Authors: J. T. Ellison
olleen Keck was deep into her background on the Zodiac when her computer started going wild. She looked up, saw the words
North Carolina? She flipped her online scanner over to the appropriate channel. Her mind was instantly processing this information as if it were linked to the earlier messages she’d received—what serial killer had struck in North Carolina? Was this part of the pattern from the murders last night? Was she simply reaching? She was a crime blogger after all, prone to seeing killers in every corner of her world. An overreactor, Tommy would say.
She was instantly grateful for the new protocols in many police departments that had allowed their personnel to shift away from 10 codes and into plain speak; while she was familiar with a wide array of codes from the major metropolitan areas, the smaller jurisdictions didn’t follow the same patterns. Plain speak allowed everyone to understand. The scanner crackled.
“Officers down, officers down. We need backup, my location.”
What the hell was his location? she wondered, writing the words down in her personal journalism shorthand. The disembodied voice went on, describing the scene.
“Update, there are seven officers involved in two separate shootings. We have a total of seven down. We need extra personnel, my location. Send out a BOLO on a black Lincoln Town Car, North Carolina plate, state owned, numbers to come. Suspects are armed and dangerous, repeat, armed and dangerous. Last seen heading west on Highway 64. Put roadblocks in place all the way out to 95. Switch to channel eighteen, code three, code three. Switching channels now.” The scanner went dead. They’d switched to a private channel to avoid people like her. It wouldn’t have mattered if the voice had continued, she wasn’t hearing anything but the roaring in her own ears.
Oh, my God
Colleen’s breath came short, and she gagged a little, unable to resist a brief glimpse into her own hell after hearing the words
. Seven cops hurt in the line of duty. Seven families torn apart.
The memories assailed her anew, and she barely made it to the bathroom in time. She vomited in the sink, tears mingling with sudden beads of sweat that popped up on her forehead.
Oh, Tommy. Why did you have to leave me? Why did you have to be so freaking brave
After a few minutes, her cries died down, and she gathered herself. She rinsed her mouth out with cool water, splashed some on her face, which managed to smear her already desiccated day-old mascara even further. She swiped furiously at the dark smears with a bit of toilet paper. Weakness was not allowed. Weakness
was her enemy, the taloned beast that lived in her chest and couldn’t wait to sharpen its fangs on her heart. She’d considered succumbing many times, but Flynn—her darling, sweet boy, the spitting image of Tommy—Flynn kept her strong. Strong enough to fight back the beast and its basilisk stare into her soul.
Empty. She was terribly empty. The less she had to give, the less she could get hurt.
The phone rang.
She had a moment’s irrational fear—it was a call from the police, something’s happened to Flynn—but she pushed the thought away firmly. This time of day, it was some sort of telemarketer. She allowed the answering machine to pick up, heard the long beeps of a facsimile machine.
Sniffing hard, Colleen went to the refrigerator. She poured a little orange juice in a glass, then opened the cabinet above the stove, the one locked against her child’s roving hands. The small vial of Ativan was nestled in between some old painkillers and a never-used package of birth control pills, standing ready for when she and Tommy were able to resume post-baby connubial relations. Choking back another sob, she extracted the benzodiazepines, shot two into her mouth before she could change her mind, and swallowed. Thus indulged, she brushed her hair back from her face and tried to focus.
Something major had happened in North Carolina. Combined with the reports coming in from California, Massachusetts and New York, she felt it her duty to explore the cases further. They were connected, she was sure of that. Something told her that they hadn’t seen the end, either.
The Outer Banks, North Carolina
aylor felt the cold seeping into her stomach. No wonder Fitz had been so reluctant to talk to her. He must have sensed something wasn’t right about Sansom and her goons.
Oh, God. Was Fitz safe? Surely this was an anomaly, not some sort of reengagement. Would the Pretender let Fitz go only to take him back into his custody? She took a deep breath. No. The helicopter that took him away bore the Duke Medical Center insignia. There was no way.
She was through taking chances.
“We have to get that helicopter diverted to Nashville, just to be safe.”
Baldwin looked at her for a long moment. “I agree.”
He made a call. Taylor could hear the voice of Charlaine Shultz, one of Baldwin’s lead profilers, on the other end. She promised to take care of it immediately, and Baldwin put the phone into his pocket.
They could hear sirens wailing now, and the SBI
chopper soared past overhead in a swirl of dusty snow. The cavalry had arrived.
Baldwin touched her arm. “Come on, let’s do a sweep. This place is going to be crawling in a few minutes and we’ll need to give a SITREP.”
As always, Baldwin was thinking ahead. Taylor wasn’t in any mood to stop, hand over their knowledge to another officer, calmly give a situation report. No, she wanted to go after that damn car. But she joined him back in the police station. The scene inside was worse than Taylor remembered. Nadis and his receptionist were sprawled in their own blood, and they found another Nags Head officer and their SBI driver garroted in a closed-off room. Taylor barely recognized the silent smoker who’d picked them up from the airport. The scent of death was close in her nose.
Standing over the bodies, looking at the thin necklace of bruised and bloodied flesh on the officers’ throats, Taylor felt ice sweep through her veins. The sight thrust her back in time, to more deaths on her hands. Garroting was the signature of another killer, one long since dead. She swallowed hard.
“Fake Polakis and Yeager were taking down the others while Fake Sansom talked to us,” Taylor said.
“Looks that way. See, there are drag marks,” Baldwin said, pointing to a series of black scuffs on the white linoleum that led to the small break room where the bodies of the men had been stashed.
“They must have taken them down one by one, then lugged them in here, out of the way. How did they pull this off?”
“I don’t know. They were excellent though. If I hadn’t been warned, we might still be in there. Or in there.” He pointed toward the break room.
Taylor heard the sound of a car, the wheels crunching on the gravel. Their alone time had run out. She had that queer feeling in the pit of her stomach, the aftermath of adrenaline, when her senses were oversharp and she felt like she might throw up. A few deep breaths quelled her nausea, and the rage started to bleed in.
“I assume they were meant to take me?”
Baldwin shook his head. “I don’t think so. They could have easily shot all of us and grabbed you at any time. I think fake Sansom was supposed to get on the team, go with us, and report back everything we knew. Drive us, like cattle, to a predetermined place and time so they’d have the upper hand.”
“We gave her a lot of information.”
“Nothing they didn’t already have. Charlotte’s PowerPoint wasn’t anything new.”
“The Pretender arranged for all of this. He has help.”
“Yes.” Baldwin was gritting his teeth, the muscles in his jaw jumping. “Yes, he has help. More than we could have anticipated.”
Taylor breathed in deeply and regretted it. She slumped against the wall.
“So he arranged for Fitz to be dropped in Nags Head, where he could control the scene. Left the boat where it could be easily found, everything. He set us all up.”
“He has to have people on the inside, don’t you think?”
“And he knew I’d come rushing here, playing right into his hands.”
Baldwin turned to her, lips set in a thin line. “Yes.”
“A little less affirmation from you would be helpful, you know.”
He snorted through his nose at that, and shot her a crooked smile. “Then stop being so right all the time.”
The levity helped, and she felt herself settle. She’d spent years in training for these types of situations, and despite the personal nature of the crimes, the fact that the dance was directed at her, she felt certain they would win. It was what they did. Good triumphed over evil, even if it sometimes got trampled along the way.
She could hear shouting from the front of the station. They shared a glance. No sense taking chances. Baldwin drew his weapon; she followed suit.
“Be ready,” he whispered.
They flattened themselves against the wall.
A moment later, the shouts came closer. A strong, deep voice slightly dampened by a Southern accent called to them.
“Dr. Baldwin? Lieutenant Jackson? I’m SBI supervisory agent Roddie Hall. I know you might be a bit spooked right now. Garrett Woods told me to tell you he’s got a bottle of White Label in his bottom left drawer. I’m gonna toss my badge in there for you to look at, okay?”
Taylor felt Baldwin relax fractionally.
“Go ahead,” he said.
The credentials landed with a thud close to Taylor’s right foot. Baldwin nodded to her. She reached down and grabbed the leather case, then handed it to him. Baldwin glanced at it and signaled the go ahead. They both stepped around the edge of the door, Taylor low, Baldwin high, weapons trained on the man standing in
the middle of the reception area with his hands up. It was clear that his shoulder holster was empty.
“Your boss is a little peeved with me,” Hall said. “I don’t think he’s gonna be sharing that liquor with me any time soon.”
“I can only imagine,” Baldwin replied.
“Mind if I put my hands down now?”
“Go ahead. Slowly.”
Hall looked relieved, dropped his hands to his side. He was a big man, prematurely gray, inhabiting a rumpled brown suit that was a size too large for him. There were red blotches on his white shirt. After a quick glance at Taylor’s hands, he wisely didn’t try to shake.
Temporarily appeased, Taylor and Baldwin holstered their weapons.
“What happened?” Baldwin asked. “How did they get the drop on your agents?”
“We don’t know just yet. All three of them were shot twice to the back of the head. Executed. Thrown in a shallow grave on the beach. A guy walking his dog found them. The dog went nuts and started digging. You folks okay?”
“We’re fine, but we have four officers down here. Three Nags Head and one of yours.”
Hall shut his eyes for a brief moment as if in pain. Taylor readily understood the feeling. It felt like the whole world had gone to war, that every corner of her life was under attack.
But the Pretender had miscalculated one thing. By killing seven law enforcement officers, he’d just brought the entire nation’s might down upon him. It wouldn’t just be Taylor and Baldwin looking for him; every single
agency in the country would push him to the top of their lists. He had assured that the chase was on.
Taylor’s attention drifted. What the hell did the fool want? This was so much trouble to go to in order to have a showdown with her. Was he just egging them on for fun? She was so tired. She wished she could sit down, lay her head on her arms and puzzle it through. She pushed her weariness away and tuned back in.
“Agent Hall, what else do you know?” she asked.
Hall ran his hands across his forehead. “Not enough, obviously. Facts, then. Your sergeant, Pete Fitzgerald, was found yesterday morning wandering the road here. From what I’ve been told, he’d been missing for over a week. Our Western Branch agents were the ones who found his eye, they sent out an alert to all of us. We were looking everywhere in the state for him. Coming up dry, too, until he showed up. He spent a good part of the day and night in the hospital under lock and key, then the local authorities transported him here. We agreed it would be easier that way.”
“Easier for you to treat him like a suspect, you mean,” Taylor said.
That pushed Hall over the edge. His voice rose. “Easier to keep an eye on him and to keep him safe. Yes, we needed to question him. You’d do exactly the same if this happened on your turf. The BOLO’s the only reason the local cops didn’t slap him in cuffs on the spot—it had him listed as a kidnapping victim. Man covered in blood, missing an eye, talking about his dead girlfriend? They didn’t know what they were dealing with.”
“Easy, you two. No one’s to blame for this,” Baldwin interjected. He raised an eyebrow, silently admonishing her, then turned back to Hall. “Please, continue.”
Hall sighed heavily and ran his hands over his sparse hair. “There’s not much more to tell. We sent our team to meet with him first thing this morning. They must have been ambushed on the way. I just don’t know how this could happen. This whole case has been on close hold since they found the boat. What time did you meet the suspects, Dr. Baldwin? Were they already here?”
“Yes. It was early, 7:00 a.m. or so. They were here before me, had already been introduced around. The people who would have seen their credentials are dead, so we can’t ask whether they were federal-issue or copies. Hell, they might have bluffed their way in, they really did look the part. I didn’t ask to see their creds. I wish to God I had. Sansom gave me her card, though.”
He pulled it from his wallet. Hall looked it over, then motioned for an evidence tech.
“That’s the real Renee’s card, all right. Might get some prints off it if we’re lucky.”
Baldwin handed the card to his tech by the edges, watched Hall issue instructions, the tech scurry away. Hall turned back to them.
“They were well-ensconced by the time you got here?”
Baldwin nodded. “Yes. They must have been lying in wait for your agents, knowing they were coming to take Fitz into protective custody. Who arranged for him to be flown to Duke, by the way?”
“That was me. He was obviously a mess, and I know the doctor at Duke, we did our undergrad together. He’s done some really groundbreaking work on optics. I figured it was the best place for him.”
Taylor softened at that. “I appreciate that. We’ve had
the flight diverted to Nashville. I hope you understand. You’re welcome to come talk to Fitz there.”
“Yeah, I get it. Can’t say I really blame you, we really screwed the pooch. I can’t imagine how this happened.”
Taylor crossed her arms on her chest. “You need to be looking closely at your staff. Someone leaked sensitive information out of the SBI. I hate to tell you this, but you’ve got a traitor.”