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Nashville, Tennessee October 31 3:30 p.m.
Taylor Jackson stood at attention, arms behind her back, her dress blues itching her wrists. She was feeling more than a bit embarrassed. She'd asked for this to be done without ceremony, just a simple here you go, you're back in our good graces, but the chief was having nothing of it. He'd insisted she not only receive her lieutenant's badge again, but be decorated as well, in a very public ceremony. Her union rep was thrilled, and at her direction, had dropped the lawsuit she'd been forced to file against the department when they demoted her without cause. Taylor was pleased, as well. She'd been fighting to get reinstated, and she had to admit it was nice to put all of this behind her. But the pomp and circumstance was a bit much.
It had been a long afternoon. Taylor felt like a show pony, was flushed with the overly exuberant praise of her career, her involvement in catching the Conductor, a serial killer who'd killed two women back-to-back, kidnapped a third and fled Nashville with Taylor hot on his heels. She'd arrested him in Italy, and the story had immediately caught international headlines, because at the same time, she'd been party to the capture of one of Italy's most notorious serial killers, Il Macellaio. In the world of sound bites and news at your fingertips, taking two serial killers into custody had garnered so much attention that the chief had been forced into action.
Not only was she being reinstated; Taylor had command of the murder squad again, and her team was being reassembled. Detectives Lincoln Ross and Marcus Wade were shipped back up from the South Sector, and after a long discussion with the chief, she'd even talked him into allowing Renn McKenzie to become part of the permanent team. She had her boys back.
Most of them.
Pete Fitzgerald had fallen off the face of the earth. Taylor had last talked to him when he was in Barbados, anchored and waiting for a new part for his boat's engine. He'd called to let her know he thought he'd seen their old nemesis, and she hadn't heard from him since. She was sick with worry, convinced that Fitz had been taken by the Pretender, a killer so obscene, so cruel that he invaded her dreams and consumed her waking moments. A killer Taylor hadn't caught; the one who'd quite literally gotten away.
Her concerns had been compounded just last week, when the Coast Guard had picked up a distress signal off the coast of North Carolina. The GPS beacon matched the registered number for Fitz's boat. Despite countless days of searching, nothing had been found. The Coast Guard had been forced to call off the search, and the police in North Carolina couldn't get involved because there was no crime to be investigated. She had a call in to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations, in the hope they would see things differently, but she hadn't heard anything yet.
Taylor tried to shake off the thought of Fitz, of his body broken and battered, of what the Pretender was doing to him, or had done. The guilt spilled through her blood, making it chilly. She'd issued a challenge to the Pretender, told him to come and get her. Instead, she was positive he'd taken her friend, the man closest to her, aside from Baldwin. Her father figure. She had probably gotten Fitz killed, and she found that knowledge desperately hard to stomach.
She looked into the crowd, the sea of blue seated in compact rows before her. John Baldwin, her fiancé, sat in the front, grinning. His hair was too long again, the black waves falling over his forehead and ears in a tumble. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes; that was sure to get on the evening news, and she didn't want any more attention than she already had. She touched her engagement ring instead, twisting the channel-set diamonds around her finger.
Her team sat beside him: Lincoln Ross, hair grown out just enough to slip in some tiny dreadlocks; Marcus Wade, brown-eyed and sweetly happy. He was getting serious with his girlfriend, and Taylor had never seen him so content. The new member of the team, Renn McKenzie, was at Marcus's left. Taylor saw McKenzie's partner, Hugh Bangor, a few rows back. They'd been very discreetonly Taylor and Baldwin knew they were an item.
Even her old boss Mitchell Price was there, smiling benevolently at her. He'd been a casualty of the events that led to Taylor losing her badge in the first place, but had moved on. He was running a personal protection service catering to country music stars, and had made it clear that anytime Taylor wanted to bail on Nashville Metro, she was welcome to join him.
Fitz was the only one missing. She forced the lump in her throat away.
The chief was pinning something to her uniform now. He stood back with a wide smile and started clapping. The audience followed suit, and Taylor wished she could disappear. This was not what she wanted, this open, public enthusiasm on her behalf.
The chief gestured to the microphone. Taylor took a deep breath and stepped to the podium.
"Thank you all for being here today. I appreciate it more than you know. But we really should be honoring the entire team who participated. I couldn't have done any of this without the help of Detective Renn McKenzie, Supervisory Special Agent John Baldwin, Detective James Highsmythe of the London Metropolitan Police, and all the officers of the Metro Police who participated, in small ways and in large, on the case. The city of Nashville owes these men and women a debt of gratitude. Now, enough of the hoopla. Let's go back to work."
Laughter rippled through the crowd, and they clapped again. Lincoln whistled, two fingers stuck in his mouth, and this time she did roll her eyes. Baldwin winked at her, his clear green gaze full of pride. With her back ramrod straight and her ears burning, she thanked the chief and the other dignitaries, nodded at her new boss, Commander Joan Huston, and made her way off the dais. People began milling about; the language of the force rang in her ears like a mother's lullaby. She was back, and it felt damn good.
Baldwin met her, took her hand. "So how's the Investigator of the Year?"
She took a deep breath and blew it out noisily. "Don't start," she said. "This is mortifying enough as it is."
He laughed and kissed her palm. A promise for later.
Lincoln and Marcus both hugged her, and McKenzie shook her hand.
"Congratulations, LT!" Lincoln's gap-toothed smile felt like coming home, and she clapped him on the back. Price joined their group, shaking her hand gravely, his red handlebar mustache neatly trimmed and waxed for the occasion.
"What's your first act as a newly restored lieutenant, Loot?" Marcus asked.
"Buying y'all a beer. It is Halloween, after all. Let's get out of here. How about we head down to Mulligan's and grab a Guinness?"
"You're on," Marcus said.
She gestured to her stiffly starched uniform. "I just need to change."
"Us, too. Race you to the locker rooms."
Ten minutes later, once again in civilian clothesjeans, cowboy boots, a black cashmere turtleneck and gray corduroy blazer, left openTaylor felt much more comfortable. She snapped her holster onto her belt, then risked a glance at her shield. Her phantom limb. Losing it had just about cost her everything. She lovingly caressed the gold for the briefest of moments, then attached it to her belt in front of her holster. Complete. Again. She slammed her locker shut and met the boys in the hall. She saw Baldwin's eyes stray to her waist and pretended she didn't see his satisfied smile.
As they left the Criminal Justice Center, Taylor's spirits lifted. The joshing, joking group of men behind her, Baldwin in step at her side, all served to remind her how lucky she was. Now, if she could only find Fitz and do away with the Pretender, life would be grand indeed.
They'd just passed Hooters when Taylor's cell rang. She looked at the screen, saw it was dispatch. She held up a hand and stopped on the sidewalk to answer.
"Jackson," she said.
"Lieutenant, we need your response at a 10-64J, possible homicide, 3800 Estes Road. Repeat, 10-64J."
The J designator made a shiver go up her spine. /meant the victim was a juvenile. She hated working crimes with kids involved.
"Roger that, Dispatch. I'm on my way." She slapped the phone shut. "Hey, guys, I'm sorry. I've got to go to this scene." She pulled her wallet out of her jacket's interior pocket and handed Lincoln two twenties. He shook his head.
"Hell, no, LT. You're back on the job, so are we."
"But you're not on today. Go on ahead."
"No way," Marcus said. They lined up shoulder to shoulder, a wall of testosterone and insistence. She knew better than to fight. They were all just as happy as she was to be back together.
"I'll drive," McKenzie offered.
She smiled at them, then turned to Baldwin. "Well, aren't you coming, too?"
"What, the Nashville police want the help of a profiler?" he teased, his green eyes flashing.
"Of course we do. Come on then, let's go. We'll have to take two cars."
They drove up West End, McKenzie in the lead, Taylor and Baldwin following. Getting to Green Hills at this time of day was difficult at best, the traffic stop-and-start, so McKenzie was leading them through the back roads. Up West End, then left on Bowling, through the gloriously wooded neighborhoods, wide green lawns, large homes set far back from the main streets.
Many of the houses were decorated for Halloween, some professionally, with complete horror tableaus on their front yards: Black-and-orange twinkling lights and tombstones and full-size mummiessome crafted with the obvious hand of a childfake spider webs and friendly ghosts. On the corner of Bowling and Woodmont there was a large inflatable headless horseman. It was starting to get dark, and there had been rain earlier in the day. Fog rose in wispy streams from the lawns. A few jack-o'-lanterns had been lit, their insides glowing with sinister comfort.
Once they turned left onto Estes, it only took a moment to reach the address. The first respondersfirefighters and EMTshad already left. Patrol cars littered the street, crime-scene tape was strung across the road. Blue-and-white lights flashed in the evening sky, reflecting off the brick houses. Farther down the street, moving away from the commotion, small groups had started floating from door to door; the youngest trick-or-treaters escorted by their parents before full dark set in. Even if it hadn't been Halloween, it would have been an eerie scene.
Paula Simari was there, standing by her patrol car. Her canine partner, Max, was in the backseat, grinning a doggie smile at the activity. His services had not been needed tonight, it seemed.
The five of them approached and Paula held up her hands. "Whoa. No need to bring out all the big guns. Just one body up there." She gestured over her shoulder at the second story of an expansive Georgian red brick house. "How's it being back in charge, Lieutenant?"
"Very nice, Officer." Taylor liked Simari. She was good people, always ready with a quip, but knew when to be serious. "Why don't you brief us, then we'll take a cruise through the scene." She signed in to the crime-scene call sheet, then handed the pen to Baldwin. By the book, that was her new middle name.
"Sure. Body is that of a seventeen-year-old male Caucasian, name Jerrold King. His sister, Letha, came home from shopping with friendsthey both go to Hillsboro but they had a half day today. It's a teachers' in-service afternoon. Said she went into his room to borrow a CD and found him naked on the bed. She called 911 and they responded, but he was deceased when they arrived."
"Suicide?" Taylor asked.
"Not exactly," Simari replied grimly. "Not unless he was into pain."
"Pain?" Baldwin said, eyebrow raised.
Simari bit her lip. "I think you should see this for yourself. That's why I had dispatch call you directly."
Taylor looked at her for a long moment, then shrugged. "Okay. Let's go. Baldwin, you're with me. Marcus, Lincoln, could you start chatting with the crowd?" She pointed to the driveway of the house next door, which was accumulating people, some dressed in costumes, some obviously just home from a day at the office. The suits outnumbered the costumes three to one. "See if anyone saw anything. McKenzie? Make sure the medical examiner is on the way. We need a death investigator and crime-scene techs."
She followed Simari up the elaborate steps of the house, through white Doric columns onto a wide brick porch. A trio of witches nestled in between two spider-webbed rocking chairs; dual arrays of orange chrysanthemums in black wrought-iron planters were parked on either side of the door, their blossoms bright and new.
Taylor took a second to wind her hair into a bun and secure it, slipped her hands into purple nitrile gloves. Baldwin followed suittheir hands suddenly all professional, no more the recipients of holy palmers' kiss. They couldn't afford to confuse the crime-scene techs with their own DNA, nor allow their personal relationship to affect the case. It had been difficult for Taylor at first, pretending she and Baldwin weren't emotionally entwined. It was easier now. She was learning his detachment skills.
Simari was already gloved up, and let them in.
A teenager with rough skin and a jet-black bob sat at the foot of the stairs, white and shaking. She had black circles under her eyes and the faintest trace of dark lipstick in one corner of her mouth. Her lips were jammed together in a thin line; it seemed she knew if she opened her mouth the world would collapse.
"Lieutenant Jackson, this is Letha King. She found the body."
Taylor bent at the waist to get to the girl's level. "Letha. I'm so sorry for your loss. Are your parents on their way home?"
The girl didn't meet her eye, just shook her head. Simari stepped in. "They're out of town. We're tracking them down now."
Letha wrapped her arms around her waist, trying to hold herself together. Her nails were painted black, the polish wearing away. Taylor was tempted to reach out and touch her, to give a bit of warmth, of comfort, but refrained. She needed to see the body first, then she could worry about the living.
She stepped back onto the porch and whistled at McKenzie. He was on his cell phone, raised his eyebrows in question. She gestured for him to come to her. He nodded, said something briefly into the cell, then slapped it shut and bounded up the stairs. Taylor spoke quietly.
"I've got the victim's sister in the house. Kid's completely shattered. She needs to have someone with her. Would you mind?"
"Not at all. Everyone's on their way."
"Great, thanks. Come with me."
They reentered the house, and Taylor led McKenzie to Letha.