Authors: J. T. Ellison
aylor and Baldwin went over the details with SSA Hall for another forty minutes, but nothing else shook loose.
Taylor had to admit, Hall was a good cop. He ticked off his checklist just like she would, methodical and thorough, not rushing, moving ahead to another point only once every available detail had been squeezed out of the moment. They’d all been bamboozled by the imposters, and no one wanted to make any more mistakes. She respected that, and tried to keep her impatience to a minimum. She was worried about Fitz, just wanted to get back on her own turf. Someplace she knew she could defend herself properly.
All those agents. She didn’t envy Hall the job of informing the families, something that couldn’t happen until they had all the details of the crime scene down pat.
She had a crazy thought, one that tore through her mind like a storm.
Could Sansom’s imposter be the Pretender? Could it have been a woman all along?
That would be almost too far-fetched. They had DNA from several of the crime scenes, but that was easily
planted. She thought about how the woman leaned in to hear the details, her eyes shining at the descriptions of the kills.
No, that didn’t feel right. It was possible, but so unlikely that Taylor forced it from her head. This maniac was a man who used women, then disposed of them like dirty Kleenex, tossed to the floor without a second thought.
When the SBI lead was finished with them and started working the scene, she called in to her boss, Commander Joan Huston, and filled her in on the situation. Talking to Huston helped settle Taylor’s mind—her boss was as pragmatic as she was capable. Huston assured Taylor that Fitz had arrived and was scheduled for surgery with Vanderbilt’s ophthalmologic team later in the day. Lincoln Ross was with him.
Taylor finally felt as if she could breathe again. Fitz was safe.
Now she could focus on the problem at hand.
The Nags Head Police Station resembled a kicked-over anthill. Crime scene techs swarmed the scene. The bodies had yet to be moved, there was too much evidence to collect first. Despite the chill, a lone lazy fly bumbled through the hallway, drunk on blood. She swatted at it and missed, cursing as it darted into a heating vent. It would be back, and it would bring friends. She hoped they could get out of here quickly.
She and Baldwin were taken to separate rooms to do an Identi-Kit on the three suspects. She missed the days of actual artists working on sketches; while the Identi-Kits were quick and convenient, they lacked a certain level of perfection, a way of layering in the slight details that a human could seize upon with a flick of a pencil. While the officer plugged her description of
the suspects’ features into the program, Taylor had a bizarre sense of déjà vu, of sitting with another artist, in another police station, giving a detailed description of the man she thought might be the Pretender.
This case. This goddamn case, with its maybes and theoreticals. She had to stop him. Nothing else existed for her now.
When they were finished with the artists, Hall debriefed them again, in the same room where they’d spent the morning talking to a killer.
“So I just got a call. A body was found out on Highway 64, out by Plymouth. Fits the description of the goon who impersonated Wally Polakis.”
“How was he killed?” Taylor asked.
“Shot in the head, tossed out of the car. He was found sprawled on the side of the road, you know how bodies do when they’re shoved out of moving cars.”
“So the car will have blood in it.”
“If we find it. There’s so many back roads in this area, bridges and trails—they could dump the car, catch another ride and it will take us a week to find it.”
“But they’re turning on each other. That’s good. Maybe they’ll eliminate themselves and do us all a favor,” Baldwin said.
Taylor gave him an unpleasant smile. “One can only hope. But it was probably prearranged. Too many cooks spoil the broth, especially when you’re taking orders from a killer who likes to be top dog.”
Hall rubbed his hands over his head wearily. “Girl, you’re starting to scare me. Are y’all ready to go over it all again?”
Baldwin went first, describing what had been discussed and the shift in personality when the fake Sansom started to show her hand.
“They were good. Very good. All three of them must have had experience in law enforcement at some point,” Baldwin finished.
“Lieutenant Jackson, break it down for me. What was your impression of the imposters?” Hall asked.
She’d had all morning to think about that. “They were completely above board. She made me uncomfortable, but only because she was implying Fitz was responsible for Susie’s death. That got my back up, and I missed everything else.” The apology was implicit, and Hall declined his head slightly, accepting.
Taylor toyed with her ponytail while she did one more mental run-through. “In hindsight, I can say she seemed a little too eager. Too excited by things she shouldn’t have been. Her body language was all wrong. She leaned in when she should have pulled back. Licked her lips when she should have flinched.”
A fine shiver ran through her body. “I’ve been up against this monster before. He scares the hell out of me. She wasn’t fazed in the least by the presentation. That should have been enough to warn us right there. I should have noticed something was wrong. My sergeant was trying to tell me something, but I wasn’t listening hard enough.”
“I think it’s safe to say they pulled a fast one on everyone, Lieutenant. Don’t beat yourself up over it.” He was trying to be kind, but Taylor didn’t have time for it.
“I hate to point this out, Agent Hall, but if I had paid more attention, four people might not be dead. We need to go. Sitting around talking about him isn’t going to fix things. We need to get back to Nashville. That’s where the Pretender will head next, I’m sure of it.”
“Why? Why are you so sure?”
She avoided looking at Baldwin, despite feeling her voice thicken. “Because everything I hold dear is in this room or in that city. I have to go home. Now.”
Hall sat back in his chair and gave her a long look. He glanced at Baldwin, who merely nodded his head in agreement.
“Okay, then. Be prepared to come back at any time, but you can get out of here for now. Thanks for your help.” He stood and shook their hands, lingering for a moment over Taylor’s, all irritation gone. “I have to go let four agents’ families know they’re never going to see them again. You be safe, ya hear?”
Taylor and Baldwin climbed into the backseat of a Nags Head patrol car. The officer was young, and openly stared at them through red-rimmed eyes. Taylor shook her head slightly to discourage any questions. She wasn’t ready to have a casual conversation about the morning’s events, especially with someone who knew the victims. Seven dead, eight including Susie, nine if you counted one of the imposters. The North Carolina soil was running red with the blood of innocents, and each murder weighed on her mind. This shouldn’t be happening. She should have been paying attention, should have felt that things were wrong. She had been so wrapped up in her own grief over shooting the teenager that she’d missed all of the warning signs. The Pretender knew her better than she knew herself, apparently.
The officer pulled out of the drive and headed back toward the airstrip. Baldwin worked his phone all the way there, allowing her a few moments with her dark thoughts.
Within fifteen minutes, she and Baldwin were safely
ensconced back on the Gulfstream, under the watchful gaze of Cici the flight attendant, and the pilot was getting clearance to take off. Baldwin waved Cici away, then leaned over to Taylor.
“Pietra just sent me a text. You’re not going to believe this. All of the forensics were compromised,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean someone managed to cross-contaminate everything the SBI agents collected from the boat and the trailer. A second blood source was introduced, mixed with bleach. Even if they isolate the DNA strings, it would never hold up in court.”
Pietra Dunmore was Baldwin’s forensics expert, back in Quantico. She was legendary in the forensics community, brilliant, capable and exceptionally loyal to Baldwin. A million thoughts raced through Taylor’s mind.
“How? How does he manage this?” she finally asked. “He’s just one man.”
“How else? He charmed his way into another woman’s life, talked her into doing his dirty work for him. We’ve seen him do this before.”
Yes, they had. And watched the bodies pile up in his wake.
“You think Renee Sansom’s imposter contaminated the forensics? When would she have access?” Taylor asked.
Baldwin ran his hands through his already disheveled hair. “Remember what you said back there, about the eye being transported to Asheville rather than Fitz actually being moved around the state? They could have staged all of it, right down to the letter. If the Pretender has multiple people working for him, it might not be
in his handwriting after all. And then we’re off on yet another wild-goose chase.”
“But how would the imposter get her hands on the forensics? They intercepted the SBI agents early this morning. Surely that evidence has been in safe-keeping for a few days. They found it last week.”
“Hall said the Western Branch brought everything down here for his people to process. They only have one lab for the whole state. We’ll have to see when it was logged in and who had access to it, but it’s all a waste. Nothing of use.” He slumped in his chair.
“Do you think she has a personal connection to him? A lover? Or is she just a tool, someone he met along the road? He seems to have an affinity for finding people to work with. Dial-a-Psychopath, perhaps?”
“No, this was someone close to him. Someone who wanted to impress him. I can feel it.”
Taylor took his hand. “Baldwin, are you sure? You’re not just…reacting, are you?”
The engines revved, then screamed, and they were pushed back into their seats by the force. The plane lifted off within moments, banked hard left, to the west. When it leveled out and Cici began moving about the cabin, Baldwin spoke again.
“No, Taylor, I’m not reacting. I’m being very, very careful. I’ve got Kevin Salt running a background check on the real Renee Sansom as we speak, trying to find out why she was targeted. How did she and her team come to be working on this case? Is he recruiting people? And from where? How did he arrange for the plants to be in place so quickly? This took major forethought.”
“Well, the Pretender has been off our radar for
almost a year. He’s had plenty of time to lay the groundwork.”
“Yes, he did. I’ll tell you one thing. We can’t trust anyone on the outside.”
She thought about that for a moment.
“Between your team and mine, we at least have some people we can be sure of. Fitz was so evasive, I got the impression that he didn’t want to talk in front of the SBI. He must have suspected something.”
“Absolutely. He’s smart. He might have seen something, overheard something.”
“He’s going to be okay, isn’t he?”
“He will be. It will take some time, but he will.”
They sat quietly for a few moments.
“So we’re on our own. Again,” Taylor whispered, mostly to herself.
Baldwin put an arm around her, an awkward move considering the seats were positioned so far apart.
“That’s just the way I like it,” he said.
hat wasn’t the truth though. Baldwin didn’t like being left out in the cold, and that was exactly where he felt he was at the moment.
Taylor was staring out the window, intensely quiet. He glanced over at her, worried. She was strung much too tight. Avoidance was one of the greatest attributes in her arsenal, and she was employing it to full effect now. The events of the past week were going to catch up with her soon.
He could barely keep up with the insanity himself. The Pretender had weighed heavily on both their minds for the past year. He’d made contact for the first time after the Snow White case had blown up: a letter sent to their home. The letter stood out starkly against his mind’s eye, two lines full of threatening portent.
An apprentice no more.
You may call me the Pretender.
He’d named himself: the fundamental sociopathic tool. The ones who named themselves were so narcissistic they were almost always
caught. Almost always.
The Pretender had disappeared for a while, then popped back up like a possessed jack-in-the-box. That was when the intimidation began in earnest—phone calls to their home and cell phones, more letters. He began getting involved in Taylor’s cases, always on the periphery, but always there. He’d become a malevolent presence in their lives for over a year, threatening, parading, seemingly unlimited in his access and information.
There had been more to the profile that he hadn’t shared with Renee Sansom’s imposter. They hadn’t gotten into the Pretender’s vast online network of contacts, other killers, sadists, people who lived for cruelty and discord. Posing as a necrophiliac aptly named Necro90, he’d befriended the international duo of necrosadists, Il Macellaio and the Conductor. He egged them on, planted evidence at one of the Conductor’s crime scenes, and made sure Taylor knew he’d done it to help her.
He seemed to love the control he got from manipulating others. Almost as much joy as he got from killing.
They hadn’t taken the drubbing lying down. They were fighting back the only way they knew how, with justice, with their own team, their own tools. Finding the man who was threatening his woman was paramount. And Taylor hadn’t been privy to everything Baldwin knew.
Kevin Salt, Baldwin’s computer forensics expert, had found the Pretender’s online signature and had been tracking his movements throughout the web. Kevin could follow him most anywhere; the IP addresses the
Pretender used had been uncommonly consistent for the past few months. Salt documented everything, drew geographical profiles, and found the key that Baldwin was most concerned about. The physical addresses came back again and again to Nashville. The bastard was close.
His influence was spreading again—the attack on the SBI agents had taken cunning, and time. He’d obviously been recruiting people to help him; whether they knew his real plans or not, they were unknown resources.
Now he was ready. Whatever whacked-out strategy he’d been putting in motion was officially in play.
How many people would have to die for the Pretender to be satisfied?
Taylor had seen another mass attack today, and he knew she would blame herself. The Pretender was putting on a bloody show for her benefit, consistently placing the wounded around her, for her to see. Add to that her obvious but misplaced guilt over the shooting of her last suspect, and he was starting to wonder just when the dam was going to break.
He could feel it building, the sense that things were moving quicker and quicker, that the world was spinning one-tenth too fast on its axis. If he didn’t grip down, hard, he might go spinning off with it, and that wouldn’t do. No, he needed to resolve this, and keep his woman settled, too. Because if Taylor were to come undone, he didn’t know if he could stand that. Seeing her in pain made his stomach throb dully, and each time the Pretender poked at her it made his eyes blacken with rage.
The phone next to his chair buzzed discreetly. There was only one person who knew they were on
this plane at this moment—his boss, Garrett Woods. Taylor glanced at him; he smiled with what he hoped seemed like reassurance as he answered the phone. “Hey, Garrett.”
“Are you headed to Nashville?”
“Yeah. Thanks for getting the chopper diverted. I’ll feel better having Fitzgerald close.”
“Sure thing. What’s happening there? Where did it all go south?”
Baldwin filled him in on what they knew so far, then asked, “Anything new from Nags Head?”
“Other than the director wanting to know why in the hell a suspended FBI agent sent up a red flag for some rather expensive help after a mass shooting?”
Baldwin groaned. “He found out?”
“Baldwin, son, the whole country knows. It’s been on all the news stations. Both you and Taylor were on camera leaving the station.”
“Yes, oh. Have you told her yet?”
“Baldwin, I don’t think I need to be the one to break this to you, but I’ll try, just in case you’re not thinking clearly. You need to tell her. Everything. Now.”
He knew that. But he honestly didn’t know where to start.
What would she like to hear least? That he’d been suspended while they did a deeper investigation into his biggest failure, the Harold Arlen case from 2004, when he’d made the massive mistake of not turning in his protégée, Charlotte Douglas, when he’d found out she planted evidence at a crime scene? That he’d gotten three good agents killed because he’d been stupid enough to start fooling around with Charlotte? That he’d
gotten Charlotte pregnant in the middle of the biggest case of his career? That he’d only found out a year ago that she hadn’t aborted the child as she claimed, but gave birth and had seen him adopted? That he didn’t know where in the world the boy was, or even what name he’d been given?
How was he supposed to tell his fiancée, the woman who held his heart, that he shared such an intrinsic, intimate link with another woman? He hadn’t cheated on Taylor, no, but would she ever forgive him?
He looked out the window, at the stark winter landscape far below. Bleak and barren.
“Yeah, Garrett. I’m on that.”
“Seriously, Baldwin. You’ve got one hell of a woman there. You don’t want to fuck it up. So listen to me. I’ve covered your ass for the day, but that’s not going to last long. Get back to Nashville, and get your head down.”
“I will. I promise. Has there been any other…news?”
Garrett was helping him search for his son. It had been a year of fruitless starts and stops. He was still getting over the shock of the news: Garrett had found the documents in Charlotte’s desk after her death—the birth certificate, with Baldwin’s name scratched out in ballpoint pen, and a two-year-old’s posed picture. He would be five now.
All Baldwin knew was that the child was a boy. There was no question the child was his, the boy had the same set of the shoulder, the same thick hair, but red like his mother’s. He’d inherited his father’s green cat eyes.
But he had no idea what his son’s name was. Charlotte had put Baby Douglas on the birth certificate; she
hadn’t even bothered to name their child. He loved the boy, though he’d never seen him. He’d do most anything to get him back.
Pain ran through Baldwin’s chest. With the kid’s pedigree, would he be a normal, loving child? Would Baldwin’s genes predominate, or Charlotte’s? Charlotte’s entire family was full of horrors: her murderous father, her deformed brother, Charlotte’s own sociopathy and eventual psychosis. Did the kid have a chance at a normal life?
Garrett sighed deeply in Baldwin’s ear. “Nothing yet. You know I’ll call the minute I have something. Now, I have your word that you’re going to be a good boy, right?”
“Of course. Thanks for the update.” He placed the phone back on its receiver.
Taylor raised an eyebrow questioningly. He just shook his head.
“Nothing new. The news has the story.”
“Great,” she said. “Everything else okay?”
He lied to her, like he’d been lying. It was becoming second nature.
“Yep, everything’s fine. Just fine.”
He felt the engines ratchet back fractionally. They were almost home. He took her hand, felt the strong fingers close around his.
Balance. He needed to find some balance.
There was only one way they were ever going to be free, and it went against everything he’d pledged when he joined the FBI. Against the very fabric of his being.
He needed to find the Pretender and stop his heart beating, so Taylor didn’t try to do it first.