Authors: J. T. Ellison
aylor and Baldwin arrived in Nashville with enough time to get to Vanderbilt before Fitz awoke from surgery. Taylor was exhausted—her day had started at 5:30 a.m., with no appreciable sleep in the past forty-eight hours. The adrenaline from the morning’s adventures had drained away, and she sagged a bit against Baldwin’s arm as they walked across the tarmac to the parking lot.
“You need a coffee or coke to get your head back in the game? We can stop at Starbucks,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. I’m starting to drag.”
“Why don’t you let me drive, then? Give you a chance to shut your eyes for a few minutes.”
She smiled at him gratefully. “That would be great. Just give me a second.”
She opened the back door of the 4Runner and took a gym bag off the seat. She unzipped it and rummaged around, then pulled out a fresh pair of jeans. Baldwin stood in front of her as a shield to prying eyes. She yanked off her boots, shimmied off her jeans and pulled
on the new, bloodless pair. That was better. She couldn’t have faced another moment wearing Nadis’s blood.
She stowed the bag and the dirty jeans, then tossed the keys over. They climbed into the truck and headed toward downtown.
There was no snow in Nashville, just the lingering bitter chill that ate into her bones despite her shearling jacket. She turned the heat up and sat on her hands. They’d been cold all day.
“Do you really think he’s come to Nashville?” she finally asked.
The “he” didn’t need explaining. Baldwin shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine he’s going to go anywhere else. We need to get a name for him, a real, legitimate name, not a copy, not a fake. The better I understand his background, the easier it will be to predict what he might do next. He’s certainly paying close attention to everything you’re doing. We may need to discuss some increased countermeasures.”
“Draw him out using me as bait, you mean?” She stared out the window as Baldwin took the 440 split that would lead them onto West End.
“God, no, Taylor. I’m not using you as bait. What I meant was prep a team for distraction. Something to assure us that he won’t be able to touch you.”
“Using someone else as bait, you mean. Haven’t we lost enough already?”
She glanced over, he was staring straight ahead, face grim. She put her hand on his knee.
“It’s wrong, Baldwin. We need him to come for me. We need to end this. He’s already told Fitz that he’s ready to make his play. I assume that’s going to happen sooner rather than later, regardless of the bait.”
“I don’t disagree. But I won’t dangle you out there
like a carrot for him to covet. We need you keeping a very low profile.”
She didn’t answer, just let the cold street flow beneath her, the trees beckoning with dead branches. The longer this dragged on, the more opportunity the Pretender would have to hurt those she loved. She didn’t plan to give him a chance to get that far.
Baldwin stayed silent, pulled into the Starbucks drive-through. He ordered them both venti lattes. When the coffees were ready, he pulled back out onto West End, narrowly missing a coed in a Tri Delta sweatshirt jogging up the sidewalk. When he slammed on the brakes, a bit of hot espresso sloshed onto Taylor’s hand. She cursed loudly and immediately felt better. Being back in Nashville was going to help make everything okay. Nothing could hurt her here.
The HoneyBaked Ham store had a massive sign advertising their Thanksgiving hams. Her mouth watered at the thought—she was suddenly starving. She sipped on the latte to curb her hunger. She hadn’t realized how close they were to the holidays. With the madness of Fitz’s kidnapping, then the Halloween massacre, she’d completely lost track of time. She usually went to Sam’s for Thanksgiving. She’d have to check and see if that was still the plan. If not, she might have to do Thanksgiving herself this year. She would need to host Fitz, make sure he was well taken care of. Maybe McKenzie and Bangor, too. And Lincoln and Marcus, plus Daphne. Good grief, where was she going to put all of them?
Baldwin turned onto Twenty-first Avenue, then right on Pierce, which led them directly to the entrance of Vanderbilt Medical Center.
She was loath to climb out of the warm truck. When
she did, she regretted it immediately; the wind bit frantically at her cheeks.
Baldwin’s face turned pink as a flash-boiled shrimp and he slouched farther into his coat. She realized they still hadn’t talked about his hearing at Quantico. She got the feeling he wasn’t all that keen to share what had gone down.
They hurried across the street. Inside the building at last. Heat rose in waves. The surgery center was painted a sunny yellow, warm and inviting, quite unlike the gray drabness of the emergency rooms Taylor was used to.
Taylor badged the nurse at the front desk. “We’re looking for Peter Fitzgerald.”
The nurse took their credentials carefully, checking them against a notepad she had at her elbow.
“May I see your driver’s license, please?” she asked politely. Taylor nodded and dug her wallet out of her back pocket—a slim golf wallet she’d bought for her dad’s Christmas present several years earlier and instead confiscated for herself. It was easy to carry, and had only the essentials, a twenty, two credit cards, her license and insurance cards. She’d do anything not to be bulked down with a purse. Baldwin handed his own license over. The nurse compared that pictured against his FBI credentials, wrote their names down on a pad of paper, then handed it back and apologized.
“We were under instructions to double-check everyone trying to see Mr. Fitzgerald today.”
Taylor smiled and said, “Good. You did good. How is he?”
“He’s just out of recovery and back in his room. He’s up on the third floor, room 323. The doctor will be seeing him later today.”
“Did the surgery go all right?”
“I don’t know, dear. Why don’t you go on down and see him?” The nurse smiled kindly and focused back on her work.
Baldwin punched the button on the wall and the doors swung wide. They walked the long hallway to Fitz’s room in an uneasy silence. Before they reached the door, Taylor grabbed Baldwin’s hand.
“Have you ever thought about how easy it would be to kill someone in a hospital? That nurse did the right thing asking for ID, but she could be overpowered in a heartbeat. And once you’re past her, look out. You can go anywhere in a hospital without anyone giving you a second glance. It’s not safe, Baldwin. He’s not safe here.”
“Honey, I doubt the Pretender has any more interest in Fitz. His part in this is over—he’s suffered, and relayed the message to you. Besides, Lincoln is with him now. If you’re that worried, we’ll get a permanent guard on him, in addition to all of us.”
In her heart, she knew he was right. It wasn’t necessarily the Pretender she was worried about. The idea of Fitz, so alone, so hurt, missing his eye, missing his girlfriend, his life upended…she just didn’t want him to be by himself. Not now. Not when she couldn’t be there 24/7 to hold his hand and reassure him that everything would be all right. The Pretender was done with Fitz, but Fitz would never be done with the Pretender. Not while they both lived.
They took a few more steps, reached the door. She blurted out the question that had been on her mind all afternoon.
“Don’t you need to go back to Quantico?”
He stopped, and she saw something unrecognizable flickering in his eyes before he shook his head. “I’m
going to take off a couple of weeks. Personal time. You need me right now.”
She watched him for any more signs of discomfiture, but he was smiling, the fear she thought she’d seen gone.
“Okay,” she said. She didn’t want to admit that she was relieved. She wanted him close. She wanted everyone close right now, where she could watch out for them.
The door to Fitz’s room opened and Lincoln Ross walked out, his dreadlocked hair subdued. He gave her a big hug.
“Hey, good to see you. Heard you had a rough go of it this morning.”
“You could say that.”
“I’ve got to run. I just got called out on a case.”
She felt her pulse quicken. “Anything I need to know about?”
“I don’t think so. We received a report of a body out in Percy Priest Lake.”
“Cold for swimming,” Baldwin said.
“No kidding.” Lincoln flashed them a smile.
“We need to get some folks to stick around for Fitz,” she said.
“Already done. I talked to Huston. She’s authorized a four-man shift. The first guy should be here any minute.”
“Thanks, Linc. You’re the best.”
He flashed her a gap-toothed smile. “Remember that come raise time. See ya later.” He loped off down the hall.
Taylor knocked on Fitz’s door softly, a warning so he could get himself together, then they entered the room. Fitz was lying in the hospital bed, quiet and drained.
His good eye was closed. The missing eye was bandaged similarly to earlier in the day, but the dressing was clean and white.
“Hey there,” she said quietly. He wasn’t asleep, and turned to her with the ghost of a smile. His voice was raspy from the anesthesia.
“Hey yourself. What happened? Why am I in Nashville? I woke up and Lincoln was standing over me. Thought I was dreaming for a second till the fool opened his mouth.” He started to cough.
Baldwin got busy pouring Fitz some water, letting him sip it from a straw before he spoke more. The coughing eased.
Taylor pulled up a chair, touching Fitz lightly on the arm.
“First, how are you feeling? What did the doctors do?”
When he cleared his throat, it sounded like fabric ripping apart at the seams. “Damn anesthesia. I don’t know. It was a bunch of technobabble to me. All I picked up was that I’ll be able to get a shiny new eye in about a month. Seems everything went just fine.”
“Are you in pain?”
“Naw. I’m still high as a kite. I’m sure that won’t last forever. Now, what the hell happened?”
Taylor filled him in on the morning’s disaster. “We didn’t have any choice but to divert you here. I couldn’t take the chance that it was some kind of trap, some unfathomable grand plan… I’m still a little bit in shock.”
Fitz whistled. “Yeah, something didn’t feel right about the whole thing. I figured it was because of the drugs, but I could swear I’d heard Sansom’s voice before. And I mean before, before, while we were still
on the boat. It didn’t make sense that she would be on the boat and be at the police station. I knew she wasn’t straight, but there was no way I could tell you. I’m so sorry. If I had, maybe none of this would have happened. I was so confused…”
She took his hand.
“Don’t do that to yourself. The fake agents had a very specific plan. If you’d said something, they might have killed us all and been done with it. Now that we’re safe and sound, can you talk about what happened? I could tell you were holding back in Nags Head, I just didn’t realize why. Now that we’re on the same page, do you feel up to giving me some more details?”
Fitz leaned his head back, the cheap, thin pillow crackling a bit as he sank in. He sighed, a deep, heavy, sad noise that made her stomach hurt.
“If you’re not ready…”
“No, it’s okay. I just miss her, you know? It’s my own damn fault it all went south.” Fitz’s voice was tired, quiet. “Remember we lost our impeller down in Barbados?”
“Yes,” Taylor replied. “You called because you thought you saw the Pretender near Susie.”
At the mention of her name, Fitz winced. “Yeah. Bastard bumped into her. She dropped everything on the ground. I was watching through the binoculars. Ass hole picked up the packages, handed them to her, then turned around and saluted me. He knew exactly who I was. Then he disappeared. The engine part came the next day—we made the repairs and started sailing north. He caught up with us in Miami. There were four of them, but they wore masks, those black things terrorists wear. What are they called?”
“Balaclavas,” Baldwin interjected.
“That’s it. But these had a skull printed on them, just the lower jaw and nose. Freaky-looking—like a skull with live eyes.” He shook his head, wincing slightly at what Taylor knew must be great pain. Emotional or physical, that was the question. She was worried about him. He didn’t sound right.
What he should sound like, she didn’t know.
“It’s my fault. I left Susie on the boat, went into the port for supplies. When I got back, they already had her tied to a chair with a gun to her head.”
“Fitz,” Taylor started, but he interrupted her.
my fault. I should have never left her alone.” He paused for a moment, then looked away. “Did they… Was she…”
Baldwin put his hand on the older man’s shoulder. “No. She died quickly.”
That was enough to send Fitz over the edge. He started to cry, something Taylor had never seen him do. Tears of relief, frustration, pain, all coursing down the right side of his face. If the lost eye was crying, the tears were being soaked up by the bandage.
She swallowed hard and squeezed Fitz’s hand. He quieted, and she handed him a scratchy tissue. He swiped at his face angrily, sniffed a couple of times. She felt Baldwin moving around behind her, glanced over her shoulder at him. The naked hostility on his face startled her. He hated this as much as she did, but his reaction to Fitz’s story was visceral.
“Fitz, why don’t we stop now? You can tell me the rest later.”
. I want to finish. You need everything I have if you’re going to catch him.” He coughed again, the leftover anesthesia clearing from his lungs. “He wasn’t there long. He used the name Troy. The other three
were really deferential. They knocked Susie on the head and drugged me. The rest is sort of blurry, just bits and pieces really. I wasn’t awake when he took my eye, just came to with blood all over me and a wicked pain in my face. He told me what to say to you then I conked out again. Next thing I remember, they dumped me on the side of the road, doped to kingdom come. I don’t know how long it had been though. A couple of days? A week? I wandered around for a bit before the cops hauled me in.”