Authors: J. T. Ellison
Twenty yards away, two figures writhed in the front seat of a Toyota Tercel. A whisper of music emanated from the darkened vehicle. The windows were steamed, he couldn’t see any details. But he knew it was a couple. Teenagers, out for a late-night grope. Their names didn’t matter to him. Their lives didn’t matter. They were just props. An illusion.
He inched closer, careful not to shift the gravel. This road was neglected, full of ruts and dust. The close smell of stagnant lake water wasn’t a deterrent. The old
road was commonly known as a lover’s lane, the perfect place to go for privacy. Only the moon lit his path.
Ten yards now, and the nausea was back with a vengeance. He paused and breathed deeply through his mouth, willing his heart to slow, felt the adrenaline pulsing through his body like the stinging venom of a million tiny fire ants.
It was here. The moment he’d been dreaming of for years. Finally!
He talked himself back.
Remember what you’re doing here. Remember what’s at stake. Think of what can be.
That was better. The nerves were gone, he was caught up in the moment.
It was time.
He took the last few steps electrified with excitement. He pulled the Maglite from his jacket pocket, hefted it into place. He could hear moaning now, see the thin flesh of the girl as she rose and plunged onto her lover’s body. Over and over and over. He felt a tingle in his balls, like he felt when he was watching a porno. Recognized his nervous excitement for what it really was—arousal. Realized he liked that feeling a lot.
Using the blunt end of the Maglite, he tapped on the driver’s-side window.
A small shriek; he’d surprised them. Good. He placed the silver shield up against the window. Watched the boy’s eyes go white. A quick fumbling—they probably had some alcohol or drugs within easy reach—then the electronic window whirred down. Music spilled into the air. He recognized the tune, some old-school lovin’ jam. The boy’s spooked face filled the window frame. The girl retreated to the passenger seat, surreptitiously plucking at her skirt.
The boy cleared his throat. His lips were red and raw in the harsh beam of light.
“What is it, Officer? What’s the problem?”
“No problem,” he said, and squeezed the trigger. He caught the boy right under the left eye.
He hesitated for a moment, staring at the neat hole, astonished by the amount of blood that sprayed across the seat. The gun was so much louder than he expected—on the range, with ear defenders blocking the noise, it wasn’t ever this intense, his ears were ringing but he could make out another sound, someone screaming. The girl.
He was jolted back to the moment. She was fumbling with the door latch, damn, she’d gotten the door open. He moved around the front of the car swiftly. Reached her as she started to run. She was crying in panicked little grunts. When she looked over her shoulder and saw him advancing, she started running backward and fell hard on her bottom. Scrabbling crablike, her feet catching in the dry twigs and gravel, she tried to scoot away. He took the shot.
The bullet entered her chest with a
and she fell back, arms and legs tangled up, eyes staring heavenward. It was a clean shot to the heart. It only took a minute for her to die. Her breathing labored for a moment, hitching as her body realized that it had ceased to be alive. He ignored her kittenish whimpers and stared at the blood. Fascinating: the viscosity, the color. He reached out and touched the growing pool; his hand came away shimmering with red.
He realized he had the most intense erection. For the briefest of moments, he imagined touching himself, the candy-red wrapping around the hardened flesh, and that was enough to drive him right over the edge.
Sated, trying to catch his breath, he stowed the gun inside his jacket and brought out the camera. He took fifteen shots, from various angles and distances, then returned to the boy and did the same. He glanced at his watch. Just past midnight. Time to go.
He loped off into the woods, along the well-trodden path that led to the lake, pleased with the night’s adventure, already thinking ahead to the next step. His nerves were gone now. He got to use the knife next.
Taylor Jackson started awake, heart hammering in her throat. She rarely slept soundly, but she must have been deeply under; she felt like she was swimming through the murky gray matter of her brain, trying to get the synapses to fire and open her eyes. Something had wakened her, something loud and close.
She reached her hand under the pillow, felt the cold steel of her Glock. Trying not to rustle the sheets, she drew the weapon to her chest, got a good grip on it, then bolted upright from the bed, gun sighted on the blank darkness of her room.
She heard the noise again and felt a chill move down her spine. An owl.
Shuddering, she lay back down and secreted the gun in its resting spot. She crossed her hands on her chest and willed her heart rate back to normal. The ceiling seemed closer than usual, moon spikes traversed the luminous paint.
Just this afternoon, her friend—if you could call Ariadne that—told Taylor the owl was her totem, her spirit guide. The owl would bring signs to her world. Not that
Taylor really believed any of that mumbo jumbo; the Pagan priestess was full of warnings and prevarications. But hearing the owl hoot once more—that made three distinct hoots—she felt the dread begin to build. If she
to listen to Ariadne, she had to call this a sign.
She didn’t need an owl to tell her things were about to go south. It had only been forty-eight hours since she’d been forced to shoot and kill a teenage boy. Time was not healing her wounds. If anything, she was worse now than the day of the shooting.
She rolled over, trying to force the boy’s face from her mind. “Think about something else,” Ariadne had told her. “It will get better.”
That was a lie, though. It wasn’t getting better. As a matter of fact, things were devolving rather quickly. She knew what was about to happen. She could feel it in her bones. She didn’t need hooting owls or witches to tell her trouble was coming; her own gut instinct was on fire.
Her greatest enemy was finally making his move.
She stared at the ceiling. The Pretender, that psychopathic son of a bitch, had kidnapped Pete Fitzgerald, her dear friend Fitz, her sergeant and father figure. He’d held him and tortured him, but allowed him to live. A testament to the power the Pretender had, he held life and death in the palm of his hand. She understood the point loud and clear—he could take her. Anytime, anywhere.
He left behind a present for Taylor, a mockery of her abilities, and a warning, in an old Airstream trailer in the mountains of North Carolina. There was a note attached to Fitz’s detached eyeball, written in Hebrew.
Ayin tahat ayin
. The translation quite literal: an eye for an eye.
Fitz may be breathing, but he’d been disfigured for life. She had no idea what other damage had been inflicted, could only imagine the worst.
But she’d know soon enough. She was heading to Nags Head, North Carolina, in a few hours to bring him home.
She rolled over, the sheets tangling in her legs. She kicked at the whisper-soft fabric, let them settle around her like an obedient cloud.
The darkness filled her again, her mind still working in overdrive. The feeling that everything was falling apart, that she’d lost her edge, crept back in. The past two days had been among the worst in her life. Two days of recalling every moment in her head, the gun kicking in her palm, the sting in her wrist as she fired again, and again, the ringing in her ears deafening, the look of pure shock, and hatred, in the boy’s eyes. For the thousandth time she wondered,
Could I have done differently?
Of course not, he’d drawn down on her.
Suicide by cop,
they called the phenomenon. The disturbed suspect trying to get the officer to end it for him because he didn’t have the courage to end it himself.
Her mind shifted back to Fitz, to the pain he must be in, to visions of what it must have been like having his eye taken out. She prayed he’d been unconscious. She felt the gorge rise in her throat. Just speaking to him had dragged her out of her funk, momentarily. When he’d called, to tell her he was alive and okay, he hadn’t gone into the details of his ordeal. But he had given her a message from the Pretender, oblique and taunting. Two words, full of meaning.
“He said to tell you, ‘Let’s play.’”
She rolled back the other way, punched the pillow to get the goose down plumped up, then smashed her head into the softness. It wasn’t just the shooting and Fitz’s pain that had her disturbed.
The Pretender hadn’t been terribly subtle. There had been phone calls to the house. The bullet and note left in her mailbox while she was out of the country, chasing yet another madman—always another madman out there, waiting to be found… The all-pervasive feeling that she was being watched. The lengthy silence from Fitz, his reappearance, was the real message.
See what power I have, Taylor? I can touch those closest to you, anytime I want.
The Pretender wouldn’t be satisfied with hurting her friends. Not anymore.
She wished Baldwin were home. His enforced return to Quantico meant he’d been away for the past two days. She didn’t realize just how much she needed him, had come to depend on his logic, and comfort, until he was gone. She’d been faced with one of her biggest challenges, had made it through just fine, but she longed to have him near. A small flash of happiness came over her. She’d see him tomorrow, if his disciplinary hearing didn’t keep him longer. If tomorrow ever came.
The clock read 12:17 a.m. now.
With a deep sigh, she got out of the bed. She pulled on a pair of black yoga pants, slid the Glock .40 into the waistband at the back. It was heavy, and dragged on the elastic, so she tightened the strings. There, that was better.
Her beloved pool table was just the length of a hallway away. Once in the bonus room, she turned on a
banker’s lamp, the green cap casting an unearthly glow across the shadows. She flipped on the television. It was tuned to Fox News, and one of her favorite shows was on.
never ceased to amuse her; she especially liked the Halftime Report with Andy Levy. If she couldn’t cry tonight, maybe she could laugh.
She pulled the cover off the table and took her time chalking her stick, listening to the television with one ear. She racked, broke, pocketed the balls in turn, then did it again.
The owl affected her more than anything she’d experienced before. Maybe she’d finally bought into the witch’s insight. Ariadne had told Taylor she had no choice in the shooting, that she’d saved lives, that it was the right thing to do. She’d told Taylor Fitz would live, but be hurt. That Taylor and Baldwin were inextricably linked, and she could, and should, depend on him. Ariadne had insinuated herself into Taylor’s life, acting as a surrogate in Baldwin’s absence. So Taylor hadn’t been totally alone with her worries. Which was good, because she couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was collapsing around her. The Pretender was coming for her, and this time, he wouldn’t be satisfied with passing her in the night.
She didn’t know why he’d chosen this particular moment to act, to reach out. Why he’d chosen her in the first place, truth be told. He was a threat to her very existence,
she did know. Alarms and guns and protection aside, he wanted her for something.
She broke again, the balls scattering in her vehemence, the cue ball sloppily careening off the table
onto the floor with a thud. She bent to retrieve it, set it gently back onto the green felt.
Am I ready for him?
First things first.
She was going to North Carolina to collect Fitz.
The Outer Banks, North Carolina
he Gulfstream’s flight attendant, if asked, would have been circumspect and silent, as befitted her job. She worked for the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and discretion was her middle name. Which meant she saw a great deal that mere mortals weren’t privy to. She saw her boss talking with other discreet and powerful men. She saw people transported who might otherwise come under scrutiny if they traveled by normal routes. She saw new widows and the now childless. She saw much, yet never spoke about it.
But the gray-eyed woman sitting midcabin in the expansive leather chair, a crystal-cut glass of Voss water untouched at her elbow, was a bit of a surprise. The flight attendant, whose name was Cici, had initially been charmed by the pleasant smile, mesmerized by the mismatched eyes, the right slightly darker than the left, like it hadn’t made up its mind to embrace gray just yet. She’d loved the smoky, Southern drawl that emanated from the woman’s mouth when she said good
morning, the blond hair tied back from her face in a perfectly messy bun. Cici fingered her own limp locks and wished, for the millionth time, for some fullness, some body, so she could wind her hair up and leave it alone for the day.
She had been envious of the woman’s height, about six feet tall without heels, and her whole look: a flattering black cashmere turtleneck, black leather jacket, low-slung jeans and black Frye motorcycle boots. She’d seen the holster and badge attached to the waistband of the jeans and felt a mild shock of surprise: this woman didn’t look like a cop. But she was a cop—Cici knew from the manifest. A Homicide lieutenant from Nashville, Tennessee.
The lieutenant sat in the wide leather chair with an uncommon stillness—no fidgeting, no crossing and recrossing of legs, no drumming of fingers. Her hands were folded loosely in her lap, her head turned away slightly so she could stare out the window. This lack of motion left Cici feeling uneasy, and she tiptoed around the cabin so as not to disturb.
Cici also knew the woman was closely attached to one of Cici’s favorite men in the whole wide world: Dr. John Baldwin. Baldwin was her boss’s darling, and she understood why. His handsomeness aside—
oh, those green eyes are to die for!—
Baldwin was insightful, and caring. He was the glue that held her boss together, the son he’d never had. She knew that because Garrett Woods had told her so, once, when he’d been drinking something stronger than Voss water.
Baldwin had led men and women into battle, fighting the forces of evil that came across their desks, pushing back the tides of blood that swept out before their opponents’ wickedness. He was polite, so much so that
she sometimes wondered if it was an act. Who could be like that all the time? So contained. So like his woman. She’d often wondered just what made Dr. John Baldwin tick. Cici was no profiler, but she’d studied psychology in school. His calm facade was a veneer, she was sure of it. He had demons, coiled and writhing in his gut. Guilt, and shame, and hate. Everyone did, right? Right?
She felt that same sort of fight going on behind the lieutenant’s gray eyes. Guilt, and shame, and hate. And if Cici wasn’t mistaken—
remember, she was no expert and would be the first to tell you that
—if Cici wasn’t mistaken, there was something else lurking in those loch-gray depths.
Taylor felt the landing gear unfold and lock into place. The tarmac appeared beneath her, gray and chilly. The jet landed softly, came to a halt within minutes. Baldwin had arranged for his boss’s plane to collect her in Nashville and fly her to North Carolina. She had to admit, flying in the Gulfstream was a habit she could get used to.
The attendant opened the galley door, bid her farewell. Taylor wasn’t sad the flight was over; the woman was as twitchy as a deer in an open meadow, pale and staring from under nearly lashless lids.
She stepped down the stairs onto the tarmac, surprised to see little flakes of snow drifting swiftly from the slate sky. She could already feel it accumulating on her hair, so she shook it out and wound it back up into a ponytail.
Baldwin was waiting for her. His deep green eyes lit up when he saw her step down the stairs. He hadn’t shaved since he left her Monday morning, and he looked
like he belonged on a billboard, a perfectly groomed-to-be-scruffy model. She felt that strange pull of desire deep in her gut, and the uncontrollable joy at being near him again made a huge smile break out on her face. He smiled in return, grabbed her by the waist and kissed her deeply. When they broke for air they both spoke at the same time.
“Was your flight okay?”
“Is Fitz here?”
They laughed, and Taylor said, “You first.”
“He’s not here. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations agents have him. They’re still doing a debrief, and he’s scheduled for surgery this afternoon. He’s going to be flown to Duke. There’s a specialist who’s been retained to help.”
“We have specialists in Nashville. Why can’t we bring him home?”
“Because the North Carolina SBI want to keep him in their jurisdiction for the time being. They have three district offices involved. This is a big case for them, a score. They want hands on him at all times. You know how it is. Besides, this guy at Duke is one of the best. They’re going to clean up the eye socket, put in an orbital spacer so the ocular muscles won’t collapse. Then they’ll transfer him to Vanderbilt for the duration of his recovery. I’ve seen Fitz, but just briefly. I know he’ll be thrilled to see you though.”
That spike drove right through her. “His poor eye. Is he in much pain?”
“He was stable enough to be checked out of the emergency room and taken to the police station for questioning, so I’m sure they’ve given him everything he needs. He’s a tough old bird, too. He’s going to be just fine.
They said the damage was fixable, and he’ll be able to have a prosthetic in about a month.”
“I want to talk to him. See if he’d rather go back to Nashville. They can’t treat him like a suspect. It should be his choice.”
They started walking toward the terminal. The private airstrip in Duck was tiny, accommodating only the smallest of jets and single-engine planes.
“Any other news?” Taylor asked.
“Yes, actually. The harbormaster discovered Fitz’s boat. It’s been docked at the marina here for a week or so. He went to collect the rent and knew immediately something was wrong, pulled out and called the cops. There’s a lot of blood. The Nags Head Police found Susie’s body stuffed in the head. Multiple stab wounds.”
Taylor felt a wave of nausea pass through her. Susie McDonald was the best thing that had happened to Fitz in a long time. Taylor had liked her, Fitz had loved her. Her loss would be enormous.
“Poor Susie. Does Fitz know?”
“Just that she’s dead, not the details. He was there when Susie died, though, so he probably has some ideas. He’s in remarkably good shape, considering what he’s been through. Losing an eye isn’t life-threatening. Painful as hell, but he’s going to be just fine. I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it.”
“Does the marina have cameras? Did they see anyone leaving the boat?”
“They do have cameras, but nothing has been found yet. We’re early days, remember. I just got down here myself.”
Taylor watched the snow fall in graceful dances. It was gathering quickly. The forecast was for at least
three inches, quite a lot this early in the season for this neck of the woods.
“The Pretender isn’t stupid, Baldwin. He’s trying to draw me out. Hurting Fitz is a guarantee. He knows I’m coming for him, and if I don’t, he’ll come for me.”
“Seriously. No more foreplay. I want to see the bastard bleed.”
He sighed deeply. “Which is why you’ve got a security detail on you 24/7 as soon as I send you home. I refuse to let him get his hands on you.”
“I know. You’ve said that before. I don’t need a detail.”
He stopped short of the terminal door and pulled her around to face him.
“You listen to me. I am not kidding. This is building to a head. I know you can feel that, too. We have to be alert.”
“I’m alert. I’m alert. Stop fretting.” She patted her waist, the Glock nestled in its holster on her hip, then reached into the front pocket of her jeans and brought out a single .40-caliber Winchester jacketed hollow point.
“See? I’m even carrying the bullet the bastard sent me. I’m saving this one for him.”
Baldwin’s mouth twitched, she could tell he was fighting a smile.
“What’s on it?” he asked finally.
She flipped the bullet into his hand. She’d used a marker to draw a lopsided
the hand of Fatima, on the casing. The eye felt like a talisman of sorts to her. It was juvenile, she knew that, but the action had given her great satisfaction.
“I have every intention of letting the Pretender know exactly how I feel about his eye-for-an-eye mentality.”
Baldwin shook his head and sighed.
She pulled on his arm. “Come on. Let’s go. What’s happened since your hearing? Have you heard anything?”
He hesitated for the briefest of moments, then said, “Yes. But not now. We’ll talk about it when we’re alone.”
Something was wrong. He was hedging. She could feel him pulling away slightly as they walked. The hearing at Quantico had been disciplinary—a case from Baldwin’s past—she knew that, but he hadn’t gone into detail. She was wrapped up enough in her own pain that she hadn’t pushed. Maybe that had been a mistake.
Biting her lip, she followed him through the tiny terminal building, through the glass double doors and into the parking lot. The State Bureau of Investigations had sent a car for them. She could see it idling, black and square, so conspicuously federal, the foggy condensed air shuttling out of the tailpipes. The driver wore shades despite the lack of sun. It was oppressively warm in the backseat. Baldwin asked the agent to turn the heat down. He acquiesced, then pulled out onto the main road slowly. It wasn’t icy yet, that would come later, but the snow was making everything slick.
The landscape was exotic and familiar at the same time. Taylor hadn’t been to the Outer Banks since she was a girl, and never during the cold months. Snow drifted down onto the sand: a mismatched postcard.
Come celebrate winter at the beach
. It conjured images of roaring bonfires, happy dogs running up and down the lengths of sand, people in warm woolen sweaters braving the icy shores. Of the North, not the South.
She was surprised to find it so appealing. She was a Nashvillian born and bred, which meant she both hated snow and revered it with the wonder of a child. Aside from the huge Christmas storm they had last year, snow was more of an anomaly in Nashville. Ice, sleet, yes, but these fluffy, prancing flakes were utterly foreign, and completely charming.
She didn’t know if she’d want it around all the time, to be sure. But this, the snow falling on the fine sand in silent whispers, felt right. Like forgiveness.
Baldwin took her hand and squeezed as if he knew her thoughts. He always seemed to be able to see right past her skin, past the bone, directly into her being. Granted, he was a psychiatrist, but this was more than having a clinical understanding. He
the pain she was experiencing. He knew that every time she used her gun, another little bit of her soul stripped away into nothingness. She could only hope that if he continued to love her, maybe, just maybe, Baldwin could stop her humanity from slipping away.
“Have you been sleeping?” he asked.
She smiled. “The pool table’s been getting a workout, but I slept some last night.”
“You know I could give you something for that. Or Sam could.”
“Sam’s busy,” she said, looking away. “She has a lot on her mind. She wasn’t planning on getting pregnant again so soon. It’s a strain on both her and Simon.”
“Are you two fighting again?”
“No. She’s… I just don’t want to drug myself to sleep.”
Because if I’m out, and he comes for me, I’ll be completely defenseless.
Things between her and Sam Loughley had been
tense lately, but Taylor didn’t want to share that with Baldwin. No sense in getting him more upset than he already was. It wasn’t fun to be in a spat with your best friend, especially one you had to work with almost daily because she was the chief medical examiner. She’d known Sam since kindergarten, and they’d fought many times over the years. They always made up; it would happen again.
The trouble had started when James “Memphis” Highsmythe, late of New Scotland Yard and the FBI’s new liaison back to his own group, had made a play for her. Taylor had foolishly flirted back, and Sam had called her on it. The situation was Taylor’s fault, she knew that. But the whole thing wearied her. She assiduously avoided thinking of Memphis if at all possible, confident that the little crush he had on her would go away if the feelings weren’t reciprocated. Hashing things out with Sam just meant she’d been thinking about Memphis, and the kiss they’d shared, and she just didn’t have the desire to go there. Not now. Not with everything feeling so damn precarious.
He took her hand.
“Okay, okay. How’d the session go with Dr. Willig?”
He sensed the lie, but didn’t say anything. After the shooting, all the deaths, all those blameless lives ended, Taylor’s commander, Joan Huston, had insisted she get checked out before she returned to active duty. More than the cursory checkup required by the department after a shooting. And that meant time with Willig, Metro’s department psychologist. Taylor had spent a grand total of ten minutes with the shrink. She wasn’t in the mood to hash through the details out loud.
She looked at the ocean, the roiling waves crashing on the sand, and identified a bit too much.
Recognizing that Taylor was through talking, Baldwin sank back into the deep leather seats and retreated into his own world to check his BlackBerry. She was relieved the interrogation was over. She was still learning how to share with him. She’d been alone long enough to learn true emotional self-reliance, and the fact that she had a soul mate beyond her childhood friends could be disconcerting. She still found herself holding back, not saying everything she felt. Dr. Willig would tell her that wasn’t healthy, but she’d get there. She was going to marry Baldwin, and soon, which meant allowing those last few barriers to be battered. Thankfully, he was a patient man, and knew her well enough to back off when he felt her closing down.