1. A Pound Of Flesh

Murder should be an act of passion. It is for me. Or I like to tell myself it is. Passion, obsession, insanity . . . all the same? Right? But some people don't kill for passion, they kill for money. I don't understand that. I really don't.

People like investment manager, Malcolm Dollar. Don't you just love the name! It's so perfect, it almost sounds like he made it up.

He did.

He kills people for money. Lots of people for lots of money, actually. He can't just make a killing in the stock market or pork futures or something legitimate. No, he runs a Ponzi scheme for affluent singles with few entanglements. He takes their money, pays out just enough so they tell other potential victims how miraculous he is, then they die in unfortunate accidents. And Malcolm, or Mal as they affectionately call him, giggles all the way from the cemetery to the bank. The Bernie Madoff of Miami, with a trail of bodies.

It always amazes me how curiosity-challenged the criminal justice system is. When a string of people die from car accidents or falling off the roof or slipping in the bathtub or eating two-day-old canned tuna or whatever, no one looks to see if they had a common link, a common beneficiary. Like the same investment manager. Like Malcolm Dollar. But I do. And I do my civic duty. I clean up the mess.

My only encounter with Malcolm Dollar was in his office one evening. Small and tacky, in a rundown old building in one of the sleazier parts of Miami. He didn't like to waste investor's money on a lot of frills, he said. He only wasted their money on an obscenely ostentatious mansion on waterfront property in Key Biscayne and a seventy-foot yacht and a villa in Monte Carlo and three Bentleys in the garage. And a special-edition Rolex.

But no frills.

I opened the door and saw a plump little man sitting behind a beat-up old desk, almost bald, with wire rimmed spectacles, dressed in a threadbare black suit. He looked more like a Nineteenth Century mortician, straight out of a Dickens novel, than a Twenty-First Century financier. He stood, extended his hand and smiled. Not a friendly smile, though. More a predatory smile, like a hungry cat encountering a canary with a broken wing.

"So nice to meet you, Mr. Harrison," he gushed. "Please, have a seat. And call me Mal, all my friends do." After the usual canned pleasantries and promises of staggering returns, he went for the jugular. "Now, how much did you wish to invest?"

"Everything I got in my late Auntie Bea's will, bless her heart," I said in my best local-yokel manner. "Six million bucks, give or take." He had difficulty controlling his expression. He had to wipe a few beads of sweat off his brow. A little drool from his chin, too.

"I see," he said, clearing his throat, trying to appear calm. "Do you have a cashier's check or . . ."

"Hell no! I like to do everything in cash." I stood up, removed my shoulder pack, then walked around the desk and dropped the pack on his desk with an impressive thud. "All here."

With trembling hands, he opened the pack and reached in. He pulled out a roll of sheet plastic, several rolls of packing tape, a package of Hefties – black, three-mil – and an electric saw, then my collection of knives. "Uh, I don't understand," he said, "there's no money."

"Darn! Must've grabbed the wrong pack," I said as I slipped the needle in his neck.

When he woke, he was stretched out on his desk, wrapped in packing tape. He looked like a futuristic chubby mummy. The desk and room were similarly covered with plastic. You can never be too neat and clean on a kill, Harry always said.

"What's going on!" he stammered. "What're you doing?"

"Just collecting a little return on investment for all your dearly-departed investors, your friends, currently six feet under. Do you still recognize them, Mal?" I said, pointing at the photos taped to the plastic-covered walls. "Think of it as a pound of flesh for each, give or take. But, then, who's counting among friends?"

"Look, Mr. Harrison," he whined, "I don't know what psychopath put you up to this, but I can make you very rich. I mean rich beyond your wildest . . ."

"Oh, can it!" I said, poking his forehead with my finger, "I'm already rich; I still have hair. Besides, I'm the psychopath." He screamed as I took a drop of blood. I wondered how much of it was his and how much belonged to his investors, his friends.

"You, you can't do this! I'm an important . . ." His voice was becoming annoying, shrill and nasal and, well, really annoying. So I used my favorite Kershaw combat knife rather than waste any more tape. Ah, sweet silence.

"I wonder, Mal, how much flesh do you think it takes to make a pound?"

2. When Dexter Met Benny

One of my favorite things is taking Harrison to kindergarten. He gets all excited. He really likes it. He's happy. And I want to keep him that way. It occurred to me that he was about the same age I was when my childhood ended and my nightmare began. But that was never going to happen to him. He was going to live a normal life. I'd sworn an oath!

As usual, I parked in the lot next to the school. I went around to the other side and was getting Harrison out of his car-seat when a silver Mini Cooper pulled into the space on the other side. An attractive woman got out and started unpacking her son, too. But as she did, she leaned against the door and it opened all the way, bumping my fender. Ah yes, more parking lot rash. I walked around with Harrison to look.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, flustered, "I'll get it fixed."

I took a look, "Well, you'll have to find it first, or, at least, figure out which scratch is yours." She seemed a little confused. "Besides, you have door bumpers," I pointed, "so you don't leave scratches."

"I totally forgot about them," she said with relief, "my husband had them installed."

"So," wanting to change the subject, "I guess your son goes here, too."

"Yes, I was so lucky to get him in. The school's got such a fabulous reputation."

"Yeah, I don't know about your son, but Harrison just loves it."

"Oh, your son is Harrison," she said, smiling. "He's Benny's best friend. Talks about him all the time."

"I'll be darned. Harrison talks about someone named Benny, too. Surprised we've never met before."

She looked down, then all around. "Good heavens, where are they?"

I'd been watching them in the play yard, going up and down on the teeter-totter, talking a mile a minute. "Over there," I said, pointing, "catching up on all the kiddie gossip."

"So that's Harrison. He's beautiful."

"Takes after his mother. Uh, Benny's a real looker too. Takes after his mother, too, I see." Women like compliments, Harry always said. But she just gave me a quick smile and went on. Did I do it wrong?

"It's so nice to finally find out who Harrison is. I was beginning to think he was just an imaginary friend." Like Harry? "Oh, by the way, I'm Sarah, Sarah Russell." She extended her hand.

"Dexter, Dexter Morgan." I took her hand. "Nice to meet you, Sarah." And it was. Somehow, she reminded me of Rita, even though she didn't look like her. Maybe it was her mannerisms or her eyes. Or that sweet floral scent, like Rita always had.

"You too." She pointed at the kids. "Well, I guess we'd better get them inside before they end up in detention." She said it with a totally straight face.

"Yeah, don't want 'em to miss their chance at Harvard." We both laughed.

"You know, Benny begs me to play with Harrison after school, but I didn't know who he was. Would you like to get together for ice cream this weekend. If you're not busy, of course."

"Sounds like a plan. Harrison would sell me to three-headed flying monkeys for ice cream." From her expression, I'm not sure she realized I was kidding.

So, Harrison had a friend. Perfect. On the road to normalcy. I never wanted him to take a detour through Dexterland. Never.

3. The Big Squeeze

The elevator stopped and the doors opened. I stepped out and nearly got hit in the head with a two-by-four. I forgot, the place was being remodeled. Some number-cruncher in Administration decided we needed three more people in Homicide. In the same space. So they were moving everything around. And they wouldn't tell us who was getting less space. As it turned out, everyone got less space. Everyone, that is, except forensics. You can squeeze people, but you can't squeeze equipment. I think it's one of Newton's lesser-known Laws of Thermodynamics.

"Holy mother of fuckdom!" Debra complained, "when they're finished, we're all going to have to go on a fucking diet."

"I could stand to lose a little weight," Angel said, rubbing his waistline with both hands.

"Well, I can't," Debra replied. "If I lose any weight, they'll stick me in the friggin' morgue."

"Friggin'?" I said, amused, "nice to see you're adopting a more professional vocabulary."

"Good morning to you, too, Dex," she said sweetly, "and fuck you. Nice of you to make it to the staff meeting on time for a change."

"Well, you know the burden of parenthood," I said, matching her sweetness. "You should try it sometime."

"Did I mention? Fuck you," she said, not so sweetly. "Okay, people, let's get the meeting going."

Everyone drifted into the briefing room, what was left of it. The acoustical ceiling was gone, with wires and ducts dangling down, hitting us in the head. One wall was missing. There was dust and debris everywhere, and lots of noise – sawing, hammering, drilling, cursing – you know, construction noise.

"What idiot decided to remodel the place with us still in it!" Angel grumbled over the noise.

"Too expensive to move the precious forensic labs," LaGuerta said, standing in the corner. Everyone turned and glared at Masuka and yours truly. The secret was out: Vince and I weren't being inconvenienced or losing any floor area like everyone else and we were the cause of everyone else's misery. Thanks, boss-lady, for endearing us to our fellow workers. I wondered if her smirk was for me, or if she looked at everyone that way? Maybe I should've given into her advances. Yeah, right! And maybe I should've become a nun, too.

"So, what've we got on the Palmetto Bay murders?" Debra asked. "Vince?"

"Five bodies. Buried at a construction site next to the No-Tell Motel. All male. Revenge of the hookers?" Masuka giggled, then looked peeved because no one else laughed. "Uh, all killed by gunshot to the head. All missing the left thumb, too."

"Which means?"

"Which means another serial killer," Quinn said, bored.

"Any leads?" Uncomfortable silence. Except for the construction noise, of course. "Alright, let's get on it. Next case . . ."

After the meeting, I scurried to my lab and closed the blinds to avoid the dirty looks. Memo to self: Bring lots of donuts tomorrow. No, pastry. The good stuff.

But something was bothering me about the Palmetto Bay murders. I studied the photos and the lab report. Something wasn't right. They weren't serial killings. They were fake serial killings. Probably gangs or something, trying to throw the police off. Except the victims, all prominent in the community. Not gang-victim types. What was the connection? That was the key.

4. Ice Cream a la Something Fishy

I was awakened at six-thirty-seven on Saturday morning by Harrison pulling the blankets off me. It was ice cream day with Benny. I tried to explain that it wasn't until two in the afternoon, but that was like trying to explain Quantum Physics to a Brussell sprout. To say he was excited was the understatement of the century. He was more-or-less dressed and standing by the front door at seven-twenty-three. I wasn't even out of the shower.

We arrived at The Ice Cream Factory forty-five minutes early and got a corner booth. Sarah and Benny arrived a few minutes later. She'd been dragged out of bed at the crack of dawn too. I wondered if I'd ever been like that, you know, before. I'd probably never know.

A few minutes later, Harrison and Benny were sitting next to each other in the back of the booth, each wolfing down a mountain of ice cream smothered with syrup and whipped cream and M&M's and, well, the whole nine-and-a-half yards. They'd probably get sick, but enjoy every spoonful. Sarah and I each had a bowl of vanilla ice cream and a cup of black coffee. Turns out, we both liked coffee with ice cream in it.

"I'm a little disappointed," Sarah said, "I was hoping to meet Mrs. Morgan."

"Uh, sorry," I said, "she, uh, died a few years ago. Murdered, actually."

"Oh, my goodness, I knew the name sounded familiar. I remember, it was in the news. I'm so sorry."

"Well, we've sort of moved on. Fortunately, Harrison doesn't remember her. Every once in a while, he notices other kids have mommies and wants to know where his is. But he's too young to understand."

"I hear what you're saying. You see, Benny's father is gone too. A year ago, next month. Unfortunately, Benny remembers him, misses him."

"Sorry to hear that. How'd it happen?"

"Believe it or not, he was murdered, too."

"Really?" I said, wondering if I was familiar with the case. "Did they catch the person?"

"Oh, yes, but they never pressed charges," she said, suddenly looking irritated. "He had connections."

"Who?"

"Trent Worthington." Trent Worthington! Wealthy businessman, mega-supporter of state and national politicians. Super influential. As close to untouchable as they get.

"Are you sure he did it?"

"He told me he did it! Yes, I'm sure."

"You're serious? He told you?"

"Yes. You see, he and my husband had business dealings. I don't know exactly what. But when Tom, my husband, discovered that Worthington was engaged in illegal activities, he confronted him, told him he was going to the authorities. The next day, they found Tom with a . . ." She glanced at the kids and lowered her voice. "At his funeral, Worthington told me he did it – in so many words – and laughed. Just for the fun of it, I guess. Then he asked if I'd have dinner with him sometime. The man's a sick monster!"

Thomas Russell. Instant recall. "I remember the case. I work for Miami Metro. Homicide. I actually worked on the case."

"Really? Was there any evidence linking Worthington?"

"My recollection is that the DA decided there wasn't enough evidence to arrest anyone. I remember the case suddenly stopping right in the middle of the investigation. We all thought it was strange." Even stranger, after hearing her story.

"He pulled a few strings. Money talks."

"Did you tell the police that he told you he did it?"

"Sure, but they said I'd need proof, a corroborating witness or something. Fat chance! And they knew it."

"Yeah." Something smelled fishy. As fishy as the fake serial killings at Palmetto Bay.

"Well, you've definitely piqued my curiosity, Sarah," I said, "I'll look into it. Quietly." I could use a new playmate. And, if Sarah was right, Trent Worthington would be a two-fer: a murderer and a child abuser, having seriously hurt my son's best friend. My absolute favorite type of playmate.

5. Murder By Coincidence

The next few weeks was a real grinder. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as that Nineteenth Century rockstar, Chucky-D, once said. My normal daily routine, if anything about my life could be called normal, got dropped into a food-processor and turned on high.

First, there was my home life. Sarah and I thought it was a good thing to let Harrison and Benny spend as much time together as possible. To develop social skills. So, some days after school, they went over to Benny's house and some days they came to Harrison's house, my apartment actually. Jamie said the two of them were less work than just Harrison; they played with each other instead of getting into mischief. We scheduled weekend adventures: parks, the beach, out on my boat, the aquarium . . . the list was endless. But it was worth seeing Harrison happy. And he was always happiest playing with Benny. Then there were the sleepovers; sleep having little to do with it. Theirs or mine.

And work. Things shouldn't have been too bad for me, since I didn't have to deal with the disruptions of remodeling. But my wonderful coworkers found imaginative ways of dumping their misery on me. And Masuka. Like using our labs for storage and interviews since they were "out of room" or it was "too noisy." And Debra promised to shoot the next construction worker who bent over and gave her a vertical smile. Except the one she started dating, of course.

Although not the official territory of the resident blood-splatter expert, I spent a lot of time searching for the connecting link in the Palmetto Bay murders, but found nothing. Could my hunch have been wrong? Deb always said my hunches were always right. And she's pretty smart about such things. Usually.

Then there were my extracurricular activities, currently investigating the killing of Sarah's husband. I got the case file from Records. Everything she'd told me was true, except any mention of her accusation of Worthington's confession. It seemed a little odd that it wasn't at least recorded. But it wasn't. Then something caught my eye. Tom had been killed by a gunshot to the head. And he was missing his left thumb. Where'd I seen that before? The Palmetto Bay murders, that's where. My hunch suddenly gave birth to the mother of all hunches.

It wasn't easy, because business is wrapped in layers of secrecy, but I spent many long hours checking to see if any of the Palmetto Bay murder victims had business ties to Worthington. They did. All of them. What are the odds of that just being a coincidence? Zero, that's what. Apparently, anyone who crossed Worthington took an early retirement. Without pension or benefits.

Now, none of what I'd found proved that Worthington killed anyone, or more likely, had them killed. I needed proof. And it was unlikely he'd left any fingerprints anywhere, or a paper trail or evidence of any kind. A wealthy professional with political ambitions – a king-maker – doesn't. I'd have to get the proof from the horse's mouth, the one person who knew for sure: Trent Worthington.

I'd done it before.

6. A Night At The Mortuary

In order to get close to Worthington, I had to check out his lifestyle, his routine. It wasn't easy. His home and office were like fortresses, with security systems and armed guards. And lots of cameras. He also had a personal bodyguard with him at all times. He looked like a Miami Dolphins tackle who got too big and muscle-bound to play football, so changed careers. Worthington wasn't going to be easy to get near, near enough for my purposes, for sure. But I was motivated.

Then I found what I was looking for. The first Thursday of every month, Worthington played poker in the evening with a few friends. Business associates, actually. Those he hadn't yet retired. They met in the second-floor parlor of an old abandoned mortuary, Fisher & Sons, he owned outside town. No security guards or alarms or cameras. Worthington always closed up after the others left. He'd be alone then. Except El Monstro, his bodyguard. But I could get rid of him. Piece o' cake.

Thursday night I waited until everyone left. Then I climbed in a basement window I'd left open the night before and made an intentionally suspicious-sounding noise. As hoped, heavy footsteps came thumping down the stairs and the door opened. El Monstro lumbered into the dark room, fumbling for the light switch. Before he found it, though, I found him. Or, more precisely, my needle found his neck. Typical jock, his reflexes instantly shifted into high and every muscle in his body turned to steel. The needle broke off in his neck as he fell to the floor.

"Ouch, that's gonna hurt!"

I tiptoed up the stairs. Worthington was at the poker table, his back to me, counting his winnings. I wondered if the others just let him win – cheap life insurance. He was soon out cold, face down in a pile of cash. When he woke, the parlor had been converted to my kill room. Neatly covered with plastic.

"What the hell's going on!" he said, a little groggy. Outraged, but definitely not afraid.

"Oh, just paying off a few debts," I said, sweeping my hand around the room, indicating the photos on the walls. "I know their blood's on your hands."

"You don't know shit!"

"Oh, you'd be surprised. Nobody can kill as many people as you have and leave absolutely no traces." Except me, of course. "A fugitive from the Braille Institute could follow the messy trail you amateurs left." A lie, of course.

"Alright, what if I did? They were a bunch of gutless pussies!" Was that a confession? It was to me. "What's it to you, anyway?"

"Absolutely nothing. I'm just making Miami a little happier place," I said as I slashed his cheek and took a drop of blood. He didn't even flinch. Boy, this guy's tough!

"Okay, nice performance, dick-head!" he said with a grunt, dripping with smug confidence. "What's this going to cost me?"

"Oh, one little drop of blood will do. I'm not greedy."

"You won't get away with this," he said calmly, "my bodyguard'll rip your head off."

"I wouldn't count on . . ." Suddenly there was a crash downstairs. Heavy footsteps started clumping up the stairs. Slow at first, then faster.

"You alright, Mr. Worthington?" a deep, rough voice boomed.

"Just fine, Nigel, but please hurry," Worthington said with a smirk. Nigel? El Monstro is named Nigel? "You were saying, Mr. . . . uh, you know, I don't believe I got your name." He smiled. I pulled another syringe out and stood behind the door, waiting. Then Nigel fired his gun and I shifted to Plan B, a hasty retreat.

"To be continued," I said, "we'll meet again."

"Indeed we will."

I grabbed my bag of toys and ran out the French doors to the terrace. I dropped to the ground and disappeared into the dark.

7. The Morning After

I didn't sleep very well that night. And the next day at work wasn't my absolute best. I hadn't left any evidence behind, thanks to gloves and other precautions I always take. Yes, Worthington had seen my face, but I hadn't been in the news in years. Hard to imagine he'd remember me, even if he had seen my picture. But I'd have to find another opportunity to get to him. And give Nigel a bigger shot. Much bigger.

At least I'd gotten one thing I wanted. A confession.

Debra shuffled into my lab and slammed the door. "Our arrest rate is in the toilet," she said. You know she's really upset when she doesn't use any four-letter words. "We need to arrest someone other than Joe the J-Walker."

"Something will come up," I said to comfort her. "I have a hunch." I'd kill Worthington and leave his body, minus thumb, somewhere conspicuous, with a letter showing his connection to the Palmetto Bay murders. It'd look like a revenge killing. And solve five murders.

"Right," she said, "a hunch. You know what you can do with your hunches." She stomped out, slamming the door. My feelings would have been hurt, if I had feelings; she usually begged me for my hunches.

8. The Not-So-Perfect Fit

Sarah had a dentist appointment on Friday, so I picked Benny up and took him to school with Harrison. Getting both kids packed into their re-entry capsules, better known as car-seats, was always a challenge. They seemed to be designed more for stuffed animals than hyperactive children.

"All set to go, Master Benjamin?" I asked Benny, since I wasn't quite as expert at packaging him as Harrison. "Ready for lift-off and re-entry?" He just giggled that way of his. "Too tight?" I asked as I checked the fit, tickling him under both arms. He giggled some more. "You're funny, Dexter," he said, then both of them started giggling. Interesting, kids think I'm funny while I give adults the creeps. A few think I'm scary, for good reason. But not kids. Why do they have to grow up!

I closed the door and headed for school. Their conversations were always amazing. Fast and rambling and excited. Sometimes weird and funny. But always unintelligible to an adult. At least this adult. Somewhere in the middle, though, they got me to agree to ice cream after school. Jamie keeps telling me I'm a softy. She says I'm supposed to be more of a disciplinarian, you know, a parent, not his best friend. I told her, he already has a best friend, Benny.

At work, remodeling had finally ended. So nobody complained about noise and dust and inconvenience anymore. Or vertical smiles. Instead they complained about not having enough room and things being in the wrong location. 'Wrong location' meaning 'not where it used to be' even if it was closer and more convenient.

"The offices are so fucking small," Debra complained, "we practically have to work in the nude to fit!" Masuka was all for that. He promised not to look.

"Some of us still wouldn't fit," Angel grumbled, rubbing his belly. "And the john's too far away . . . not good for someone with an enlarged prostate."

"You just need more sex," Quinn scoffed.

"I'm working on it . . ." Angel sighed.

9. A Monster of a Different Color

I was finishing a report when my cellphone rang. No caller ID was listed. I figured it was an insurance salesman.

"Yeah," I said, none too friendly.

"Hello, Dexter Morgan," a jovial voice said, "it looks like we're going to meet sooner than you thought." I recognized the voice instantly: Trent Worthington. He chuckled. I was at a loss for words. "I just thought you might be interested in knowing that I have your delightful little son right here with me. And his little friend." I heard crying in the background. I'd never noticed before that there was a steel spring coiled at the core of my being. I only noticed it then because it began tightening, painfully so.

"What're you up to!" I gasped. "If you hurt a hair on his head . . . or Benny, I'll, I'll . . ."

"They're just fine. So is Sarah. Lovely as ever," he sighed, savoring the moment. "But if you want to see them again, you'll meet me. Alone."

"Where?"

"You know where, our special little place." He hung up. The mortuary. My spring tightened even more. I hadn't felt the same dread when Travis Marshall took Harrison. He was an emotional train-wreck, after all, not thinking straight. I knew I could take him. But Worthington, he was a monster of a different color.

I walked calmly out of my lab with my hands in my pockets, trying not to attract attention, and entered to the stairwell. Then I ran like hell.

10. The Mummified Heart

I skidded to a stop at the mortuary and jumped out. I'm not sure I even turned the engine off or set the brake. El Monstro – AKA Nigel – was standing at the entrance. Smiling. Another cat waiting for a canary.

"Right this way, cupcake," he rumbled, stroking his neck, pointing a gun at me.

I ran past him and started upstairs. But he motioned me toward the door to the basement. So I ran down the stairs and found myself in a dark hallway. Dim light was coming from a door at the end. I ran to it and entered. It looked like a mechanical room. Worthington was leaning against a stack of dusty coffins, smiling. Unlike Nigel, it seemed like a friendly smile. But I knew it wasn't.

"How nice of you to join us, Mr. Morgan," he said, as if he was greeting an old and dear friend.

"Where's my son!" I demanded. "And Benny, Sarah?"

"My, my, so impatient," he said, amused.

"You've got me. Let them go. They've never done anything to you?" I looked around, but saw no one. "You can do what you want with me."

"Indeed I can, and will! But don't you even want to know how I found you?"

"Not particularly. Where are they!"

He ignored me. He was in a gloating mood. He had a victory speech prepared and nothing was going to stop him from delivering it.

"You see, I have lots of friends, friends in important places, useful places. And we look out for each other. So when one of my friends said someone was spending a considerable amount of time investigating the murder of some former associates of mine, unofficially, I was curious. And when another friend told me someone was investigating the Thomas Russell murder, also unofficially, I was more curious. And when yet another friend told me someone was investigating, unofficially yet again, the torturous business relationship between all of the above and me, well, I was even more curious."

He paused and eyed me playfully. "And what do you know, all those somebodies turned out to be the same somebody, one Dexter Morgan. So I had another friend investigate him, and what do you suppose I found? Why, his son went to the same school as Thomas Russell's son and their families were quite close. Curiouser and curiouser, don't you think. So, I got a photo of this Dexter Morgan. Well, you can't even begin to imagine my delight at discovering the identity of my midnight visitor." He smiled, then glared at me.

"Congrats," I said, with as much boredom as I could muster, "but where's my son?"

"Nigel, please show our guest to his, uh, accommodations." Nigel grabbed me by the arm and dragged me like a rag doll through a door at the far end of the room, relieving me of my pocket knife in the process. I found myself on a landing at the top of a flight of industrial metal stairs, overlooking a dark cavernous room below – a crematorium, from the look of it. Nigel slammed me against the guardrail and fastened my wrists to the top rail using Flex-Cufs, police-grade restraints of reinforced nylon with a slip-lock, the cheap alternative to handcuffs. They use them all the time at Miami Metro. He pulled them so tight I thought he was going to cut my hands off.

"Comfy?" he chuckled.

I heard a sound and turned my head. In the shadowy room below, Sarah was on her knees with her arms around Harrison and Benny – and three other children, two girls and a boy – protecting them, comforting them. They were tied to a rusty pipe.

"Daddy . . ." was all I heard. Harrison's tiny, terrified voice.

"Don't worry, Buddy," I said as upbeat as I could, feeling my inner spring tighten even more, "I'm here. Everything's going to be alright." I turned to Worthington. "More kids?"

"Oh, poor Nigel. When he took them from the school yard, he wasn't absolutely sure who was who, so he just grabbed an armful." They both laughed.

"Girls!" I said, "he couldn't tell boys from girls?"

"Hey, cupcake, I was in a fucking hurry!" Nigel grumbled. "At that age, they all look alike."

I wanted to say something appropriate about his sex life, but decided against it. "Let them go!" I said again. "This is between you and me."

"Indeed it is," Worthington said, savoring each word. "But killing you isn't enough. Inflicting pain isn't even enough. I want all I can get for your little indignity the other night." He stroked the purple wound on his cheek. "Quite embarrassing. And plastic surgery's going to mess up my busy schedule, not to mention cost. But not as much as it's going to cost you." He smiled.

"Let Sarah and the kids go!"

"Ah, yes, dear sweet Sarah," he said with just a touch of sugar-coated venom, "I'm sure she's the one who started all of this. Lovely, isn't she? Thomas was so very lucky." He sighed, then got an amused look on his face. "Do you know what this is?" he asked, holding his hand up.

He had a hand grenade. "Your mummified heart?"

"Cute," he said, then pointed to the room below. "Sadly, the pipes supplying the cremation ovens with gas are quite old and corroded. So when I throw this grenade down there, the explosion will burst the pipes and cause an inferno. Up here, you'll live a while longer, just long enough to see, and hear, your loved-ones die horrible deaths. I sincerely hope you enjoy it. I know I will. Wish I could stay for the party but, sadly, I have commitments. Pity." He shrugged.

"This is your property," I said, trying to hide my panic, "they'll trace the murders back to you."

"Oh, I don't think so. You see, as we speak, I'm in Orlando receiving another Humanitarian-of-the-Year award. The press will verify I've been there for the last three days, humbly waiting. And they won't find your incinerated bones tied to the rail; the plastic cuffs will burn away. But they will find a few grenades in your kitchen. And a deeply-moving suicide note. Ah, yes, poor Dexter Morgan, he was so distraught over the horrible death of his dear wife that he finally snapped and killed all these lovely people. And himself." He and Nigel laughed as if they'd just heard a dirty joke. My steel spring tightened more.

"You're a sick monster," I spit. Sarah was right.

"Perhaps. But a living sick monster. No one crosses me. No one." He gave me an artic smile and pulled the pin out of the grenade. Nigel stood behind him, his gun pointed at me.

And my steel spring snapped.

Suddenly, my only reason for existence was to save my son and the others. The entire universe collapsed into that one single reality. But I needed time.

"Why are you doing this?" I said, trying to act disgusted, judgmental, superior. Anything to distract him, delay him. "How could you hurt innocent children?"

"Innocent children," he mused. "Don't make me laugh. A child is just a not-so-innocent adult in the making. I don't see any . . ." And on he went with another speech, hopefully long enough for my needs.

While he droned on, I moved my almost-lifeless fingers behind my back and managed to grip my wallet. I pulled it out of my pocket, nearly dropping it because my fingers were slippery with sweat, and opened it. I carefully searched through my credit cards until I came to that one special card. Deb, I thought to myself, I hope I live long enough to thank you . . .

11. A Birthday To Remember

Debra had come into my lab that day and closed the door. I usually didn't like it when she did that. It was almost always something mushy and uncomfortable. But instead, she just set something on the desk in front of me without a word. It was about the size of a deck of cards, gift-wrapped with a bow.

"What's the occasion,?" I asked.

"Your birthday, for Christ's sake!" she said, looking exasperated.

"Huh . . . I thought I just had one."

"Yeah, you did. A year ago. Don't you pay attention to anything!" Actually, I have an app on my smartphone that alerts me a week before her birthday. Even gives gift suggestions based on a questionnaire I filled out.

"Okay, I'll open it. But you have to promise not to tell anybody."

"When have I ever told anybody before?"

"Uh, last year. And the year before and . . ."

"Alright, I promise. Now open the damn thing."

The box inside said Cardsharp. Right, cards or something related. But when I opened it, inside was what looked like a black credit card. I picked it up and followed the diagrams. Before I knew it, I was holding a small knife.

"Huh . . ." was all I could say. Comfortable, and solid, but was it sharp? I rummaged through my waste basket and pulled out a package I'd gotten that morning, bound with that awful fiberglass-reinforced packing tape that practically requires a power saw with a diamond blade to cut. I ran the knife across it. It went through it like warm butter, or warm human flesh – something I'm somewhat more familiar with.

"Wow, Deb, this is terrific!" I said. I'd always have a knife on me masquerading as an innocent little credit card. Any time I had an impromptu urge to carve something up, I was all set to go. "It's great, Deb, but why a knife?"

"Oh, come on, Dex. I used to watch you and Dad skinning and butchering deer. You were amazing. Dad always said you were the best he'd ever seen, a master." She laughed. "I always thought you'd end up being a butcher."

Little did she know . . .

12. Slow Motion Universe

I'd practiced unfolding my credit card knife many times in the dark and with my eyes closed. But never behind my back with my hands bound. It was difficult, but I did it. I was focused. I held it between my wrists and began cutting the cuffs. I didn't care if I lacerated an artery. As I'd hoped, the little beauty went through the restraints like warm human flesh. I fantasized it was Worthington's cold inhuman flesh. There was a slight pop as the cuffs separated and fell to the room below. Warmth and blood and feeling flowed into my hands. I lifted my left foot and placed it against the guardrail. And took a deep breath.

My demeanor must have changed because Worthington stopped talking and looked momentarily puzzled. "What're you up to?" He paused. "You've lost, Morgan, and you know it."

"Yeah," Nigel scoffed, "he'd need a fucking blowtorch to get out of them bracelets."

"Well, enough foreplay," Worthington said. He lifted the grenade over his head preparing to throw it. I pushed off the guardrail with all my strength.

And the universe shifted into slow-motion . . .

I flew through the air toward him, watching his expression change from smug to surprised to concerned to fear. Nigel fired his gun. I felt the bullet hit my shoulder, ripping flesh, tearing muscle. But no pain. I was too focused. I slammed into Worthington sending him staggering backwards, crashing into Nigel. The three of us toppled backwards through the open door into the other room. We landed on the concrete floor and tumbled over and over. I stopped rolling and looked up. The grenade was flying through the air, with Worthington and Nigel anxiously watching it. They both screamed when it went off.

I heard the blast. I felt the blast. I even saw the blast with my closed eyes. Then everything went black.

13. Lost In The Dark

I was awakened by pain. Lots of it. Everywhere. My left leg felt like it was broken. And my left arm. Ribs, too. I could feel ragged lacerations and sticky blood. My skin burned. But my concern wasn't me, or my pain.

I rolled over. I was in a pit with some equipment. It looked like a pump; I must have rolled into a sump and avoided some of the blast. I climbed out and looked around the room. There were signs of an explosion everywhere. But no bodies. Or body parts. Or blood. How is that possible? Did they escape? Impossible as it seemed, the mere possibility terrified me. I limped across the room to the doorway and stepped onto the stair landing. There were no signs of a blast. The shadowy room had avoided destruction. But Harrison and the others were nowhere to be seen. Had Worthington or Nigel, or both, survived and taken them? Impossible, but . . .

I limped back to the other room and tried to open the door to the hallway. But it was jammed. So I hobbled down the stairs, every step agonizing, to see if I could find something to pry the door open. I looked everywhere but couldn't find anything useful. I turned around, frantic.

You did your best, son, Harry said.

"Is Harrison safe, and the others?" I asked.

I don't know.

"Did Worthington get away?

I don't know. You know I don't know anything you don't know. That's the way it works.

"Right, stupid me." I looked at him. "Am I dead?"

I hope not.

"Thanks. You're a big help."

He's always a big help, little brother, a voice said, that's why you're in this mess.

I turned toward the voice. "Brian?" I said, "I thought I left you in Nebraska. What are you doing here?"

Trying to help you. Like always, he said, but you keep listening to that pious old windbag.

Don't pay any attention to him, son, Harry said. He'll just get you into more trouble.

More trouble! How could he be in any more trouble than he already is? Brian mocked. If he'd listened to me, we'd be traveling across the country having fun. But you convinced him he had to become Dear Domesticated Dexter, changing poopy diapers, taking his accident to school, saving a bunch of hopeless losers . . .

Don't listen to him, Dexter, another voice said, you did the right thing.

"Rita?" I said, surprised.

It's me, she said, stepping out of the shadows.

"I don't understand."

I'm here to help you, she said as she hugged me. You can't go on like this.

"Go on!" I said. "I don't even know if I'm alive or dead."

You might as well be dead, Brian said, if you listen to her, Little Miss Holier-Than-Thou, the Virgin Mother.

You leave Dexter alone, Rita said. You've been enough trouble. Taking him on a killing spree. If it wasn't for Harry . . .

Oh yes, of course, Brian sneered, Saint Harry-the-Boring!

Go back to your motherfucking hole, you psycho! another voice barked.

"I'd know that voice anywhere . . . Doakes? Is that really you?" I said, more surprised.

No, it's the Ghost of Christmas Fucking Past . . . of course it's me!

"But, what're you doing here?"

Trying to help you. What do you think?

"But, why? You hate my guts."

That was before I saw your darkness. Now I understand your pain. I once shared your darkness. But mine's gone. And you need to dump yours too. Before it's too late. You have to . . .

Oh, please! Spare me all the twaddle, another voice said, another familiar voice.

"Lila?" I said. "Leave me alone."

But, darling, we had such fun, she said. We were soulmates.

Soulmates in hell, maybe, Rita said. Leave Dexter alone. You've done enough. More than enough!

You can say that again, Doakes said, You killed me, you fucking bitch!

Only to save Dexter. Nothing personal, dearie, Lila said. And I'm here to save him again. From a dull, boring life. A life he was never meant for.

Right-on, beautiful! Brian said. Are we soulmates, too?

We're all soulmates, another voice said. I recognized it at once. Arthur Mitchell. The Trinity Killer.

"What are you doing here, Arthur?" I said, "didn't you ruin my life enough?"

You shouldn't have killed me, Dexter, Arthur said, I could have taught you so much.

You had nothing to teach Dexter! Rita said.

Not so, my dear, Arthur said in that deceptively genial way of his. Dexter's a rank amateur compared to me. Always will be so long as he keeps letting his conscience get in the way. Dexter, you're going to be a failure as a serial killer or a monster or whatever you call yourself if you keep letting morality guide you. That ridiculous Code of Harry. He laughed, joined by Brian and Lila.

Finally! Brian said, clapping his hands, someone saying something that isn't ridiculous nonsense. Finally someone with . . .

. . . with absolutely nothing worth listening to, another voice said.

"Brother Sam?" I said, turning.

The real me, he said. I couldn't just stand by and say nothing. You and your brother are as different as night and day.

"But we're the same."

No, you're opposites, Brother Sam said. Your brother is the darkness and you're the light.

Oh, come on, Brother Mumbo-Jumbo! Brian said, laughing. What reality are you from?

Don't pay any attention to him, Dexter, Brother Sam said. He only exists so that you can be seen. Light is only visible in darkness.

I can't listen to any more of this nonsense! Arthur said. If Dexter's the light, then I'm . . .

Enough! a new voice said with authority, strangely both familiar and unfamiliar, gentle and powerful. Leave my son alone!

"Mommy . . ." Was that my voice? It sounded like a child.

I turned toward the voice and saw a beautiful young woman. I knew her. She was my mother, Laura Moser, so long gone I was surprised I recognized her. But I did.

Dexter, she said, the time has come. You have to choose whether you want to be a man or a monster. Only you can make the decision, no one else.

Oh, go away, Brian said, you're too late, mommy dearest.

She glanced at him, looked sad, and turned back to me. It's time to be human again. You once were and can be again.

"I can't," I said, "I've tried my whole life, but I can't. My Dark Passenger won't let me."

Just stop obeying it, she said as she turned and pointed into a dark corner of the room. In the darkness was an even darker darkness. Like a tear in the fabric of the universe, in the shape of a being, undulating, indistinct, intangible. Threatening. I could hear its rumbling laughter, a deep dark laugh I'd heard for so long. Don't be afraid of it. It's powerless against all but children. And it robbed you of your childhood long ago. But you can free yourself from its control.

"I can't."

You can.

"I don't know how."

Yes you do, she said, you've always had the power, inside you.

Who are you? Brian mocked, Glinda, the Good Witch of the South? Did you bring little Dexy some ruby slippers to tap together? Lila and Arthur laughed.

She glared at him. He stopped smiling and stepped back into the darkness.

Reject it, she said, pointing, and free yourself.

"I can't."

Yes you can, she insisted. We'll help you.

Trembling, I looked into the darkness. It was still there, laughing. "Go away," I stammered with a trembling voice, a child's voice. Its laughter became an amused rumble, shaking the building to its foundations. I tried again. "I'm not afraid of you anymore! I won't obey you!" Its laughter became a burning hiss. Suddenly, I felt strangely calm and at peace, like I'd never felt before. "I'm a free man," I whispered, "not your slave anymore," Then I turned away. My newfound peace overwhelmed me. I felt lightheaded.

Its hiss became a wail of agony, deafening, like a chorus of uncountable lost souls all screaming in horror. And the darkness, my Dark Passenger, my master for so long, vanished like smoke in the wind. So did Brian and Lila and Arthur.

My mother took me in her arms. Now, go live a wonderful life, Dexter, that normal, ordinary life you've always wanted. And she was gone.

My legs began to shake and I dropped to my knees. I was alone in the dark again.

14. Recalled To Life

"Dexter," a distant voice called out of the darkness, "wake up." I opened my eyes. I hurt all over. I was sitting on a concrete bench next to Debra, with her arm around me, in an overgrown courtyard, The Garden of Memories, a corroded bronze plaque said. And I was apparently alive. But that was unimportant.

"Harrison!" I rasped with a raw throat, burning, like the flu from hell, "and Benny, Sarah, the others . . ."

"Don't worry," Debra said, "they're fine. All of them. You saved them all," she sighed, "just like you always do. All Harrison does is brag about his daddy the hero." She tried to smooth my scorched and mussed hair. "And there's a few grateful parents waiting outside who want to kiss you on the lips."

"Uh, could you handle that for me?" I rolled my eyes, painfully. "You're better at that than me. Besides, not sure I still have lips."

"And there's someone who needs a big hug." She looked down. Harrison was between us.

"Hey Buddy," I said, overjoyed to see him alive and unharmed. I put my arm around him. He hugged me back. I flinched.

"Harrison, sweetie," Debra said, "be careful you don't hurt Daddy. He's . . . oh what the fu . . ." she stopped, shocked, ". . . uh, fudge. What the fudge! Go ahead, hug away."

Harrison looked up at me with that angelic face of his. With the innocence and lisp of a child, he said, "Auntie Deb was going to say fruck, wasn't she?" I heard gasps from all directions, but mostly from Auntie Deb. That was when I noticed others: Angel, Quinn, Masuka, LaGuerta. Paramedics. Cops and firemen running every which way. Bodies being removed from the smoldering mortuary. Reporters. Onlookers. Helicopters circling above.

"No she wasn't," I said, trying unsuccessfully to sound disciplinarian "and neither should you. It's not nice." I tried to glare at Deb but my infamous scary-eyed look seemed to be out of order. Temporary or permanent, I wondered.

"Are you alright, Dexter?" another voice said. I turned and found Sarah sitting on the other side of me.

"Never better," I said, "now that I see you're safe." She smiled and took my hand.

"You were amazing . . . in your condition . . . you carried them all out to safety. I don't know how to thank you," she said, "and Benny . . ." She glanced down. Squeezed between us was Benny, looking up at me with those electric green eyes that he got from his mother.

"Hey, Master Benjamin," I said, trying to sound like we'd just gotten back from a walk in the park. He wrapped his arms around me and held on for dear life. I kept one arm around Harrison and put the other around him.

"I don't know how to thank you," Sarah said again.

"Don't. Just have dinner with me sometime. Dinner and a movie and who knows what. You know, a real date." I can't believe I said that, but I did. And it felt good. Overdue, too. But when I saw her, I realized something: Harrison needed a mother. And Benny needed a father. And they both needed a brother. The word family suddenly popped into my head. We were a perfect match, all of us. I somehow knew Rita would approve. A real family, with Cody and Astor, too.

"Oh, Dexter, there's nothing I'd rather do," she said as she hugged me, gently. And kissed me. The first time. On the lips, too. I didn't know how to respond, but didn't have to. Debra saved me.

"The paramedics say you'll live, Dex," Debra interrupted. "Patched your gunshot wound, too. The rest is just a lot of minor cuts and bruises and superficial burns. Painful, but nothing to worry about."

"Easy for them to say," I groaned and made a few cartoon grimaces.

"Just go in for a checkup tomorrow. Okay?"

"You got it. Uh, but one other thing. You might want to have the grenades Worthington left in my kitchen removed sometime." I smiled. "Before Harrison finds them and, you know, redecorates."

"Oh, fu . . . fudge! The bomb squad's on the way." She reached for her cellphone and stood up. "Come on, I'll take you home."

"What's left of me . . ."

15. Goodbye

Later that evening, Debra put Harrison to bed and stayed for a while, worried about me, until I told her I was tired and needed to hit the sack. Then I took the longest, most enjoyable shower I'd ever had – against doctor's orders, of course, because of the open wounds – then crashed.

As I lay in bed – too wired to sleep – pondering the events of the day, it occurred to me that explaining the incident with Worthington wasn't going to be a problem. I'd just say my personal investigation into the murder of Sarah's husband had led to Worthington. And someone tipped him off. The truth. No need to lie. Just omit the part about our late-night encounter at our special little place. Then . . .

Welcome home, son, Harry said.

"Thanks, dad," I said. "I couldn't have done it without you."

Yes you could.

"Maybe, but thanks anyway."

No thanks needed in any case. It's the sort of thing a father does because he's your father.

"Adoptive father," I reminded him.

Well, I guess it's time to come clean and tell you the truth. I'm your real father.

"But, Joseph Driscoll, the guy who left me his house. Our DNA matched. And the blood transfusion. He was my father."

His blood was a match because Joe was my brother. Changed his name after prison. I guess our DNA was close enough to fool the lab geeks. If they'd checked a little closer, they might've noticed. But, then, you saw the results.

"Yeah, haste equals sloppy lab work. I guess I suspected as much. After all, you rescued me from the cargo container but left Brian behind. Why? Because I was your flesh and blood, and he wasn't."

You're right, but only partly right. He was also stark-raving mad. I didn't think there was anything to save.

"Neither did the people at the institution they put him in. I read their report. I'm surprised they ever let him out."

He wore a really good mask. Better than yours.

"Yeah. But why didn't you ever tell me you were my father?"

You had enough problems growing up. Knowing I was a lousy husband, cheating on my wife, wouldn't have helped.

"You were a great husband, just not perfect."

Thanks, son. Thanks for understanding.

"No thanks necessary, dad," I said, "it's the sort of thing a son does because he's your son." We can both play that game, dad! I thought to myself.

Well son, Harry said with sadness in his eyes, it's time to say goodbye.

"No! You can't leave," I pleaded, "I need you."

Not anymore. You're a real boy now.

"But . . ."

Have a great life, son. A real life. And he was gone.

"Goodbye, Harry," I whispered, "Goodbye."

16. Hello

I heard a sound and turned my head. Harrison was standing in the doorway. He ran across the room and climbed on the bed, crawled over and wrapped his arms around my neck, trembling. Every movement he made hurt, but somehow felt comforting.

"Hey, Buddy," I said, "what's the matter?"

"I was afraid you'd go away and, and, never come back . . ." he said in a quivering voice, ". . . like mommy." Where'd that come from! I guess little kids are a lot smarter than we realize.

"Don't worry," I said, like a sacred oath, "I'm not going anywhere. Ever. I'll always be here. I promise." I tried to comfort him by returning his hug, pain or no pain.

Memo to self: Get rid of my bag of toys in the closet. I'll never need them again. I suddenly realized I'd completely lost my need to kill people and chop them into neat little pieces. I couldn't even remember why I'd done it. And my blood trophy collection – history! I must've been insane.

I was.But not anymore.

"And something else," I said, "let's start calling you Harry, like your grandfather. Okay?" He nodded. "Let's try it on for size . . .

"Hello, Harry," I whispered, "hello."

He giggled. And relaxed.

Sounded good. Sounded right. Sounded amazingly fabulous, actually! It'd be great having a Harry around again. Especially one other people could see and hear and touch.

As I lay there, though, I realized something else: that gaping hole deep inside was gone. I wasn't empty anymore.

And I could feel.

But I also realized I was still the same ol' Dexter Morgan. Minus the blood and gore, of course. I still had all my quirky personality traits, my odd habits, my lab geekiness, my irreverent comments. Even my fondness for bowling shirts and pulled-pork sandwiches and making pancakes in funny shapes. Late-night adventures, too. And especially, most especially, my weird sense of humor. Nobody'd recognize me without it. Hell, I wouldn't recognize me without it!

And I'd never stop following the Code of Harry, tracking down really bad people who didn't deserve to live. The only difference, I'd leave them on Miami Metro's table, instead of mine. But I'd still follow the Code secretly; after all, there's Rule Number One: Don't get caught. Some things never change . . .

I'll always be Dexter.