Authors: J. T. Ellison
Baldwin cleared his throat. “From what we can tell, it was at least three days from your enucleation until you were found, but we don’t know when they took your eye exactly. Susie had been dead for a while.”
Taylor swallowed, then answered him. “They cut her throat.”
Fitz blanched under his already pasty skin. “I thought so. I heard them do it, I think. I was hoping it was a bad dream.”
He pulled into himself then, and Taylor knew they needed to give him some space. She thought he might have started to doze, his mouth went slack. He looked like an old man, fragile, broken. Her heart felt shredded, and she was careful not to wake him as she got up.
She whispered, “We’ll be back soon, okay? We’re going to find him, Fitz. I swear to you. We’re going to find him, and take him out.”
They were quiet on the way back to the truck. Taylor was at a loss. This whole fucking situation was spinning out of control. She couldn’t erase the image of Fitz, his
battered face, his broken heart, the loneliness engulfing him; she envisioned what he was seeing right now—the white hospital room, the sheets, the walls, all screaming at him. She didn’t know how to take on his guilt.
Losing Susie wasn’t his fault.
It was hers. All hers.
She stopped walking, the bile in her stomach rising to the surface. Baldwin pulled up short.
“Are you okay?”
She shook her head, swallowing hard. Good God. She’d spent all this time waiting for the Pretender to make a move, letting him toy with her. Look where that had gotten her. She had to do something. She couldn’t sit back and wait to see what happened next.
Baldwin was hovering. The sun would set soon, flashes of gold and red were reflecting off the buildings around them. The sky would turn to fire, and the darkness would come again.
“I’m okay,” she managed.
“Let me take you home. You’ve had a long day.”
“No, I can’t. I need to go into work. I’m so far behind, I just need to try to…to get a handle on things. I’ll bring some stuff home and work on it, okay? You go on home. I won’t be long. We can eat. Try to eat.”
“Are you sure? I need to do some work myself. I can hang there, make some calls. You’re still on leave, they might kick you out.”
“No, really, it’s fine.”
“You need to be alone.”
He said it without malice, just a statement of fact.
She worked her face into a smile, met his eyes. Tried to erase the concern in them. “You know me too well.
Yes. I need to get my head straight. Seeing him so hurt, it just about killed me.”
“Paperwork will help?”
“Mindless. I just need an hour or so. Okay?”
Baldwin swept her into his arms, pulled her tight to his chest. She shivered, he was so warm. Always so warm. So good, and so right.
“Okay, Taylor. If that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do. I’ll drop you off?”
“Sure. Thank you.”
She wanted to take the comfort of his arms and bottle it. Instead she focused on the feeling of safety, the strength in his embrace knowledge that he would do anything for her. It would have to be enough. For now.
Because when she was finished with the Pretender, Baldwin might never look at her the same way again.
Long drive. Arriving shortly. Anticipate no delays.
e was tired from the drive. The thump of the tires on the road was driving him mad. He was too tall for the car. The little beat-up compact rental was a piece of plastic crap. He didn’t like to drive. It would have been faster and easier to fly, but he had to follow the instructions to the letter. He’d taken the fastest route— I-5 south toward L.A. then across to I-15 northeast. He drove through the night, then face-first into the sun. He’d lost two hours in Vegas—the victims’ house had been hard to find in the maze of sameness that was the Vegas suburbs. But he’d found and dispatched them with the thoroughness expected of him.
Kill ’em and leave ’em. Those were the rules. No playing with the bodies. He was sorry for that. After the couple in San Francisco, the reaction he’d had to the blood, he was curious what it would be like. They wouldn’t be moving, right? But they’d still be warm.
It would violate the rules.
Monotony. He turned on the radio for company. He liked the conservative talk shows the best—they got his blood boiling. He’d always dreamed of calling in to one of them and telling the bastards exactly what he’d like to do to them. How he’d take them apart, piece by piece. They had everything—money, drugs, women. That Limbaugh guy had just gotten married for something like the twentieth time. And that English prick Elton John played at the wedding. He always thought Elton John was a liberal—he was gay, after all, flaming, really. Apparently money made everyone mercenary. He knew it worked that way for him.
On he drove, his thoughts racing, the radio spewing.
The sun, sinking like heavy red blood in his rearview mirror, the moon rising heavy and full, an expectant sky, then stars, pinpricks in the ink-black night, peeking from their celestial beds. For hours his headlights mingled with the moonlight, illuminating the path, miles upon miles of empty, lonely road stretched before him. At last the moon bade him farewell. The trees hung low across the pass, the tunnels empty and forlorn.
He rolled across the Rocky Mountains as the sun clawed through the morning virga, the gigantic peaks powdered with snow, the air becoming crisp and sharp. There would be a storm tonight, the rains he’d left behind in San Francisco making their way to higher altitude. He needed to finish the job and move along
so he didn’t get stuck in town. That would get him off schedule, and he didn’t want that to happen. He glanced at his watch to double-check. No, he was still okay.
He stopped in Conifer for gas and a candy bar. He needed the energy. He was getting sleepy. He had another to kill today. He was surprised at how deadening the thought was. Boring, almost. Almost. The first time, back in San Francisco, now that had been something special. He wanted to stay and savor the moment, relive the gun exploding in his hand and the shocked looks on their faces, relish the scents that streamed from the bodies. He had no idea they would smell like that. Burnt offerings, elegantly tinged with copper, and the faintest tang of urine.
But he couldn’t stay and relish. He had a plan, and he must stick to it. The letter must be posted. The next targets eliminated. He didn’t know if he liked this game. He felt rushed. The driving, the back-to-back deaths. His own senses were out of whack. Not being able to choose his own victims, well, that took all the fun out of it for him.
He’d agreed to play by the rules. The rules meant he wouldn’t be caught. The rules meant he could win, then go on his own path, kill his own way. The gun seemed too impersonal, too easy. He really enjoyed using the knife in Vegas. Four more with the gun, and he’d have that freedom again.
He scarfed the candy bar and drank the Coke. Got back in the car and dreamed as he drove.
Freedom. If he won, the money would float him for years. He didn’t need much. A small house with a basement would be good, out of the way, with no nosy neighbors. Maybe he’d get a cat. He liked dogs, but they had to be walked, and he didn’t like to be seen.
No, a cat would be perfect, a friendly face to keep him company.
If all went well, a few scared, unfriendly faces, too.
aylor sat in her office and stared out the window. Night was falling fast. She watched the stoplight change, blinking ever so slowly through its cycles. Green, yellow, red. Green, yellow, red. She noticed how the colors altered ever so slightly as the gloaming settled in, the green like freshly mown grass, the yellow becoming nearly amber, the red a livid crimson. Bloody.
It was better than dealing with the seething mass of paperwork, Post-it notes, schedule changes and case updates that spilled across her desk. Her inbox was overflowing, the wood surface was covered in junk. Even her guest chairs had piles on them. She’d only been on leave for a few days—but it felt like weeks and looked like months. She shouldn’t be here now, but she needed a quiet place to think.
Baldwin had dropped her off at the CJC, with stern admonitions about what she was supposed to do for the next hour to ensure her safety while she worked, then he left, intent on some beckoning task. Probably arranging for the guards to be put on her. She was worried about the extra attention. Not because of the threat—the Pretender was going to come for her, that was simply
a given at this point. No, she was worried about the accountability.
She’d never planned a murder before.
She wasn’t going to lie to herself. What she had in mind was cold-blooded, by-the-book first-degree murder. Premeditated. Malice aforethought. Intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
If she were caught, A.D.A. Page would plead her out. It wouldn’t even look like manslaughter once she got hold of the case. It would be labeled self-defense. Taylor was a cop, for heaven’s sake. Cops killed in the line of duty. And there were few people within her circle who weren’t already aware of the Pretender and his threats. So long as she managed the situation, made sure it was her word against, well, his wouldn’t count. He’d be dead. No witnesses to exact the moment. Timing was everything in this plan. She simply needed to make sure no one saw her kill the bastard, but the aftermath would leave no doubt that she’d been acting to protect herself. That was the most important thing. That way it wouldn’t look like an execution.
Still, it would be murder.
Taking life meant suffering the consequences daily. She knew that from experience. Usually at 3:00 a.m., when sleep eluded her and the ghosts of the men she’d killed sat on the edge of her bed, staring with empty, disapproving eyes, their flesh rotting in spots, bones glistening in the moonlight. Her waking nightmares were her punishment.
What sort of punishment would she receive if she pulled this off?
She was shocked to realize she didn’t care. She just wanted the whole thing to end.
What would Baldwin think?
She squirmed in her chair, messed with her ponytail.
Baldwin had killed before as well. He knew what it did to the soul. No amount of forgiveness or justification could fix that dark spot. Would he blame her for taking matters into her own hands? Applaud her? She got the sense he was thinking the same thing, though she would never ask. This was something that she could never, ever say aloud. Not to Baldwin.
She wished she could use a backup piece. She had a few unregistered pieces that fit the bill. She didn’t want to sully her service weapon with her blood revenge.
she managed to pull it off, she’d still have a job, responsibilities, a life with Metro. She’d have to touch that weapon daily, knowing it had done her bidding, had purposefully tracked a man down and taken his life. She’d never be able to forget. Perhaps that would be a fitting punishment after all.
Long range, or close up? She forced herself to be honest. Close up, definitely. She wanted to look the Pretender in the eye as he died. It was the only way she could be sure.
She ignored the rush of adrenaline that plowed through her. Just the thought of facing off against him filled her with a combination of lust and dread. She really didn’t recognize herself anymore. He’d driven her to this, this base desire to end another human being’s life. To walk away from every commitment she’d ever made to herself, to the force. She’d sworn to protect, not to indulge in the darkness.
But hurting the ones she loved…that was beyond the pale. The Pretender had chosen this path, and Taylor was the only one who could stop it before too many more of her people got hurt. Fitz, Sam, Lincoln, Marcus, even
McKenzie, they were more than colleagues, more than friends. They were her family, just as much as Baldwin. Maybe even more so.
She just had to find the son of a bitch. Find him, and get a few precious minutes alone. This nightmare would end.
Taylor needed to make arrangements that suited her plan. She couldn’t have federal bodyguards looking over her shoulder. She needed insiders. Friends. People who, if challenged, would look the other way.
She picked up the phone and called her old boss, Mitchell Price, at home.
He answered on the third ring.
“Hell-ooo, Miss Jackson! How are you this fine evening?”
“Pretty good, Mitchell. You heard we found Fitz?”
“I did. Went to see him this evening. He’s in good spirits, considering. Have to say I’ve been celebrating the news a bit.”
Taylor smiled at the admission, Mitchell did sound a little in his cups. Not in a bad way, just happily tipsy.
“I can tell.”
“Am I that bad?”
“Goodness, no. I just know you well enough to hear the fine Irish lilt in your voice.”
“Ah. Good. What can I do for you? Have you finally decided to chuck Metro and come join my merry band of thieves?”
“Not exactly. I was hoping to do some business with you.”
She heard the music in the background soften, and he coughed slightly. His voice was solemn.
“Investigation or protection?”
“To be honest, protection. Baldwin is freaking out
on me and planning a barricade of FBI agents. I don’t want to be…hampered. I have things I need to do, and his phalanx of suits will get in my way.”
“You’re not planning on going hunting, are you?”
Price always had known her too well. She avoided answering truthfully.
“We’re pretty certain the Pretender’s next play will involve me directly. I just want some extra backup. After hours. Off-site. My place. That kind of thing. Do you have a couple of folks you could detail to me for a week or so?”
“Only a week?”
“If it lasts longer than that, I’m doing something wrong,” she said softly.
Price was silent for a few moments. She held her breath. Surely he wouldn’t say no. She was right.
“Okay, Taylor. I’ve got a couple of guys who might work for you. They’re discreet. Quiet. And damn good at their jobs. I save them for our more
Private. Right up her alley.
“That sounds perfect. When can they start?”
“Tonight, if you’d like. Give me a couple of hours to wrangle them up.”
“Just let them know one thing. The Pretender is mine. They are not to engage him if he gets close, they are to alert me and back off. Okay?”
“Taylor…” His voice held a note of warning.
“I just want to be the one to bring him in, that’s all.”
Price harrumphed, but let it go.
She hung up the phone and leaned back in her chair, smile gone from her face. There. Step one was in place.
Now she could worry about the second part of the plan.
She’d felt the darkness inside her, writhing like a snake in its warm nest, the deadening of her spirit becoming more and more complete as she grew older. Each death meant more blood on her hands, more pieces of her soul shattered and sloughed away. Why would this be any different? He was a threat, and threats needed to be neutralized. Simple as that. Taylor knew she could do it. She knew she was capable.
She’d left the church years before, but she found herself praying to an unknown, unseen God, the words moving past her lips soundlessly.
Let it be me. Let me be the one to end this