Read an Excerpt
Dying is a lonely thing.
Then again, so is living.
We all spend our lives alone inside our heart of hearts. However much we share with those we love, we always hold something back. Sometimes it’s a small thing, like a woman remembering a secret but long-gone love. She tells her husband she’s never loved anyone more than him, and she speaks the literal truth. But she has loved someone as much as him.
Sometimes it’s a big thing, a huge thing, a monster that cuddles up next to us and licks us between the shoulder blades. A man, while in college, witnesses a gang rape but never steps forward. Years later that man becomes the father of a daughter. The more he loves her, the worse the guilt, but still, still, still, he’ll never tell. Torture and death before that truth.
In the late hours, the ones when everyone’s alone, those secrets come knocking. Some knock hard and some knock soft, but whispering or screeching, they come. No locked door will keep them out; they have the key to us. We speak to them or plead with them or scream at them and we wish we could tell them to someone, that we could get them off our chest to just one person and feel relief.
We toss in bed or we walk the halls or we get drunk or we get stoned or we howl at the moon. Then the dawn comes and we shush them up and gather them back into our heart of hearts and do our best to carry on with living. Success at that endeavor depends on the size of the secret and the individual. Not everyone is built for guilt.
Young or old, man or woman, everyone has secrets. This I have learned, this I have experienced, this I know about myself.
I look down at the dead girl on the metal table and wonder: What secrets did you take with you that no one will ever know?
She’s far, far too young to be gone. In her early twenties. Beautiful. Long, dark, straight hair. She has skin the color of light coffee, and it looks smooth and flawless even under these harsh fluorescents. Pretty, delicate features go with the skin: vaguely Latin, I think, mixed with something else. Probably Anglo. Her lips have gone pale in death, but they are full without being too full, and I imagine them in a smile that was a precursor to a laugh; light but melodic. She’s small and thin through the sheet that covers her from the neck down.
The murdered move me. Good or bad, they had hopes and dreams and loves. They once lived, like all of us, in a world where the deck is stacked against living. Between cancer or crashes on the freeway or dropping dead of a heart attack with a glass of wine in your hand and a strangled smile on your face, the world gives us plenty of chances to die. Murderers cheat the system, help things along, rob the victims of something it’s already a fight to keep. This offends me. I hated it the first time I saw it and I hate it even more now.
I have been dealing with death for a long time. I am posted in the Los Angeles branch of the FBI and for the last twelve years I have headed up a team responsible for handling the worst of the worst in Southern California. Serial killers. Child rapists and murderers. Men who laugh as they torture women and then groan as they have sex with the corpses. I hunt living nightmares and it’s always terrible, but it’s also everywhere and inevitable.
Which is why I have to ask the question.
“Sir? What are we doing here?”
Assistant Director Jones is my longtime mentor, my boss, and the head of all FBI activities in Los Angeles. The problem though, the reason for my maybe-callous query, is that we’re not in Los Angeles. We’re in Virginia, near Washington, DC.
This poor woman may be dead, the fact of her death may touch me, but she’s not one of mine.
He gives me a sideways glance, part thoughtful, maybe a little bit annoyed. AD Jones looks exactly like what he is: a veteran cop. He exudes law enforcement and leadership. He’s got a square-jawed, strong face; hard, tired eyes; and a regulation haircut with no nod to style. He’s handsome in his way, with two past marriages to prove it, but there’s something guarded there. Shadows in a strongbox.
“Command performance, Smoky,” he says. “From the Director himself.”
I’m surprised by this on a few levels. The obvious is simple curiosity: Why here? Why me? The other is more complex: AD Jones’s compliance to this unusual request. He has always been that rarity in a bureaucracy, someone who questions orders with impunity if he feels it is warranted. He said “command performance” but we wouldn’t be here if he didn’t feel there was a valid reason for it.
“Yeah,” he replies, “the Director dropped a name I couldn’t ignore.”
The door to the morgue swings open before I can ask the obvious question.
“Speak of the devil,” AD Jones mutters.
FBI Director Samuel Rathbun walks in alone, more strangeness; Even before 9/11, FBI Directors traveled with an entourage. He walks up to us and it’s my hand he reaches out to shake first. I comply, bemused.
Looks like I’m the queen of this ball. Why?
“Agent Barrett,” he says in that trademark, politically handy baritone. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”
Sam Rathbun, otherwise known as “sir,” is a tolerable mix for an FBI Director. He has the necessary rugged good looks and political savvy, but he also has real experience behind him. He started as a cop, went to law school nights, and ended up in the FBI. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him “honest”—his position precludes that luxury—but he lies only when he has to. This is integrity incarnate for a Director.
He’s reputed to be pretty ruthless, which would not surprise me, and is supposed to be a health nut. Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, no coffee, no soda, jogs five miles in the morning. Hey, everyone has their faults.
I have to angle my head to look up at him. I’m only four-ten, so I’m used to this.
“No problem at all, Director,” I say, lying through my teeth.
Actually, it was a problem, a big fucking problem, but AD Jones will catch any fallout I generate by being difficult.
Rathbun nods at AD Jones. “David,” he says.
I compare the two men with some interest. They’re both the same height. AD Jones has brown hair, cut short in that way that says “I don’t have time for this.” The Director’s is black, flecked with gray and styled, very handsome-older-man, mover-and-shaker. The AD is about eight years older than Director Rathbun and more worn around the edges for sure. The Director looks like the man who jogs in the morning and loves it; the AD looks like he could jog in the morning, but chooses to have a cigarette and a cup of coffee instead and fuck you if you don’t like it. The Director’s suit fits better and his watch is a Rolex. AD Jones wears a watch that he probably paid thirty dollars for ten years ago. The differences are notable but really, in spite of all of this, it’s the similarities that strike me.
Each has the same tired look to the eyes, a look that testifies to the carrying of secret burdens. They have card-players’ faces, continually holding things close to the vest.
Here are two men that would be hard to live with, I think. Not because they’re bad men, but because they’d operate on the assumption you knew they cared, and that would have to be enough. Love, but no flowers.
Director Rathbun turns to me, again.
“I’ll get right to it, Agent Barrett. You’re here because I was asked to bring you by someone I’m not prepared to say no to.”
I glance at AD Jones, remembering his comment about how the Director had “dropped a name.”
“Can I ask who?”
“Soon.” He nods at the body. “Tell me what you see.”
I turn to the body and force myself to focus.
“Young woman, in her early twenties. Possible victim of homicide.”
“What makes you say homicide?”
I indicate a series of bruises on her left upper arm.
“The bruises are red-purple, which means they’re very recent. See the outlines? Those bruises were caused by a hand. You have to grip someone pretty hard to cause bruising as defined as that. She’s cool to the touch, meaning she’s been dead at least twelve hours, probably more like twenty with the visible bruising. Rigor hasn’t left the body, meaning she’s been dead less than thirty-six.” I shrug. “She’s young, and someone grabbed her arm hard enough to bruise it not long before she died. Suspicious.” I give him a wry smile. “Oh yeah, and I’m here, which means she probably didn’t die of natural causes.”
“Good eyes, as expected,” he says. “And you’re correct. She was murdered. On a commercial airliner as it headed from Texas to Virginia. No one knew she was dead until after the plane was empty and the flight attendant tried to rouse her.”
I stare at him, certain he’s pulling my leg.
“Murder at thirty thousand feet? Is that a joke, sir?”
“How do we know she was murdered?”
“The nature of how she was found made it clear. But I want you to see it all fresh, with no preconceptions.”
I turn back to the body, truly intrigued now.
“When did this happen?”
“Her body was discovered twenty hours ago.”
“Do we have a cause of death yet?”
“The autopsy hasn’t been done.” He glances at his watch. “In fact, we’re waiting for the ME now. He’s probably held up signing non- disclosure forms.”
This oddity brings me back to my original question, and I ask it again. “Why me, sir? More appropriately—why you? What is it about this woman that warrants direct involvement from the Director of the FBI?”
“I’m about to tell you. But first, I want you to see something. Humor me.”
Like I have a choice.
He goes over to the body and lifts the sheet away from her chest. He holds it up.
“Take a look,” he says.
AD Jones and I move to the head of the table so we are looking down her body from top to bottom. I see small breasts with brown nipples, a flat stomach. My gaze travels down her young form, arriving at her pubic area with impunity, one of the many indignities of the dead. And there I stop, shocked.
“She has a penis,” I blurt out.
AD Jones says nothing.
Director Rathbun lets the sheet fall back. He does this with gentle care, an almost fatherly gesture.
“This is Lisa Reid, Smoky. Does that name mean anything to you?”
I frown, trying to make the connection. I can only find one that accounts for the Director’s presence here.
“As in Texas congressman Dillon Reid?”
“That’s right. Lisa was born Dexter Reid. Mrs. Reid asked for you specifically. She’s familiar with your—ah—story.”
I’m amused at his discomfort, but I hide it.
Three years ago, my team and I were hunting a serial killer, a true psycho by the name of Joseph Sands. We were very close to catching him when he broke into my home one night. He tied me to a bed and raped me again and again. He used a hunting knife on the left side of my face, carving himself into me, stealing my beauty and leaving me with a permanent relief map of pain.
The scarring starts at my hairline in the middle of my forehead. It goes straight down to between my eyebrows, and then it rockets off to the left, an almost perfect ninety degree angle. I have no left eyebrow; the scar has replaced it. The puckered road continues, across my temple, arcing in a lazy loop-de-loop down my cheek. It rips over toward my nose, crosses the bridge of it just barely, and then turns back, slicing in a diagonal across my left nostril and zooming one final time past my jawline, down my neck, ending at my collarbone.
There is another scar, straight and perfect, that goes from under the middle of my left eye down to the corner of my mouth. This was a gift from another psychotic; he forced me to cut myself while he watched and smiled.
Those are just the scars that are visible. Below the neckline of whatever blouse I happen to be wearing, there are others. Made by Sands’s knife blade and the cherry-end of a burning cigar. I lost my face that night, but that was the least of what Sands stole from me. He was a hungry thief, and he only ate the precious things.
I had a husband, a beautiful man named Matt. Sands tied him to a chair and made him witness my rape and torture. Then Sands forced me to watch while he tortured and murdered my Matt. We screamed together and then Matt was gone. It was the last thing we ever shared.
There was one final theft, the worst of all. My ten-year-old daughter, Alexa. I’d managed to get free and had come after Sands with my gun. He yanked Alexa up as I pulled the trigger and the bullet meant for him killed her instead. I filled Sands up with the remaining bullets in the gun and reloaded, screaming, to do it all again. I would have kept firing until the end of the world if they’d let me.
I spent six months after that night teetering on the knife-edge of suicide, wrapped in insanity and despair. I wanted to die, and I might have, but I was saved because someone else died first.
My best friend from high school, Annie King, was murdered by a madman for no other reason than he wanted me to hunt him. He raped Annie with abandon and gutted her with a fisherman’s skill. When he was done, he tied Annie’s ten-year-old daughter, Bonnie, to Annie’s corpse. Bonnie was there for three days before she was discovered. Three days cheek to cheek with her hollowed-out mother.
I gave the madman his wish. I hunted him down and killed him without a twinge of guilt. By the time it was all over, I just didn’t feel like dying anymore.
Annie left Bonnie to me, as it turned out. It should have been a doomed relationship; I was a rickety mess, Bonnie was mute as a result of the horrors she’d witnessed. But fate is funny sometimes. Curses can blossom into blessings. Apart, we were broken; together, Bonnie and I helped each other to heal. Bonnie began speaking again two years ago, and I’m happy to be alive, something, at one time, I thought would never happen.
I have learned to accept my disfigurement. I’ve never considered myself beautiful, really, but I used to be pretty. I am short, with curly, dark hair down to my shoulders. I have what my husband used to call “bite-sized boobs,” along with a butt that’s bigger than I’d like but which seems to have its own appeal. I had always been comfortable in my own skin, at peace with the physical hand dealt me. Sands’s work had made me cringe every time I looked into the mirror. I had kept my hair brushed forward after the attack, using it to obscure my face. Now I keep it tied back in a ponytail and tight against my head, daring the world to look and not giving—as my dad used to say—a “good God damn” if they don’t like it.
All of this—my “ah—story” as the Director had put it—had appeared in various papers, and it had given me a grisly celebrity with people both good and bad.
It had also established a ceiling for me at the FBI. There was a time when I was being considered for the Assistant Director’s job. Not anymore. My scars gave me a good face for a hunter, or even a teacher of hunters (I’d been offered a teaching position at Quantico, which I’d turned down), but as far as being the administrative face of the FBI? Photoshoots with the President? Not going to happen.
I’d come to terms with all of this years ago. I won’t say that I enjoy my job—enjoy is not the right word—but I am proud of being good at what I do.
“I see,” I reply. “Why did you agree?”
“Congressman Reid is friends with the President. The President is nearing the end of his second term. Reid is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“President Allen’s party,” AD Jones says, observing the obvious for me.
The puzzle pieces fall into place. The name the Director had dropped, the one that AD Jones couldn’t ignore, had been the President’s. And Dillon Reid was not just the President’s friend, he was potentially the next President himself.
“I didn’t know that,” I muse.
The Director raises his eyebrows. “You didn’t know Dillon Reid was a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination? Don’t you watch the news?”
“Nope. It’s all bad, so why bother?”
The Director is staring at me in frank disbelief.
“It’s not like I don’t vote,” I add. “When the time comes, I find out who the candidates are and what they’re about. I’m just not that interested in all the stuff that comes before.”
AD Jones smiles a little. The Director shakes his head.
“Well, now that you do know, listen up,” he says.
Introductions are over, time has come to hand out the orders.
“At no time in this investigation are you to let politics or political considerations keep you from doing an honest investigation. You are expected to be considerate and to exercise discretion. I’m going to fill you in on some important facts. You’re going to keep these facts to yourself. You’re not going to write them down anywhere, not a note, not an e-mail. You’re going to relay these facts to the members of your team that need to know, and you’re going to make sure they keep their mouths shut. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I reply.
AD Jones nods.
“A transsexual child is political dynamite for anyone, but especially so for a Democratic congressman in what’s historically a Republican state. The Reids dealt with this by essentially cutting ties with their son. They didn’t disown him, but whenever they were asked, they made it clear that Dexter wasn’t welcome at home as long as he insisted on pursuing a transgender path. It got its fifteen minutes and that was pretty much that.”
“But it was bullshit, wasn’t it?” AD Jones says.
I glance at him, surprised. Director Rathbun nods.
“The truth is, the Reids loved their son. They didn’t care if he was gay, transgendered, or Martian.”
And now I understand.
“They helped pay for the sex-change, didn’t they?”
“That’s right. Not directly, of course, but they provided money to Dexter whenever he needed it, knowing it would be used for sex-change necessities. Dexter has also secretly attended every Reid family Christmas.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “Is the lie really that important?”
The Director’s smile at me is the smile you give a child who’s just charmed you with their naivete. Her so cute!
“Haven’t you seen the culture war going on in this country? Well, magnify that by ten when you hit parts of the South. It could be the difference between being President or not. So yeah, it’s important.”
I consider this. “I understand,” I say, “but I don’t care about any of that.”
Director Rathbun frowns. “Agent Barrett—”
“Hold on, sir. I’m not saying I won’t keep the confidence. What I’m saying is that I won’t keep it because the congressman wants to be President. I don’t give a rat’s ass about that. I’ll keep it because a family that lost a son wants me to.” I nod toward the body of Lisa. “And mostly, because Lisa seemed content to keep it herself.”
The Director stares at me for a moment. “Fair enough,” he replies, and continues. “Mrs. Reid is going to be the family contact. If you have to speak to the congressman, she’ll arrange it. Any permissions needed in terms of searching Lisa’s condo—anything—she’s the one you’ll talk to. Stay away from the congressman unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“And what if this ends up pointing at the congressman?” I ask.
His smile is mirthless. “Then I know I can count on you to ignore political necessity.”
“Who’s going to handle the press on this?” AD Jones asks.
“I’ll deal with that. In fact, I don’t want any of you speaking to the press, period. No comment and that’s it.” He glances at me. “That goes double for Agent Thorne, Smoky.”
He’s referring to Callie Thorne, a member of my team. She’s known for saying what she wants when she feels like it.
I grin at him. “Don’t worry, sir. She’s got other fish to fry.”
“She’s getting married in a month.”
He does a double take. “Really?”
Callie is somewhat infamous as a serial non-monogamist. I’m getting used to the disbelief.
“Wonders never cease. Give her my best. But keep an eye on that mouth of hers.” He glances at the Rolex. “I’m going to take you to see Mrs. Reid now. The ME should be arriving shortly. The autopsy results go to me and your team and that’s it. Any questions?”
AD Jones shakes his head.
“No, sir,” I say, “but I think I should see Mrs. Reid by myself. Mother to mother.”
He frowns. “Explain.”
“Statistically, men are more ill at ease with transsexuals than women. I’m not saying the congressman didn’t love his son, but if Lisa had a champion, someone she was really close to, I’m betting it was the mom.” I pause. “Also, I think there’s another reason she asked for me.”
I look down at Lisa. She represents a new secret now, one the dead reveal, the old know, and the young will always ignore: life is too damn short, however long it is.
My smile at him is humorless. “Because I’ve lost a child too. It’s a members-only club.”
From the Hardcover edition.