Authors: J. T. Ellison
he man who would be Richard Cooper loved this hotel. He figured he was due for a splurge—being on the road for several days, the pressure of imitation, the stakes, the hunt and the kill—he was simply exhausted. After he checked in, he’d utilized the exercise room, worked up a good sweat, then opened his pores in the sauna, followed by a cool bath with a fine green-tea scrub that had him clean and rosy pink. He ordered a clean lunch—organic greens, papaya and pineapple, a small piece of grilled salmon. He felt lighter, emptier than he had in days. Food on the road, in a rush, drive-throughs and greasy spoons, none of this was compatible with his lifestyle. He took care of himself. His body was his temple. He didn’t drink or smoke. He rarely, if ever, took medications. He committed to treating his body the way it was meant to be treated, nothing fake, nothing artificial. Fresh, whole foods, things that could be grown, captured or hunted.
He set his empty plates back on the cart and wheeled it out into the hallway, so the scent wouldn’t linger and spoil his appetite. He closed the door, triple locked it,
then went to the luxurious leather chair situated at just the right angle to watch some television. He planned to watch the news then read the afternoon away, perhaps take a stroll, though it was so nippy outside. He was disappointed they hadn’t done this in the summer, the hotel’s pool was exceptional.
He found the remote stashed in the drawer of an oak side table within easy reach, turned the television on. Thank goodness for cable news, at your fingertips twenty-four hours a day.
His heart dropped as he watched the flashing red Breaking News! banner cross the screen. He turned the volume up carefully. Listened as the anchor described his past few days with stunning accuracy. The whole game had been discovered.
It was one thing for Troy to summon them without warning—he hadn’t appreciated that. He’d done a lot of work lining up his kill in Cincinnati, and he didn’t like walking away from a plan. But it was a completely different issue to have the media on top of the story.
It was on all the major stations. He flipped through a few times, then caught a name. His name. Not his real name, of course, he wasn’t that stupid, but the name he’d been using in connection with this contest. The name he’d used for the hotel.
He forced himself to stay calm. He needed to walk out of the hotel immediately. He’d leave the rental car, he’d already wiped it down, a nightly precaution he took, and take apart the BlackBerry. He’d succeeded this long because he wasn’t stupid, though now he was questioning his intelligence in getting involved with a man who was obviously on a death mission. Troy Land, he called himself, though he knew that name was as fake as his own current nom de plume.
He packed his duffel quickly, put on his clothes. Put on the baseball cap he’d used when he checked in to keep his face off the cameras. Decided to take the linens and robe with him; though he’d only sat on the edge of the bed, he might have left a DNA trace somewhere and he didn’t need that hassle. He ran a piece of masking tape along the edges of the chair and on the floor underneath. He always ate with gloves, so prints weren’t an issue, and he’d washed the silverware in hot water with soap to get the DNA off them, but he wasn’t going to take any chances. He opened the door carefully, no one in the hallway. Thankfully the maids hadn’t removed the tray yet. He bundled everything together; he’d burn it once he was clear of town.
He didn’t like the South anyway. Too quiet. All those birds chirping, and people smiling. They made eye contact here and talked to you, expected an answer back, noticed you if you ignored them, a truly dangerous combination. He needed the dingy city life, too many people with too many issues to give him a second glance. He fit in well anyway, on the tall side, brown hair, brown eyes. Not handsome, but not ugly either. He had no distinguishing characteristics. He got his hair cut at a walk-in place. Shopped at chain grocery stores, though it made it harder to eat the organic food his body craved. The specialty stores had fewer customers, they had a tendency to recognize the regulars. He wanted to be regular, not be a regular.
He’d borrow a car from the parking garage and drive to Atlanta, drop it there. Buy something cheap and disposable from one of the many scam lots, take it to Florida. Miami. A port town. He’d make a reservation to take a cruise to South America.
But he wasn’t really going to leave. No, after he’d
laid the trail, he was going back to Indianapolis, to the adorable hostess at the steak house. That was as good a place as any to start over.
Oh, well. The game had been fun while it lasted.
Maybe he’d drive by the target’s office, just for the hell of it. Wave goodbye. A shame, really. It would have been fun to watch her die.
aylor wasn’t a big fan of assisted-living facilities. It was purely psychological—her grandfather had been an Alzheimer’s patient before Alzheimer’s was de rigueur, when it was just called dementia and the nursing homes were dark and silent, aside from the moans of pain or murmured recollections that emanated from the mouths of the inmates. It had smelled wrong, she remembered that. She’d been young when he’d passed away, but the stench of the home where he lived wasn’t something she’d ever forget. Neglect, and sadness, and rot, mingled with urine and the sweet, yeasty smell of imminent death. That was what she remembered.
So when she entered the front door of the Guardian facility, she was surprised to smell roses. It was bright, and happy. Clean. Smiling faces. Completely incongruous with her expectations.
She went to the front desk and gave them her name, stated her business. A woman dressed in pink scrubs overlaid with purple and white hearts grinned ear to ear when she heard Taylor asking for Joshua Fortnight. He didn’t get a lot of visitors.
The facility had a small indoor garden, a greenhouse,
and they grew roses and orchids and a few irises and hydrangeas to boot, which, as the intake nurse explained, kept the patients happy. It gave them something to do. Especially in the cold winter months when they were stuck inside, and their field trips consisted of going to malls instead of the park or the zoo.
Joshua, it turned out, had an affinity for growing flowers. His specialty was the hard-to-manage orchids. Twice a day, he lovingly played his flute for them, though he was getting more and more deaf, a congenital handicap related to his Treacher Collins, and the notes were sometimes a bit sharp.
“Please don’t upset him,” the pink nurse said. “He’s doing so well with us.”
Upset him. Yeah, that nurse was going to be seriously pissed off in a couple of hours, when she found out Taylor had dragged poor Joshua back through the worst days of his life. She had no time to sugarcoat this.
It took ten minutes to round him up. He shuffled up the hall on her arm, ruined face turned away. She took him to the greenhouse, beckoned for Taylor to follow. Once he was settled, she smiled, touched his shoulder gently in assurance, and left.
He had his back to Taylor, didn’t turn around. When he spoke, he slurred his words, sibilant and soft.
“I remember you,” he said, his pale hands embracing the pot of a delicate white orchid. Using his forefinger, he felt the soil. It must have been all right, he nodded to himself.
“My name is Taylor,” she said.
“You have a gun. I can sssmell the metal.”
“I’m a police officer, Joshua.”
“I know. You killed my father.”
She flinched. Coming face-to-face with the ones left behind was never easy. Being in the same room as the child of the abhorrent serial killer, who’d mocked her, used her, and finally forced her to take his life, was possibly the hardest thing she’d done in years.
“Don’t. Jussst, don’t. He wasss a bad man.”
That won the understatement lottery. Eric Fortnight was a sick, twisted bastard, one who was forced to stop killing only because of a crippling case of rheumatoid arthritis. His body wouldn’t cooperate anymore. When he couldn’t stand it any longer, when the urge to kill became too much to contain, he’d enlisted his sociopathic daughter to find him a helpmeet. A killer to kill for him. An apprentice.
Charlotte had chosen Ewan Copeland.
“Are you happy here, Joshua?”
“I miss the birdsss.” He turned to her now, and she forced herself not to suck in her breath. His face, his poor face, looked like a melted candle. His eyes were where his cheeks should be, one on either side, pointing out and down, so very like the birds he loved. His nose was a pinpoint with nostrils, his chin practically nonexistent. Strangely, his lips were normal, a bit wide, but full and lush, a bright red, his tongue, thickened by the disease, visible inside. Like he’d bitten into a bloody apple.
His features were terribly disconcerting, but Taylor knew he was fully blind, and couldn’t see the horror etched on her face. She shut her eyes and did her damndest to keep it out of her voice, too. This man had been forced to listen to too many sighs of fear in his life.
“You had birds at the house?”
“Yesss. A garden. Like thisss. But bigger. And outside. I miss it.”
“Joshua, can we sit down?”
He nodded, and she followed him to a small stone bench under a shelf of purple orchids. They sat, and Joshua reached below the bench and extracted a small brown case. Taylor recognized it, it was his flute.
“The flowersss like the musssic. I play for them twissse a day.”
“I bet they do,” she said, then put her hand on his to stop him from opening the case. “Joshua, I have a friend, a very good friend, who might be in danger. Do you remember the man you shot last year?”
“Troy. I hated him.”
“His real name is Ewan. And he’s taken my friend.”
“Coming home to roosssst. Father alwaysss sssaid he would. He killed my sssissster. He killed Charlotte.”
Taylor forced herself to swallow.
“Yes, he did. And now I’m afraid he’s going to do the same thing to my friend. I think he’s taken her to your old house. Will you help me, Joshua? Will you give me a way in? Will you help me save her?”
“It doesn’t belong to me anymore. The bank took it. They can’t sssell it, no one wants to live where a ssserial killer preyed. There’s a big lock on the front door.”
“I know. But I’ll make you a deal. I know you were the one who let Jane Macias out of your father’s house. She said there was a tunnel, a back entrance, and she described you to me. I never knew if she imagined the tunnel, or if it was real.
“But you helped her, Joshua, because you knew what your father and Troy were doing was wrong. And now it’s my turn to stop Troy from hurting anyone else. If I
can get in without him knowing, sneak into the house, I can take care of him, and he’ll never bother any of us again. If you tell me how to get in, as a thank-you, I’ll take you to the park, so you can hear the birds. Would you like that?”
He was quiet, and she could feel him wrestling with the request.
Finally, he sighed, a great, heavy wet sound. “There is a path into the house. Out the back. From my garden. You can go in there. I’ll explain how the houssse is laid out, but he’ll have her in the attic. He alwaysss liked the attic. You can get in and he’ll never know.”
Taylor felt a huge rush of relief. She’d hoped for a key, and instead she’d been given the kingdom.
Baldwin stood over the cooling body of Ruth Anderson. Lincoln had done a textbook shoot, three clean shots to the chest. Ruth was sprawled backward on the cement, one leg crumpled beneath her, the other sticking straight out. Baldwin couldn’t shake the sense of justification seeing her like that. The last time he’d looked into her eyes, she’d had a gun pointed at him, was still impersonating Renee Sansom of the SBI. Justified. Deserved, really.
He usually hated the loss of life; in this case, he was happy about it. He would have liked to delve into her brain, would have liked to have both Ruth and her half brother Ewan to study for years to come, but her death was a fitting end to her sad, pathetic, psychopath’s life.
He wondered if Ewan knew Ruth was dead, and Colleen with her. He’d sent her to kill Colleen Keck, knowing Colleen was at the CJC. Baldwin assumed that Ewan had planned this to a tee, knowing he was
sending Ruth into the lion’s den would assure that she was either killed or arrested. He’d bet on killed, because he knew his little sister Ruth wasn’t the most stable. It was a gamble, but if it went his way, the elimination of Ruth would allow him the freedom to escape with no strings attached.
Ruth had been flanked by two men in North Carolina. One confirmed dead, the other still missing. Could he be the Boston Strangler copycat? Anything was possible at this point. Baldwin made sure to mention that to Joan Huston when she approached him.
“What would you like us to do with the body, Dr. Baldwin?”
“Forensic Medical will be fine, Commander. I take it there’s been no word on Dr. Loughley?”
Huston waved to the crime scene techs who had been patiently waiting off to one side while Baldwin examined the body. They sprang into action, breaking out their evidence kits, taking photographs.
Huston pulled him aside.
“Dr. Loughley? Something’s wrong with her?”
Oh, Taylor. What are you up to?
Baldwin needed to tread carefully. The last thing he wanted to do was get Taylor in trouble, but he had a sinking, horrible feeling that she was on a path straight there. He calculated his answer.
“Have you spoken with Lieutenant Jackson this morning, ma’am?”
“Just for a moment, after the shooting at Forensic Medical. I told her to stay put and shepherd the scene. She’s still on administrative leave after her shooting incident last week. She’s not supposed to be working cases. Now tell me what’s happened to Dr. Loughley.”
“She seems to be missing, ma’am. I’m assuming that
Ewan Copeland is responsible, just like he was responsible for sending his sister Ruth to eliminate Colleen Keck.”
Huston snapped to attention. “Then why the hell haven’t we been notified? She’s the head medical examiner, not some stranger off the street.”
“Lieutenant Jackson didn’t notify you, ma’am?”
“She damn well didn’t. Does her team know?”
. “I don’t know the extent of their knowledge of the situation.”
Fury looked good on Commander Huston. Baldwin knew Taylor trusted her; despite their formal relationship, Taylor had always felt she could count on Huston to be fair. Baldwin decided to gamble. Taylor’s safety and Sam’s recovery were the most important things now. They could mop up her career afterward.
“Commander, I believe that Ewan Copeland has kidnapped Sam Loughley, and the lieutenant is going after them herself. It’s gotten personal for her, ma’am.”
“Shit. It’s always been personal. This man has tried to ruin every aspect of her life, he’s hurt her friends… My God, look at Sergeant Fitzgerald, in the hospital, recovering from having his eye plucked out of his head.”
He followed when she started to walk, brisk, purposeful steps. “I don’t know why she didn’t come to me. She knows I’ll do whatever I can to help. She’s too valuable to lose.” She stopped and grabbed Baldwin’s arm. He was amazed at the strength in her grip.
“I’m trusting you to stop the lieutenant before she does something stupid. Do I have your word on that, Dr. Baldwin?”
“Yes, ma’am. You do.”
“Then take Wade and whoever else you need, and find her. Find them both. Now.”