With one notable exception, the break room was empty.

“Thanks for making the time,” Jessie said when she arrived at 6:58 a.m. Just to be safe she locked the door behind her.

“I am a busy man,” Garland Moses said wryly, turning to face her. He was seated at a table, munching on what looked like a granola bar. She was tempted to make a crack about it cracking his false teeth but held off.

“A busy man who has been avoiding me for the last month,” she noted.

“I had a big case,” he protested. “And then I had that conference in Philadelphia. And then I had my vacation.”

“Don’t B.S. me, Garland. In our last substantive conversation at my birthday party, you hinted that you had concerns about Hannah. And then you ghosted me for a month. I’ve been freaking out.”

That was an overstatement. Things had actually been going amazingly well with Hannah in the last four weeks. Considering everything her half-sister had been through in the last six months, the fact that she could genuinely enjoy a quiet night of board games and scones was a minor miracle. That was part of why she didn’t want to cut it short last night.

“You know I’m a senior citizen, right?’ Garland said. “I don’t have conversations that involve the term ‘ghosted.’”

“You’re stalling,” she said.

“No, this is me stalling,” he said, slowly standing up. “Let’s get some coffee.”

He led the way over to the coffee machine. Jessie tried to ignore the vending machine beside it. She hadn’t had breakfast yet and felt her stomach grumble at the thought of preservative-laden snack good. As Garland walked, Jessie noted that he had on an outfit that she’d come to learn was essentially his daily uniform.

He wore a tired-looking gray sport jacket over a brown sweater vest and a dull beige dress shirt. His navy slacks were wrinkled and his loafers were covered in scuffs. His white hair shot in every direction as if he was trying to win an Albert Einstein look-alike contest. The bifocals at the bridge of his nose completed the look.

But Jessie had learned that appearances could be deceiving and that the veteran profiler cultivated the disheveled look to make people underestimate him. He was always perfectly shaved with nary a stray hair in sight. His white teeth were immaculate and his fingernails were faultless. The shoelaces on his worn loafers were new and neatly tied in double bows.

In all the important ways, he was at the top of his game. She had come to not just respect the old guy, but to genuinely like him.

“Okay, Ms. Hunt…” he started, apparently ready to end the stalling.

“I think we’ve reached the stage where you can call me Jessie, Garland. Hell, I’m thinking of calling you Grandpa from now on.”

“Please don’t do that,” he insisted. “Okay, Jessie. I didn’t mean to freak you out. But I did have some thoughts about Hannah. I’m willing to share them with you, as long as you keep them in their proper context.”

“What context is that?” Jessie asked.

“Remember, this is a seventeen-year-old girl whose adoptive parents were brutally murdered right in front of her by her biological father, a notorious serial killer.”

“I’m well aware of that, Garland,” Jessie said impatiently. “First of all, I was there. And secondly, that serial killer was my father too, if you’ll recall.”

“I’m painting a picture here,” he said patiently. “May I continue?”

“Go ahead,” Jessie said, deciding not to interrupt the guy she’d been trying to talk to for a month.

“Then,” he continued, “only weeks later she was kidnapped by another serial killer out to mold her into a murderer like himself and her father. In the process, he made her watch as he slaughtered her foster parents.”

Jessie felt the urge to point out that, as the person who rescued Hannah in both those instances, she was intimately familiar with the details. But he obviously knew all that. He was making a point. So instead, as he spoke she stared at herself in the reflection of the vending machine window, trying to smooth her furrowed brow through sheer will.

“That’s true,” she noted, keeping her tone neutral.

“And in the middle of all that, she learned that she had a half-sister, one who she saw tortured and who seems to court death and danger through the very nature of her job. You are her last remaining relative. And every time she says goodbye to you, she knows it might be for the last time.”

Jessie hadn’t considered that fact and immediately felt bad, both for Hannah and at her own lack of insight.

“Still,” she finally replied, “you already knew all of this when you hung out with her.”

“You mean when you asked me to babysit her so I could secretly profile her?”

“You say potato. The point is, you knew all that when you met her and, despite that, you told me you had concerns.”

“Yes, I do,” he finally admitted. “I won’t get into the details because I don’t want to betray her trust and they’re not all that important anyway. But based on the things we discussed, I’m concerned about Hannah’s seeming lack of empathy. I’m just not sure how concerned to be.”

Jessie found it enlightening to stare at herself in the window as she absorbed this news. She was able to see her reactions in real time. Hopefully she had a better poker face when she was in public stare-downs. But in the relative privacy of the break room and with Garland focused on adding sugar to his coffee, she didn’t try to hide her suddenly ashen complexion or the fear in her green eyes. She blew her brown hair out of her face and responded carefully.

“Care to elaborate?”

“Here’s the thing,” he answered. “Most teenagers are inherently self-involved to a certain degree. It’s part of finding their own identities. Finding out who you are requires you to put the focus on yourself. That’s normal, if sometimes infuriating.”

“I’m following you so far.”

“But she’s also been through so much trauma that it wouldn’t be stunning if emotionally, she just shut down completely. If everything she’s feeling is just a variation on pain, why feel anything at all, not just for herself, but for anyone? So it’s possible that some part of her is just calloused over as a form of self-protection. That, while troubling, wouldn’t be shocking either.”

“And yet…” Jessie prodded, looking over at him.

“And yet,” he conceded, “it’s not clear to me that her closed off nature didn’t already exist before any of this happened. Some people just don’t form strong bonds or attachments for whatever reason. Her mother died when she was little. She was in the foster system for a while before being adopted. Any number of things could have stymied her ability to develop connections.”

“Or she could have just been born that way,” Jessie offered. “It could be a function of genetics.”

“That’s possible too,” Garland agreed, stepping aside so she could get some coffee. “The problem is that we don’t have any quality studies that provide anything definitive on that front. But that’s not really what you’re asking, is it?”

“What am I asking, Garland?” Jessie countered.

“You’re asking if she has the potential to become a killer, like your shared father was, like Bolton Crutchfield tried to make her, like you fear that you could turn into yourself. Am I correct?”

Jessie was quiet for longer than she liked.

“You are correct,” she finally said softly.

Jessie’s eyes were focused on pouring cream into her coffee but she could hear the careful pause before Garland replied. She imagined him internally debating how best to proceed.

“The frustrating answer is—I just don’t know. We’re both well aware of the FBI’s behavioral science research indicating that almost every serial killer on record had some kind of trauma as a young person. That might have come in the form of abuse, bullying, or the loss of a loved one. My personal anecdotal experience reinforces those findings.”

“Mine does too,” Jessie agreed. “But I noticed you said ‘almost’ every serial killer.”

“Yes. There are records of killers who seem to have had perfectly normal childhoods without suffering any clear ordeal. Some people are just…off. You know that as well as I do.”

 “I do,” Jessie said as they walked back over to the table. “But what I want to know is if my half-sister, the girl living under my roof, is one of them. Because if she’s gone through this much horror so early in life and she’s missing that—for a lack of a better term—empathy gene, then we’ve got a problem.”

“Maybe,” Garland said cautiously as they sat down. “But maybe not. To the best of our knowledge, she hasn’t tortured any animals or killed anyone.”

“To the best of our knowledge,” Jessie granted.

“And you’ve been through many of the same tribulations she has. Your serial killer father murdered your mother and your adoptive parents, and he tried to kill you, as did another serial killer who was obsessed with you. And don’t forget the ex-husband who attempted to frame you for murdering his mistress and then tried to kill you when you found out. You’ve had a pretty good run of trauma yourself and you haven’t gone on any killing sprees.”

“No,” Jessie said, pausing before revealing something she’d shared with few others. “But I’ve often wondered if I entered this field as a way to be up close to the violence and cruelty of these people without having to go to their lengths. I worry that I get a contact high off their crimes.”

Garland was quiet for a moment and she found herself worrying that he might be wondering the same thing.

“That’s what therapy’s for,” he finally said unhelpfully.

She was about to offer a snarky reply when her phone rang. She looked down. It was her friend Kat Gentry. She sent it to voicemail.

“So are you willing to meet with Hannah again?” she asked. “To see if you can draw any firmer conclusions?”

“I’m willing to meet with her, assuming she’s open to it,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to have any massive ‘a-ha’ moment. In the end, it’s hard to discern whether she’s just a moody teenager, a traumatized, emotionally stunted young adult, or some combination of both.”

A text popped up on her screen from Kat: Need your help on a case. Meet me at Downtown Grounds at 7:30 a.m.?

Jessie looked at the time. It was 7:10. Whatever Kat needed must be pressing if she wanted to meet so soon.

“You left off one option,” Jessie noted, as she typed back “ok.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“A sociopath who’s hiding it well.”

The Perfect Alibi (A Jessie Hunt Psychological Suspense ThrillerBook Eight)