Chapter One

Lewis blinked as he entered the precinct. The building was dark and it took his eyes a moment to adjust after the long walk from his car. The morning sun was bright and the temperatures were already climbing, making him grateful for the steady blast from the air conditioning that blew through the stone building. He walked steadily over to the central information desk and checked the directory, looking for the office he was supposed to report to. Not finding it, he smiled at the receptionist when he caught her eye.

“Oh, you’re Alex’s temp?” she said, sounding shocked. “Where’d they find you, Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome?” she added with a smile that indicated more than just passing interest. “Lemme see your papers so I can get ‘em run on over to Personnel to get ya yer badge, cher. I’m gonna assume yer gun permits are all in order?”

“Yes, ma’am, I am and they are,” he replied with a polite smile of his own as he handed over the large file folder he’d been carrying.

“You’ll have to re-certify next year, cher, but you know that. Personnel’ll want ya to swing by in a bit to get your swipe badge and photo ID. But I know that Jimmy’ll want you to head on to the office tout de suite. Oh, you moved here from Dallas, poor thing. Babette!” she said loudly, turning her head and gesturing with one hand to another receptionist. Lewis blinked again, overwhelmed by the rapid-fire delivery mixed with her drawling accent. It was taking even him some getting used to. “Go get Sergeant Lewis Harding here a bottle of cold water from out the frigidaire. Poor thing’s from Texas by way of Tennessee.”

“Thank you, Miss…”

“It’s Missus, cher. Mrs. Robillard but you can call me Anne. Everybody does.” Just then Babette returned with the bottle of water and handed it to Lewis. She waved off his thanks and Anne continued chattering at him. “There are plenty of fountains all through the building so keep that topped up and cold. I know you think you’re ready for the weather here but this is a swamp, cher. You’ll sweat to death before you realize it. But don’t let me keep you standing here. You’re in 1097. Go past the elevators then take the first left then the third right, the fourth right, the second left, and there you are. You can’t miss it ‘cause that office stands out. They’re a little…different from the rest of us folks.”

“I see,” Lewis said tactfully. He thanked the receptionists once more before following their directions. He had to stop a few times and consult the posted boards on his way through the building. Whenever he did, he had to answer questions from those who noticed the new guy. His announcement that he was there to replace Lieutenant Masters was met with everything ranging from incredulity to outright mistrust. He began to wonder just what he might have gotten himself into with this transfer and whether or not he should consider swallowing his pride and figuring out some way to get back to Dallas. Soon, though, he reached the section numbered 1097. On the glazed glass door was a printed out picture of Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series. The image was from one of the films and showed the character sporting his normal glare with the phrase “Come In But Kindly Leave Your Touchy-Feely At The Door” printed in bold-faced lettering across the bottom.

Apparently this team did not do “welcoming” even if they were in the South.

Lewis opened the door and walked into the office area. Part of it was an open floor plan with two pairs of desks in the middle. A third paired set was further back, by itself. Two offices for the unit leaders, a break room with showers, and a kitchenette area made up the rest of the unit’s quarters. Interrogation rooms were shared with the rest of the precinct. The detectives in the unit did not seem to notice his entrance so he took the time to study them and the area a bit further. Four men sat at the two paired desks in the middle of the room — team-mates, obviously — speaking companionably. One sat at the last desk by himself. His half was almost completely cleared off as if he were in the process of moving. No knick-knacks or personal effects covered the other half of that desk either. From the scowl on his face, Lewis guessed that must be Sergeant Noble who had a reputation of never being happy with anything. The other four men were unknown quantities entirely much like the almost illegible equations scrawled on nearly a dozen freestanding whiteboards scattered around the open space. Others carried crime time-lines, victim studies, scene maps covered other whiteboards and peg-boards. A few large display monitors showed information that related to cases the unit was working. A few other monitors scrolled information that, unless Lewis was vastly mistaken was…

“Is that Drake’s equation?” he asked unable to keep from sounding completely baffled at finding it on a whiteboard in a police precinct. His question was met with stunned silence as the men in the room looked up at him. The four sitting in the middle of the room shook their heads and stayed silent. Sergeant Noble moved to finish clearing off his half of the paired desk and left the bullpen with a snort. “Did I interrupt something?”

“No,” one of the four men said with a laugh. “Jim has a permanent case of PMS. Are you lost or did you come here looking for something specific?”

“Or did you come here to marvel at the glorious wonder that is our attempt at superunification?” another one of the four asked as he gestured at a whiteboard.

“I just transferred in and was assigned to this unit.”

“Oh,” the first man said. “So, settle a bet with us then. We’ve been wondering just who you pissed off to get handed this assignment, Sergeant…” he trailed off, drawing a blank.

“Harding. Sergeant Lewis Harding,” Lewis said, extending his hand for a shake. “I’m here on temporary assignment until your lieutenant returns from his leave of absence.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. Jim did request someone to fill in for Alex. Still, whose corn flakes did you piss in to get tapped for the spot?”

Before Lewis could answer, Jim walked back out of his office. “Can it, Yann. You,” he said as he approached Lewis and gestured towards the nearly vacant desk near the offices, “will be sitting there. Sam,” he continued, turning towards the man sitting across from Yann, “have you gotten anything else on the Patterson case? The parents have been bugging Masters on her private line enough that I have a very terse voice mail.”

Sam sighed and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, boss. The M.E. just faxed over the tox-screen. All clear. I’ll call the family and tell them.” Jim shook his head and Sam quirked an eyebrow at him but did not argue. Lewis watched in fascination. Sergeant Noble obviously ran the unit even though he lacked the rank to do so.

“Get the newbie to do it,” Jim said. “Alex asked for someone who could do touchy-feely since all of us suck at it. You,” he said, pointing at Sam for emphasis, “get your ass over to house and try to figure out what exactly went down that night. Crime scene and the responding officers swore there were no signs of foul play but twenty-four year old women in perfect health don’t just suddenly develop a case of respiratory failure. And I know, I know,” he grimaced, waving his hand and wrinkling his nose in distaste, “Dufrene says there’s no contusions or ligature marks on the neck. That just means whoever killed her was clever. I’m going down there to run a few more screens myself. I can think of forty-eight ways I’d kill someone without leaving a trace of physical evidence — twelve of which I’d reasoned out before adolescence.”

One of the other men, David Logan by the nameplate on his desk, barked a quick laugh. “We wondered why you audited all those medical classes.”

“Well, it beats the hell out of Alex’s method,” Jim said with a slight wry grin. All eyes turned to him as he waited a beat before answering. “Watching House and memorizing Wikipedia. Now, get to work. Newbie,” he said, addressing Lewis again, “make yourself comfortable but not too comfortable. And keep the touchy-feely crap for the vics, okay? If any of us need our asses kissed, well, we can get on I-10 westbound and follow the signs to Nevada. That includes you, newbie.” Before Lewis could make a remark or ask a question, Jim spun on his heel and walked out of the office.

“I was under the impression that I was here to take over for the lieutenant until he returned,” Lewis muttered as the door slammed behind Sergeant Noble.

“Yeah. No,” Logan chuckled. “We had a discussion about that yesterday. Jim has been Al’s second since this unit got started. He knows the ropes. Al had just asked for someone who spoke English first, French second, and sarcasm third since El Capitan was upset about our tendency to work the case first and worry about the victims’ sentimentalities last. El Capitan sent you and may have told you that you would be in charge until Al’s back but that’s not how we roll here, Sarge. If you manage to stay here a whole quarter without going crazy, Jim and Al might consider changing things around. For now, though, Jim’s going to keep covering his and Al’s duties and cases and we’re going to keep doing our own things.”

The last man, Jonah Wright, cleared his throat and leveled a flat gaze at Lewis. “Don’t bother trying to argue with us or bring up politics, either. We’ve got the highest closure rate out of all of NOLA PD. We’ve also got the highest conviction rate because we aren’t stupid like almost every other department. I can run the numbers for you but our little unit is the best at hat we do and we don’t need a union spy, an internal affairs flunky, some politician’s brother-in-law, or whatever the hell you are, coming in here and trying to change the way we do things. It works, Sarge, even if you’ve got less than a snowball’s chance in hell of understanding it.”

Lewis was beginning to get annoyed. These four were treating him as if he’d just graduated from the Academy instead of being a colleague who had several years’ experience in the field. “I’m hardly some rookie fresh out of the academy,” he muttered.

“We read your file,” Jonah continued, speaking over Lewis who went from mildly annoyed to angry. “You’re a good detective. Attended the University of Tennessee and graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. Did some post-grad work at Ole Miss in law and investigations before you went to the Police Academy in Texas and started working in Dallas with the narcotics unit. You got tired of the SWAT guys and their habit of battering down everything they came across. You got reprimanded several times for failure to follow proper protocols even though you were bringing in the actual criminals. You transferred to sex crimes and washed out after a year.”

“Wait just a minute!” Lewis interrupted.

“‘Washed out’ isn’t the best way to describe it. ‘Pissed off his boss by actually knowing how to use a computer’ is more accurate,” Sam chimed in.

“At any rate, you got bounced to Homicide and then decided a change of venue was in order. You moved to NOLA, started out in Homicide over in Ward 9, got some respect but still irritated your superiors by using your brain instead of relying on superstition and voodoo. In the meantime, Al was getting pressured because our unit, while doing well, ‘lacks empathy.’” The four men all laughed at the way Jonah exaggerated the air quotes. “Jim found your file, pulled it, we all read it, and asked to have you transferred in.”

“Long story short, bonhomme,” Yann said with a grin and a thick Cajun accent, “you’re here because we do want you here. You will fit in. Eventually. The higher-ups might have thought you were transferring in to run the unit while Al’s out but you’re here because you’re a good detective and you have something the rest of us lack.”

Lewis leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest and an amused smile on his face. “What might that be, then?” he asked.

“Feelings,” Sam sang, “nothing more than feelings.”

Lewis burst out laughing. “I was expecting ‘If I Only Had A Heart.’”

“Don’t give him any ideas,” Yann chuckled. “Sam loves to serenade us with show tunes. Go get settled at your desk. Jonah just has to finish up a few things and then he’ll take you by Personnel so that’s all done. After that, you have your first assignment.”

“Want to fill me in on the details there?”

“Sam’s got the file ready for you to review,” Yann said, his eyes twinkling with humor. “Sam, y’all go back in Jim’s office and get caught up on the Patterson case until Jonah can take Louis over for all the HR merde.”

“Don’t bother correcting him when Jim’s not here,” Sam whispered in an undertone, “unless you want to see him show you what ragin’ Cajun means.”

“This is shaping up to be an interesting first day,” Lewis replied as he followed Sam into their boss’s office.

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