Every Crooked Path (#08 in The Bowers Files Series)
:Who is the Piper? ... Special Agent Patrick Bowers returns in an electrifying prequel to the Bowers Chess series from critically acclaimed, national bestselling novelist Steven James. A mysterious suicide and a series of abductions draw...
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:Who is the Piper? ...
Special Agent Patrick Bowers returns in an electrifying prequel to the Bowers Chess series from critically acclaimed, national bestselling novelist Steven James.
A mysterious suicide and a series of abductions draw Patrick into a web of intrigue involving an international conspiracy where no one is who they appear to be and the stakes have never been higher.
Soon, Patrick discovers that the secret to stopping the Piper's current crime spree lies in unlocking answers from an eight-year-old cold case-and the only way to do that is by entering the terrifying world of the conspirators himself.
Dark, probing, and chilling, Every Crooked Path takes an unflinching look at the world of today's cybercrimes and delves into a parent's worst nightmare as it launches a new chapter of Patrick Bowers thrillers.
Steven James is an award-winning author and professional storyteller. He has written more than a dozen books and over 500 articles, stories, and scripts. Steven appears weekly at conferences, churches, schools, and special events around the country sharing his unique blend of drama, comedy, and inspirational speaking. He lives with his wife and three daughters in eastern Tennessee.
The Bowers Files
This is a work of fiction, and yet, in a very real sense, it also tells the truth about our world today. While the characters and situations in this story are made up, the nature of the crimes is not.
Online predators are real.
As a parent, I found this book particularly difficult to write, since it involved research into crimes against children. However, because of the impact of this issue on modern culture, I felt it was an important story for me to tell—perhaps my most important one so far.
Finding out what’s really out there lurking online was a wake-up call to me. Rather than describe any exploitative images in this book, I chose to show the reactions of the characters to seeing them. I’ll trust your imagination to fill in the rest.
During my research, I came across an organization called the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. It’s dedicated to rescuing children and catching those who target them. NCMEC is a nonprofit organization that depends on private donations, so please consider supporting their work. For more information, go to www.missingkids.com.
Together we can make a difference in protecting the next generation from those who would steal their innocence from them.
Wednesday, June 13
New York City
I clicked on my Mini Maglite as I slit the police tape crisscrossing the apartment’s front door, swung it open, and stepped into the darkened living room.
Jodie and I would reseal the door after I was done in here.
I pocketed my automatic knife.
The NYPD’s Crime Scene Unit had finished up this morning so the scene had been processed, but I put on a pair of latex gloves just in case I did find anything.
At thirty-four years old, I’d been with the Bureau for eight years, after leaving the Milwaukee Police Department, and I’d worked with evidence recovery teams and analysts from all around the country. The CSU here in New York City was sharp, so I wasn’t necessarily looking for forensic evidence they might have missed; I doubted I would find any of that. I was here to look at context.
Though this would normally have been an NYPD case, because of my work with the joint task force, the Bureau was involved. Assistant Director-in-Charge DeYoung had asked me to take a look around.
I’d been consulting on another investigation earlier today, so this was my first time at the actual scene, which worked out well since it was the same time of day as when the crime occurred. Similarity brings perspective. I’d taught that at the FBI Academy. Now was my chance to put it into practice.
Almost exactly twenty-four hours ago, the man who rented this apartment was stabbed to death in the room just past the kitchen.
Orienting myself to the lighting, the sounds, in this location at the time of day of the crime was crucial. It’s always about the intersection of an offender being in a specific place at a specific time. Start there. Motives you can try to decipher later—if you venture in that direction at all. Most investigators go about things completely backward.
My partner, Special Agent Jodie Fleming, would be up in a few minutes. She was on the phone down by the car talking over a personal matter with Dell, the woman she was living with. Their relationship had hit a rough spot lately—actually, things had been going downhill for a while and I wasn’t sure they were going to weather this storm.
The lights had been off in the apartment when the responding officers arrived, so, to get a better understanding of how the room had looked at the time of the crime, I kept them off as I closed the door, swept the flashlight beam before me, and studied the room.
Well-worn, mismatched furniture. A couch. An easy chair. Two floor lamps. The glass end table was still overturned from the struggle. A wide-screen television looked out across the room from its mount on a swiveling arm on the wall. From studying the files, I knew that the windows on the south side of the room overlooked a park—even though it wasn’t visible from where I stood.
The television was angled so that the screen was visible from the reclining chair, rather than the couch that lay perpendicular to it.
Two remote controls sat on the arm of the recliner. I checked them—one matched the VCR player, one the DVD player. A wireless keyboard for surfing on the TV’s Internet browser rested nearby on the footstool. The television remote lay tossed haphazardly out of reach on the couch.
Clicking off my flashlight, I noted how the residual light from the city found its way into the room through the windows.
The struggle that started in here had ended in the master bedroom.
My specialty wasn’t blood spatter analysis, but I’d looked over the initial reports, and now, Maglite on again, I could picture the struggle playing out.
At a crime scene, blood can tell the story.
The progression of the attack, the location and responses of the individuals involved—did they duck? Try to run? Fight back? If there was a struggle, the blood spatter could show who struck first, where he was standing, where and how quickly he moved while he was trying to escape. It was a study in microcosm of geospatial interactions.
And that was my specialty.
I watched the tale unfold.
According to what we’d been able to piece together, the offender had accessed the apartment through the front door, apparently, based on the tool marks, picking the lock. The victim, a forty-two-year-old African-American man named Jamaal Stewart, had been seated in the recliner facing the television.
At some point the intruder must have startled him, because the blood spatter indicated that Jamaal was most likely rising from the chair when his arm was sliced.
Low-energy stains are created simply by the force of gravity and are circular. Impact spatter is more distinctive and happens when blood forcefully impacts a surface, so perhaps, from someone swinging his cut arm. The void patterns, that is, the absence of blood spatter where you would expect it, showed where the offender was standing during the struggle.
When studying blood spatter that’s not just a gravity drop, you analyze the length and width, and take into account the concentration of the blood in the different parts of the spatter to identify the point of origin.
For an unknown reason, Jamaal fled to the master bedroom rather than the front door.
I studied the droplets, following them down the hall. Based on the size, shape, and directionality of the spatter, he was moving rapidly.
Since he had defensive wounds, we knew he’d struggled with his attacker. The orientation of the capillary and arterial bleeding showed that the fatal stab wound was to the right side of the neck, which might have indicated a left-handed assailant, or a right-handed one, depending on how he—or she—held the knife.
Jamaal bled out sprawled facedown on the covers of his neatly made bed.
Often, evidence isn’t so much finding what is present, but what isn’t present that should be—like the voids in the blood spatter. Emptiness where you wouldn’t expect it speaks to you.
The CSU found a computer cord in the apartment, but no laptop. There was a cell phone charger here, but no cell phone. Also there were two Xbox controllers but no console and a VHS player and a DVD player, but no videocassettes or DVDs.
By all appearances, someone had taken all of Jamaal’s computers and recorded media storage devices. When we followed up to see if the computer, phone, or gaming system had remote location services turned on, none of them showed up.
If our premise was correct that the intruder was looking for something, I wondered if he’d found it.
And of course, what it was.
A neighbor had heard the struggle, called 911, and two NYPD officers responded, only to find that Mr. Stewart was already deceased. There was no sign of his attacker.
I checked the bedroom, under the bed, in the closet, but didn’t find anything noteworthy.
The French doors opened to a balcony four meters long and two meters wide that overlooked Manhattan.
I snapped the flashlight off, pocketed it, and then stepped outside. Twelve stories up. Directly below me, at the entrance to a dance club, twenty-two people stood on the sidewalk, waiting to be admitted inside.
A storm earlier in the evening had left the smell of damp concrete lingering in the air, a musty scent of summer rain.
A few horns honked in the distance. Someone flagged down a taxi at the end of the block. Nothing out of the ordinary.
I was thinking of the missing electronics and recorded media, the location of the remotes, the television screen’s angle, the fact that the unit was off when the responding officers got here.
I heard footsteps behind me in the bedroom.
“Hey, Jodie, I’m out here.”
No, the television was off. So—
Jodie didn’t respond. The footsteps came closer.
And it wasn’t her gait.
Because it wasn’t Jodie.
The man came at me lightning fast, swiping the blade across my left forearm. My shirtsleeve offered little protection and the knife left a streak of red behind.
I threw my other hand up to grab his wrist and disarm him, but he knew how to block the move and easily knocked my hand away. I pivoted backward to keep him from driving the blade into my chest. When I turned, it drew him with me, onto the balcony.
Four inches taller than me, six foot seven. A beast.
There wasn’t much room out here for a fight.
He held the Bowie knife military-style, with the blade angled back parallel to his wrist. A lot harder to disarm. This man knew what he was doing. He’d been trained.
I was not going to fare well.
It didn’t scare me.
Motivated me, though.
I would have gone for my gun, but I needed both hands to stop him from slicing me open. I tried to sweep his leg, but it was like trying to knock a tree trunk out of the way.
Normally, I could hold my own in a fight, but this guy was better than I was and I wasn’t going to be able to keep him at bay for long.
Get some distance. Shoot him if you need to.
I head-butted him, slamming my forehead brutally against his nose.
It took him by surprise and he staggered back two paces. Before he could come at me again, I whipped out my gun and leveled it at his chest.
“Federal agent. Drop the knife.”
Immediately, he stopped. He stood his ground but didn’t come at me. “You’re a federal agent?”
“FBI. Now get rid of the knife or I will put you down.”
He took a step backward and tossed the blade over the railing of the balcony. I just hoped it wouldn’t hit anyone on the sidewalk below us.
“Hands up,” I said. “Get on your knees.”
He didn’t comply. “Do you have the file?”
“You said you’re with the Bureau. Did you find it? Do you have the file?”
I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of trying to cuff this guy by myself. I had a feeling that he would be able to get my gun from me and overpower me before I could stop him even if he was lying facedown when I approached him. But now that he’d gotten rid of his knife, I wasn’t about to shoot him either.
Jodie was on her way. Once she got here we could take him down. Until then we were in a bit of a standoff.
“What file?” I asked.
I was aware that my sleeve was soaked with blood from my injured arm, but I didn’t feel any pain—adrenaline will do that to you.
But the adrenaline would go away.
The pain would come.
He didn’t kneel, didn’t look afraid, and I didn’t know if he had another weapon. Seemed likely to me that he would be packing, though.
Keeping my gun on him, I tugged out my phone, speed-dialed Jodie, and told her to call NYPD for backup and to get up here ASAP. Then I slid my phone into my pocket. “If you make a move, if you come at me, I’m going to put you down.”
“I understand.” Then, “It wasn’t on the computer or the phone.”
“Were you here last night?” I asked. “Did you kill Jamaal Stewart?”
“They won’t let this happen.” He eased back half a step.
“Stay where you are. Who? Who won’t let this happen?”
He took another step. He was at the railing.
“Do not move!”
“They know things. They can find out things. It’ll never stop.”
He glanced down at the street, then looked in my direction again.
“Don’t even think about it,” I said.
There are people down there.
He’s not the only one in danger here. They are too.
“You can’t stop me,” he said.
“I’ll do whatever’s necessary to protect those people down there. Now get on your knees.”
Slowly, he turned away from me, perhaps guessing that I wasn’t going to shoot him in the back.
You can’t let him jump, Pat.
“Step away from the railing!”
Thoughts raced through my mind, thoughts of the people outside the club twelve stories below us, of what might happen if this man did throw himself over the edge.
I shouted again for him to stop, but he just lifted one leg to the railing to climb over it.
I considered his state of mind, the danger he posed to those people—
He tossed the knife. He might not be armed.
You can’t kill him.
But he’s posing an immediate threat to innocent life.
I stared down the barrel.
Made my decision.
Avoid the femur.
The leg that was supporting his weight buckled and he collapsed onto the balcony.
“Do not move.” I took a step forward.
“You’re not sending me to prison.” In obvious pain, he grimaced as he pushed himself to his feet. “I’m not going to prison. I’m dead already.”
“We can protect you.”
He scoffed. “Like you protected Ted?”
I had no idea who he was talking about. “That wasn’t our fault.” I was making this up as I went along. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of that. You can help us. Now just—”
Jodie called my name from the other room.
“Out here!” I hollered.
“You have no idea how far this goes,” he said to me, “what they’re going to do if . . .” His voice trailed off.
But instead of replying, he made the sign of the cross in front of his chest and then, in one swift and desperate motion, grabbed the railing and heaved himself over it and disappeared from sight.
I rushed forward and got there while he was still in the air on his way down.
He didn’t cry out. He didn’t scream. He just fell silently toward the sidewalk, where he collided with the ground within a meter of one of the women waiting outside the club.
The sound of impact followed, rising through the night, a thick, sickening thud.
Then the screams of the people in front of the club began.
And they didn’t stop.
“Jodie, I’m heading down.” I was back in the bedroom and she had turned on the light. “I want you to stay up here, make sure no one else comes in, and get the CSU over here.”
“First of all.” She indicated my bloody sleeve. “Are you okay?” Though her father was Caucasian, her mother was Persian and Jodie shared her dark hair and rich-toned skin. Small-framed but tough. I’d seen her take down guys my size.
“It’s fine.” Using my left sock, I wrapped the wound and tied it off to create a rudimentary dressing to quiet the bleeding. “Listen, the TV was off when the officers arrived. The chair was angled toward it, the DVD remote next to it.”
“So, he was watching TV,” she surmised.
“But the remote for that was out of reach.”
She caught on. “Who turned off the television?”
“Right.” We walked into the living room. “Also”—I pointed—“that wireless keyboard is for surfing through the TV’s cable Internet connection.”
I went to the television. “The jumper told me the file wasn’t on the computer or the phone. All the DVDs and videocassettes were taken. So there might be . . .” The television was directed toward the chair. I angled the arm it was attached to over to the other side so I could access the back of it.
“Right there.” I directed her attention to two USB input devices inserted into the data ports on the back of the unit. “One has the same insignia as the keyboard. That’s probably its wireless input. But the other one—”
“Is a flash drive.”
“It sure looks like it. We need to find out if there’s a file on it called ‘Aurora’s birthday.’ It might hold the key to figuring out who murdered Stewart, and why this guy tonight just killed himself. He warned me about the people who are behind this. Whoever they are, it sounds like they do not play nicely with others, so tell the computer forensics guys to be careful.”
On the way to the elevator I texted Christie Ellis, the woman I was seeing.
Earlier, I’d canceled dinner with her tonight, then later, canceled drinks afterward as well, all because of my work. I’d told her I would swing by her place on my way home, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen now either.
She texted back almost immediately that she was still open to me coming by, just to let her know.
I replied that I would be in touch.
By the time I arrived at the front of the building, nearly everyone in the crowd had their cell phones out and was filming the rather grisly scene. I wondered how many times it’d already been uploaded to YouTube or tweeted.
I drew out my creds and held them up as I approached the body. “FBI. Everybody stand back.”
The man had landed on his back and the posterior of his skull was crushed. One of his legs was bent profusely to the side. The end of a fractured bone punctured his pants leg.
I heard sirens.
Based on the extent of this man’s injuries, I didn’t think there was any chance that he was still alive, but perhaps for my sake, perhaps for the crowd’s, I gently placed two fingers on his throat to check for a pulse.
The woman who’d been closest to the jumper when he hit the sidewalk was sitting on the curb nearby. Blood, along with gray matter from the dead man’s brain, had splattered onto the hem of her skirt. She wasn’t shaking. Wasn’t crying. She just sat staring blankly across the street. Shock.
“Ma’am?” I said. “Are you injured?”
She didn’t move.
I knelt beside her. “Are you hurt, ma’am?”
This time she shook her head. “No.”
I visually assessed her but saw no injuries. “You’re going to be alright,” I said, though I wasn’t sure that was going to be the case, not after having this happen to her. A body crashing to the pavement within arm’s reach of you? That’s the stuff of nightmares. Not everybody would be able to shake off something that traumatic.
Rising, I returned to the body and inspected his pockets.
No phone. No wallet. No ID.
But there was a folded-up envelope labeled OPEN ONLY IN THE CASE OF MY DEATH.
Whether he’d been planning to take his life or afraid someone might take it from him, I didn’t know.
Using my knife as a letter opener, I cut along the edge of the envelope and removed the single sheet of paper inside.
I’m sorry it came to this, but it’s the only thing I know to do. Whatever you want to believe about me, whatever anyone says, you need to know that I never did the things she’s claiming I did. I’m sorry I let you down.
Okay, a clue, but also another mystery—who was Billy?
At least the names in the note might help us identify the jumper.
In his pockets I found some loose change, a subway MetroCard, and a single key. Earlier, I’d seen the key to the apartment we’d just been in, and this one didn’t match it.
Well, we would run his prints and DNA. If he was in the system, we would identify him. At least we had a first name to work with. The rather crudely drawn tattoo of a shamrock on the back of his right hand might help if we could find a studio that had done it for someone named “Randy.”
I stood and eyed the crowd, took note of posture, stance, body language, but no one was acting in a suspicious or aggressive manner. They were still filming and now a number of them directed their phones at me.
Assistant Director DeYoung had told us not to instruct people to put their phones away when we’re at a scene, since it ended up manifesting resentment toward the Bureau, especially after the people invariably wouldn’t listen and would eventually post those videos of us telling them to turn off their phones anyway. “People will wonder, ‘What are they trying to hide?’” DeYoung had explained. “Or, ‘What don’t they want me to see?’”
The problem was getting worse year by year. It bothered me when people treated death like a spectator sport. From what I’d seen in the past, these videos would be watched by tens of thousands of people, especially if the media picked up any of them or, for whatever reason, they went viral. Then you could be talking about hundreds of thousands of views. Or more.
All to satisfy the macabre curiosity of the masses.
No, we really haven’t come all that far since the days of the Colosseum.
An NYPD cruiser arrived.
I explained who I was, briefed the officers, and mentioned that, based on the jumper’s comments to me, he was a person of interest for the homicide the night before.
One of the officers went to string up some police tape. The other said to me, “So you really think this is our doer from last night?”
Doer, perp, UNSUB, I’m not a fan of any of those terms. “It’s possible, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
He noted the shamrock tattoo. “That’s an Aryan Brotherhood symbol. Prison tats? An ex-con?”
“He might just be Irish. And I’m guessing he’s never been to prison.”
“On the balcony he said to me, ‘You’re not sending me to prison,’ rather than ‘you’re not sending me back to prison.’ I’ve never known anyone who’s been locked up who would have phrased it like he did. You serve time, you don’t want to be sent back. It’s how you’d typically put it.”
“Good point.” He was looking at the makeshift bandage on my left forearm. “You alright?”
I stared at the body.
I’m guessing that most people who take their own life don’t think about what has to happen afterward, about what their choice is going to require other people to do.
Someone will have to clean up the mess, replace the carpet, paint over the bloodstain, remove the empty bottle of pills from your rigid, clinging hand, or, in this case, wash off the sidewalk.
It was so tragic.
Cleaning up the dead is a messy business.
And there was no reason this man needed to die tonight.
An ambulance rolled to a stop near the edge of the police tape.
I directed one paramedic to assist the woman who was seated on the curb, the one who’d been so close to where the jumper impacted the ground.
The other EMT snipped off the sleeve of my shirt, cleaned the laceration on my arm, and tried to convince me that I needed stitches. I avoid those whenever possible since needles are part of the deal. I’ve never had an affinity for those things.
Facing a psychotic killer on the street, yeah, I’m good with that.
Facing a grinning nurse with a needle, not so much.
It took some convincing, but she finally gave in and agreed to just bandage it up.
While she worked on that, I dictated my incident report into my phone. The latest voice-recognition software was accurate enough to cut down almost by half the amount of time we spent on filling out paperwork, and you weren’t going to find me complaining about that.
In the morning I could review the report, proofread it, and then submit it to DeYoung before heading to the Field Office.
Eventually, another ambulance rolled in, loaded up the body, and left for the morgue at Presbyterian Central Hospital. One by one, the people filming things dispersed, busily posting, texting, and tweeting what had just happened.
After I was done with my dictation, I called Christie to tell her that I’d see her tomorrow, but she explained that she had chicken Parmesan waiting. “I’ll warm it up when you get here. Come on over, it’d be nice to see you.”
I’d missed dinner earlier and it was nearly ten thirty. “You’re sure it’s not too late?”
“Alright, I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
After the Crime Scene Unit left with the USB drive and remote-control devices along with the items I’d found on the victim’s body, I took off for Christie’s place.
“Hey, you,” I said.
I stepped into her fourth-story apartment and closed the door behind me.
Her gaze went immediately to the snipped-off shirtsleeve and my bandaged arm. “How many?”
“I just had the paramedic bandage it.”
“Is it serious?”
“How did it happen?”
“A knife.” I gave her a kiss. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
She said nothing.
The two-bedroom, cramped, and ridiculously overpriced apartment had a typical New York City floor plan: a breakfast nook opened up to the living room, which led to a hallway past the single bathroom to a pair of bedrooms. That was it. Yet, as modest as this place was, her rent devoured nearly forty percent of her monthly salary. Space is definitely at a premium in a city of 8.5 million people.
In order to make ends meet, a lot of FBI agents live in New Jersey and commute ninety minutes each way just to get by.
With my joint work with the NYPD and the requirement to be on-site for so many cases, it was necessary for me to live in the city and have a vehicle—even though battling New York City traffic was not by any means my favorite pastime. Though the royalties from the two criminology books I’d written were relatively meager, they helped. Without them I wasn’t sure how I could afford to live here on what I currently made.
Christie preferred not using the breakfast counter, so she had a small table pushed up behind the couch on the edge of the living room.
Two candles flickered on it—one orchid, one lavender. By the amount of wax flow, I could tell they hadn’t been burning for long. Two dishes, two wineglasses, and her finest silverware waited on either side of them. Most people save their best dinnerware for special occasions. Not Christie. “You never know what’s coming your way,” she told me once. “This might be the most special day of your life and you just haven’t found that out yet. Why not celebrate proactively?”
Not a bad life philosophy.
A Tupperware container with chicken Parmesan sat beside the candles. “It got cold earlier,” she said. “I didn’t want to reheat it until you got here.”
“Did you eat?”
This woman always ate dessert first.
A quirk I’d come to love.
And emulate whenever possible.
Her blond hair shimmered in the golden candlelight. She was a few months older than me, but could have passed for five years younger.
Never married, Christie had gotten pregnant in college, opted to keep her baby, and eventually dropped out of school to raise her daughter. I didn’t know the story about Tessa’s father, why he’d never been in the picture, or how Christie and Tessa ended up in New York City from rural Minnesota. It seemed like a sensitive topic and I figured she would share the details when she was ready.
These days, she worked at a small design firm developing logos, identity packages, and marketing campaigns for start-up tech companies. She made enough to live on, but I knew things were tight.
She took the chicken to the microwave. “This’ll only take a minute.”
I set down my computer bag and took a sip of the wine she’d poured for me.
I was as clueless when it came to grapes as she was when it came to coffee beans, so I had no idea what kind of wine this was—except that it was sweet and light and fruity, and right now it hit the spot.
She placed the food in the microwave and punched the reheat button.
“I would have been here earlier if I could,” I said.
“Things got a little crazy.”
The dated microwave hummed somewhat chunkily in the background.
“Would you like a slice of Key lime pie?” she asked. “It’s vegan, but it’s good.”
“Two slices would make my arm feel better.”
“And how is that?”
“A little-known fact: Key lime is famous for its healing properties in treating knife wounds.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “If it’s a little-known fact, how is it also famous?”
“We’ll go with one piece to start.” She took a sip of her wine. “I heard a new one today.”
“It’s a tough one: ‘Irish wristwatch.’ Five times fast. Go.”
I tried and it wasn’t pretty, but it did bring a smile to her face. “Your turn.”
“I’ve had practice.” She tried. Nailed it.
The day we met she’d told me a tongue twister and she’d been trying them out on me ever since.
The microwave dinged but she didn’t take out the chicken.
“And do you know why I wanted to see you tonight?” she asked.
“Because I’m irresistible?”
“Do you remember when we first met, Mr. Adorable?”
A slight smile. “What day of the week was it?”
“Ah. A Wednesday.”
“Uh-huh. Good. And what brought us together?”
“That storm. It was very serendipitous.”
“I would call it providential.”
“A spring rain.”
“And you let me share your umbrella with you. Such a gentleman.”
“As I recall, you were pretty taken with me at first.”
“Oh, really? Is that how you remember it?”
“Yup. Very taken.”
“And what makes you think that?”
“Your eyes. The way you looked at me.”
I did my best imitation of her.
“I seriously hope I didn’t look like that.”
“Well, something along those lines. I might not be remembering it exactly.”
“Why is that?”
“I might have been a little distracted by seeing such a gorgeous woman coming in from the rain.”
“Good answer. And how long did we stand under that umbrella?”
“I don’t really remember. It’s all a blur after that.”
“After I looked into those eyes.”
“Two for two.”
“And then when we went out for coffee, you told me your first tongue twister.”
“And that was?”
“Cryptic stripped script crypt.”
She nodded. “Very good.”
“And so that’s it, then—why you wanted to see me this evening. We met seven weeks ago tonight.”
“And we went on our first official date one week later.”
“A double anniversary.”
“So it is.”
“Well, you oughta get a kiss for each one,” I offered generously.
“Is that so?”
I took her in my arms to pay up.
And sort of wished it was a triple one.
At last she stepped back, brought the pie out of the fridge, and said, “Okay, I need to just go ahead and say this: I know you can’t tell me the details about what happened and I’m not going to press you, but the bloodstain coming through that bandage worries me. If you can’t tell me, I get that. But it’s . . . it’s hard not knowing how it happened, besides that it was a knife.”
I was quiet, unsure how to respond.
She knew I couldn’t share the specifics of my cases with her, but I usually told her as much as I could to allay her concern. Figuring out where to draw that line was always a challenge.
“So.” She dished some pie onto a plate, laid a fork beside it, and handed it to me. “At least tell me this much: am I going to hear about what happened when I turn on the news in the morning?”
“You might,” I said, then added, “Yes. You will.”
I felt caught between the desire to let her into my life and the need to keep her out of my work. How do you draw someone close while at the same time keeping her at arm’s length? It’s not easy and I hadn’t done so well with it over the years—at least the drawing-someone-close part.
Christie divided the chicken Parmesan onto two plates, and we returned to the table.
After evaluating things, I finally explained what I could. “A man took his own life. I tried to stop him, to save him, but I couldn’t. It appears to be linked to a homicide last night.”
“And he had a knife?”
“Yes. We struggled. He cut me.”
“Is it deep?”
“I’ve had deeper.”
“Listen.” I reached across the table and took her hand. “I’m fine. And I’m here now. I’m putting all that aside.”
“I’m going to hold you to that, alright?”
Christie was a woman of deep faith and before we began our entirely-too-late-to-be-good-for-you dinner, while still holding my hand, she closed her eyes and said a prayer of thanks for the food and for my safety. Then she asked God to comfort the friends and family of the man who’d died. “Let them see a bigger plan at work, find hope even in grief, and love, somehow, despite their sorrow. Amen.”
I wasn’t sure where I stood when it came to matters of faith and religion. I knew there was evil in our world, no question about that. I’d seen too much of it over the years to doubt that, but I needed people like Christie to remind me that there was good here too.
Work this job long enough and you’ll start to believe in sin—whatever label you want to give it. Grace, forgiveness, redemption, those are harder to find. Christie said to me one time, “When you look at the world as it is, how can you not be racked with grief? But when you look closer, how can you not be overwhelmed with awe?”
I was still working on the awe part.
I started with dessert, and while we ate, I tried to keep my promise to her, tried to leave my work behind, to make that difficult and yet necessary switch from professional life to personal life, but it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.
Questions about the scene, about Randy—if that really was his name—about the note, all pecked away at my attention.
Christie was concluding telling me about her day when Tessa emerged from her room, staring at her phone, texting someone as she walked to the fridge. She glanced up just long enough to nod a greeting in my direction.
Fifteen years old. Independent. A loner. Her obsidian hair swished idly across her shoulders when she turned her head to look at us. Black eyeliner, black fingernail polish, and sometimes, although not tonight, black lipstick to match it. She was as ambiguous about school as she was fiercely intelligent, and I had the sense that she was searching for a place to belong, but at the same time couldn’t care less what people thought of her. A bit of a paradox.
She slid a slice of pie onto a plate, hesitated, then dumped the last two remaining pieces on top of it. I didn’t think Christie noticed. Then Tessa dug a fork out of the drawer and without another word, texting with one hand now, took the pie with her back to her room.
“You’re going to put that plate in the dishwasher when you’re done with it, right?” Christie called after her.
“Uh-huh,” Tessa replied noncommittally.
“Uh-huh,” Christie said to me with a small smile, then mouthed, We’ll see.
When I first moved to NYC, I was surprised by how late in the summer school stayed in session here. Even though it was mid-June now, Tessa still had one more week of classes. When I was growing up, I lived for the summertime and I would have hated being in school in June.
Christie and I talked for a few more minutes, but finished the meal in relative silence.
“I should probably be heading home,” I said.
“It’s late, Pat. Stay here. Get some sleep.”
I knew her well enough to realize that this wasn’t a sexual invitation. As rooted as she was in her faith, Christie had strong convictions about the sanctity of marriage and, although I had a dresser drawer set aside here for the nights when I did stay over, every time I’d spent the night so far it’d been on the couch.
Often, with my work schedule, the only chance we had to see each other was late at night, and since I lived across town it made sense to just stay over when we did manage to get together. I respected her views, but I had to admit I looked forward to the day when I would graduate from the couch.
I had my laptop with me, everything I would need for tomorrow morning, and I couldn’t think of any good reason to go back to my place at this time of night just to sleep in my own bed.
“Okay. Thanks. I think I will stay.”
After we’d deposited the dishes in the dishwasher, she gently cradled my wounded arm in her hand. “So you’re sure you’re okay?”
Then she took my hand in both of hers, and the warmth of her touch reminded me that she was alive, that I was alive, here in this moment, here on this day.
Such an obvious fact, so self-evident, but one that we don’t often pause to consider.
Today is a special occasion.
Every day we’re alive is.
Earlier tonight, the man’s skin had still been warm when I placed my fingers against his neck to check for a pulse.
Lifeless, but still warm.
It would have cooled by now, though.
It doesn’t take long.
It’s a mystery to me: We live, we die. It all happens in the blink of an eye, in the grand scheme of things.
If there really is a grand scheme to things.
I drew Christie into my arms and after we’d said good night with a kiss that I was glad Tessa didn’t interrupt, Christie left for her bedroom and I got situated on the couch.
Tessa never returned with her pie plate and fork, but I did hear Christie down the hall informing her that I was staying over so that she wouldn’t be surprised to find me here in the morning.
In lieu of turning on the air conditioner, I left the living room window open. Outside, the familiar sounds of my city kept me company.
The rain had started again and it was drizzling and dripping in a lonely, pitter-splatter-drop pattern onto and then off of the windowsill.
I tried to sleep, but the words of the man who’d leapt off that balcony kept cycling through my head: “You have no idea how far this goes, what they’re going to do if . . .”
He’d stopped as soon as I told him I was a federal agent.
So, who did he think you were before that?
Who’s Aurora and what’s this file concerning her birthday?
Hopefully, tomorrow would bring some answers with it.
When I closed my eyes, I saw him again in midair, falling away from me through the night, almost gracefully, in a reverse swan dive that stopped abruptly at the pavement.
And I heard the sound of impact.
Heard it again and again.
There’d been that pause between him hitting the concrete and me hearing the crunch of impact, but then the screams of the bystanders came pretty much right away.
That was my lullaby when I closed my eyes.
The sound of a body hitting the ground and the screams that followed in its wake.
So much can change in the blink of an eye.
Francis Edlemore was in charge of changing the posters.
He didn’t work full-time at it, no, there was no need for that, but it was a positive contribution he could make to St. Stephen’s Research Hospital, a positive contribution he could make to the community, and he was thankful for the chance to do it.
The cardboard tube he carried contained eleven rolled-up posters of Gracie and one final one of Derek; it was his that Francis would be putting up in the subway terminal over on the northeast wall along the side of the tracks.
The hospital had provided him with Derek’s poster—a smiling ten-year-old boy with a type of terminal brain cancer Francis couldn’t pronounce, along with the words “You can make Derek’s dreams come true.” It included the toll-free number and the website that people could use to contact St. Stephen’s to donate money toward their ongoing cancer research.
Francis didn’t know the boy’s specific prognosis or how long he was expected to live, but he did know it was unlikely that his dreams would ever come true. He’d been in to visit him five times and Derek wasn’t getting any better.
The hospital’s community volunteer coordinator, Mrs. Durkin, didn’t explicitly state the reason why they needed to change the posters from Gracie’s. No one liked to talk about it. Instead she’d just announced to Francis that they had “a new development campaign beginning.” Then she smiled in a way that was meant to fend off any questions he might have had. “I’ll need you to put up twelve new posters.”
“How’s the research going?”
“We’re making steady progress. Plugging right along, but there’s still more work to do. Always more work to do. Can you take care of the posters tonight?”
“We’re replacing Gracie’s?”
“You know how these things go.”
She didn’t need to explain the reason why the campaign featuring Gracie, a girl who’d just turned eleven a few months ago, had ended.
Francis knew that it was the same reason Derek’s campaign would end in a few months, or maybe, if things went well for him, next year sometime. It usually happened about once a year, putting up the new posters. Once, though, Francis had been called on to replace the posters after only two weeks.
That time was the hardest.
Francis was twenty-eight years old, single, and sometimes he wondered if he would be single forever. But, since he didn’t have too many friends or pastimes and no family obligations, he had the time to help with projects like this. It was one of the advantages of living alone.
Though his job at the International Child Safety Consortium kept him busy during the day, he had his evenings free.
A train must have just arrived, because a clump of people was coming his way up the steps as he descended into the tunnel that led beneath the streets of the city. Pedestrians in New York City have learned to keep their gazes to themselves when they pass others. So now, tonight, no one looked at him.
It was so different from growing up in east Texas, where people smiled and waved at strangers and thought it rude and presumptuous if you didn’t at least nod to them when you passed them on the street.
He swiped his MetroCard and stepped through the turnstile.
Just like cattle on the ranch. One animal at a time. Patience. Patience. Patience. Wait your turn. One by one through the turnstile. Be polite and obedient on your way to the slaughter.
What does that even mean, Francis? Animals don’t know what it’s like to be polite. They only know what it’s like to exist, to eat, to breed, to bleed, to die.
It’s just that they’re oblivious, though. That’s what I meant.
Use “oblivious,” then. Use the right word, Francis.
I will. Next time, I will.
He had to tilt the cardboard tube upright to maneuver it through the turnstile.
The under-the-city reek of the subway tunnel met him: oil or grease or something from the trains, along with the vague ever-present stench of garbage that most New Yorkers get used to, but visitors notice right away.
It’s a little bit like when you have bad breath but you don’t notice it. Other people’s breath? Sure. Yes. No problem there. But not your own. Why not? Well, your brain gets used to it and shuts it out, stops noticing it.
Brains are good at that—at shutting out the disagreeable truths of life so we don’t have to continually face them. Things like the stench of the city. The faces of the homeless. The sad eyes of strangers passing by, keeping their gazes to themselves as they do.
But Francis tried to notice things both big and small, had been ever since the accident when he was eleven.
Even after all these years he remembered what it was like to wake up in that hospital bed and find out that he had been dead.
He’d coded, as they called it, then been resuscitated. Fractured ribs. Bruises and contusions. And he’d lost his spleen, which left him susceptible to infection.
His little brother and his uncle had not been so lucky to be brought back.
You never get two chances at the moments that come your way. And you don’t know how many more you’re gonna have.
He came to the poster of Gracie, set down the tube, unlocked the hinged Plexiglas covering that protected her from vandals and graffiti artists, and swung it to the side.
The girl had playful, slightly mischievous eyes. She was sitting on a hospital bed, holding a stuffed lion cub. The caption above her head was different than Derek’s: YOUR COMPASSION CAN CHANGE A LIFE FOREVER.
Each development campaign had its own slogan.
And its own child.
No. It’s not a mascot. It’s a child!
Francis had visited Gracie twice in the hospital and had made balloon animals for her.
Even though he was still learning how to do it and wasn’t very good, she hadn’t seemed to mind and kept the misshapen dog there in her room even after the air had leaked out and the balloon sat limp and wrinkled and distorted on the windowsill overlooking the city.
It was still there when they took her body out of the room. Francis had noticed it in the trash can when he went to see her and found the bed empty, found that he had come in two hours too late.
He’d taken it home as a reminder of their visits.
Now it sat in the windowsill of his apartment.
After he was done replacing Gracie’s poster with Derek’s, he rolled up her poster, slid it into the tube with the others, and then fastened the Plexiglas cover back in place.
There were no rules about what he was supposed to do with the old posters after he’d taken them down.
“Where should I put the other ones?” he’d asked the man who’d been in charge of the volunteers seven years ago when he first started helping with the posters.
“They’re paper, right?” He was poring over a pile of forms strewn across his desk. “You can recycle them, maybe?”
But to Francis, there was something about depositing the posters into a recycling bin that didn’t feel right. For some reason he felt like doing that would have disgraced the children. So, from the beginning, he’d taken the old posters home, back to his apartment.
Now, as he rode the 7 train to Junction Boulevard, he thought about how late it already was and if he should really go online when he got home.
He wasn’t sure he would do it, even when the train stopped and he left, carrying the cardboard tube, and walked the three blocks to his place.
Even then he wasn’t sure.
Inside his apartment, Francis popped open the tube, removed the posters of Gracie, laid eleven of them on the stack of other posters near the window, then, taking the remaining one with him, he picked up four pushpins and walked to the living room wall.
There was just enough room for Gracie between Kevin and the window.
After pinning the poster up there, he stepped back and looked at the wall.
At the children.
Twelve of them.
He was running out of room. He would need to start using the hallway unless St. Stephen’s found a cure soon.
At the far end of the room his laptop was waiting on his desk.
Go online. She’s usually on at this time of night. You could chat, just for a few minutes. It wouldn’t hurt anything just to chat.
He stared at his computer.
You’re not harming anyone, Francis. She said she was eighteen. Dr. Perrior told you it would be good for you to meet people your own age.
But that’s not my age. I’m ten years older than her.
But your dad was twelve years older than your mom when they got married.
I know, but he was forty-four and she was thirty-two. It’s different when you’re that age.
Well, anyway, you’re just chatting online. It’s not like you’re ever going to meet her.
He didn’t want to chance using his real name, not with his career and how things would look if it leaked out what he was doing here, so he used the screen name Jared4life73 and made sure the browser was set to private browsing.
Clicking to graciousgirl4’s Krazle page, he sent her a message: “U still up? It’s me.”
Why would it matter if people found out? You’re not sending or receiving obscene material. It’s just a friendship.
But it just wouldn’t look good. It wouldn’t reflect well on the ICSC.
He got ready for bed, but the voices didn’t leave him alone. They kept arguing with each other, arguing, arguing, arguing about whether or not he should be chatting with graciousgirl4.
When he returned to the computer he found that she’d replied, “Yah. Couldn’t sleep. Whatcha doin?”
After a moment’s hesitation he picked up where he’d left off, chatting with the girl who’d told him that she was eighteen, but, based on the subjects she said she was studying in school, he wondered if she might be just a little bit younger.
Thursday, June 14
I rose before dawn and slipped quietly into Christie’s room to get my running clothes. She stirred slightly in her sleep, but I did my best not to disturb her.
After changing into shorts and a T-shirt, I headed outside.
The air was sharp and surprisingly brisk for a June morning, but it felt good. Invigorating.
They say this is the city that never sleeps, but it certainly does doze at times, and just before sunrise is one of them. A few other runners were out, but for the most part the sidewalks were empty.
Though I’d been here for a couple of years now, I still considered myself a newcomer to New York City.
It was the only major city I’d ever encountered where the terms “downtown” and “uptown” were antonyms rather than synonyms.
It was terribly confusing to me at first when people spoke about taking a subway downtown or uptown, and only when I found myself at the wrong side of the line did I realize they weren’t talking about the same thing, but were actually talking about heading in opposite directions.
Today it took a couple of miles before I started to really loosen up and get into my stride. At six-minute-thirty-second miles, I figured I had just enough time for my eight-mile loop.
Last night’s events rotated through my mind and seemed to bring up even more questions about the homicide the evening before. Did the USB flash drive contain anything relevant to the investigation? Would the remote control units contain any identifiable prints? If the jumper was Stewart’s killer, why did he choose to take his own life? And who was the guy, Ted, whom he’d told me we hadn’t been able to protect?
In New York City, with few alleys or dumpsters, people put their garbage out along the curbs at night to get picked up the next morning. If you get up early enough to run, it’ll still be there lining the sidewalks.
Today, as I passed a small deli, one of the bags of garbage twitched.
Though it startled me at first, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen that happen and I knew what it was: something inside that bag was alive.
A couple of years ago when I first moved here, I’d seen a garbage bag like this one quiver and it’d shocked me so much that I’d lurched to the side and wrenched my ankle on the curb.
I’d just gotten back from teaching a weeklong course in Johannesburg, South Africa, on geospatial investigative techniques, and we’d visited a few orphanages on the morning before my flight home.
Both orphanages had signs asking mothers not to leave their babies in the nearby fields (“velds”) or the garbage piles, but instead to set the child in a bin there outside the orphanage and to ring the bell so a caregiver from inside would know there was a child waiting and come to take it in, or “fetch it,” as they say in South Africa.
Yes, they actually had to politely request that new mothers not commit infanticide by leaving their babies in garbage dumps to die.
This is our world.
And so, that day when I first saw a black bag shiver on the streets of this city, I thought I knew what was inside it and my fingers were shaking as I tore open the thin skin of plastic.
But there wasn’t a baby in there.
Instead a thick-bodied rat stared up at me, bared its teeth, but then, when I didn’t come closer, it lost interest in me and went back to rooting through the food scraps someone had discarded.
They say there are twice as many rats as there are people in this city. Who knows? I just know that at night they get into the garbage bags and animate them, a bit like insect activity does inside corpses.
The body seems to shiver, and at first, despite its bloated appearance, you catch yourself thinking that the person is alive. You see that slight movement of the skin and it’s enough to throw you off, enough to make you think that, despite the smell, you might have made it in time.
But then, when you get closer, you realize what’s really happening.
The skin is moving in those tremors and ripples because of the maggots and worms squirming just beneath it.
So those were the things I thought of as I ran alongside the garbage bags of the magnificent city opening its eyes around me: rats and corpses and babies left to die.
By the time I’d made my circuit and was on my way back to Christie’s apartment, the morning was already warming up, and a wide-open, cloudless summer sky was beginning to unfurl above me, flower petal blue.
When I came through the door, the aroma made it clear that Christie had put on some coffee.
A sweet, nutty smell. Unmistakably Peruvian.
Actually, I only had twelve possibilities to choose from, so it wasn’t too hard to nail it. I’d brought her some of my favorite roasts for the times when I was over here.
Grown at nearly two thousand meters above sea level, with a gentle, medium body and a mellow sweetness, Peruvian is perfect for a breakfast or morning coffee.
Christie popped her head out of the bedroom. “How was your run?”
I was still thinking of that quivering bag of trash. “It woke me up even more than I anticipated.”
“And your arm?”
“I hardly noticed it.”
“There’s some first aid tape and bandages beneath the sink in the bathroom.”
She asked how I’d slept, and after I told her fine, she informed me that Tessa was in the bathroom getting ready.
With just that one shower here, we needed to tag-team it, so after grabbing some coffee and adding a little honey and creamer, I took a seat at the breakfast nook, logged in to the Federal Digital Database on my laptop, and proofread the transcription of my report from last night.
I filled in a few details, and then submitted it to Peter DeYoung, the Assistant Director who was in charge of the joint task force I worked with.
The report was definitely going to raise some eyebrows, especially the part about me shooting the man in the leg in order to protect the lives of the people below us.
Could prove interesting.
As I was finishing up my coffee, Tessa left the bathroom wearing the pajama pants and oversize T-shirt she liked to lounge around the house in, and retreated down the hall to her bedroom to get dressed for school.
I showered, replaced the dressing on my arm, and threw on some clothes. Christie slipped into the bathroom after me to finish putting on her makeup.
Tessa was at the breakfast nook when I returned to the kitchen for some food.
Now she had on a black long-sleeve T-shirt with the somewhat disturbing logo of one of her favorite bands, House of Blood, splayed in full color across the front. Despite the fact that it was summer, she’d chosen a maroon skirt over black leggings.
As a vegan, she zealously avoided all animal by-products, and now took a bite of her soy-milk-soaked granola.
“So, I found a link to a news story this morning,” she said.
“What story was that?”
“It had to do with what happened in the apartment building in Manhattan last night. The guy who jumped. You were there, weren’t you?”
I couldn’t imagine that the Bureau would have released my name already. “What makes you say that?”
“I heard you and Mom talking last night. You said you were with a guy when he died, that you weren’t able to stop him. I figured it was the same deal. Then, with the videos people uploaded, well . . .”
“Yes,” I admitted. “It was me.”
She took another bite. “So, why’d he jump?”
“I don’t know, not for sure. He seemed afraid, but even with that, any time you try to decipher someone’s motives, it’s a guessing game and you can never be sure you’re right.”
She looked at me curiously. “Why would you say that? Cops are always trying to find out people’s motives. It’s, like, the first thing they look for.”
“True—all too often that is the case, but it shouldn’t be.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s simply not possible to climb into someone else’s head and determine with any degree of certainty the motive behind his actions. All of us are influenced by a myriad of factors—some conscious, some unconscious—even when we perform the simplest of tasks. Take your outfit for example. Why’d you choose it? Maybe to express yourself, or to fit in, or because you thought it would look cool, or—”
“To rebel against my mom, or my other clothes are dirty or whatever. Okay, yeah, I get it. And how could you be sure which one it was if you tried to guess?”
“Right. We might have half a dozen different motives all present at the same time. So who’s to say what someone else’s motive was, especially in something as psychologically complex and traumatic as murder?”
“Well, it’s still murder. It’s just that you aren’t around to stand trial for it.”
“Huh, yeah. I never thought of it quite like that.” She contemplated things for a moment. “So, why are they always looking for motives, then?” But before I could respond, she answered her own question. “Probably ’cause it makes us feel safer, right?”
“I mean, if you can boil everything down to one specific reason, put a name to it, categorize it, you know—jealousy, revenge, a thrill kill, whatever—it’s easier to accept it. It’s the senseless crimes that scare us the most. That’s why, when there’s a school shooting and the kid kills himself when it’s over, they’re all, ‘What was his motive?’ and they search through his social media posts and stuff like that to see if he was bullied, or whatever. We want to pin a reason to it or else we get terrified anyone else might do the same thing. Including us.”
“I think you might be onto something there.”
I finished eating and was rinsing out my bowl when she said, “I heard they don’t call ’em successful anymore.”
“Suicides. They call ’em completed because to say it was successful seems to be putting a positive spin on things and it might be triggering for someone.” She spooned out the final bite of her cereal. “So, what was it like, though?”
“What was what like?”
“Being there when the guy murdered himself. When he jumped.”
It was hard, I thought.
“It was sad,” I said.
“How many times have you been there when someone’s died?”
I didn’t reply right away. “Too many.”
She accepted that and silently cleared the table, then checked her text messages as she went to grab her backpack for school.
Christie came into the room twisting her left earring in. “What was all that about, with Tessa? Successful suicides?”
“Last night she heard me telling you about the jumper. She was asking about motives, about how many people I’ve seen die.”
“I’m not so sure I’m thrilled to hear that.”
“She’s just an inquisitive girl. You know her better than I do, but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”
“I suppose.” But she didn’t sound entirely convinced. “So, will I see you tonight? Carve out some time? There’s something I’d like to talk about.”
“Don’t worry.” She gave me a quick kiss. “It’s not you. There are just some things I need you to help me sort through.”
“We’ll have to see how things go today, but I think I should be able to come over.”
“Let me know.”
“You sure you don’t want to talk about it now?”
“Later, when we have more time.”
Then we all took off: Christie for work, Tessa for school, and I left for the FBI Field Office to start trying to untangle what’d happened last night and what it might have to do with the homicide in that same apartment the evening before.
Maybe it was force of habit, maybe it was just prudence, but before walking out the door, Francis deleted last night’s chat and double-checked to make sure his Internet browser’s history was cleared.
You shouldn’t be doing this, Francis. Not someone in your position. Not someone who knows the things you know. Promise me you’re not going to chat with her again tonight.
He was about to argue with himself, but realized that this time the voice was right.
“I promise,” he said aloud, then closed his eyes and repeated it as if it were an incantation that would come true if he said it often enough. “I promise. I promise. I promise.”
He walked to the subway station, but he didn’t head to the ICSC building.
Before going to work today, he had a session with Dr. Perrior.
His supervisor, Claire Nolan, had given him a few hours off to see the psychologist.
She was good about that sort of thing, and it made sense that she would be, considering what Francis did for a living.
FBI Field Office
26 Federal Plaza
New York City
Jodie was waiting for me in the lobby, holding two cups of coffee from Blessed Nirvana Roasters. She handed one to me, and even though I’d already had some java at Christie’s, since this was from Blessed Nirvana I figured I could force myself to have another cup.
Besides, I wouldn’t have wanted it to go to waste.
The lengths I go to sometimes.
Here on this corner, two federal buildings lie across the street from each other: 290 Broadway and 26 Federal Plaza. The Bureau has offices in both of them, and depending on the department or unit you’re working with, you might be going back and forth between them all day.
A shining example of government efficiency at work.
Jodie wore the same outfit as yesterday. There were bags under her bloodshot eyes and it looked like she’d tried to cover them with makeup, which she didn’t usually use. It hadn’t worked.
She must have noticed me noticing her. “Spent the night at a hotel,” she explained. “Dell kicked me out.”
“Jodie, I’m sorry.”
“I should have seen it coming. Things have been going downhill for a while.” She sighed. “There’s this guy from work she’s been spending a lot of time with. Apparently, I’m not as interesting as he is. Said she’s exploring her horizons, reexamining her sexual identity. Is it me, Pat? Or is it this job?”
“This job makes it hard for anyone who’s trying to be in a serious relationship.”
There was no doubt about that.
Jodie had been with Dell for six months, but had told me once that she’d never made it past two years with anyone. So maybe it was her. Hard to say. Probably both factored in there to some degree.
“Listen,” I said, “if you need a place to stay, you could crash at my apartment. I can always move over to Christie’s for a week or two until you get things sorted out. I’m sure it wouldn’t be a big deal.”
“I just might take you up on that. I’ll let you know.”
After passing through security, we crossed the lobby to the elevator bay, our footsteps echoing through the nearly vacant hallway.
“I checked the online case file just before you got here,” she said.
“Any word on the jumper’s identity?”
“No. Nothing on AFIS.”
Well, if his prints weren’t in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, he’d never been arrested, let alone convicted. After all, you’re printed when you’re arrested for a crime, not when you’re convicted of it.
Officially, you might be considered by the courts to be innocent until proven guilty, but while you’re in police custody it’s the opposite—you’re treated as if you were guilty until you’re proven innocent.
The system is skewed like that.
She went on, “We should have DNA results back sometime this morning.”
Though the Bureau had been experimenting with a new device that could do a DNA analysis in ninety minutes, it was still in beta, and because of the backlog of more than five hundred thousand DNA kits nationwide that were waiting to be tested, even current cases didn’t always make it to the front of the queue right away.
We entered the empty elevator.
“Did you submit your report yet?” she asked.
“I sent it in before I left Christie’s place.”
“Okay, so let’s run through it, see how you do.”
“How I do?”
“I’ll be DeYoung. You be you.”
I pressed the button for the tenth floor. “Alright, I’m game.”
The doors closed.
She cleared her throat in a surprisingly good imitation of the Assistant Director. “So, Pat.” Her voice was gruff, yet somehow ingratiating and avuncular, just like DeYoung’s. “I read that report of yours. Glad you’re okay, glad about that, but I see you didn’t follow protocol here.”
I’d never heard her imitate him before. “Have you been practicing?”
“Stay in character, Pat.”
“Oh. Right.” I regrouped and answered as if she were DeYoung, “I was trying to protect innocent bystanders on the street.”
“Yes, yes, so you shot our John Doe? Do you have any idea on how this is going to play in the court of public opinion?”
“No, sir. I wasn’t thinking of that.”
“Not good, Pat. Not good. Could give the Bureau a black eye. Now, I’m not saying you did the wrong thing. But I’m not saying you did the right one either.”
“What are you saying?”
“That the OPR is going to have to take a close look at this. A close look indeed.”
That much was true: the Office of Professional Responsibility would undoubtedly be poring over this closely.
She switched back to Jodie mode. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. You’ll have to let me know how it goes when you speak with him.”
“I will. And I’ll let you know how close you were—but it sounds like you’ve got him pegged.”
The elevator doors parted and we passed the nine doorways between the elevator bay and my office.
There was a note waiting for me on my desk.
“DeYoung?” Jodie asked as I picked it up.
“He wants to see me right away.” Though Jodie and I were partners, I was the senior agent and she typically looked to me for direction. “Listen, while I’m in there I’d like you to check on something. Our guy from last night mentioned that we weren’t able to protect someone named Ted. I want to know who this Ted is.”
“Where do you want me to start?”
“Look into people who’ve died or been killed while in custody—NYPD or federal protection. He said ‘you’ after I told him I was a federal agent, so start with the Bureau, then move to the witness protection program. The jumper signed his note ‘Randy.’ See if that helps, if any known associates come up.”
“I don’t have clearance for that, not with the DOJ.”
“Talk to Harrington. He owes me one.”
“Alright. Good luck in there with DeYoung.”
I finished the coffee and tried to bank the cup off the wall and into the trash can by the door on my way out, but I missed and it splatted some dark drops onto the wall and dribbled more onto the floor.
“Don’t quit your day job.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Assistant Director DeYoung and a Hispanic woman I didn’t recognize were waiting for me in the Louis J. Freeh Conference Room, named after the FBI’s Director back in the nineties.
DeYoung had been with the Bureau for twenty-seven years, most of it seated behind a desk, and it showed around his waistline.
The woman beside him was in her fifties, wore a navy blazer and skirt, and had dark-rimmed reading glasses. Stern lines radiated out around her eyes.
DeYoung introduced her as Maria Aguirre. “She’s from OPR. Legal.”
An Office of Professional Responsibility lawyer.
Well, that didn’t take long.
As we shook hands I noticed the scent of cigarette smoke on her. She asked, “Is this the arm?”
“Your report noted that you sustained a knife wound during the confrontation with the subject and that one of the paramedics had to treat you. Is this the arm that was injured?”
“No. It was the left one.”
“I hope it heals promptly.”
“Thank you. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“You have to be careful out there.”
That seemed like an odd thing to say.
“Yes. You do.”
We took our seats at the conference room table, DeYoung struggling a bit to fit in between the table and the wall behind him.
To get things started, he cleared his throat in a way that was remarkably similar to Jodie’s imitation. Then he mentioned offhandedly that he looked forward to reading my report.
I’d anticipated that he would have read what I sent in before passing it on to legal, so his words surprised me. Maybe this was some new policy that I wasn’t aware of.
“Alright, Pat,” he said, “as you know, any instance in which an agent discharges his firearm while on duty requires an incident review by the Office of Professional Responsibility.”
“Yes.” I’d been through this routine before, although normally the wheels didn’t turn this fast.
“We just need to make sure that this whole incident doesn’t give the Bureau a black eye.”
Amazing—Jodie had anticipated he would say.
Ms. Aguirre pulled out a laptop and plopped a formidable stack of file folders from her briefcase onto the table.
“I think it might be best if I spoke with Agent Bowers alone,” she said to DeYoung.
“Oh.” By his demeanor I could tell he was caught off guard by that. “Well, yes. Certainly.” With a bit of effort he extricated himself from the chair. “So . . . I’ll just leave you two to it, then.”
Here we go.
She opened the top folder.
I wasn’t surprised that she’d read my report already, but her pile of papers contained far more material than a printout would have required, more even than she would’ve been able to skim through this morning.
Was she reading up on you already? Before last night?
I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Although I couldn’t think of why she might have been researching me, it seemed like a legitimate possibility.
“Forgive me for not being more familiar with your personnel file,” she said, “but I’m new to the Field Office here. Just transferred in from L.A.”
Most OPR lawyers were based at Headquarters in Washington, D.C., but L.A. was also large enough to have some on staff.
“It looks like they put you right to work.” I gestured toward the file folders.
“Yes. It looks like they did.”
“How has the transition been?”
She paged through her notes. “I must say, you have an impressive work history here at the Bureau, Agent Bowers.”
“You’ve been quite busy, I see: a master’s degree in criminology and law studies from Marquette, a PhD in environmental criminology from Simon Fraser University. And two books to your credit?”
“One grew out of my dissertation on geospatial investigation.”
“Yes, of course. But it’s no less an accomplishment.” She peered at me over the top of her glasses. “And you teach courses at the Academy as well?”
“I fly down every few months, teach short-term and interim seminars.”
“How do you pull it off?”
“Pull it off?”
“How do you do it all? How do you fit everything in?”
“I’m a bit thin in the hobby department.”
“I see.” Back to the papers. “And this isn’t the first time you’ve been under an OPR review.”
Well, no one’s perfect.
It wasn’t really a question, so I waited her out and finally she continued. “It looks like you have a habit of making judgment calls in the field that don’t always line up with protocol.”
“Protocol doesn’t always line up with what happens in the field.”
She set down the papers and turned her attention to her laptop screen, then repositioned her glasses. “I should tell you that I haven’t signed off on your report yet.”
“I wanted to verify a few things first.”
“Can you walk me through what happened last night on that balcony?”
“It’s all there in my report.”
“Yes, but if you could just recount it for me verbally. If you don’t mind.”
“Are there any specific questions you have, or were there some details that were unclear? It might save us both some time if I could address those first.”
My suggestion had no effect on her. “In your own words. Please.”
I thought, The report you have is already in my own words but didn’t want to sound dismissive of her concerns, so I kept that to myself and just went ahead and summarized the encounter with the suspect, detailing the events that led up to him jumping from the balcony.