Alicia: As always, your reviews make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside – and make me laugh out loud! I'm so glad you like my version of Vanessa! The Casefiles gave her a bit more of a personality than most of the other recurring characters but still left a lot of room for 'interpretation'. As for Frank and Joe's rift – see my note at the end of this chapter. ;-)

Lina: Thank you! I always thought Callie got a raw deal in the Casefiles the way they wrote her. Plus if she really was as they portrayed her, I don't think Frank would stick with someone like that. So I wrote her as the kind of girl I think Frank would be attracted to and want to spend the rest of his life with.

Polaris: Thanks for all your reviews! :-)

TraSan: It's gotta get a little worse between Frank, Fenton and Joe before it gets better, but I promise – it WILL get better! I'm a happy ending kinda girl, although sometimes it takes me a while to get there. :-)

Phoenix: You're TOO KIND!! :-p Copy, paste, repeat…

Sherlock's Sparrow: Actually you might be surprised…

Pally: Woof, woof, woof… Sorry, I have no idea what the 'meow's were all about but thanks for reading!! :-)

Guilty

Chapter 25

Two days earlier every investigator, detective and police officer involved in the case had met for a final briefing. Fenton Hardy had explained what had led to their zeroing on Chris Taylor as the number one suspect, leaving out any references to Joe or the grudge Taylor was carrying against him. Joe had then discussed the pattern Taylor had been using as to when each rape would be committed. Since they now knew when Taylor would strike next, they had been able to come up with a plan of action to catch him. If Joe were correct, this would be their best chance to stop Taylor once and for all.

Frank, Fenton and Joe, along with many of their friends were assembled in the briefing room of the Bayport Police Department. Many of the department's officers, several who whom were off duty, were there as well. Quite a few of the officers knew Vanessa through Joe and had been outraged when she was assaulted. When the 15-year-old girl had become Taylor's second victim in Bayport, the entire department vowed to catch him before he raped again.

"Dad, do you think he'll really be out there tonight?" Frank asked referring to Taylor. "We know he was after Mom last week. With her and Callie staying with Vanessa tonight, do you think he'll really go after someone else if he can't find them?"

"He did last time. I hate to sound callous but I hope he does. It's the only chance we've got to catch him," Fenton replied, looking wistfully across the room at Joe who was talking quietly with Biff and Chet. He had barely acknowledged Frank and Fenton when they had arrived that night, instead quickly making his way to his best friend, where he had remained.

Chief Collig walked in and strode to the front of the room, which grew quiet.

"First, I want to thank all of you who are here on your own time," Chief Collig addressed the group. "As you know, Joe Hardy was able to determine the pattern the suspect uses as to when he will commit his next assault. If he stays true to form - and we have no reason to believe he won't - he will attack again tonight."

Frank glanced over at Joe. He was staring straight ahead, very obviously avoiding any contact with Frank or his father. Frank wanted so badly to tell his brother everything no matter what the consequences. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where he was afraid that Joe would never trust him again, even after he learned the truth. He returned his attention to Chief Collig who was reading off the partner assignments for the search.

"Biff, you'll be with Chet. Joe, you're with Evan Graham. Frank, you'll be riding with your father."

Frank felt an incredible sadness wash over him. He hadn't really expected that he and Joe would be investigating together that evening but he had still held out a little hope. After hearing Joe had been paired with one of the officers on Bayport's police force, Frank knew that meant Joe had specifically requested not to be paired with either Frank or Fenton.

"You'll each be covering a section of the city." Chief Collig had finished reading off the list of names. "You'll check in with dispatch every fifteen minutes. Report anything even remotely suspicious. If you do find him, call for back up immediately." He over emphasized the last word looking directly at Joe. "Okay, let's catch this guy tonight."

Everyone stood up and headed for the door. Frank hurried to catch up to his brother.

"Joe," he called out. Joe stopped and waited for Frank. "Don't worry, Joe. We'll catch this guy tonight."

"I know we will," Joe replied. The coldness in his voice sent a shiver down Frank's spine, as he wasn't sure if it was directed at him, Taylor or both of them.

"Be careful, Joe. Please be careful."

Joe nodded and turned to follow Evan Graham out the door.

oooOOOooo

Other than checking in with the dispatcher every fifteen minutes, Frank and Fenton had ridden in silence. Fenton had watched the close relationship between his sons steadily deteriorate and felt powerless to stop it. He knew it was eating Frank up inside to have to lie to his brother. That, combined with the same guilt Fenton had been feeling for not catching Taylor before he arrived in Bayport was driving the brothers apart.

After the attack on Vanessa, Joe had immediately turned to his older brother for help. He had been totally devastated and at a loss as to how to help Vanessa. He was desperately counting on Frank to steer him in the right direction. Frank had been thrown way off balance watching his brother try to deal with all the emotional pain. When Joe started having the flashbacks and Frank had to begin lying to him about Josh Tilghman and Chris Taylor it resulted in a quick downward spiral for both brothers. Fenton was deathly afraid Joe was going to find Taylor first and end up doing something in a blind rage that would change his life forever. He had hoped Frank would be able to regain his footing enough to restore his close relationship with Joe before that happened, but it wasn't to be.

"Dad, I have a really bad feeling about tonight," Frank finally spoke.

"How so?" Fenton asked.

"I can't explain it. I feel like something is going to happen tonight that can't be fixed. Something bad. Dad, I'm really scared for Joe."

Fenton knew exactly what Frank meant. He had had the same feeling all night but did not want to fuel his son's fears.

"Evan is a good cop, Frank. He won't let Joe do anything stupid."

"I don't know, Dad. I still feel like I should have ridden with Joe tonight. I know him better than anybody."

"It was his choice to ride with someone else," Fenton said quietly. "He knows right from wrong. We have to believe if the time comes, he'll think with his head and not with his heart."

They rode in silence once again, both very afraid of what the night held in store.

oooOOOooo

Joe and Evan had been checking in every fifteen minutes as instructed. Joe was doing everything by the book. He knew his father and brother – heck, the entire town – thought he would take justice into his own hands given half a chance. He was determined to prove them all wrong. As angry as he was with Frank and his father, he still desperately wanted their approval.

'I'm going to catch this guy tonight. Everything by the book. Don't worry, big brother, I'm going to make you and Dad proud.'

Evan slowed the car and Joe snapped back to reality. Someone up ahead was flagging them down. Evan pulled up to the curb as Joe rolled down the window.

A middle-aged man approached the car. "Hi."

"Can we help you?" Joe asked.

"Well, it's probably nothing but what with those two rapes that happened recently I thought I should say something."

Joe felt a rush of adrenaline. "Go on," he said encouragingly.

"Well, a minute ago I saw a guy carrying a woman towards a car. I stopped to see if I could help. He seemed startled for just a second. He said she was his girlfriend and had fallen down and hit her head. She was pretty out of it; she kept saying something over and over. I could have sworn she was saying, "Help", but the guy insisted she was just mumbling nonsense. He put her in the backseat and said he was taking her to the hospital. But there was just something strange about him."

"Strange how?" Joe pressed.

"I don't know how to describe it. I mean if my wife fell and hit her head that badly I would be pretty upset. He seemed really calm about the whole thing. He's driving a dark colored Lexus. Turned right at the light up there. Thing is, the hospital is in the other direction."

"Thanks. We'll check it out," Joe replied as Evan was already pulling away. He turned in the direction the man had indicated and proceeded slowly down the deserted street.

"Evan," Joe said with growing excitement. "This road leads straight to the old warehouse complex. It hasn't been used since they opened the new warehouses down by the docks last year."

Evan smiled grimly. "I think we're about to catch our man."

When they got close to the warehouse, Evan cut the lights and engine, gliding to a stop. They got out of the car without making a sound.

Guns drawn, Joe and Evan walked silently towards the rear of the abandoned warehouse. As they got closer, they could hear a frightened female voice.

"Please stop! Please don't do this!"

Rounding the corner, they saw a young woman pinned to the ground by a man who was kneeling over her tearing at her clothes. A small, but steady stream of blood was flowing from somewhere at the back of her head. Obviously disoriented, she still pleaded with the man to stop what he was doing, ineffectively trying to defend herself.

Joe stood in shock for just a moment. In his mind, the woman on the ground was Vanessa. The burning rage he'd kept just below the surface for so long finally exploded.

'Taylor!' he thought. He had never seen the enhanced photo of Chris Taylor. He didn't even know it existed but he knew instinctively this was him.

"You take the girl and call for back up," he whispered to Evan. "He's mine." Joe immediately started moving forward quietly.

"Let me get some back up first, Joe." Evan tried to grab Joe's arm, but Joe had no intention of waiting. Taylor was right in front of him. There was no way he was going to stand by and watch him rape this woman, or give him the opportunity to escape, while waiting for help to arrive. Shaking off Evan's hand, Joe continued moving towards Taylor.

"Joe!" Evan hissed at him. "Stop!"

Taylor must have heard them as he stopped for just instant, obviously surprised at the intrusion. Since he had his back to Joe and Evan, they couldn't see what he was doing. Suddenly there was a flash of movement and small stones and pebbles came flying at them. As they threw up their arms to avoid being pelted with the small, hard objects, Taylor jumped up and ran for a car parked several yards away.

Joe immediately sprang forward, leaping over the young woman still on the ground. He knew Evan would take care of her. He could already hear Evan calling for back up and an ambulance.

Sprinting forward, Joe was determined not to let Taylor get away.

'Come on, Hardy. Faster!'

With a powerful burst of strength, he launched himself at Taylor and they came crashing down together against the trunk of the car. Glancing at the car, Joe realized it was the same car that had stopped to "help" Vanessa a week earlier. Spinning Taylor around, Joe pointed the gun at him. Immediately Taylor grabbed the gun with both hands, attempting to turn it on Joe.

As they continued to struggle for control of the gun, Joe could hear sirens getting closer.

'Come on, hurry! I could use some help here!'

He did not dare glance back over his shoulder to see what Evan was doing; that would easily give Taylor the advantage he needed. Unfortunately, leaning over him, leverage was not on Joe's side. He knew if he could just get control of the gun he could overpower the smaller man.

Joe now heard car doors opening and slamming shut behind him. New voices. He could pick out his father's voice and Frank's.

'Finally!' he thought.

Still he did not look back to see what was happening behind him. He thought he was slowly getting the upper hand and did not want to lose it.

As both men tried desperately to get control of the gun, Joe felt Taylor loosen his grip for just a second. He took full advantage and readjusted his grip on the gun.

'YES!' he exulted.

He now had a firm grip on the gun, pointed directly at Taylor's chest, his finger hovering over the trigger. They looked each other in the eyes and in that instant they both knew Joe had won.

Joe thought back on the horror Vanessa's life had become since this man had attacked her. His bubbly, outgoing fiancée who was so full of life was gone. A fearful, withdrawn, depressed girl had taken her place.

'All because of you!' Joe thought filled with hatred.

He realized this was the moment he had been hoping for. This animal who had attacked and brutalized so many women, including the woman he loved, was now at his mercy. Joe knew several other units had arrived, answering Evan's call for help. He knew his father and brother were back there.

He also knew none of them could see what was happening. They all knew there was a struggle going on with a gun separating Joe and Taylor. Knowing Joe could be shot in a struggle, no one would move forward to help until and unless Joe requested it. Joe had Taylor right where he wanted him. He could pull the trigger right now, getting the revenge he so desperately wanted and no one would know it wasn't self-defense. They wouldn't even question it. Joe could take the secret to his grave, knowing he got his own form of justice for Vanessa in the end.

"Go ahead. Pull the trigger," Taylor said quietly, looking Joe in the eyes. "You know you want to."

Joe started to tremble slightly.

"Come on, you don't want me to go to prison. You know I'll get out eventually, this being my first offense and all. They'll try to rehabilitate me," he smiled.

All the pain and anguish Joe had been watching Vanessa suffer through fueled his rage. Taylor was pushing all the right buttons and Joe was losing control.

"But it won't work you know. I like it. I enjoy it. The power I have. Listening to them beg me not to do it. Beg for their lives. That just makes me want it even more."

Joe thought of Vanessa begging, pleading for her life. He couldn't even begin to imagine how terrified she must have been.

"When I get out – and I will get out –I'll do it again. Maybe I'll even come back here. I've really enjoyed the women in your town. Especially your fiancée."

Joe felt himself beginning to squeeze the trigger ever so slightly.

"She wasn't just another random choice, you know. I wanted her all along," Taylor continued baiting Joe. "I was hoping to get your mother too, the other night. And then your sister-in-law to make the payback complete. Knowing it was all your fault, your dad and brother wouldn't be able to stand the sight of you."

Joe was shaking now, applying more pressure on the trigger.

"That's it, buddy. A little more and I'll be dead. You won't ever have to worry about me again."

Suddenly Frank's voice broke through Joe's thoughts of murder and revenge.

"Don't do it, Joe! That's what he wants you to do. You'll be giving him exactly what he wants! He's not worth it!"

Taylor's smile disappeared. "Don't listen to him. Come on, you'll be a hero to that pretty little fiancée of yours. And every other woman I ever touched."

Was that desperation Joe heard in his voice?

"Think about it, Joe." It was Frank's voice again. "Once he gets to prison, he'll know exactly how his victims felt."

Joe smiled slightly and looked Taylor in the eyes. Fear!

'Oh, yeah!' Joe thought. That was the same look he had been seeing in Vanessa's eyes ever since the attack. Joe stared him down.

"You're going to prison where you'll get exactly what you deserve! You'll get to feel the same things all those women felt, every night."

"You mean the same thing YOU were supposed to feel all those years ago?!" Taylor suddenly yelled, seething with anger. "If you had just done what you were told! If your father hadn't come charging in like some kind of hero, none of us would be here right now! None of those women would have been raped! How does it feel to have that on your conscience?!"

Everyone could hear Fenton gasp. "NO!" he shouted. "Don't listen to him, Joe! He's crazy!"

Taylor looked past Joe directly at Fenton, realization dawning on him.

"He doesn't remember, does he?" Taylor smiled evilly, as Fenton visibly paled even in the dark. "Oh, that's just priceless. What – too traumatic for him?" he continued taunting Fenton. "Why don't I tell him all about it? It's obvious you haven't. Now seems like a pretty good time, don't you think?"

Joe was utterly confused at the bizarre exchange between his father and Taylor, but he knew what he had to do. Still holding the gun on him, Joe took a step back. In a strong, clear voice he said, "Put your hands on your head, turn around and kneel on the ground."

"I don't think so." Taylor replied in a voice so low only Joe could hear him. With an evil smile he continued. "You'll be the one going to prison…for my murder. It may have taken seventeen years but at least I'll die knowing you got exactly what my father had intended for you all along. You can thank your Daddy for all this."

He then raised his voice again so he would be heard by everyone. "Okay, you win," he said loudly. "I give up."

Taylor started to raise his hands towards his head. With lightening fast speed that took Joe completely by surprise, he reached forward, wrapped his hands around Joe's and pressed his thumb down firmly against Joe's trigger finger. As the gun discharged with a deafening roar, Taylor looked Joe in the eyes and smiled. He flew back against the car and slid to the ground.

Joe realized with horror that Taylor had just committed suicide – although it appeared to the world as if Joe had killed a defenseless, unarmed suspect in cold blood. Everyone standing behind Joe assumed they just saw him murder the man who had raped Vanessa, making good on all his threats.

Suddenly everything was silent. It was as if time had stopped. Joe took a few steps back, looking at the gun in his hand as if it had a life of it's own. His shirt and jacket, along with the gun and his hands were splattered with Taylor's blood. He looked down at the man whose eyes were staring sightlessly towards the dark sky. Blood was gushing from the bullet wound in his chest. A small trickle of blood escaped from his mouth and ears, further proof he had been killed instantly.

Frank appeared at Joe's side in stunned disbelief.

"Joe!" he cried out, still unable to believe his own eyes. "What did you do? He surrendered!"

Joe stared at Frank, open-mouthed. Of all people, surely Frank would know Joe could never kill a defenseless person, no matter what the circumstances!

"We had him, Joe! He never would've seen the light of day. He would have died in prison!"

Joe was incredulous. "Frank, I didn't! I didn't kill him!"

"Then who did?" Joe spun around at the sound of his father's voice. Fenton didn't even try to mask the sadness and disappointment he felt. "I know what he did to Vanessa is tearing you apart. But I really thought I raised you better than that."

Joe's world was spinning out of control. The two people he counted on most to believe in him no matter what were turning on him.

"Dad, please!" Joe pleaded with his father. "I didn't pull the trigger! He grabbed my hand. HE pulled the trigger! Dad, he killed himself!"

"He gave up, Joe. We all heard him." Fenton shook his head. "Oh, Joseph…"

Fenton turned and walked away from his youngest son. 'It wasn't enough you raped Vanessa. It wasn't enough you broke her spirit. He's already starting to remember the hell he went through seventeen years ago. Now you've turned my son into a cold-blooded killer.' He got into the car, put his head in his hands and began to cry.

Joe stared after his father.

"I didn't do it, Dad," he whispered. "You did raise me better than that."

He felt a hand on his arm and knew without looking that it was Frank.

"Joe, they need your gun," he said quietly.

"Huh?" Joe turned to face his older brother.

"Evidence, Joe. They need your gun."

An officer Joe didn't recognize was holding a paper evidence bag, waiting for Joe to drop his gun inside. He deposited the gun in the bag and turned to look at Frank.

"You believe me, right? Please, Frank tell me you believe me!" Joe begged him.

Frank hesitated just an instant too long.

"Sure, Joe. I believe you." They both knew he was lying.

Con Riley approached the brothers.

"I am so sorry, Joe. I have to do this." He cleared his throat. "You have the right to remain silent…"

A second officer gently pulled Joe's hands behind his back and handcuffed him. Joe never took his eyes off his brother's face. He'd never felt so alone in his life.

To Be Continued in Innocent…

A/N: First, a great big THANK YOU to everyone who read and reviewed this story! :-) It is so very much appreciated! Now before anyone decides to string me up by my thumbs for the ending, please know that Innocent is already completely written and there will be no break in posting. So the first chapter of Innocent will go up on Sunday.

And for all those who have been waiting for Frank and Joe to work through their 'issues' all I ask is that you continue to read through chapter seven of the sequel. If you still want to string me up after that, I'll provide the rope. ;-)

THANK YOU for being so supportive!! Many times your reviews were the bright spot of my day!