. Isn't that the Boy Scout motto?" He turned his head slightly in order to keep his eyes on Andy, "Or was that Be Prepared. I can't recall. Mother didn't let me join the scouts as a kid."
As much as he wanted to stay calm and avoid saying anything that would spool Stroh up he couldn't avoid the sarcasm that came from his mouth, "I'm sure they really missed out on your ability to kill things. Oh wait they don't have a badge for that." All he could think about was keeping him talking until the rest of the team arrived, buying them more time to figure out away for everyone to get out of this alive. Everyone but Stroh. He had no intention of not killing him tonight. He was not going to be arrested and arraigned and tried. He wasn't going to get another chance to escape. There was no "go straight to jail" card, just a straight to the grave in Andy's mind.
The body next to Rusty had blond hair and was obviously a woman. Andy had no doubt in his mind that this was Sharon Beck laying next to her son. He kept his eyes fixated on Stroh, but in his peripheral vision he thought he saw a chest move. They were probably drugged to keep them compliant.
Stroh snickered at the two officers, his eyes were wide almost feral, "It all worked out in the end I think, I got my own badges so to speak."
Andy didn't doubt what he was saying, most serial killers took trophies and just because they hadn't found any of Stroh's yet didn't mean he didn't keep something. He shifted his feet moving towards the left to give he and Perez more room, a better shot.
Sharon's eyes were glued to the monitor there was Rusty. Her son. Alive. She knew what Stroh was getting at, being disappointed and she was grateful she'd listened to level-heads earlier when they demanded she not go. It would have played into his hand. He wanted her and she had been prepared to give herself to him. He knew that. Planned on that. She listened as she heard them talk and as Andy moved, squeezing her hands together knowing what he was doing, what he was trained to do.
"You see it was supposed to be Rusty with his moms." He stood up and looked down at the boy and his mother and smiled wickedly, "He needs to chose one life for another. Who is more important the mother that bore him or the mother that chose him."
Sharon's hands gripped the edge of the table in front of her, keeping her from collapsing from what she was hearing. Chose. He wanted Rusty to chose. Thoughts from Dr. Joe came streaming into her mind, memories of the past. Would you stay or would you go? It had been the million dollar question and when the opportunity did present itself surprisingly he had stayed. But picking a life her mind drifted off not letting her finish the sentence as she heard Andy speak up.
"I don't think Rusty will need to make any choices about his mothers today," he inched forward, "Your the one that needs to make a choice Stroh. Die here. Now. Or Live and maybe see your own mother before she passes. I hear she's very elderly,"
Stroh hissed at the mention of his mother before regaining his composure, "No need Lieutenant I think I've covered everything."
Andy wasn't sure what he meant by that, he remained focused on the immediate task getting Rusty and Sharon out of here. He chanced a glance over his shoulder to Perez. He knew that McGinnis was monitoring things from her location and would have recalled the others to their position, no one was going to let Stroh get off this mountain. Now it was just a question of whether those in this ten by ten room were going to make it out alive.
"No matter," Stroh continued ignoring Andy and the SWAT officer, "This will work too." He raised the gun that was hidden behind his back and pointed it at Rusty.
"NO!" Andy screamed and leveled his weapon at Stroh.
Shots rang out.
Blood sprayed across the room.
Sharon's body was slumped over Rusty's covering him.
Perez ran towards Stroh and kicked the weapon away, then checked for a pulse.
Andy rolled Sharon's body onto her back. There was a gaping entrance in her chest. Her dirty white shirt was covered in a growing stain of red. Andy grabbed what looked like a makeshift pillow and pushed it to her chest.
"Stay with me!"
He looked over his shoulder at Perez as he got up onto his knees to increase the pressure. Perez shook his head. Stroh was dead.
The threat was over.
"Check him!" Andy used his shoulders to gesture at Rusty. He had blood on him.
Perez checked his pulse, "He's alive."
Andy wanted to cry out in joy, but he needed to stay focused on Sharon. His hands were soaked through. She was losing too much blood. He felt Perez shifting Rusty's body around checking for bullet wounds.
"Clear," he told Andy, "He didn't get hit." His eyes drifted down to the woman next to Rusty, "She must have dove over him just before the shots were fired."
Andy nodded. It was true, he'd seen movement out of the corner of his eye as he had leveled his weapon at Stroh and fired.
Emptying his 9mm.
He looked down at Sharon, her eyes were open, "Stay with me. You're gonna be okay. Help is on the way."
Shepard entered the partially open the door, "McGinnis is calling for a helicopter. We'll get her medevaced out of here."
Sharon's eyes made contact with Andy's and she tried to speak, blood came dripping out of her mouth followed by coughs. She turned her head towards Rusty, he was still out of it. Stroh gave them something, but he had no idea what. "Go get some Narcan!" He shouted. Sharon must have handled the dose better than Rusty had.
Shepard ran out and got on his radio hollering for the paramedic kit.
Andy watched as Sharon tilted her face towards her son, bringing a hand to his face. She drew a line with her finger from the brow to his jaw, "I never stopped loving you."
Her hand dropped and her eyes rolled back.
"No, no, no," Andy screamed out. Perez moved over. "Hold this," Andy shouted as he moved the soaked pillow to Perez's hands and started chest compressions.
"One - two - three," his voice wavering as his interlocked fingers pushed hard and rapidly on her chest.
He kept pushing until his arms were dead, his fingers aching.
Slowly, Sharon's face took on a pale grey color and he knew she was gone, but he couldn't stop. He needed to save her, for Rusty. He still needed her. She needed him. Her daughter need a mother.
"Andy," Perez whispered softly as he lifted his hands off the compression pad that Shepard brought in to replace the pillow.
"Where's the damn helicopter it should be here by now?!" He continued pushing hard on Sharon's chest feeling her cracked ribs shifting beneath his hands.
"Andy," he repeated, "She's gone."
As he said the words Andy leaned back on his heels, his arms still pushing down onto Sharon's sternum but less vigorously now. He watched as Rusty began to stir beside them. "Get him out of here, now!" He shouted to Shepard and Perez, "He doesn't need to see this!"
He wanted to do it himself, but his arms were weak and his body was covered with Sharon's blood. He couldn't let Rusty see him like this.
Sharon rushed out of RACR and down towards the garage, she needed to get to her son. She needed to see for herself that he was alright. She didn't stop for anything, pushing people out of the way until she reached her car. Before she could pull out her phone started ringing, "He's fine. But they're going to take him to Cedars." She let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding, "And Sharon she asked?" There was a pause before Mike spoke, "She didn't make it." She collapsed back in her seat. That was it. Stroh was dead. Her son was alive. But his biological mother was gone. Tears streamed down her face as she hung up the phone and let all the emotions from the last several days spill out of her.
Andy waited in the shed with Sharon's lifeless body until the rest of the team arrived. They stepped in and he couldn't really remember what happened after that. He'd fired his weapon, so did Perez. He'd have to stay here at the scene of his action until FID arrived to take his gun and his statement. As he stood outside the concrete shed he looked up at the whirling blades of the helicopters as they circled the area, lending their spotlights to the ground below. He felt like an alien, just dropped here. People ran around him and he just stood there fixed in the same spot. He looked down at his hands, they were covered in blood. Suddenly he realized, Sharon, his Sharon had most likely seen all of that. Digging through his pockets he pulled out his phone and fumbled with the buttons, his hands slippery from the blood, coating the device. Protocol stated he wasn't to talk to anyone until they'd taken his statement, but he was never one to religiously follow all the rule. He finally tapped in his passcode, the thumb reader wouldn't recognize him, and he clicked his favorites and tapped on her name. As he held it to his ear and listened to it ring he realized he didn't know what to say.
"Andy," her words came out breathless and teary.
"He's alive," he spat the words out as the emotion of the last several days spilled out.
"I'm on my way to the hospital now," she said trying to pull herself together.
"We got him Sharon, he's dead, he can't hurt us anymore," he looked at his hands and realized he'd already hurt them in a life-lasting way.
"How am," she paused getting choked up, "Rusty—"
He knew what she was talking about, "We'll figure it out. We'll help him through it, we're a family."
They nodded to each other even though they couldn't see one another. They shared the same feelings, the same thoughts in that moment they were separated by miles they were standing together holding one another in their arms.
"I have to stay here," he started to say even though he knew she wrote the polices that were keeping him away from his family.
"I know," for once she was annoyed with herself, for her own rule-making ability. She wanted him to come off that hill and be with her.
"Of course you do," he let out a half-hearted chuckle but there was no real mirth in it, his voice dipped as he spoke again, "But as soon as I can get out of here I'll meet you at the hospital. I'll be there when he wakes up."
She turned the car on, buckling up taking a breath before pulling out of the parking spot. Her son was alive. The love of her life was alive. She had much to be thankful for, much to say but for now she kept it simple, "I love you Andy."
There was no pause. No beat before his reply. "I love you too."
"It's over, it's really all over," her voice wavered as she spoke words that she had thought may never come to pass. Stroh was gone, once and for all. He was no longer hiding in the shadows. No one had to fear him coming up behind them as they crossed a street or walked home.
"It is," his voice mirrored hers. The fear was over, but he knew it would be weeks maybe even months before things with Stroh would really be over. And for Rusty and his baby sister, they'd never be over. Their mother was gone. They hung up and he looked down at his bloody hands once more, vowing that both children would forever know Sharon's dying words. They were loved. Stroh didn't win. Love won. They would know this love, feel this, if it was the last thing he ever did.
AN: I hope you've enjoyed my alternate ending for Stroh. It wasn't what I had initially plotted out, but I'm glad that I made the adjustments that led us to this point, I feel it is more satisfying, appropriate, and more in line with what canon would have been. I did a lot of research on this chapter, so much so that I hope Big Brother isn't checking my search history. Thank you to those that have hung in there, I know it took awhile to get to this moment. I will be writing an epilogue in the coming weeks so keep an eye out.