So Close the Hand of Death (16 page)

BOOK: So Close the Hand of Death
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Twenty-Five

T
aylor couldn’t get away from Mrs. Anderson quickly enough. She felt like she was going to throw up. They’d nearly been killed by the Pretender’s sister. His
sister
. Granted, a half-sister, but still his flesh, and his blood. He’d found her somehow, and manipulated her into working for him. And she’d been worried for her. Jesus.

Looking at the soft, gently lined face of Mrs. Anderson, she was filled with an all-consuming rage. This woman had helped sow the seeds of destruction to the tune of at least seven deaths. She either didn’t know her daughter was a psychopath, or didn’t care.

Taylor couldn’t afford to let the emotions show. She swallowed them down, kept the smile plastered on her face. Felt her nails dig into the skin of her palms. They needed more information. Background. History. Contact information, if they could wheedle it out of the woman. She slowed the beating of her heart and adopted her calm, professional demeanor. But the words didn’t come. She was thankful when Baldwin stepped in. He’d sensed she wasn’t prepared to speak just yet, and he was a master tap dancer. He poured it on thick.

“Mrs. Anderson, we’d love to talk to Ruth. I’m always looking for qualified crime scene techs. My teams in the BAU have at least one forensic scientist on them, sometimes two. If she’s not right for me, I might be able to suggest another spot for her. At least get her an interview or two. The Academy classes start soon. If she’s right for us, she might make it in under the wire.”

“You would do that?” Mrs. Anderson’s eyes were shining. No, she didn’t suspect a thing. She was too sweet, too unassuming. She probably didn’t know about her daughter, not in a conscious way. She may have felt something was off, or Ruth could have been a fabulous actress. Regardless, she’d birthed a killer. A maniac. Was there something in Roger Copeland’s genes that sparked madness? Granted, Betty had a history of instability, but Stephanie Anderson seemed downright normal. Two very different women, Betty and Stephanie. Yet both mothers of killers, with Copeland’s sperm the simple common denominator.

She heard Fitz’s voice in her head.
If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck

Baldwin was still talking. Taylor forced herself back to the conversation.

“I’d be more than happy to talk with her about it. We’re looking to fill these positions rather quickly, so the sooner I talk to her the better. Do you have a phone number, or an email, where I can reach her?”

Mrs. Anderson was beaming now. “Of course I do. Let me get my book. I’ve got all her information written down. I can’t ever remember all those little details. Thank goodness for speed dial.” She looked at her watch. “Why don’t we try to give her a call right now? I haven’t talked to her in a few weeks. She never answers her phone, such a busy little thing.”

Baldwin gave her a huge grin. “You know what? Let me make the call. I’d like to surprise her.”

“Oh, Dr. Baldwin. You’re a good man. Ruth’s going to be so happy.”

She bustled back toward the kitchen. They held back for a moment, let her get ahead. Baldwin’s face changed, the good humor gone, the sharp planes of his cheekbones shadowed. Taylor squeezed his arm, and he whispered in her ear.

“At least we know who the imposter is now. Copeland’s certainly kept this all in the family.”

“You don’t think Mrs. Anderson is shining us on? Is she clueless?”

“I don’t think she has any idea of what Ruth’s become. But we aren’t going to be able to sit on this for long. Mrs. Anderson’s bound to follow up with her daughter. And we have to keep Ruth from contacting Copeland. He can’t know we’re getting close.”

“Maybe that’s exactly what we need to flush him out?”

“I don’t know, Taylor.”

“Baldwin, this is a small town. The FBI and a cop from Nashville? It’s all over the place by now. If he has any contact with anyone here, he knows.”

“I bet he doesn’t. I think he wants to stay as far away from this place as humanly possible.”

There was a noise behind them, they broke apart.

“Here we go,” Mrs. Anderson sang out. “Let’s see, do you have anything to write with?”

“Absolutely,” Baldwin answered, drawing a small black Quo Vadis Habana notebook from his pocket. Taylor had bought it for him online and he carried it with him everywhere. He needed to order some more, this one was nearly full. He’d developed a taste for the
fine Clairefontaine paper, felt like quite the dandy when he felt the perfect ink lay down.

He opened to a clean page and said, “Go ahead whenever you’re ready.”

Mrs. Anderson recited all the information for her eldest child—home phone and work phone, home address, email. Ruth Copeland Anderson was based in Raleigh, North Carolina, and worked for the Durham Police Department. The traitor in their midst. At least now the fact that all the forensics from the trailer in Asheville and Fitz’s boat had been compromised made a perverse kind of sense.

Mrs. Anderson handed Baldwin the phone. “Just hit Memory, then 1. That will call her house.”

Taylor watched him mime the motion, depress the buttons only partway, clear his throat. After a few moments, he shook his head. “I’m getting the answering machine. I’ll leave a message. Hi, Ruth? This is Dr. John Baldwin, from the Federal Bureau of Investigations. I’ve just met your mother and she tells me you’re interested in joining our team. Please call me at 703-555-5494 so we can talk about getting you in for an interview. Don’t forget to call your mother. Bye now.”

A nice bit of subterfuge. Baldwin had never hit Dial, she saw the number on the screen as his hand flashed to hit the end button. He handed the phone back. “That’s too bad. If you talk to her, let her know to give me a shout. Thanks so much for your time, we need to get going.”

Taylor could barely contain herself. She just wanted to get out of there, call Roddie Hall from the SBI, and give him the information so his people could get up to Raleigh and take her down. Assuming Ruth had gone back to Raleigh after killing the agents in Nags Head.
Would her brother be with her? The odds were in their favor. Taylor would bet a hundred dollars that he never, ever expected them to find this small town, to hear of his sad, troubled childhood.

They bid Mrs. Anderson farewell, tried to be polite about it. She didn’t sense anything wrong, or if she did, she chose not to see. Taylor suspected that Mrs. Anderson got through a lot of life’s little monstrosities by turning a blind eye. It was what all good Southern ladies did.

They took the path to the street.

“Good job,” Taylor said.

“I’m getting that phone disconnected right now. It doesn’t matter, I can’t imagine she went home. If she’s got half a brain she’s on the run,” he replied.

She let Baldwin hold the door to the car, slid into the soft leather seat feeling smug. Mrs. Anderson waved from her wide, gracious porch. Taylor waved back, hoping Mrs. Anderson misinterpreted the cold smile on her face.

We’ve got you now, you son of a bitch
.

Twenty-Six

T
hey drove back to the town square so they didn’t raise Mrs. Anderson’s suspicion by sitting in front of her house making excited phone calls.

Once they’d parked in front of a large stone block that Taylor identified as a monument to the fallen heroes of the World Wars, Baldwin took the honor of calling the SBI. She eavesdropped as he relayed all the information to Roddie Hall, whose ebullience came through the phone’s speakers. He was thrilled to have at least a part of the puzzle solved. He knew the chief of police in Durham, and promised that a tactical team would be sent to Ruth’s business and home addresses within the hour. He’d call with updates as soon as he had anything to report.

Baldwin hung up the phone and turned to her with a smile. “God bless Wendy Heinz. If she hadn’t put two and two together…”

“But she did. How long do you think it will take Hall to get the juvie records for Ewan Copeland?”

“Roddie said that would be his second call. He’ll have to get the district attorney’s office involved. He’s on it. Told you he was a good cop.”

“I’m glad you have friends in high places. You know, it’s only 7:00.”

He took her hand. “I assume by your tone that’s not an invitation?”

“It’s never too early to go to bed.”

“Hmm. We do have that reservation. Or we could just head back to Nashville instead.”

She was getting interested in what Baldwin was doing with her hand.

“Tempting. On both counts. There’s nothing like a Holiday Inn to get my juices going. But heading home’s not a bad idea either. We could trade off driving so you could get a nap.”

“I’m up for it if you are.” He showed her that was certainly the case, tossed her a crazy, silly grin that she couldn’t help but respond to. They were like disaster survivors, giddy in the knowledge that they’d come through okay. She recognized the feeling, she had it every time a case turned her way. She reached over and ran her free hand through his hair, smoothing it down. He’d been fussing with it, and it was sticking up in all directions.

“You know, on second thought, I’m wondering if we should stay in North Carolina, just in case. Raleigh is only a couple hours north of here. We could head up there instead. Hall could use another couple of trained agents, couldn’t he?”

“Taylor, we’d just be in the way. Hall knows what he’s doing.”

“True.” She sighed heavily and looked out the window. “Well, Chief Morgan gave us the address of the old Copeland place. What about we go over there and take a look, see if Hall calls us back in the meantime?”

He sighed dramatically and released her captive hand. “All right. You win. We’ll go put a place to the face.”

“Thank you, sweetie. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“Oh, yes, you will,” he said, then put the car in gear.

Within five minutes, they arrived at the address the chief had given them.

The Copelands’ old house was off a side street, tucked into a neighborhood that was probably nice in the forties or early fifties, but now just seemed tired of putting on airs.

It was fully dark; the single streetlight’s meager illumination didn’t penetrate the houses’ front yards. They had to dig the Maglites out of the trunk to get an idea of the scene. Equipped with the powerful lights, they started toward the little house.

A cracked concrete walk littered with weeds and trash led to the tiny front porch. The house was a small single-story clapboard affair, smaller than its neighbors, with what looked like five rooms—the kitchen up front, and two tiny bedrooms that overlooked the dingy gray porch. Taylor played the flashlight’s beam into the darkness. She could see a hallway off what was most likely the bathroom, and a living room beyond. The master, if you could call it that, would be in the back.

They scrambled around the side of the house, shining their lights into the desolate landscape and murmuring to each other. The backyard butted up to the train tracks, with a chain-link fence separating it from the endless black iron. There was a small storm cellar beside the house, the doors painted what used to be blue.

A dog began to bark two houses over and the porch lights on either side of them came on.

“Who’s there?” a deep, hurt female voice whispered. “Allen, is that you? You’re late.” Someone was expecting a date.

“Time to split,” Baldwin said, sotto voce.

Taylor nodded and turned off her light. They slunk back around the side of the house as quietly as they could, Baldwin leading in the dark, Taylor following him back up the slope into the front yard.

Another female voice rang out, this time more authoritative, from their right. “I see you moving around over there. I’m calling Chief Morgan. You no good little brats better stay out of my yard. I’ve got a gun and I know how to use it.” A door slammed and the dog stopped barking.

Feeling silly, Taylor turned to yell that she
was
the police and stumbled over something hard. She went down on her hands and knees, the breath going out of her in a whoosh. Baldwin was right there, helping her up, shining the light around in a circle so they could see what she’d tripped on.

It was a metal stake. The kind you hammer into the ground to tie a dog’s chain to. She limped the last ten feet to the car and let Baldwin look at the offending shin.

He rolled up her pant leg gently, his palm warm against her sore skin. “You scared me. Don’t go falling down like that.”

“Then tell these people not to put stakes in the middle of their yard.”

The voice from next door spoke again, this time much closer. “Serves you right, sneaking around like that.”

Baldwin moved like lightning, his weapon out in a heartbeat and his Maglite shining square in the woman’s face, effectively blinding her. She was an older woman with a frazzled gray bun and a white terry housecoat covered in small brown cartoon puppies. True to her word, she carried a Remington 12-gauge shotgun, which she had pointed at them. Taylor hadn’t heard the shell jacked into place, either the woman was waiting to impress them—there was nothing like the sound of a pump action shotgun going live, it was unmistakable and threatening enough to stop any smart person in their tracks—or she didn’t have it loaded, and the gun was just for show.

Taylor bit her lip so she wouldn’t laugh. This was absolutely ridiculous.

“Please don’t shoot, ma’am. We’re law enforcement. We have identification in our pockets. I’m John Baldwin, FBI, and this is Lieutenant Jackson, from Nashville.”

The woman grinned at him. “Well, that’s a damn good thing.” She lowered the shotgun, stuck out her hand. “Sharon Potts. I’m a nurse, over at the hospital. Let me see if she’s okay. Can’t help but feel that was my fault, spooking her like a spring horse. You’re a jumpy thing, aren’t you?”

Taylor just sighed and stuck out her leg. Baldwin shined the light up and down it while the old woman ran her fingers along the broken skin. She hissed in a breath when the woman grabbed her leg and twisted. The nurse stood and brushed her hands down the front of her housecoat, smoothing it out over her hips.

“Nothing’s broken. You barked it pretty good, that’s a deep scratch. You’re bleeding all over this fine young gentlemen’s car. You don’t need stitches, but some peroxide and a Band-Aid might come in handy. Probably
need a tetanus booster, too. You folks have a first-aid kit in this fancy vehicle?”

“Not one that has fancy tetanus boosters,” Baldwin said. Taylor could hear the smile in his voice. He thought this was funny, too. Then she drew a breath and sobered. If the Pretender had been lurking around instead—no, she’d have been alerted by her guards. He wasn’t going to be able to sneak up on her.

“Smarty pants. Well, you can take her on over to the emergency room. Won’t be too busy this time of night,” Sharon said. She started back to her own yard, coughing deeply, the Remington slung up over her shoulder, almost longer than she was tall. Taylor felt like she’d stepped into the pages of
Li’l Abner.

“Wait, Ms. Potts?” Taylor called out.

“Yes, yes, you’re welcome,” the old woman called back, hand fluttering up in a backward wave, still moving toward her front door.

“No, I…well, yes, thank you. But I was wondering. How long have you lived here?”

She stopped walking and turned around. “Long enough. Why?”

“Did you know the folks who used to live next door to you? The Copelands?”

Potts stared at her for a long moment, the darkness making her face look like a Janus mask, grotesque and unyielding. Then she smiled, and the face turned.

“Hell, you’d best come in. I’ll make you some tea.”

 

The tea was plain old Lipton from a bag, but it was warm and there was fresh cream and lots of sugar. Taylor sipped her cup and held an ice pack against her leg with a paper towel. Ms. Potts had fixed her up, but only after she assured her that she’d gotten a tetanus booster just
six months earlier. It was required by Metro—like a dog, she had to get all her shots regularly.

Baldwin had settled in at the small wooden dining table looking like a giant. Sharon Potts was about five feet tall, and her house reflected that. Everything felt small, compact and efficient. Clean and homey, nothing superfluous. Just like its owner. Who was quick to share her story. Taylor got the sense that even though Ms. Potts worked around, with and for people all day, she was terribly lonely.

“Of course I remember the Copelands. Laws, there’s no one in town who doesn’t. It was terribly sad. Betty, she had a sickness. Even growing up, that girl was wrong in the head. Everyone knew it, and we all tried to help. But some kids are just born bad, and there’s nothing you can do to help them. I knew her mama, God rest her soul. She was terrified for that child. Loved her to pieces though she never knew what she was going to get into next. Overloved her, really. She was pretty much blind to her faults. But you know how it is, no one can ever tell what happens behind closed doors. I think she let the cancer get her, so she wouldn’t have to witness what she’d given birth to. Breast cancer, you see, late stage, and her so young. She was barely forty, died when Betty was seventeen or so. Right before she graduated. That spooked Betty, I think, because her mama was always the one place she knew she could turn when things got tough.”

“What about her father?” Taylor asked.

“He was off in the merchant marines.” She snorted. “Which is a fancy way of saying no one really knew who Betty’s father was. Edward Biggs married Barbara when Betty was about three or so, gave her his name. But by that time he was so busy with the restaurant, and
Betty was such a handful. He died early, and Barbara, that’s her mother, Barbara did the best she could. Barb was a good woman. But when she died, Betty had no one. So she took up with Roger Copeland. Got herself knocked up, knew he’d take care of her. Roger was an honorable man.

“They moved in after they got married. It was much nicer then, the neighborhood, I mean. Sweet little place for starting a family. And all he could afford, what with the baby practically here already and whatnot, and that BBQ joint not doing so well.

“Everything seemed normal, on the surface. I’ve been working up at the hospital going on thirty years now, and I’m telling you the God to honest truth here. Something was wrong in that house. I saw those boys come in with the strangest maladies. And Betty, hell, Betty was an expert. She could have been a doctor. Knew more than I did about these foreign diseases. She spent practically all her time looking through that huge copy of
Gray’s Anatomy.
She’d sit on the front porch with a glass of cool tea and read like her heart was about to give out.

“Roger was gone all the time, and those boys, those poor boys. We did what we could, tried to help, to be neighborly. Brought food over, covered dishes and the like, offered to do the laundry. But Betty wouldn’t let us get too close. She beat those kids, treated them like animals inside the house, but outside, she played the role of doting mother. They were all cowed by her. Roger included. I think that’s why he was so anxious to leave.

“When the boys were sick and in the hospital, she would hover over them and berate us like we were idiots. Insist on giving the medicine herself, things like that.
The winter my mama died was when the oldest took sick. I wasn’t here, I had to go and stay up with her at the hospice. I came back and everything was changed. Roger was dead, Edward was dead, Betty was in jail, poor Errol was in the loony bin sick as a cat, and Ewan was here by himself, trying to make ends meet. Then they put him in that home and he just fell apart.

“That slut who Roger got pregnant should have taken in those boys, but she pranced off and married Anderson, made sure she and her little bastard were taken care of. I always hated her a little for that, and I know it’s a sin. But if she’d loved that man at all, she’d have seen to his boys. As it was, when Errol killed himself, she was in Myrtle Beach, with her girlfriends. Ewan had no one to help him plan his little brother’s funeral. I remember him sitting by the gravesite, eyes just blank. Once he hurt that girl and disappeared, the whole story faded away, into town legend. The house got taken by the bank, and no one’s been there since. They never were able to sell it. The walls probably scream.”

Taylor felt a chill go through her at the thought, reflexively sipped on the strong hot tea.

“What was he like?” Baldwin asked.

Ms. Potts was enjoying her bit of company on this cold night, and she was a natural storyteller. She bustled around her little kitchen, fixing them some more tea and setting out a plate of cookies. Tagalongs, from what Taylor could see of the box. Her stomach growled in a decidedly unladylike fashion. The nurse just smiled and pushed the plate of cookies closer.

“Ewan? Like his mama, I daresay.”

“Like her how?”

She tapped her finger on the table, thinking. “Messed up in the head. He tried so hard. It was heartbreaking,
really, watching him struggle. Like he knew what he did was wrong and bad, but he just couldn’t help himself. Take the dog. That stake you tripped over? They had a dog when Ewan was about ten. Just a mutt, nothing special. He found him over the tracks, back in the woods. Boyo loved that dog. Slept with him. Walked him. Played with him. And when he shot him, and the dog lay there dying in the front yard, whimpering and bleeding and looking up at the one good thing in its poor little life, he stood over it and cried. I watched him do it. That’s when I knew. He was wrong, bad wrong. But he didn’t want to be that way, I don’t think. He was compelled.”

BOOK: So Close the Hand of Death
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