Authors: J. T. Ellison
aylor awoke with a start. Damn it. She’d closed her eyes for half a second and drifted off.
A wave of emotion cascaded through her. She needed to move, to breathe in the night air, to find him. It was all well and good to dream about taking the fight to the Pretender, but the truth of the matter was, he was probably bringing it to her.
The walls grew too close and she stood, fast. As she rose, her holster caught on the edge of her inbox, dumping the contents to the floor.
“Son of a bitch!”
She looked at the mess, the parallel to her own emotions.
Be hunted, or be the hunter.
When it came right down to it, she knew which path she would choose.
She dropped to her knees and began assembling the mess. She’d gathered the papers and files into three significant piles when her phone rang. She reached up to her desk and pulled the phone to her. An internal call, from the switchboard.
“Lieutenant Jackson,” she answered, pushing all the morbid thoughts from her mind.
“LT, it’s Marcus. I’m out on a call, and I think you need to see this.”
She glanced at the clock, 10:11 p.m. Crap. Baldwin would be mad at her, she wasn’t supposed to be here that long. And seeing as she was deskbound, Commander Huston would be very displeased if she went out on a case in an official capacity. But Marcus Wade wasn’t prone to histrionics. Steady and smart, he was the one she counted on to see past surface appearances and into the heart of the matter. If he was calling, he actually needed her.
A quick look couldn’t hurt anything, and if the Pretender was watching… A shot in the proverbial dark, perhaps?
“It’s late. Why didn’t B-shift get the call?”
“Lincoln and I pulled it earlier. It’s taken us hours to get the body out of the water. He’s still in there, tied to something. We’ve got the OEM divers trying to get him untangled.”
That was right, Lincoln had mentioned getting called out to a drowning. And now Marcus was calling… “You have an inkling about the identity of the victim?”
“I think it might be Peter Schechter.”
Taylor groaned inwardly. Yet another teenager dead, more parents to engulf in sorrow. That would be nine of Nashville’s kids murdered in less than a week, not counting the one she’d taken down. She didn’t know how the city was going to recover. She didn’t know how
was going to recover.
“Is he a part of the Halloween massacre?”
“I don’t know. Can you come on out here? I’m at
Percy Priest, a boat dock off Hamilton Creek Park. Sam’s just arrived.”
“I’ll be there in ten. Tell Sam to hang on until I can see the scene, all right?”
“Will do. Thanks, Taylor.”
Marcus clicked off. She turned the light out in her office and headed toward the motor pool at a jog. Her boots made sharp clangs against the concrete spiral up into the parking lot. Screw being on desk duty. One of her team needed her.
She grabbed the first unmarked she got to, slid behind the wheel and headed west.
J. Percy Priest Lake was the largest lake in Davidson County, over two hundred and thirteen miles of shoreline, five marinas and thirty-three boat ramps. With trails and playgrounds and fishing and boating, it was a miracle they’d found Schechter’s body so quickly. Though Taylor remembered her friend Robert Trice, who used to run OEM, the Office of Emergency Management, the department that conducted water search and-rescues, telling her that all bodies come to the surface eventually. Robert was gone now, dead too early. She missed him.
Marcus was standing off to her left, talking to Sam. The moon’s glow on the water should have been beautiful. Instead it was menacing. She didn’t like this one bit. It all felt wrong, had for weeks. She needed to do some serious assessments of her life. Because this was her dream, right? Right? To protect. To serve.
She didn’t think she was saving too many lives these days.
She stepped over to Marcus and Sam, who were deep in conversation.
“How’d they find him?” Sam was asking.
“Some guy coming down to tend his boat saw a flash of red in the water, realized it was a puffy down jacket and called 911.”
“That’s lucky. He could have been submerged for much longer. The cold water might have helped save some evidence.”
“The knots that tied him to the branch were elaborate. His jacket is weighted, too, though obviously not enough. He wasn’t meant to be found this quickly, I don’t think.”
Sam pushed her too-long bangs out of her eyes, her brown eyes sharp. “Good thing he was tied to that branch. He would have floated away, drifted down the lake, washed up somewhere else. So, Taylor, how’s Fitz?”
“He’s as good as can be expected. He’s been through a lot.”
Sam gave her a critical, assessing look. “So have you. You need to think about taking some more time off. You’re still on leave anyway, why are you here?”
“Because Marcus called me. I’m fine, really. I need to stay busy. If I sit around for another day I’m going to go mad. I won’t touch anything, I promise.”
Sam spoke softly, so only Taylor could hear. “You were hardly sitting around this morning. I heard what happened. Are you okay?”
Taylor nodded. “Yes. Just do me a favor, be aware, all right? I don’t want to take any chances. You guys are too precious to me to risk getting involved in the Pretender’s little game.”
“Not such a little game,” Sam said, a grim smile on her face.
They heard water splashing, then a deep male voice rang out in the gloom. “We got ’im!”
All the noise around her ceased. They brought the body out slowly, trying not to lose any evidence, though the victim had obviously been in the water for several days. Covered in the beginnings of adipocere, a thick, gummy wax made of decomposing fatty tissues, the gases in his body had finally pushed him to the point of buoyancy and he had floated to the surface.
The still-folded stretcher crouched like a metal spider on the uneven ground. The ’gators had a bag laid out, ready to receive the remains. With a splash, four men strong-armed the body into place.
Sam immediately beelined for the corpse, tsking in her typically Southern way. Taylor hung back for a moment, watching. She didn’t want to interrupt Sam’s communion with the dead. Sam shouted back over her shoulder, “Come on, then. I know you want to take a peek.”
Taylor edged forward until she was parallel with what used to be the body’s face. Trying not to breathe, she leaned in for a closer look. Male, late teens, it seemed. The skin was gray and doughy, wet with water and bloated tissue. Bits of matter stuck in the brown hair. There was too much damage to his face to be able to tell for sure, but she was certain they’d just found Peter Schechter. Gut instinct, maybe, or just process of elimination. He was their only missing person tonight, and this body fit the description they had in the system.
“Looks like him, bless his heart,” Sam said. She knew about the boy’s profile, everyone did. He’d been missing for five days, long enough that every cop in the city was on high alert.
“Anything leap out at you?” Taylor asked.
“You know better than that, cookie.”
“I do, but I thought I’d try.”
Sam went to her bag and dug in for a thermometer. “Best get the priest out of bed, though. I don’t want to drag this out any longer than I have to, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. Can you ID him tonight, do you think?”
“I have the dental records back at the office. I’ll call Mike Tabor on my way, see if he can’t swing by and take a quick look. It’s late, but Tabor asked to be informed if we found anything. If it’s the kid, we’ll want to get his parents notified before this all leaks.”
“You can say that again.” Taylor stepped away, let Sam do her work. Sorrow flooded her. What a waste. What a goddamn waste. At least she didn’t get the sense that this was the work of the Pretender. She didn’t think she could handle another death on her conscience.
Marcus was taking notes, face pinched in the artificial light. The scent of rotting flesh permeated the scene. Floaters were the worst. Decomposition mingled with dank winter water created an unmistakable miasma especially designed to help turn even the strongest of stomachs, like three-day-old roadkill drenched in a moldy blanket. He gave her a weak smile.
“Sam’s going to try to ID the body tonight. Have you called Father Victor?” Taylor asked.
“Yes, just did. He’s aware I may need him.”
“Good. I’m happy to go back to the morgue with Sam, let you continue running things out here while we work on the identification. You won’t have to rush.”
Relief flooded his face. It was going to be a late night regardless—splitting up the duties would make things go quicker.
“You sure you don’t mind?”
“Not a bit. I’ll call you as soon as we know something.”
“Thanks, Taylor. I owe you one.”
She punched his shoulder lightly. “Yeah, yeah.”
She went back to her cruiser, grabbed her cell. She needed to let Baldwin know what she was up to. He wasn’t going to be happy about it, but in truth, she was. She needed the distraction. Working a murder, even peripherally, would keep her mind off the one she planned to commit.
aldwin answered his cell on the first ring. It was Taylor, her voice thick with exhaustion. He took the news and sighed. Another dead. As horrible as it sounded, he was almost glad she’d gotten involved. The distraction would be good for her. There was nothing like Taylor with a new case to solve; she was a force to be reckoned with. One that he loved to watch.
He wasn’t watching her now. He was home, waiting for her. He wasn’t sure how much he liked that, but if he pushed too hard, held her too close…Taylor would push back if he smothered her. Strong girl. His warrior woman. Despite that, though Taylor didn’t know it, there were four highly trained agents on their way to Nashville. They’d stay out of sight, her watchers, ready for any contingency. She would be safe, at least for the time being.
His other line beeped. He ignored it. Instead he listened to the woman he adored tell him she’d be late, for him to go ahead and eat without her. He told her he loved her, and let her go.
Baldwin set the phone down, ran his hands through his hair, making the black bristle stand on end. Scrub
bing it helped him think, and he did so violently, accidentally scraping his nails along his scalp.
This had to stop. They needed to find the Pretender. This tightrope walking was going to end badly, for both him and Taylor, if he didn’t exert some control over the situation and find a solution.
He knew what that solution was, but he didn’t even want to think about it. Admitting it would make it real, and push him even further into the abyss. His ass was already hanging out with the FBI, killing a suspect while on suspension would be the final nail in his coffin. He needed to find a way around. Capture, not elimination. Then he could get back to himself, to his relationship, to his job. He damn well didn’t want to let it all slip away, let that fucking bastard take everything he’d been fighting for. It had been too long since he’d felt settled.
He went to the kitchen and poured a mug full of milk, added chocolate syrup and a package of instant coffee. He put it in the microwave and waited for it to heat through. He needed the sugar, the energy. Despite Taylor’s assurances, he would wait up for her. She’d be hungry when she got home, maybe for food, maybe for him. He ate a banana and drank his mocha, let the warmth fill him up. The hot mug felt good on his cold hands.
Back in the living room, he checked to see who’d called while he was talking to Taylor. He was elated when he saw the caller ID. Wendy Heinz. At last. Wendy was the graphologist he’d hired to look at the note from the trailer.
Ayin tahat ayin—
a most literal message.
His excitement grew as he listened to the voice mail.
Wendy’s voice had a sense of elation. “I’ve gone
through the pages you sent me, and I have something you’re not going to believe. Please call me as soon as you can.”
He checked his watch—10:30 p.m. Not too late to call, he knew Wendy was a night owl. Despite her long days testifying in court, teaching graphology at the University of California, and writing preeminent textbooks on the subject of criminal graphology, she was working on a novel in her spare time. Spare time meant early mornings and late nights. When she could find some quiet, away from her day-to-day responsibilities.
He dialed her number, and Wendy answered on the first ring, her tone jubilant.
“Dr. Baldwin! I’m glad you were able to return my call so quickly.”
“It was a message I could hardly resist. What do you have for me?”
He heard papers shuffling in the background. “A bit more than you’re expecting, probably. So you have something to write on?”
“So long as you promise me you won’t be analyzing it, yes.”
Wendy laughed. “Good one, Doc. Okay, here we go. The letter you sent me was so short that it’s hard to make too many impressions from it, outside of the fact that an increasing rightward slant is indicative of poor impulse control and the propensity toward rage. But that’s not the good part. I’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. I’ve seen a lot of handwriting, consulted on a number of cases. It took me so long to get back to you because I needed to go look at an old case file. There was something about this handwriting that felt…familiar to me.”
Baldwin felt a thrill in his chest, his heartbeat picked up. “Familiar how?”
“Familiar in that I thought I’d seen it before. And I was right.”
“Wait, you said an old case file. You’ve seen notes from this killer before?”
“I can’t say that with absolute certainty. I brought in another colleague to double-check my findings, and he agrees with me. We’re working on the assumption that this
the handwriting of your killer. Without seeing him actually write on paper in front of me, I can’t prove that it’s him. But yes, I’ve seen it before. Ready for some notes?”
“You bet. Let’s hear it.”
“In 1995, I was working on a case in North Carolina. A woman who had Munchausen’s by proxy, or so we thought. She had a history, hurt everyone around her, her kids, her husband, her friends. She eventually killed her husband, that’s when they finally had enough to send her away. She had a short trial, and was sentenced to life in prison. For her sentencing hearing, her middle son wrote a letter to the court, asking for leniency. He was only fourteen at the time. Obviously, leniency was granted—they could have given her the death penalty. She went away, and the kid was suddenly alone in the world. Got placed into the foster system, then in a group home. He started acting out, violently, then went off the radar.”
“He wrote a letter to the court,” Baldwin said.
“Yes,” Wendy replied. “And in my professional opinion, the handwriting is the same as the letter you gave me.”
Baldwin knew some about graphology, but only the basics: that it’s the study of all graphic movement, can
be used to gain insight into the mind of a person. Handwriting, doodles, drawings, sculpture and paintings, all can be examined for indicative personality traits, and, in the hands of a trained professional, it can be incredibly accurate.
He asked Wendy to give him a refresher course in some of the specifics. She was more than happy to oblige. The good news had them both giddy. Whether he would be able to close the Pretender down with the information was yet to be seen, but this felt like the first real step they’d taken toward finding out his true identity. He’d finally made a mistake they could capitalize on.
Wendy was a good lecturer, succinct and clear. “So here’s the deal. We can determine both fixed traits, like IQ, aptitude, temperament and identity, and gain insight into ability, attitude, moods, beliefs, motivational levels and physical condition. With a proper sample, there’s very little we can’t tell about a person. Handwriting is as unique as fingerprints and teeth. We’re guided by three basic principles: physical, mental and emotional, and all three of these are readily apparent in our handwriting. But I digress. The reason I recognized the handwriting from the letter in the old case was because it was the first time I’d seen a real, live example of the maniac D.”
“Maniac D. Charles Manson had that, if I remember correctly. It’s when the stem of the lower case
leans really far to the right, correct?”
“That’s right. Manson and the Zodiac Killer, hell, even O. J. Simpson has it. It’s almost exclusive to psychopaths and murderers. Certainly violent offenders, the most dangerous people. So this letter had the maniac D, but that wasn’t all. It was written with what we call an
unstable slant. Most people’s writing leans in certain directions—they slant right, slant left or write straight up and down, with variations of all three. It all depends on mood, personality and whether the writer is left-or right-handed, but it’s generally consistent. His was all over the place. There was no acknowledgment of the rules—though the letter was written on regular notebook paper, the lines were ignored, the margins deviated. We call that left margin the line of society, and he disregarded it completely. The letters were narrow and the pressure on the page so intense that it tore in spots. It didn’t take a lot of analysis to see that the writer was tremendously disturbed.
“Highly intelligent, too—the vocabulary was sophisticated, the argument cogent. But the incoherent baseline told me I was dealing with someone who was deranged. I let the judge know, basically banged every drum I could find, but graphology didn’t have the cache it does now.” She laughed softly. “And that’s still damn little. I had a hard time getting them to pay attention to me. The case originated in a very small town in the foothills of North Carolina. He was fourteen, abused and alone. There weren’t a lot of programs in place to help troubled children, much less the antisocial son of a murderer. His trail goes cold after his early placements in foster care and the group home. There’s nothing else in the file. And now you have everything I have.”
“Oh, Wendy. You’re just teasing me now.”
She laughed, and agreed. “I am. I know you want his name.”
“You better believe it.”
. Why does that sound so familiar?”
“His dad was Roger Copeland. Minor league ballplayer, spent the vast majority of his career in the minors, but got called up to the majors for a year. Played for the Atlanta Braves.”
“Son of a bitch. I remember this now. Roger Copeland was murdered right after the season ended. They thought his wife did it. This is the same case?”
“That’s the case. For what it’s worth, Betty Copeland did kill him. She’s clinically insane. I’m honestly surprised she wasn’t put into permanent long-term psychiatric care. Terrible lawyer. He could have gotten her off on an incompetency plea. Instead she’s serving a hundred and twenty up in Atlanta. She committed the murder, and there was no talking the judge out of the facts.”
“Is she alive?”
“I don’t know. The last time I looked, yes, she was alive and still incarcerated. No parole hearings for Betty. I’ve included all of her information in the material I’ve sent you.”
“And you’re telling me, with a high degree of certainty, that the man who wrote the letter we found in the trailer is the same one who wrote a letter begging for clemency for his mother after she murdered his father?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“Wendy, I honestly don’t know how I’m ever going to repay you.”
“I’m sure I’ll need a favor someday. I’ve taken the liberty of overnighting copies of everything I have on this to your home address. You’ll have it first thing in the morning. I hope it helps.
“More than you can possibly imagine, Wendy. I don’t know how to thank you.”
“I’ll figure something out. Dr. Baldwin, just one last thing. This boy was completely dysfunctional after the murder. The rest of his family was dead. He was totally alone. If he’s your killer, he’s obviously grown into something we couldn’t imagine. I’d just like to warn you to be on your guard. He’s a volatile guy.”
I already knew. We’ve been trying to profile him for a while now, and the profile keeps changing.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. He had no anchor back then, and obviously never found one.”
“Thank you, Wendy. Again, I can’t begin to tell you—”
“I know. Good luck.”
Baldwin hung up the phone and opened a map of North Carolina on his laptop. It only took a few moments to locate the place—Forest City was just southeast of Asheville, a little more than an hour’s drive from the mountain town. Now that they had the North Carolina connection explained, things were starting to make sense. Copeland leaving Fitz’s eye an hour from his hometown—was he looking to be caught? Had he grown tired of the game, and engineered the slaughter in Nags Head to lead them to his true identity? It stood to reason; even if it was a subconscious ploy, he would eventually want them to know that Ewan Copeland had grown into the Pretender.
Baldwin calculated, it was only six hours to Forest City. In the time it would take to arrange for the plane to come to Nashville and fly them there, they could drive. As appealing as snatching the plane again sounded, Baldwin’s boss, Garrett Woods, was only one man. He couldn’t keep diverting the company jet for a suspended agent. Driving was their best option. If they left now, they could be there before dawn.
But he had to wait for the material Wendy was sending. Damn.
He started to pace, toyed with the idea of going anyway, then made the smarter decision. A good night’s sleep wouldn’t hurt. The line had just gotten a whole lot straighter, and he knew in his heart that they were about to get to the bottom of things at last.
He went to call Taylor, and couldn’t contain the smile on his face.