THE IMMORTALS Excerpt
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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 discreet—only 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 clothes—jeans, cowboy boots, a black cashmere turtleneck and gray corduroy blazer, left open—Taylor 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 mummies—some crafted with the obvious hand of a child—fake 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 sin...
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