Authors: J. T. Ellison
The Outer Banks, North Carolina
aylor was only allowed to spend twenty minutes catching up with Fitz before Renee Sansom knocked on the door and told them it was time to transport him to Duke for his afternoon surgery.
Taylor had tried asking questions, but Fitz was surprisingly evasive about the crimes he’d endured. He kept repeating the same lines: “I was drugged, I think.” “I really don’t remember anything.” “All I know is what I told you.” “He said to tell you ‘Let’s play.’” “He said you’d know what that meant.”
She’d expected him to be forthcoming with her, but after ten minutes of trying and failing to get him to open up, hearing him reiterate his apparent memory loss, she stopped. She hoped he wasn’t suffering from full-on PTSD, that he was just overwhelmed by the situation, that he remembered more than he was saying, or would remember when the shock wore off. But that was probably wishful thinking, considering what he’d been through.
She switched tactics. She asked if he wanted to go
back to Nashville for the surgery and was surprised to hear he’d rather stick to the plan they had for him, go to Duke and get the surgery there. She wondered if he wanted to stay close to Susie, lying in the morgue.
Pushing the worry and concern from her voice, she filled him in on what had been happening in Nashville. How much his fellow detectives Lincoln Ross and Marcus Wade were looking forward to getting him back to work, about the new member of the Homicide team, Renn McKenzie, and their latest boss, Commander Joan Huston. Fitz seemed to appreciate the distraction. He held her hand tightly through the time they spent together, and Taylor could feel the frisson of fear that coursed through his body on a regular loop. He was scared, and that freaked her out.
The Duke Medical Center Life Flight helicopter landed in the small parking lot in front of the police station. Fitz was loaded in, walking slowly, head down. Taylor and Baldwin waved wildly until the sophisticated chopper was out of sight. Taylor hated like hell not going with him, but promised to be by his side tonight, after he was out of surgery. She and Baldwin would take the Gulfstream up, and as soon as Fitz was cleared, they’d take him home.
The snow was whipping harder now, the storm in full gear. They trooped back inside the station, shivering. The door closed against the blustery day, they made their way to the conference room Nadis had evacuated for their purposes.
Sansom eyed Taylor and said, “Okay. It’s time for your debrief. I need to know everything you have about this creep. Your boy there didn’t want to talk to me, but I assume he told you quite a bit. Let’s have it.”
Taylor shook her head. “Fitz didn’t tell me anything, actually. He says he was drugged, that he doesn’t remember anything, and I believe him. Like you said, he’s been through a lot. I’m not inclined to push him too hard. If he starts to remember, or seems more open to discussion, I’ll be there to hear the story. In the meantime, I can give you enough background to get you started.”
Sansom looked at her for a moment. “Our initial blood work doesn’t indicate drugs in his system.”
Taylor stared her down. “You know a complete toxicology will take weeks.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps your sergeant is trying to hide something.”
That got under Taylor’s skin. “You can’t possibly think he had something to do with this. He lost his eye, for Christ’s sake. What do you think, he murdered his girlfriend, scooped his eye out with a spoon and drove it on up to Asheville?” She was breathing heavily, fists clenched, and barely felt Baldwin’s hand on her arm. Restraint. But come on. Accusing Fitz of any involvement in Susie’s murder was ridiculous.
Sansom continued to bait her. “I don’t know, Lieutenant. It’s awfully convenient. He wouldn’t be the first to have a relationship go south and blame it on the local bogeyman.”
“That’s bullshit, and you know it.”
Sansom had the audacity to smile.
“Taylor,” Baldwin said, the note of warning clear, “let’s just cover what we know so far, and take it from there.”
“Fine,” Taylor replied, biting off the comment she really wanted to make. She tried to see the case from an outsider’s perspective. While she and Baldwin knew,
in their bones, that this was the work of the Pretender, people who hadn’t been privy to the earlier cases might be led astray by the crime scene. Any good investigator would look at all the possibilities. That was all Sansom was doing.
Taylor kept telling herself that, felt her blood pressure drop a notch.
Baldwin held Taylor’s chair for her, and the three of them sat at a long table that Taylor suspected doubled as a lunch spot for Nadis’s team. Spots of dried mustard coated the wooden edge of the table in front of her seat. She scooched down a hair so she wouldn’t accidentally lean into it.
Sansom’s two agents joined them, were introduced as Wally Yeager and Eliot Polakis. They each had a clean yellow pad in front of them, ready for notes.
“Baldwin, why don’t you begin?” Taylor said. She wasn’t quite ready to reengage.
“All right. I’ve been profiling the Pretender for a year now, and the profile is still in progress. It keeps changing. He’s a chameleon. He adapts, copies, mimics, then disappears. Despite your thoughts about Sergeant Fitzgerald, I’m fully convinced this is the Pretender’s work. Killing Susie McDonald, stabbing her and leaving her on the boat, taking Fitz, then removing his eye and letting him go, are only his second original series of crimes we’re aware of, which obviously changes things yet again. There are a few items I can tell you up front—I don’t think he’s had a formal education, but he’s above average in intelligence. He was raised in multiple homes, was probably a foster child.”
“A foster child,” Sansom said. “Hmm.”
“He’s also transient, just sets up base wherever he is, which makes him harder to track. He’s in his early
thirties, lacks confidence in himself, takes jobs as necessary to pay for his basic needs. He’s computer savvy, knows his way around the message boards. He believes he’s a scholar, a student of serial murder. He’ll have books with him, anything and everything to do with serial killers. He considers himself as much of an expert as I am. And he has a fascination with blood that would have started at an early age. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he killed very young, a sibling, perhaps. He’s good with his hands, affable, charming, sexual. He can go unnoticed, or he can draw attention, whatever suits his purpose.”
He leaned into Sansom, making sure she was paying attention. “Don’t ever let your guard down if you do happen upon him. I’m dead serious here. He has no feelings, can’t be reasoned with. He’ll kill you without hesitating and never give it a second thought. If he’s cornered, he’ll do whatever it takes to get away. We’re going to have a hard time bringing him in alive. He has nothing to lose. He isn’t a glory seeker, trying to see himself in the news. He’s a pure sociopath who enjoys killing by any available method.”
Sansom didn’t flinch at that, and Taylor thought she should. Of course, Taylor had seen him in person, or thought she had, back in Nashville last year, in a bar called Control, at what was supposed to be her bachelorette party. She’d felt the evil emanating from his skin like sweat on a hot summer day, visible and malodorous.
“Okay then. Where do we start?” Sansom asked.
Baldwin sat back in his chair and crossed his legs. “With the note you found in the trailer in Asheville. It’s handwritten. I have one of the world’s preeminent experts on sociopathic graphology ready to study that
note. With any luck, she’ll be able to tell us something about him that we don’t already know.”
Sansom turned to Taylor. “That’s a start for you, then. I still have a kidnapping and murder on my books to clear. So let’s get down to it. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. What else do you know about the Pretender? How are we going to catch him? Lieutenant, I’d like to hear from you. What do you think his next move is?”
“His next move?” Taylor laughed lightly. “Me. I’m his next move.”
aylor had a flash drive with a PowerPoint presentation on it, one that had originally been given to her team when they were dealing with the Snow White Killer’s apprentice brutalizing Nashville. The Snow White had killed ten Nashville girls in the 1980s, then sent a letter to the police telling them his reign of terror was finished. He was true to his word for over twenty years. But then, the previous Christmas, the long-dormant killer resurfaced. Out of the blue four girls were viciously murdered in the Snow White style. Taylor’s team suspected a copycat, and they’d been partially correct. That was the first time the Pretender had come across their radar screens. But he’d existed long before he touched Taylor’s world.
She popped the flash drive into Sansom’s laptop computer; Yeager and Polakis got behind to watch.
Taylor narrated, trying to ignore the chill creeping up her spine. The last time she’d heard this information, FBI special agent and profiler Charlotte Douglas had been speaking. Charlotte had used the information as a weapon to make Taylor look bad. Her actions had backfired.
Taylor didn’t think she’d ever forget arriving at that crime scene, the shock of seeing Charlotte’s fire-red hair commingled with her life’s blood, the setting sun echoing the bloody sheets.
Taylor forwarded the slides, covering the original killings of the Pretender, sharing the details as they knew them. By the time he’d hit Nashville, he had eighteen confirmed kills under his belt already. He’d committed another four under the tutelage of the Snow White Killer, then he’d gone off the rails. He killed three more girls before he was shot and ran. Adding Charlotte to the mix took his total up to twenty-six homicides.
Taylor heard an echo from the past, Charlotte’s voice ringing through her head in triumph.
These four murders in Nashville have been directly connected to the other eighteen. You don’t just have a copycat on your hands, you have an obscenely prolific serial killer with victims in five states. The CODIS results are definitive. His pattern is undeniable. It is quite likely that he will move on to another state, kill more young women, if you don’t stop him here in Nashville.
Despite her proselytizing, Charlotte Douglas had been right on the money. They hadn’t stopped him. And now look where they were.
Taylor played with the remote in her hand. “As you can see, Susie McDonald makes twenty-seven confirmed kills. If the evidence matches the forensics we already have, of course.”
“I thought you were certain this was tied to the Pretender. You have an eyewitness, after all, even if he says he can’t remember anything,” Sansom said.
Taylor ignored that last comment. “You know as well as I do that we have nothing yet to definitively prove
it was the Pretender. We need the DNA results, the forensics, to confirm it for sure.”
Sansom opened a folder, laid out an Identi-Kit sketch. “I was under the impression that you’d seen him before. We have this picture we’re working from, and your sergeant thinks it was the same man.”
Taylor glanced at the picture, at the electronic depiction of the man he’d seen. Remembered giving the description.
Cruel eyes. Square jaw. Dark blond with a military buzz cut
“Fitz told me he
it could be the same man but he never got a solid look at his face. Yes, he gave a description, from a moment’s glance at over four hundred yards through binoculars, of someone who
have been the same man we saw in Nashville, but we have no real proof he’s the Pretender. We need to tie the crimes together with actual evidence, and with DNA, and the only way we’re going to do that is by capturing him.”
“Okay. I see your point. Tell me more about his earlier kills. I want all the gory little details.”
Taylor clicked to the next slide. “In Los Angeles, he copied the Santa Ana Killer from the mid-fifties, the one who dismembered the bodies of the women he killed and left them in the desert. In Denver, it was the LoDo, the Lower Denver Killer, who preyed on prostitutes. He strangled them and left them posed on street corners. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, he copied the Classifieds Killer of the 1970s. Do you remember him? Old guy, placed ads in the
for temporary secretarial work. They’d answer the ads and he’d gut them.”
Sansom’s eyes shone. “Yes, I’m aware of that case.”
“Good. In New York, he became the Prospect Lake
Killer, strangling his victims and dumping their bodies into Prospect Lake Park on Long Island.”
Taylor set the remote down on the table.
“Here’s the thing. Nashville changed everything. He broke the pattern. The Snow White was the only killer he emulated who was still out there. All of the other original killers had been caught and jailed. Two had been put to death. While he was with the Snow White, he started to improvise.”
Baldwin joined the conversation. “An excellent question. We don’t have a good answer for that. The relationship between the two men began as some sort of…apprenticeship. The Pretender was studying under the Snow White just like a painter or sculptor would study under the tutelage of a master. Snow White had a very specific script he wanted followed, and his apprentice disagreed. He felt he was powerful enough to strike out on his own. And that’s where we lost him.”
Sansom was finally looking impressed. She stared at the computer screen for a long minute, then said, “So why has he changed his pattern?”
Taylor and Baldwin exchanged a glance.
“That’s what we want to know,” Baldwin said. “He’s self-actualizing, testing to find his preferred method of killing. His MO is blatant though—he likes to imitate. He’s been successful pretending to be other killers for years. He’s a method actor, getting into the role by imitating the originals. He’ll go back to that—I’m sure of it. But there’s another component that’s come into play, interrupted his plans. His attraction to Lieutenant Jackson. I believe that, ultimately, he’s trying to impress her.”
“Lucky you,” Sansom said.
“You have no idea,” Taylor replied.
“Has he threatened you directly?”
“Several times. It’s been more cat and mouse in the past. He wants kudos for his work. He’s reached out to me before. But this time, it got personal.”
Baldwin tapped a pencil on the sketch. “I believe he’s feeling rejected by the lieutenant. She hasn’t been willing to play his game. That’s upset him, and he’s taking it out on those closest to her.”
“Hmm,” Sansom said. “How do you sleep at night?”
Taylor shrugged. “I don’t. Not much, at least.”
They were all quiet for a moment. Sansom seemed energized by the briefing, excited. She dismissed her two agents with a curt nod, waited for them to close the door, then smiled at Taylor and Baldwin.
“It sounds like a good time to get our hands on him. And why do you think he let Sergeant Fitzgerald live? And where do you think he’ll go next?”
“A warning,” Taylor said. “Fitz is just a pawn to him, a tool to get my attention. Where he’s heading next is anyone’s guess. No predictable pattern, remember?”
“Looks like the warning worked,” Sansom said. “You’re here.”
Taylor simply nodded. Silence filled the room. Sansom watched her for a few moments, then scooted her chair closer.
“I want in on this. I want to help you track him down. Let me tell you what we have, and we can go from there.”
“I seriously doubt he’s still in North Carolina,” Baldwin said. His BlackBerry beeped; he looked at the screen. Taylor felt his posture change, saw his spine straighten just a fraction. What was that all about?
Sansom seemed to sense the shift in Baldwin, too.
She leaned forward, eyes gleaming, tapping her forefinger on the file for emphasis. “Listen to me, Dr. Baldwin. We are going to act like he is still in North Carolina, at least for the time being. I’ve had crime scene techs sweep every square inch of the boat and the Airstream trailer. You want forensics? I’ve got them in spades. And I’ll trade them for a chance to be in on this.”
Baldwin broke his eyes away from his BlackBerry, cleared his throat. Taylor heard the tension in his voice.
“Agent Sansom, this isn’t a game. You don’t get to make the rules. You don’t trade the information, you give it to me, willingly, then you step aside and let my team handle this. If you do this, and we catch him, you’ll receive the credit you and your team are due. Rest assured, we want everyone to win here. For the moment, though, I’m afraid you’re going to have to excuse the lieutenant and me. We have another meeting we need to get to.”
Sansom openly bristled. “There’s nothing more important than this right now. I can hold you both as material witnesses if I want. But I don’t think that’s necessary. I just want to help. You need me on this. I’ve already gotten clearance from my superiors to join your task force.”
Taylor watched Baldwin’s eyes cool, the green becoming a stormy sea. Normally the offer of help from an obviously capable agent would feel like a good idea, but Sansom rubbed her the wrong way. And Baldwin didn’t trust Sansom either, that was clear. No, they’d be better off without her.
“We haven’t set up a task force, and I can’t say that we will. So no, Agent Sansom, I don’t need you. I already have a team in place, all the positions are filled.”
Sansom and Baldwin stared at each other for a brief moment, playing some sort of silent game of chicken. Baldwin’s phone began to ring. He ignored it, eyes locked on the SBI agent. Taylor expected him to answer it, but he let it go, on and on, until it stopped with a beep she knew meant the call had gone to voice mail. The second it stopped ringing, it began again.
Sansom smiled, and Taylor sensed something was terribly, terribly wrong. She glanced sideways at Baldwin, saw his right hand was on his gun. She hadn’t even noticed his arm moving. She went on alert. Sansom shifted, and Taylor coughed, using the noise as an opportunity to unsnap her holster strap. Despite her efforts, the click echoed in the room.
Sansom moved with a swiftness Taylor couldn’t believe. She shoved the table toward them, catching Taylor hard in the gut, then bolted for the door. Baldwin was up and out of his chair in an instant. Taylor was a couple of seconds behind, her wind just starting to come back, her weapon drawn. But Sansom had the advantage, the element of surprise. She was out the door and sprinting away, her heels slapping the linoleum as she ran down the hall. Taylor and Baldwin exploded out of the room after her.
“Where’s her team?” Taylor shouted.
“I don’t know. Keep an eye out.”
is going on?”
Sansom darted out the heavy steel door. Taylor could see it had been propped open so the lock would be disengaged. A gunshot rang out, followed by a scream, and more shots, close together. They barreled into the hallway in time to see Captain Nadis slump over onto the floor. A bullet had caught him high in the chest, the blood pooled under him in a dark puddle.
“Stay with him,” Baldwin shouted. Taylor knelt beside him, searched frantically for a pulse, found none. He was past her help.
Baldwin had taken up a defensive position at the entrance to the reception area. Wiping Nadis’s blood on her jeans, Taylor lined up opposite him. She risked a quick look out, saw nothing but the stocking foot of the receptionist. She was down, on the floor, one leg sticking out from under her desk.
“It’s clear,” she said, low. He nodded, then eased around the corner. An engine gunned, tires spitting up seashell gravel in an effort to gain purchase. They rushed to the deck just in time to see a black sedan fishtail out onto the main road.
It was pointless to shoot at a fleeing car, dangerous, even, but they both started firing, bullets winging through the thin, chilly air. A few metallic thunks resonated back to them, but the car never stopped, it disappeared with a squeal of tires around the corner.
“We have to go after them,” Taylor yelled. Baldwin lowered his weapon and grabbed her hand, holding her back.
“What are you doing? Let’s go!”
“Taylor, it’s okay,” Baldwin said quietly. “They won’t get far.” The distinctive
whump, whump, whump
of a heavy helicopter sounded in the distance.
“Is that Fitz’s chopper?”
“No, it’s one of ours.”
The snow was tumbling down fast, littering flakes on Baldwin’s dark hair that melted quickly. He turned to her, his eyes hard and cold.
“The message I got while we were talking to Sansom was from Garrett. Three people were found dead about
twenty minutes ago, their bodies dumped on the beach just south of here. A woman, and two men. An SBI agent is on scene and says they’re theirs.”
“I don’t understand.”
Baldwin gestured over his shoulder. “The people in there, the ones we’ve been talking to all morning? They’re plants. The real Renee Sansom, Wally Yaeger and Eliot Polakis are dead.”