Chapter 9: Four Women
We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.
Silar Creek, MD
Maryland in July. She had grown up down south, in Mississippi, and she always suspected that Yankees spent their summers half-shivering in such silly getups as “summer sweaters.” Who the hell ever heard of a summer sweater? No one south of the Mason-Dixon line, that’s who. (a small disclaimer here: she, personally, cared nothing for the stupid Mason-Dixon line, but the deep south was the deep south, and some things are never forgotten)
One summer in Maryland had changed her mind. While certainly the July she was currently experiencing didn’t quite measure up to the bone-melting, indolent heat and humidity combo Mississippi had oozed out every summer of her childhood, Maryland certainly knew how to put on a show. At the moment the air around her was heavy, almost liquid; cicadas buzzed in the distance; the sky was a blinding, sun-washed azure. She sat back in her reclining lawn chair and let out a deep sigh; soaked in the sun’s blazing light like she needed it to live. The drink in her hand was dripping cold, glistening drops down her flat stomach, and she enjoyed the shivering sensations as each little globe hit her skin.
She heard him before she saw him; he was whistling, something he did only rarely. She didn’t open her dark eyes; just set the lemonade aside, held out her arms and let him fall into them. Their lips crashed together, and the heat of the day was nothing to the furnace blazing between them.
She laughed softly, a low, rippling chuckle, and when she finally did look at him, her smile only widened, a generous curve of full, strawberry-colored lips. “You’re late,” she whispered against his mouth.
“I was busy.” He kissed her again, greedily drinking in the sticky sweet-sour taste of lemons and woman. “How long do we have?” he asked when he finally came up for air.
“Dan won’t be back until tomorrow; he and Elliot went off on some case somewhere. You know I don’t ask questions.” She stroked her fingers through his blond curls and pulled him to her again.
They were instantly lost in each other, and the day around them faded. Andrea Talbot no longer cared about the oppressive heat or the general ennui of her life. The man with her forgot that he was betraying a friend every time he touched her. And, perhaps most importantly, neither man nor woman noticed that they were not alone. A watcher stood in the long shadow of a huge, spreading oak, and with each illicit kiss the couple shared, his fury grew.
“They won’t let me be involved in the investigation, Jack,” Daniel Talbot nearly whimpered. He sat slumped in an office chair, his hands fisted in his pale hair. When he looked up at her again, his cornflower blue eyes were wide and bloodshot. She raised her hand to give him a comforting, supportive pat, but at the last minute she let her arm fall away. He had almost seemed to flinch, and she couldn’t blame him: some pain was better experienced alone.
Slightly frustrated by her own failure as a friend, she shook her head in a quick, whip-like motion. “Of course they won’t, Dan,” she admonished gently. “She was your wife. You’re too close.” She paused; crossed her arms over her chest. “Who’s the lead?”
“Taj,” he told her; peeked through his fingers to gauge her reaction.
Jackson went still, glass-green gaze suddenly far away. The silence thickened; began to set like a Jell-O mold. “Um,” she finally managed. It was hardly adequate.
He let his hands fall away from his face and peered at her intently. “Um?” he prompted.
“Um, good. He’s a good agent.” She fidgeted; looked away. He was a good agent: fair and thorough; and though Jackson knew he would work this case with everything he had, she also knew even that wouldn’t be enough for her understandably distraught partner. She was afraid of where he was going, and she didn’t like his line of thought at all. Neither of them had any business being involved in this case, and she wanted no part of it.
He recognized the signs of her growing nervousness, and he decided to push her a bit. “You could call him, maybe? Ask how things’re going?”
Her brow creased. “I don’t know, Danny, that doesn’t—”
“They might put you on it if you asked,” he interrupted eagerly. “I mean, with the new body—”
“She had a name, Dan,” she replied in a tired, cross voice. She sighed; rubbed the back of her neck with a weary hand. “You really want me on this?” she asked quietly, assessing her partner with clear, knowing eyes. Would she feel the same way if it were her spouse of ten years who’d just been murdered? Probably. It didn’t make the thought of going back to Silar Creek and investigating Andrea’s death any easier to stomach.
“Yeah, Jack. I want you on it. I trust you; I trust Taj. I know the two of you will take care of Andrea.” His voice was quiet and intense, and she knew he’d won.
She spread her hands in a shrug, her expression resigned. “When you put it like that, how can I refuse?”
Silar Creek, MD
“You know what they call things like this, Agent Jackson?”
“A clusterfuck?” she deadpanned.
Peter “Taj” McCall snorted out a laugh and shook his dark head. “True, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. I meant you and me. Here.” He gestured back and forth between them, and she stared at him blankly as he raised his brows at her. “It’s kismet!” he finally supplied. “Kismet, Jack. You and me, together again. It’s a sign from the Universe.”
She breathed a skeptical little huff. “Do you honestly buy into your own BS, or do you just love the sound of your voice that much?”
He shrugged easily, and his grin was irrepressible. “Both, I think.” He lifted the yellow crime tape and allowed her to duck under it ahead of him.
She rolled her eyes, but her lips were twitching as she tried to keep from smiling. She knew his humor was to counteract their equal and shared horror at having to visit the scene of another girl’s murder. It was the third killing by the man locals were dubbing the Silar Creek Slayer, and so far neither the local cops nor the CIA had anything to go on. “No forced entry. Again,” she remarked as she struggled with the uncomfortable latex gloves.
He pulled on his own with ease, and then reached over to assist her. “You’re one badass cop, Jackie Brown.”
“What can I say? Pam Grier I am not. Ok, focus. No forced entry.”
His face smoothed as his professional mask fell into place. “She was a student at the Academy, too. No roommate.”
Jackson shook her head. “How horrible. You send your kid off to school, and next thing you know…” She trailed off, face set in tense, brooding lines. “They’re supposed to be safe. Here, of all places, they should be safe.”
The hollowness he heard in her voice bothered him; he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and studied her intently. Which one of them would burnout first, he wondered. She was young; too young to be seeing shit like this and jumping through Agency hoops; but she was resilient. This case and those like it, and doubts like the ones he was currently having, made him feel ancient. Methuselah McCall.
“Taj? You ok?” The cop mask had slipped momentarily, and she had seen…something. Something she didn’t understand. Uncertainty and doubt and darkness.
He grinned again, and it was like the moment had never happened. “All systems go, partner mine. Let’s walk the scene, shall we? She was killed in there…”
Four women dead. Four lives snuffed out, three of them high school girls barely out of childhood. Andrea Talbot. Jessica Martin. Sarah Gold. Katherine Gordon. The names ran through his head in a constant litany, and he couldn’t shake the memory of their death-glazed eyes. This case, he felt, would be the death of him.
“Taj?” Her voice floated through his thoughts like a leaf on the wind, and he realized from her tone that it wasn’t the first time she’d called his name.
He cleared his throat and hastily cut the power to his computer monitor; blanked his mind. “Jack, what’s up?”
Jackson’s brows drew together as she watched him. “Um. Taj, listen, are you ok?”
She’d probably asked him that five thousand times in the months since she’d first said it, at Sarah Gold’s off-campus apartment when the weight of the case had seemed suddenly so heavy. Looking back, he knew back-then Taj hadn’t realized how good he’d had it. He envied back-then Taj. Just-now Taj felt like both Methuselah and Atlas. “Yeah,” he managed, “I’m fine. What’s that?” he asked, indicating the file she was holding.
“Oh,” she said as though she’d forgotten it, “it’s Katherine Gordon’s autopsy results. Want to—”
“No,” he interrupted hastily. “No, I don’t think I can stomach another autopsy right now.”
She paused. “Ok,” she said after a tense little moment. “It can wait. What were you working on?”
He would have to lie to her. She wouldn’t read him, but she knew him well, and the less he had to lie, the better. “Um, oh, just my report. You know, updating the boss.”
A fine brow rose over a perceptive green eye. “Do you need my input?”
He fidgeted a little. “Nope, it’s all good. I’m pretty much done.”
“I…Taj, what’s going on?”
He sighed; ran a hand through his closely-cropped hair and down over his face. His cheeks were rough with stubble, and he knew he looked like shit. She would have made a mental note of that, too. “You trust me, right?”
His voice was serious, minus all its usual levity, and she stared at him intently. “I trust you as much I trust anyone here,” she replied carefully.
“I guess that’s the best I can hope for.”
“You could level with me, Taj. That would help.”
He looked away; back. His face was tight, eyes pleading. “There are some things you’re better off not knowing.”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly; considered her next words with care. “I don’t buy that,” she said quietly, “but I know it’s just shop talk for ‘butt out,’ so I’m going to take your advice.”
“Thank you, Jack.”
She nodded once, crisply. “Don’t make me regret it.”
“I can’t make any promises” was his bleak, bitter reply.
She found herself grimly unsurprised and thoroughly disappointed in them both, an uneasy mix of emotions that gave her the mental equivalent of indigestion. Sometimes, Jackson reflected wearily, she really hated her job.