The Fighter

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Chapter 11: The New Madelyn

I powered my phone back on and wolfed down a piece of toast. It was the first thing I’d eaten in three days, and I was suddenly starving. I had been thrown through the wringer the last few days but had come to these conclusions with — oddly enough — the help of my biological mother, who had been dead for the last sixteen years. I had had just as much closure as I had pain from life’s turn of events.

As soon as my phone reconnected to cell service, it began blowing up with text messages from the last few days. I took a deep breath before going through them one at a time. I decided to start with Joan’s, as raw and painful as it was.

Joan: D, just tried to call. Call me back ASAP!

Joan: Tried calling again but it’s going straight to voicemail. Let me explain.

Joan: PLS answer! Worried about you.

Joan: WHERE R U? Tried you at your place.

Joan: It’s been a whole day… are you ok?

Joan: It’s not what you think! Pls at least txt me and tell me u r okay.

Joan: Don’t see your car at your apartment or at the gym… where r u?

Joan: Really worried now. Even if I can see you read the messages. Ready to talk when u r.

The messages stopped after fifteen or so. I wanted to read Drew’s, but I didn’t feel ready yet. I decided to check my other ones, and was surprised to see practically everyone from the team had texted. They’d all asked why my phone was off or if I just wasn’t responding, apologizing and saying they wanted to give me their side of the story. Even Richard had texted me. Finally, after much deliberation, I opened Drew’s messages with a heavy heart.

Drew: Will you please call me? I know you’re mad, I would be too.

Drew: Trying to give you your space but I’m worried about you. You’re not answering any calls, and Joan said you’re not home or at the gym. Are you at least physically okay?

I gritted my teeth at that second text. The affirmation that he did, in fact, know Joan sickened me and reinforced my animosity at the situation, but I forced myself to keep reading.

Drew: Gym owners said it’s been a few days since they’ve seen you… I figured that’s where you’d be if not at home. If you just answer, I will stop bothering you.

Drew: I miss you. A lot. Please let me know you’re okay.

The last text twisted my stomach. I wanted to believe it was true, and I think a small part of me did, but I couldn’t get past how battered and used I felt. Had he only slept with me to get me to open up? That didn’t seem like something the Drew I thought I knew would ever do, but then again, they were all able to fool me for weeks. Maybe I didn’t know any of them at all.

Even if I didn’t really know them, I still knew what I had to do. I had to bring the evidence to the FBI. This whole thing ran so much deeper than just me. I pushed myself up from the couch, wincing from discomfort at the bruises that ran down my ribs from my recent beatdown. I knew they were probably going to take photos of the bruises, so I made sure to wear loose clothing. I tucked my now short, straight, and very platinum blonde hair behind my ears, pulled on a loose tank top, jeans, and sandals.

Fuck dressing professionally. I was the one with the vital information and evidence, so they could deal with it.

And then I made the extremely nerve-wracking drive back to them.


I held my small box of stuff close to me as I stood in front of the doors, taking deep breaths and convincing myself I needed to do this for the better of humanity.

After one more deep inhale and exhale, I opened the tall glass door and made my way upstairs. As soon as I hit the landing of the second story, I heard arguing inside. There were several raised voices yelling at one another. I pressed my ear to the door to listen in.

“—everyone’s fault, not just mine!” Josh shouted.

“You weren’t supposed to let her in,” Richard’s booming voice said.

“None of this would’ve happened if we’d just been honest with her,” Emma sneered.

“I agree with Emma. Now she’s completely off the grid. She was able to fly under the radar for over a decade. She can do it again,” Marcus said.

“God damn it. This investigation will lead to nowhere without her help,” Richard said.

“If Drew hadn’t slept with her, she probably would’ve been a lot less angry,” Josh criticized.

“Okay, that had nothing to do with the investigation part! Why doesn’t anyone believe me?” He demanded.

I closed my eyes and hesitated even going in, but this was obviously a huge deal and I was a major moving part in this investigation.

“Because it’s awfully convenient that she opened up to you that very same night!” Matthew yelled.

“That wasn’t my intention!” Drew yelled back.

“Will everybody please stop yelling?” Heather spoke up. “For the love of God, just shut up. This whole thing was a bad idea, but mainly in execution. She would make a great asset to this team if we all just trusted she’d do the right thing.”

Thank you, Heather.

I took that as my cue and opened up the door. Everyone’s heads whipped my direction and their jaws dropped when they saw it was me. I took a few steps into the office before stopping about ten feet from all of them. I leveled with them, holding my chin high and my shoulders back. Everyone shifted, and as they moved, revealed Joan. My eyes flicked to her briefly before I spoke.

“I’m not here for any of you. I’m here because there’s important evidence that needs to be shared to bring that man to justice,” I announced, walking past all of them to go into the briefing room. I set the box down on the table and waited for them to all come in and take a seat. Drew sat closest to where I was standing, and I made it a point to move away from him.

“Madelyn, I think I speak for everyone when we say we’re sorry,” Richard spoke. He was the only one still standing.

I blinked at him. “If you wouldn’t mind setting up that presentation you had started when I walked in earlier this week,” I deadpanned.

He nodded and made quick work of getting it all set up. Joan kept trying to give me a small, reassuring smile, but I still refused to look directly at her and Drew. A few seconds later, his picture popped up on the screen. My stomach knotted itself, and I swallowed thickly.

“That’s Darryl Benson. My late mother’s ex-boyfriend who raped and molested me for a year before my mother passed away,” I told them. “Who also happens to be in town seeing as he attacked me outside the gym Tuesday evening.”

“Is that what all… this is from?” Josh wondered, gesturing to my face and bruised arms.

“Yes,” I responded tersely. I opened the box and pulled out the clothes I was wearing the day he attacked me. “These have his blood on them so you can have a sample of his DNA.” I set the neatly folded clothes on the table. “I’ve spent the last day making phone calls and found out he still lives at my mother’s old house. Here’s the information on it from the local property appraiser’s records.” I slid the paperwork toward the middle of the table.

“Okay, but why come forward now? After everything we put you through?” Matthew wondered. His brother hit his shoulder. “What? It’s true and she knows it.” He said to his brother.

I scowled and glowered at the two of them. “Richard, what other information do you have on him?”

“Over the last six months, we had a handful of young women come forward and state he’s sexually assaulted them,” he started, eyeing me cautiously as he spoke. “Local law enforcement called us in and when we started digging into it, found that you might be the first victim.”

I blanched and mulled this over for a moment before slowly nodding. “I was. But how did you find out about me?”

“I’m guessing you haven’t been back to rural Tucson since you were a kid, then?” Drew wondered.

I forced myself to look at him, as difficult as it was to make eye contact with him. “No. But you know this,” I quipped, referring to how I told him my entire life story after I submitted myself to him.

Drew flushed and rubbed the back of his neck, and Josh elbowed him. “That’s rough, dude,” Josh muttered under his breath.

“Well, you’ve got a reputation around there as the ‘one who got away’,” Richard filled me in. “Everyone remembers the little girl whose mom got sick and who ran away on her seventh birthday.”

“Great,” I grunted. “So then what? You hunted me down and found out I happened to live just a hop, skip, and a jump away?”

Richard shrugged. “Yeah, basically. We thought if we could find the source, that you could lead us through what happened and potentially uncover others.”

I put my hands in my pockets and rocked back on my heels. “So tell me the evolution of all of this unfolding, because I’ve been wracking my brain just to figure out how you enlisted the help of Joan.”

Richard looked at Joan, who nervously glanced over to me. “Well, Dee—”

“I’d really prefer if everyone didn’t call me by some endearing nickname right now, so ‘Madelyn’ or ‘Miss Carver’ will do just fine,” I interjected. “Back to you, Joan.”

Sadness washed over her. Her dark brown eyes briefly welled with tears. “Well, a few months ago, Drew showed up at my doorstep asking if I knew you. When I said yes, he asked to come in, so I let him in and we got to talking about everything. He told me what they thought had happened and requested I come down to the Bureau to discuss the case. When I did, they asked me to try to get the story out of you.”

I shook my head in frustration. “But why didn’t you guys come to me first?”

“Your reputation proceeds you,” Josh piped up. “I knew who you were right away because of the gym thing. I knew how standoffish and unfriendly you tend to be when you meet new people. So I suggested that we reach out to your closest friend for help.”

“Just to clarify, we never expected it to get this far,” Carson chimed in.

“So why pretend to recruit me if you only wanted my help with this case?” I snapped, feeling my temper start to flare up.

“We weren’t pretending to recruit you,” Richard declared. “We did recruit you. You see, in the midst of all this, Quantico was trying to see if we could experiment a crash course training for recruits. We saw it as two birds with one stone given your track record.”

I flattened my lips. As the information came out, it made sense, but Heather was right: their execution was completely off base. Now I had to figure out how to move past this to work with everyone in an amicable manner. I shifted back and forth between my feet. As everyone trained their eyes on me once more, I felt the weight of the situation settle over me.

My mind was racing at a million miles an hour. Could I trust them again? I didn’t see how I could. But, they did all come clean with me, so better late then never… right? I was worth more and I knew that, and didn’t know how else to make that known to them. This job seemed like a dream to me, but they had all really fucked up in a lot of ways.

I reached into the box and pulled out the mixtape my mom had made me. “So then you guys don’t know about the sex trafficking ring,” I stated.

Drew, who’d been taking a sip of water, choked. “I’m sorry, did you say sex trafficking ring?”

I nodded and reluctantly handed the mixtape to Drew to pass around. “Richard, if you could hook this up. My mom gave this to me on my seventh birthday and I never opened it until the other day,” I admitted. “She told me to ‘open it after’ and I refused to because it was too painful. I never knew what it was.”

Richard put the disc into the computer he used to project the presentation, and I heard my mother’s voice flood the room. My eyes grew misty during the first sentences.

Dear Dee. First of all, I just want you to know how much I love you. And no matter how long you’ve waited to listen to this, I just want you to know that I’m watching over you.

When she finished her monologue, I indicated to Richard to pause it. “Skip to the last track, to the third minute,” I told him, which he promptly did.

The last song faded out and a conversation picked up.

“I won’t do that to her, Darryl,” my mother’s voice said firmly. “I want no part of this.”

“Well if you hadn’t been snooping in the first place, then you wouldn’t have been a part of this at all,” Darryl snarled.

My mother scoffed. “If you hadn’t been bringing guns and drugs into my house, I wouldn’t have had to snoop,” my mother threw back at him. I smiled a little bit as I realized I must’ve gotten my attitude from her.

“Whatever, Natalie. Either you help us out, keep your mouth shut, and we leave your daughter alone, or what’s been happening with your daughter continues.”

“You’re an evil shithead,” my mother huffed. “You can fuck right off. I swear to God if you touch my daughter again, I’ll kill you.”

There was a scuffle then. I couldn’t quite hear what happened, but there was definitely a physical struggle before a loud thud occurred.

“Operating a sex ring, Darryl? Just when I thought you couldn’t get any worse.”

“You’re a bitch, Natalie! Your daughter will suffer for this!” He called out.

“Like hell she will. You’ve done enough to her. I’m taking her far away from you and you will never find us again,” she said. At that point, the microphone moved.

“I’ll throw Madelyn into the ring just because of this! Just you wait and see!” Darryl called, his voice receding before my mother’s voice was the only thing you could hear.

“To whoever finds this,” she breathed. The sound of wind blew into the mic. “Darryl Benson is guilty for being part of a massive international sex trafficking ring and needs to be brought to justice. He has sexually assaulted my daughter, Madelyn Carver, and I know he won’t stop there.”

The sound clicked off then and the soundtrack ended. Guilt made its way into the depths of my belly as I realized he could’ve been stopped sixteen years ago if I’d just opened my damn birthday present when I was supposed to. I shamefully lowered my gaze to my feet.

“You mean to tell me you’ve had this on you for the last decade and a half?” Matthew boomed in a threatening tone, slowly rising to his feet like a predator.

I squared my shoulders. “How about you get raped for a year, lose your mom to cancer on your seventh birthday, then get raped again on that very same birthday, run away, get thrown into the foster system, and then tell me you wouldn’t be so fucked up that you’d be ready to open that gift,” I retorted.

“Matt, back off,” Marcus whisper-yelled, tugging on his brother’s arm to force him to sit. He did eventually, but his nostrils were flaring.

“So basically this whole thing is a hell of a lot bigger than we originally thought,” Richard noted.

“Well, there’s all the evidence I’ve got, so if you need me to write out a confession, I will. Then I’ll be on my way,” I told them all as I clasped my hands behind my back.

“Wait, I think you should at least see this case through,” Drew said as he rose to his feet. I looked up at him and into those beautiful steel eyes of his. I had forgotten that he was nearly a foot taller than me.

“I agree,” Emma spoke up. “You’re the only one who has a direct connection to him, and you said yourself he’s in town.”

“Besides, if we can get him, we can start to topple this whole sex ring,” Heather pointed out.

“I think it’s a good idea, Madelyn,” Joan agreed softly.

“We need to stop him before this continues,” Josh said.

I looked at each of them, feeling uneasy as to how I should proceed with this, when I heard my mother’s words: Remember to always do the right thing.

I knew at that moment what the right thing was, and even though it pained me to do, I agreed. “Okay, but I’m not making any promises about whether or not I’ll stay after this,” I told them.

Richard smiled at me. “It’s great to have you back, Miss Carver. Team, I think we should give her and Drew a moment alone.”

Everyone shuffled out of the room, and I wanted to join them so I didn’t have to confront this situation. We stood awkwardly in front of each other. There was still the small part of me that wanted to forgive him right away, but he’d breached my trust and needed to know I wouldn’t stand for it. I’d been dicked around enough in my life and wouldn’t allow it anymore.

“Maddie…” his voice trailed off.

I looked up at him and noticed he hadn’t shaved in several days. His hair wasn’t tamed like it normally was; it was tousled. The bags under his eyes told me the last few days hadn’t treated him well.

I sat on the edge of large conference table. “I don’t know how to proceed from here,” I confessed as I swung my legs in a child-like manner. “I’m really hurt. I mean, what did you do after I revealed that information to you? Text everyone in a group chat, ‘Hey guys, I got her to spill everything, let’s meet tomorrow’? Or how did it all go down? Because how I remember it is we went right back to bed, woke up, got ready, and came to work.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head. The five feet between us felt like a mile and somehow like an inch all at once. “No, I had zero communication with them. I was all in, like I told you. In fact, we had had this meeting planned a week in advance. They didn’t know anything you told me until you walked out on Tuesday and I was forced to tell them.”

Oh.

I paled but didn’t know how to respond.

“But what I did to you was wrong and I owe you an apology for it. I was dishonest with you about… well, about a lot of things, and that wasn’t fair to you. You’re more important than this job, and I should’ve had the backbone to say no,” he told me, sincerity coloring his features.

My heart softened. I held his gaze for a few moments and remembered why I’d trusted him in the first place. He made me feel safe. And even though I felt backstabbed by their entire plan, he was still trying to right his wrongs and was taking accountability for his mistakes.

I sighed internally and twisted my lips as I contemplated my next move. I remembered what he’d said about letting an innocent person die, and figured if I could understand what he was going through when he’d agreed to lie to my face, that maybe I’d find more forgiveness in my heart.

“Tell me about why you got suspended,” I said softly.

Drew raised his eyebrows. “What does that have to do with anything?” He asked, and when I just looked at him expectantly rather than answering his question, he shrugged and pulled a chair over to sit in front of me. “Yeah, alright. It was about three months ago. I was the lead on the case because Richard had taken some time off for the birth of his granddaughter. It wasn’t the first time I was the lead on a case, but this one resonated with me.

“There was this serial killer down in Tallahassee. Nothing super significant about it, but it was six bodies in six days, with the same MO of a slit throat, so they called us in. We flew down, reviewed the case with local authorities, and went out to the crime scenes. We were gone for almost three weeks; in other words, a long ass time to be gone on a case. This unsub was slippery and knew how to evade the police,” he explained. “We’d had it narrowed down to handful of suspects and had interviewed each one. I had a weird feeling about this one guy in particular. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but something was off with him.

“So I made the mistake of prematurely putting him in custody without sufficient evidence, which gave me 72 hours to prove he was guilty. The team was obviously there to help me but kept warning me about making the arrest, but I didn’t listen. Anyway, the next morning another body came up, so not only was I guilt-ridden, but I had to let the guy go.” He paused, frowning. I waited because he looked like he wanted to say more, but he didn’t.

“So that’s it? He killed another person and then you caught him?” I probed.

Distracted, Drew looked at me with deep-seated guilt. “No, it was worse,” he croaked. “I didn’t count that person as the innocent person, but I just realized that it was two people I let die under my watch as a result of that decision.” He ran his hands down his face and sighed. “No, a few days later this young woman was reported missing. She matched the victim profile so we went on a manhunt to find her. I was the first to locate her; they were out in a cabin. I called for backup and I used my tactical communication training to approach the unsub and the victim.

“Things were going fine at first. I was making good progress with the unsub. He was about to release her when he saw me reach for my gun again. So he slit her throat, and as I discharge my weapon at him, he threw her in front of the gun and the shot hit her in her shoulder. I had no other time to react, so I shot him as well and took him down. I didn’t care if he died,” he exclaimed, his voice raw and his eyes rimmed red. “But sh-she could’ve had a chance if I just hadn’t reached for my weapon. Or even if I hadn’t fired just then, maybe she wouldn’t have bled out. Paramedics arrived just after that. I tried to stop the bleeding, but I…” Drew paused again. “But I couldn’t. There was just so much blood, and she had flatlined before they could get her back to the van.”

He went quiet and looked down at his hands. “After the Bureau had investigated the situation, they deemed me unfit for field duty for the quarter, and had me suspended from it. They wanted me to oversee the new recruit, whenever she signed on,” he finished, finally raising his head to meet my eyes, stormy grey to warm amber.

“And already feeling vulnerable, accepted the work since you had nothing else to do,” I said.

He nodded. “I’m not proud of it. I’m not proud of any of it. I do think the Bureau did the right thing by suspending me from field work, but the rest of it felt less than ethical and I regret it.”

Well, fuck. As badly as I wanted to not forgive him, he made it pretty damn hard. Madelyn seven weeks ago for sure would have told him to fuck off and never spoken to him again, but new Madelyn had developed a caring heart capable of forgiving, moving on, and helping others.

Seeing him so torn up about what he’d done stirred the inner hormone goddess awake, but not in a sexual way. She crawled on her hands and knees back into her spotlight and reached for him, spurring me to do something that surprised even myself. I stood up, walked over to him, and sat on his lap. I wrapped my arms around his neck and rested my chin on his shoulder. For a brief second, he stiffened, but then he embraced me tightly.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered into my hair. “You deserve so much better.”

I pulled back and looked at him in bewilderment. “I’ve made a joke out of my life, Drew. You’re out here serving our community out of the kindness of your own heart, and it took a lot of force to get me here. It’s not that I deserve better, I just deserve honesty and loyalty.”

He smiled sadly at me, and his dimples made the slightest appearance. “I think it’s only fair for me to open up about my past now, but not here,” he told me.

I gulped. Getting to know his past meant things were more serious than I’d thought. I rose to my feet. “I’d love to discuss that later, but you’re on a probationary period with me until further notice,” I scolded him. “So nothing physical,” I added firmly.

Drew grinned and the dimples deepened. My inner hormone goddess swooned at how cute he looked, but I kept my feelings in check as he also stood up. “Understood. I’ll be on my best behavior,” he promised, saluting me.

I rolled my eyes and ignored his usual darkening gaze when I did something that defied him. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” I sing-songed, then turned and headed to join the team.

He barked out a laugh. “Oh, just you wait.”

“Oh, one more thing,” I paused, glancing over my shoulder at him. “Whatever happened to that girl you were seeing?”

He smirked at me and shrugged. “I broke up with her that night I went on a date with her,” he responded nonchalantly.

I blushed, but turned away before he could see it. I was secretly hoping it was because of me, but I wasn’t bold enough to ask.

Inner hormone goddess scribbled on a notepad, stuck it on the wall, and scurried out of the spotlight once more.

Be back soon, the note read.

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