FBI Files (Seven)
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Nobody knew what to say as they stood over the scene of Mason’s latest victim, his fourth in 6 days. Police guarded the crime scene with their backs toward the victim. Pain was etched in each of their eyes. The scene had been maintained exactly as found, by request of the FBI. They knew who the killer was…this was a matter of reading what he’d written.
Nathan looked at the scene with the experienced eye of a physician. He saw the abrasions, cuts, ligature marks, and blood on her skin and the ground. He knew without examining her how she died. His heart clenched, but his face remained composed. He had to be professional in front of all these officers…he couldn’t let his true feelings show. He couldn’t let them see how much this hurt him, how disgusting it was.
It was his job, his duty, finding the cause of death through science. Finding the criminal through evidence. But it was never easy. Each case, body, and family member branded their faces into his mind. He’d started out his career saving lives, helping those that needed him. He never expected to see himself as a medical examiner, cutting up bodies to see how they perished.
Sometimes he missed his old job.
He missed seeing those innocent faces come to him for help.
“You all right, Brother?” Josiah asked, placing a strong hand on the doctor’s arm.
“Fine,” Nathan replied, quickly making notes on his clipboard. “What would you be doing if you hadn’t taken a job with the Bureau?” he asked, never looking up from his work.
Josiah sighed a moment before answering. He understood what Nathan was going through…they all did. “I’d be teaching Society and Religion at Yale University to young people taking my class to fulfill a requirement.”
“Do you miss it?”
“On days like this…all the time.” Josiah looked hard at those around him, seeing those investigative instincts shine. “Despite what we’re seeing here today, Brother,” he said quietly, “you are saving lives.”
Vin chewed on the skin next to his thumbnail. Had Mason been right in assuming what he had? Did Vin enjoy killing? He was good at it; there wasn’t any denying that. But killing from a distance was different…wasn’t it? He never saw their eyes, the way they looked when they died. If he did…he’d never be able to do what he did. Mason, however, thrived by what he saw in his victims’ eyes…or at least that was the way Ezra had put it.
Vin looked at Mason’s latest victim and clenched his jaw. He didn’t know if he could do this? Seeing the horrors of man, what they were capable of. He watched as Ezra moved around the body, taking notes, speaking into his voice recorder. Occasionally, he’d look into the distance, as though he were reading directions from a map. Chris and Buck took samples of the ground from plaster casts, hoping to trace Mason from the tire tracks of his vehicle. JD took photographs, documenting everything in color and black and white. Josiah spoke with officers, fellow agents, and the family who found the body…so much for their camping trip.
The sun shown through the trees, creating an eerie feeling as shade crossed her body like the Grim Reaper’s scythe. Vin ran his fingers through his hair and swallowed hard. She looked like someone he may have dated, someone who would have made a great mother, wife, and daughter. She reminded him of all those girls he knew growing up with.
“You’re nothing like him,” came the soft Southern voice from behind.
“No,” Vin agreed, “I kill from a distance.”
“He’s challenging all of us, Vin,” Ezra said, watching as the body was carefully placed into a black vinyl body bag. “He wants you to see what he’s capable of through his eyes, not necessarily your own.”
“Sounds funny comin’ from you,” Vin sighed, knowing his words stung.
“Remember who you are,” Ezra said softly, leaving the sharpshooter’s side.
Chris stepped forward and watched his men’s movements. Everything seemed automatic.
Nathan cleared his throat and motioned for the others to step closer to him. He pulled from the ground a plastic bag that contained a letter. Chris slipped his latex gloves on and carefully removed the letter that had been written on hotel stationary.
“Another one?” Buck asked, sickened and disappointed.
“He’s on a roll,” JD sighed, watching as the body was moved toward the ambulance.
Chris read the note and handed it to Ezra, then stormed back toward his rental car. This note was directed towards Buck and JD.
Ezra cleared his throat and started reading:
“The Darkness within is a murderous rage that kills in its own time. Killing, with your hands around someone’s throat…using skills only learned by those with murderous intentions. The thirst for blood never ends, and like a hunter’s intuitiveness, you learn where to kill…and who is the weakest. Who’s in your closet, Agent Dunne…Agent Wilmington…who do you hunt when the lights go down? Who do you hunt when you’re alone? What about you, Buck? All those women…are they toys to you too, objects that fill you bed one night, and leave the next. Are they easily replaceable…like a game that gets old? I know you like I know myself, I know all of you. You’ll never catch me…not like you want to. And realize, before it’s too late, that you are just like me…you hunt what I kill!”
Ezra looked up and motioned for his phone. “Call the Bureau and get 24 hour protection on your families,” he ordered, “Anyone you’re close to.”
“Mason knows who we are… Why?” Vin asked, still confused by the situation.
“He’s profiling us, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra replied.
“So how do we stop him?”
“We catch him.”
The sheriff jogged forward and stopped in front of the FBI agents. “There’s a man fitting a description of the killer in an abandoned building ten minutes north of here.” He started walking with the agents. “I’ve put several officers on scene guarding the exits…”
“Can you lead us there?” Buck asked, not waiting for an answer as he jogged toward Chris.
The sheriff nodded and rushed toward his vehicle.
“Let’s move!” Chris barked, slipping into the driver’s seat of his car.
The building rested between a hospital and a residential neighborhood. It was a hotel that had been built to house families of patients and clients. The structure’s owners went bankrupt a few years later. The community wasn’t large enough to maintain such a venture, but the idea had been a good one. Real estate signs littered the land around the building and its surface. Graffiti now stained the once bright red bricks. Plywood hung from the windows, some threatening to fall at any moment.
Police cars lined the streets while officers and agents prepared for the sweep and potential apprehension of the suspect. Thankfully, reporters and newspaper columnists hadn’t responded to the scene.
Ezra leaned against the sheriff’s blazer and shook his head. His FBI hat and jacket hid his eyes and form as he watched everyone prepare to clear the building. He’d argued with Chris about the situation…but to no avail. Everyone was hungry for a killer, they wanted to find him and stop his reign of madness. Looking at the building and at the officers, Ezra knew they were short men. The Sheriff had said that most of his officers, and the state police were keeping careful watch at the large events: the fair, mall openings, and sporting events, anyplace where children might be…after all, they were on Mason’s profile too.
“It’s not him, is it?” JD asked, checking the clip in his weapon.
“No, Agent Dunne, it’s not.” The conviction in Ezra’s voice was enough to let the younger man know that they were on the wrong trail.
“It’s not Mason’s MO?”
Ezra smiled sadly, the kid had been listening. “No.”
“I want everybody entering the building in pairs,” Chris ordered, fastening his Kevlar vest. “JD, you’re with me,” he checked his clip, “Buck, you and Vin take the South entrance with officers Knats and Blake. Josiah, you and Nathan take the North entrance with Ruggo and his men. Ezra, you’re with Sheriff Taggert.”
Police and agents alike stood up straight, knowing their suspect was trapped inside the building without a way out. Chris’ voice penetrated the crowd, informing his men of their tactical positions. They didn’t have time to wait for SWAT.
“Keep your mics open and no chit chat. Make sure you keep your eyes and ears open, don’t try and take him alone if you find him.” Chris’ words were strong and unrelenting as he spoke.
When the motion was given, officers moved around the building like well-trained hounds. Hair stood on end, pulses raced, and tensions grew strong. Nobody wanted to fail…not at this.
Despite the sun’s impressive shine the interior of the building was dark. Most of the windows had been covered with wood panels. The subtle shine of flashlights lit the dark rooms as individuals walked by. Guns were drawn and ready to use as warnings were called into each room and through closed doors. Nobody wanted a surprise.
Dust had gathered and covered the floors, stairwells, railings, and shelves. Some rooms had been used by transients that had needed a place to sleep, old blankets, boxes, and clothing littered the floors. Empty cans of food lay haphazardly around, most being searched by mice looking for a last nibble of food. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, most growing heavy with dust and idleness.
Voices echoed throughout the building, demanding the suspect to give himself up.
Nobody came forward.
The sound of doors being forced open filled the air and voices calling “Clear” sounded in the distance.
Buck and Vin walked carefully down the staircase that was adjacent to the elevator. Most of the mirrors that had hung in the corners of each turn had been broken or stolen. The darkness of the space created an eerie feeling as the men crept down each step. The sounds of their shoes tapping on the old linoleum echoed.
“You think he’s right?” Vin asked, looking for answers to questions he needed to ask.
“Who?” Buck asked, keeping his voice low.
“Beats the shit outta me,” Buck replied, grasping his gun tightly. “Tell you what though…” he whispered, “he scares the hell outta me.”
Vin grinned: “You can say that again.”
“Keep the lines clear!” Chris’ voice snapped over their headsets.
Buck shook his head as he and Vin carefully maneuvered their way around the corner to continue descending the stairs. Buck never thought about the sound that an arm and knife would make as it sped through the still air. But he’d remember the sound it made when it connected with Vin. Seconds grew into minutes…or so it seemed.
Vin fell forward, dropping his weapon and flashlight as blood pumped from his neck. His flashlight spun, flickering off walls and steps before coming to a complete stop next to the wall. He grasped franticly at the wound as he fell onto his side and then roll onto his back. He heard shots being fired and Buck’s frantic calls over his headset.
“AGENT DOWN!” Buck yelled, “AGENT DOWN!” He checked the corner and fired two shots as he caught a glimpse of the suspect fly through the doors at the end of the staircase. “Shit,” he swore, dropping down beside his fallen comrade. “I need medical assistance on the third floor of the south stairwell!” he yelled into his microphone. He applied pressure to the bleeding wound on Vin’s neck, trying to stop the steady, forceful flow. Sharp, fear filled blue eyes looked up into Buck’s own. “Hang on, Vin,” he whispered, pushing a portion of his shirt onto the wound. He grabbed Vin’s hand that was slick with blood. Buck’s jaw clenched and he turned toward the door. “WE NEED SOME HELP HERE!!” he screamed.
Vin grasped at Buck’s hands and arm, fearing the worst. He couldn’t talk, only a soft gurgle would escape his throat and blood slipped out between his lips. He scraped the floor with the heels of his boots, trying desperately to escape the situation. He couldn’t see anything except the subtle glow reflecting off the walls from the flashlights.
A barbaric yell sounded throughout the building and a sudden onset of three gunshots firing echoed briefly. A door was swung open and feet pounded the stairs as officers Knats and Blake rushed to the scene.
“Shit!” Officer Bill Knats snapped, shinning his flashlight over Buck’s shoulder onto the wound. Nobody had realized how bad off the sharpshooter was. Bill pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Buck who took it without question and applied more pressure to the bleeding wound.
“Damn it, Vin!” Buck objected, “Hang on!” He watched fearfully as the sharpshooter’s eyes started to lose focus and his eyelids started to droop.
Vin’s struggles stopped.
Blake rushed down the stairs and held the door open and yelled for some help. It only took a few seconds before Nathan and Chris rushed up the steps with a medical team behind them.
Flashlights were gathered around Vin, as he was quickly given IVs and pressure bandages applied to his neck. Chris helped get him positioned onto a gurney while officers and paramedics slowly and carefully carried him down the stairs.
The sharpshooter was rushed to the hospital that, thankfully, was next door. Chris paused at the exit of the abandoned building, catching his breath and wiping his bloody hands on his jeans. He couldn’t lose another friend now, not so soon after Steven. He looked up and watched as Nathan and Buck jogged along side the gurney as it entered through the hospital doors.
“The staff at St. Mary’s are good, damn good,” Sheriff Taggert said, stepping up beside the FBI agent.
“They’d better be,” Chris muttered, looking to where the rest of his men stood, looking worried while trying to maintain a professional appearance.
“Sir?” one of the sheriff’s men said, speaking softly, knowing he wasn’t welcomed.
“Go on, Ed?”
“They need you and Special Agent Larabee for clean up, Sir.”
Chris nodded and headed toward the scene. He had a man down…he wanted this over with.
Josiah cleared his throat as Chris stepped near, they had all seen Vin being rushed from the building and nobody had to guess that it wasn’t good. However, despite their need or desire to be with their comrade, they had to maintain the crime scene…at all costs.
“Is it him?” Chris asked, looking at the dead body that had been filled with lead.
“No,” Ezra said tersely, leaving the scene.
“Then who the hell is it?” Chris barked, looking at the officers.
“He’s a hype,” Josiah said, shaking his head. He motioned toward the suspect’s back pocket that contained an insulin syringe and large rubber band.
The suspect lay on his belly, arms and legs spread in various positions. A bloody knife still rested in his grasp. His hair had been dyed light brown as black roots indicated. His age was unknown at the moment; years of drug abuse had taken its toll.
“Run his prints,” Chris ordered. “I’d be willing to bet he’s got priors.” He looked around the room and watched as officers cleared the scene…preparing for the detectives.
“How’s Vin?” JD asked quietly, knowing things weren’t good.
“Let’s go find out,” Chris sighed sadly. He didn’t think he could handle any bad news.
Despite the cleanliness of St. Mary’s Hospital, there was a stench that seemed to coincide with all medical facilities. Nurses wearing smocks decorated with butterflies and flowers moved around the halls and offices, their white tennis shoes squeaking in rhythm with each other. Everyone had a job here.
Chris found Buck with his face in his hands in the waiting room lobby. Blood still smeared his hands and clothing…most likely his face as well. Nathan wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The bright orange chairs seemed to contrast the sterile white walls. This room was used a lot.
“You all right?” Chris asked, sitting down next to his friend.
Buck shook his head and let his arms fall limply to his knees. “Nathan’s trying to find out what’s goin’ on.”
“Yeah,” Chris nodded, “That’s what the nurses said.” He watched as JD, Josiah, and Ezra entered the waiting room. Their faces sullen, and eyes worried.
People stayed clear of the room that contained five FBI agents, either from fear, intimidation, or dislike. It didn’t matter to Chris and the others, as long as they were left alone. Magazines were scanned through, never truly read. It seemed to take forever. Nathan still had yet to return and the nurses weren’t saying anything…despite the Larabee glare.
Chris continued to pace the floor, his feet causing the already fading carpet to fade more. His hair now had creases caused by his fingers. Buck hadn’t moved from the chair he’d sat in when he first arrived, after being forcefully removed from the emergency room. JD sat next to him, unsure of what to do. Steven had been the first…and he had died. Was that in store for Vin as well?
Josiah folded his fingers together, seeing and feeling everyone’s despair. It didn’t matter what he said now, not with Vin still in surgery, not with the possibility that he could die. They were men who’d been trained to deal with such situations…but it was never easy. The waiting was the hardest.
Ezra leaned against the wall, away from the others, not feeling the same fears as the rest of the team. He knew Vin, hell, he even liked the sharpshooter…but he hadn’t had a chance to get to know him all that well. Not after three weeks. He watched their movements and actions…seeing the stress they were under. In many ways Ezra knew that pain of waiting…it took the doctors 12 hours to try and save Li, but she and their child died despite their efforts.
“What did he mean?” JD asked, causing everyone to look toward him in wonder. “What did Mason mean when he compared Buck and I to the darkness inside…to the women Buck knows?” He looked at Ezra, knowing he knew the answer.
“Who the fuck cares?” Buck responded angrily. “Mason’s a monster…should have been locked up the moment he was pushed from his mother’s womb.”
“You hunt what I kill?” JD said again, not understanding the words.
At least his inquires were pulling their attention away from their wounded comrade. “What do you hunt?” Ezra asked softly, looking toward his teammates.
JD shook his head, and Buck kept his gaze toward the ER doors.
“Mason sees life as a game. There’s a fifty percent chance that you won’t make the right choice, and there’s a fifty percent chance that you will. It doesn’t matter what decision you make when he’s involved because he’ll warp it to fit his needs…”
“But he’s right,” Josiah said softly. “The darkness we work in is inside us because it’s a part of us…and we do hunt…everyday we hunt. JD hunts for criminals by use of a computer—Buck, through the use of phone taps and video surveillance—”
“Just fuck ‘im!” Buck snapped, needing time to think about things without all the psychology.
When Nathan entered the waiting room, everyone stood up. The doctor shook his head and grinned, relief filled his very soul. “He’s going to make it,” he said firmly. He sat down in one of the orange chairs and folded his fingers together while resting his elbows on his knees. “Vin’s in recovery now and will be moved to a private room shortly.” He looked up and met everyone’s eyes.
“What about his neck?” Buck asked, sighing in relief.
“Doctor Mark Pickles did the surgery and said it went well. Vin’s going to have a four inch scar running from below his earlobe to the center of his Adam’s apple. The suspect did manage to cut into the trachea but not bad enough to cause any permanent damage…he won’t even need a breathing tube,” Nathan said in reassurance.
Chris lowered his head and ran his fingers through his hair in absolution. Vin was going to make it.
“The main concern right now is the amount of blood he lost and the fact that he inhaled a small amount of it. The doctors want to keep him for a few days until they can be sure he won’t come down with pneumonia.” Nathan sat up and leaned back against his seat.
“Can we see him?” JD asked.
“They’ll come in and let us know when,” Nathan responded.
Buck slumped down with a relief that filled his whole being. Thank God above! He smiled when JD sat next to him, feeling the tension fade in all their shoulders. He watched as Chris and Josiah spoke softly with Nathan, learning all they could. Ezra stood off to the side, unsure of his position within the group.
“Here,” Chris said, handing a dark green smock to Buck. “Go get cleaned up.”
Buck snatched the garment and left without saying a word to anyone. Emotions and feelings were running rampant within his system and he didn’t know how to handle it. The case with Mason, Steven’s recent death, Vin’s accident…all those women…
Chris watched him go, knowing those fears and uncertainties embracing his long time friend. When the nurse entered the room she was bombarded with questions…all of them the same. “Can we see him?” She nodded politely and showed them to the room where Vin was now sleeping.
The room was small but practical. IVs hung from a tall stand with wheels next to the bed. All of them claimed a spot on the sharpshooter’s arm. Bandages were taped around Vin’s neck, protecting the brutal wound. He slept, still under the influence of the drugs he’d been given, but that ghostly look he’d left the building with had faded. It would be sometime before he was 100%, but he looked good…considering.
Chris grabbed a chair and seated himself next to the head of the bed. JD did the same, only he turned the TV on, keeping it on mute, but watching the news. Nathan headed to the restaurant to grab everyone a bite to eat…it was going to be a long night.
Ezra stood in the doorway, unsure if he’d be welcomed inside. He wasn’t comfortable with this…the waiting…the hospital…friends. He moved out of the way of Buck who pushed his way through the door, needing to see for his own eyes that Vin was all right.
“You’re blocking the light from the hall, Ezra,” Josiah said. “Why don’t you come on in and sit a while?”
The profiler cleared his throat, and fingered the bill of his FBI hat. “I’ll go finish up the reports for the PD…get them done with.” He turned suddenly and left, not giving anyone a chance to object.
“I’ll go with him,” JD responded, getting to his feet. “Call me…” he let his statement hang, before dropping his head and leaving the room.
Josiah sighed, leaning back in his chair. “This wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
“It was close…too damn close,” Chris said, exhaling. He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair, realizing he needed to bathe. “Maybe we should call it quits.”
“I can’t fuckin’ believe you,” Buck gasped, furrowing his brow. “You say that now…after all this?”
“We should have quit while we were on top,” Chris muttered, watching Vin’s hand start to twitch before stopping.
Josiah leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “For the rest of our lives we’ll always wonder if there wasn’t something we should have done to help save Steven’s life. He was a great man, with a greater heart…but like the rest of us, he was flawed.” He looked up and met everyone’s eyes. “We can’t, as a result, run from what we fear…” he looked hard at Buck, “…these challenges cast upon us will make us stronger…” he returned his gaze to Chris, “…and only together will we be strongest. Vin will walk out of this hospital, many won’t.” He scratched his chin and hung his head for a moment. “We’ve all faced death, some closer than others, but we owe it to ourselves to carry on with what this team was built for… I’m not quitting.”
The sound of nurses running down the hall caused everyone to turn toward the door.
Josiah shook his head; “We were lucky,” he spoke softly, “but who’s to say we won’t be luckier still?” He turned his gaze to Buck. “What Mason wrote in that note wasn’t about you…it was about himself.”
“Turnin’ into Ezra now, Preacher?” Buck asked with a grin on his face.
“Saying how I see it,” Josiah answered honestly.
“We have to catch this guy,” Buck spoke softly.
“And we will,” Chris said with more determination in his voice.
JD watched from a distance as Ezra looked over the crime scene again. It was an eerie feeling, watching the profiler walk through his steps, walking the steps the killer had taken not 24 hours before. The place where the victim had been found still wept with her blood, now dried and having turned almost black. The grass, weeds, and trees didn’t seem to mind to what had taken place here, only reaching for the sun.
The way she’d been found was appalling enough, but the things done to her made JD sick to his stomach. He’d called Casey, his girlfriend, making sure she was safe and had protection at her apartment. She had heard the fear in his voice, and being the independent young woman she was, she’d told him what he’d needed to hear. She was fine, and looking forward to their next date. JD’s stomach clenched as he placed Casey in the place of the victim. He turned suddenly, losing his supper in the bushes.
How could he?
How could Mason do what he had?
“Are you all right?” Ezra asked, stepping up beside JD, all the while making sure he was standing down wind.
“How do you do it?” he asked, wiping his face with the back of his hand. “How do you get inside their heads like you do?”
Ezra knew about the pain JD was suffering from. It was never easy, looking at life through someone else’s eyes…particularly someone so different. He looked hard at JD and decided on another tactic. “You didn’t have a lot growing up,” he paused noticing JD nod his head. “That’s why you’re so resourceful…when something breaks you don’t rush out and buy a new one—you fix the old one.” His voice was soft and understanding. “Your mother was frail…she was small, thin, and had long hair…”
JD stopped and looked at the profiler. “Yeah,” he said softly. “How did you know?”
“You pay more attention to women with long hair…you see in them hints of your mother.” He watched, as JD turned away, embarrassed by his emotions. “It’s not a bad trait, JD…it’s a noble one.” Ezra smiled and continued. “I’d be willing to bet you always had your room clean when you were young, before you got home from school you made sure you shoes were as clean as you could get them. You didn’t want your mother to have to clean them…she worked hard and that made a powerful impression on you… That’s why you work so hard now.”
JD smiled tightly and nodded his head.
“Getting inside their heads is the easy part…understanding who they are is the hard part.” Ezra looked up into the distance, wishing a break would come in the case. “I just want to know why?” he said softly, barely realizing he’d spoken aloud.
JD wasn’t expecting the honesty from the profiler. “Does the ‘why’ really matter though…after the fact?”
Ezra sighed a moment, trying to piece together all of the information. “I understand your paradox, JD, but remember, if we can find an answer for all of this madness, maybe one day someone can avoid this kind of fate.” He motioned toward the ground where Mason’s latest victim was found.
JD took a deep breath and nodded. “You don’t like it…do you? Seeing what they’ve done…what they will do?”
“No, Mr. Dunne, I don’t like seeing the evils man is capable of…but I do like knowing that what I do here may—in some way—stop a killer like this from killing again.” He looked hard at the young agent…seeing his grief.
“My ma didn’t want me becoming an officer,” JD said, wiping his eyes. “She didn’t want me getting killed or something,” he shrugged, “but she stood by me. When I joined the Bureau my first case was with the Computer Analysis Response Team…it was my duty to recover pictures of child pornography off of a computer owned by a college professor.” He shook his head, looking off into the distance. “I wanted to quit right then…after finding those pictures…but my ma talked me into staying. She said it was best that I helped to stop these people from doing what they do—she died four months later.”
“Your mother was right,” Ezra answered with a sad smile. He sighed and took a deep breath heading toward the vehicle. “Can you answer a question for me, Agent Dunne?”
“I can try,” JD responded, slipping into the passenger seat.
Ezra shut the driver’s side door and slipped on his seatbelt before starting the car. “What’s the story between Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington?”
JD sighed and leaned back. “I’m surprised you caught that…well, maybe I shouldn’t be,” he sighed. He looked at Ezra and decided to tell the truth, knowing the profiler could tell if he lied. “Chris and Buck have been friends for a long time, more than ten years, hell—longer than any of the rest of us. Five years ago this team got started and Travis wanted Chris to head it up…Chris had a reputation as being a real hard ass and getting the right kind of results, so he agreed.”
Ezra slowed the vehicle as a doe and her fawn crossed the road. They paused a second before jogging into the woods.
JD watched them a moment and continued, “Buck and Steven joined at the same time, Buck—having worked with Chris before, and Steven because he was Travis’ son and…he had a reputation as being a good undercover agent…” he sighed, “anyway, a few other guys got involved and it was a big hit—the team I mean—and things were going really well. Then,” JD paused a moment, gathering his bearings, “Chris’ wife and son were killed in a house fire, supposedly it was faulty wiring…but Chris has his doubts. After they died he went off the deep end, he was drinking, getting real mean…just being a real sonofabitch. That was about the time Josiah and Nathan had joined the team. It wasn’t until Travis threatened to have Chris fired that he finally came around—with Buck’s help. That’s when Vin and I came on. At any rate, about the same time Steven had gone undercover in a banking firm that was laundering money…”
“That’s when Mary stepped in?” Ezra asked, having guessed the rest.
JD nodded: “With Sarah being gone, and Mary being…alone…things got out of hand. Their relationship was short, but when Buck found out about it he had a fit. Threatened to leave the team and the Bureau…see, Steven was Buck’s best friend…and rule number one with Buck is ‘Don’t fuck with family’…and that includes everyone.”
“But it’s okay for Mr. Wilmington to have extracurricular activities?”
“You have to understand Buck,” JD replied, shrugging his shoulders. “If you or anyone else on this team were to get married he’d defend our wives just like he would his sisters—if he had any. Just don’t mess with what’s his…I guess, if that’s how you want to put it.”
Ezra nodded and kept quiet.
It was the smell that made him groan. Vin slowly blinked his eyes until he could focus on more than just the fog he seemed to be encased in. He felt someone grasp his arm below his elbow and he rolled his head in that direction.
“Welcome back,” Chris’ voice penetrated the air. “Don’t try and talk,” he replied after seeing Vin’s lips move.
Nathan stepped up to the bed and smiled. “Try and keep still,” he said softly. “You’ve been indicted into the 500 club.”
Vin furrowed his brow, still trying to make sense of everything.
Chris chuckled, catching the doctor’s humor. “They put 500 stitches in your neck.”
Vin nodded stiffly and closed his eyes. He lifted his hand and motioned with his fingers for a pen and paper. Josiah quickly supplied the items and helped the sharpshooter form his fingers around the pen. Vin sighed a moment, trying to gather enough energy to write. He looked up and grinned sheepishly when Chris pushed the button causing the bed to sit upright. He reached up to touch the bandage but was restrained by Nathan’s strong hand.
“Leave it alone,” the doctor ordered.
Vin rolled his eyes and carefully wrote on the pad: How long?
“A day,” Chris responded.
Vin cringed and wrote: Suspect?
“Dead, and before you write those chicken scratches…it wasn’t Mason.” Chris crossed his arms over his chest.
“Kid by the name of Harvey Stems,” Chris answered. “He was an addict who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Find Mason,” Josiah replied. “If we can...”
Vin nodded carefully, trying to avoid straining his stitches.
“You’ll be in here for at least two more days,” Nathan stepped forward, grasping the sharpshooter’s shoulder. “Then, I’m going to fly with you back to DC—”
“No!” Vin muttered, his voice sounded harsh…as though it hadn’t been used in years.
“You need time to recover,” Nathan stressed. “It’d be best if you went home to recuperate for a couple of weeks.”
Vin’s lips were pressed together, an obvious tactic to refuse their advice. He pressed the back of his head into his pillow and took a deep breath.
“Calm down, Vin,” Chris ordered. “You go off’n spring a leak I’ll take you out and shoot you myself.”
Vin took a deep breath and nodded. His throat hurt, and his head and hands felt as though they weighed a ton. He wasn’t about to leave the case now…they didn’t even know where Mason was…much less know where he’d strike next. No, Vin thought, he’d do what he could to help them out. He sighed and closed his eyes, fighting the urge to sleep.
Chris looked to Nathan for answers.
“He’s going to be fine, the anesthetic is still wearing off.” Nathan looked toward the door as JD and Ezra entered.
“How’s he doing?” JD asked, slapping Buck’s shoulder, causing him to wake.
“He’s better,” Nathan answered.
“Make plane reservations to get him back to Washington…” Chris started.
“I wouldn’t suggest sending Mr. Tanner back home at this point in time,” Ezra said, still standing in the doorway.
“He needs his rest and time to recover…” Nathan started.
“Mason knows who he is an—”
“And what?” Buck challenged, his patience running short. “Vin had his throat slashed, Ezra, this isn’t a game anymore!”
Chris grabbed Buck’s shoulder and forced him to sit back down in his chair. “Don’t push me,” he challenged. He wasn’t in the mood.
“We’re chasing a ghost here, Chris!”
“I’ve called Travis and he’s agreed to send more men,” the team leader started. “They’ll stake out any place that Ezra thinks Mason might hide out or kill…right now it’s all we’ve got.”
“And in the mean time, someone else gets killed.” Buck clenched his jaw and forced himself to stare the profiler down…Ezra wasn’t playing his game.
“I don’t think it would be wise for anyone to travel alone…particularly that far a distance,” Ezra said, putting their minds back on Vin’s condition.
“This is your call, Nathan?” Chris said, looking toward the doctor.
“He needs rest, and an environment that’s low stress…nothing that’s going to get his heart racing. The jugular vein needs time to heal and the more stress it’s under the chances get higher that the stitches will fail.”
“Well, shit,” Buck said, shaking his head. “He’s only a federal agent…what’s the likelihood that he’d be under too much stress?”
A pillow was thrown across the room from Vin toward the tall man. The sharpshooter didn’t hide his displeasure while flipping everyone off in the room.
“Who said Vin couldn’t sign?” JD asked, laughing all the while.
Ezra chuckled with everyone else before slowly slipping from the room.
“So what do we do?” the kid questioned, needing answers.
“We find out from Ezra where he thinks this Mason sonofabitch is going,” Chris answered. “We keep Vin out of trouble,” he looked at the sharpshooter, “and we keep a lid on Buck’s anger.”
The ladies man rolled his eyes, not at all happy with the situation.
Ezra sat at the small table in the corner of his hotel room and played the tape Mason had sent, over and over again. He was trying to find something that would lead to the sociopath’s capture. Ezra had purchased a set of headphones so nobody else would have to hear the painstaking screams Sheryl Vicor had been forced to voice.
Pictures of her nude body lay exposed on the table…not only the ones Mason had taken, but the ones the police had done as well. Mason’s were the worst. Documenting her death, moment by moment. He emphasized the pain he could inflict, the torment he could offer. He was a doctor…he knew exactly how far he push someone before they died…and he took pleasure in that knowledge.
Sheryl had been a mother of three, two boys and a girl. She had worked full time as a waitress in a small truck stop diner, trying to make enough money so that her husband wouldn’t have to work 15 hours overtime per week at his job as an electrician. She was a loving mother whose only fault had been that she was too nice.
Ezra rubbed his brow and tossed the papers onto the table, frustrated with the fact that Mason was free to walk the streets and take a life at any given moment. How could he kill so ruthlessly? How could he take a life and walk away from them without remorse?
Because he didn’t feel their pain and he never would.
The light above the table flickered a moment before returning to its previous brightness. The pictures seemed haunted as their message was clearly interpreted. Ezra retrieved the photos taken from the crime scene of late. The woman, Mary Higgens, was young…too young, a college student making her way across country to visit her boyfriend in California.
She hadn’t made it.
Ezra suspected with great accuracy that she’d stopped to help a man…Mason, with a flat tire…perhaps engine trouble. She was alone, beautiful, and helpful…everything needed to become a victim. She offered to call someone from her cell phone for Mason, he told her no…it was just a matter of needing an extra set of hands…her hands.
“He drives a van,” Ezra said into his recorder. “That’s where he acts out his fantasies…but he doesn’t kill them there, he waits…until he finds the ‘right’ dumping ground. A place where the victims will be found relatively soon.” He looked again at the crime scene photographs. “He wants us to think that the he’s torturing them, on site.”
The profiler ran his fingers through his hair. “But why?” he asked himself. “Why the misgivings?”
He stood up, listening to the audiotape, trying to find something of value. “He wants the power of allusion. He wants us to know he’s in control.” Ezra picked up a photograph of Mary Higgens. “The victim is pointing north with her right hand and east with her left. She died from manual strangulation, Nathan’s autopsy report states her larynx was crushed…however, she was stabbed first.”
Ezra grabbed a map and pinned the image to it…hoping he could find something. He sat down and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. Looking at the images…at the signs. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty,” he said softly.
The stakes just went up.
Mason looked at the motel and smiled to himself. He knew who was in there. Slowly, he pulled his vehicle to a stop and slipped out, looking like anyone else. His jeans fit a little too loose, his shirt hung over his belt. Nobody turned to look at him…he just…blended, like a fly on a pile of manure. He reached up and flattened his mustache, he grinned, turning his lips upward.
The lights were dimmed, creating shadows in every corner and crevice. It was the perfect place for a killer to hide. He walked down the sidewalk toward the room, his bloody intentions written in his eyes for no one else to read but himself. He knew where his prey was hiding…he knew how to find him.
He knocked on the door, knowing he wouldn’t get an answer. The light seeping around the curtains told him that his victim was inside…perhaps taking a shower. He smiled, knocking again and leaving bloody prints on the door…he wanted everyone to know he’d been here.
The door crept open, having not been locked. Mason smiled, seeing his victim with his head buried in his arms…sound asleep. He moved closer, as though he were approaching a wild animal. Unlike the others, this one knew what to do…how to act. He reached out and grasped the shoulder in a firm grip…
Ezra felt the hand long before he heard the voice and he jerked awake, pulling his weapon from his shoulder holster and pointing it at the intruder. Sweat trickled down his face and past his eyes while his heart raced with all the power it could muster.
“JUDAS FUCKING PRIEST!” Buck yelled, jumping back while holding his hands in the air, only seeing the black barrel of Ezra’s side arm.
“Might I suggest you knock next time,” Ezra commented, trying to get his breathing under control while holstering his weapon.
Buck placed his hand over his heart and shook his head. “I did!” He looked up and at the table that was covered in pictures, the headset Ezra had been listening to had fallen and landed on the floor next to the air-conditioner. “You learn anything?” he asked sarcastically.
“What is it about me that you detest?” the profiler snapped, rubbing his eyes.
Buck stood back, surprised at the question.
“Do I remind you of someone?” Ezra looked hard at Buck.
Buck’s jaw clenched and he shook his head. “I always figured there was a difference between the bad guys and the rest of us…” he locked eyes with the Southerner, “…I just never figured we’d have to come down to their level to catch ‘em.”
Ezra nodded and gathered up the photographs of Mason’s last victims. “Does that scare you?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say it does.”
“Shit, Ezra,” Buck sighed, sitting down on the bed. He ran his fingers through his hair and scratched at his nose. “I held my hands to Vin’s neck two days ago and he came this close to dyin’,” he motioned with his fingers to show a small gap between his thumb and forefinger. “I don’t want to go through that again.” He looked up and met the profiler’s eyes. “Steven was my best friend…we used to go down to the batting cages and hit balls for hours at a time, just blowin’ off steam.” He lowered his gaze. “I’ve lost one friend this year…I can’t lose two.”
“You’re not telling me anything I didn’t already know.”
Buck stood up and looked around the meager room. “I never cared why people do what they do, I only want to punish the ones that break the law. It don’t matter much to me if serial killers are born or made, I just want them caught…”
“Then let me do my job,” Ezra replied sternly.
Buck’s jaw clenched and he nodded quickly. “I’ll lay off you, if you catch this guy?”
“That’s been my intention all along.”
“Maybe,” the ladies man agreed, “but we’re not any further than we were six days ago.”
Ezra nodded and rubbed his eyes. His lack of sleep was starting to wear on him. “How is Mr. Tanner?” he asked.
“He’s doin’ good…considering,” Buck replied. He slipped his hands into his back pockets and nodded. “You should come up to the hospital.”
Ezra sighed and shoved his files into his briefcase.
“How do you do it?” Buck asked, slightly nervous.
“You’ll have to be more specific—”
“You know what the hell I’m talkin’ about!”
Ezra paused and stood up straight. He looked hard at Buck, knowing the uncertainty he was feeling. “I don’t take pleasure getting inside of the victim’s mind or the perpetrators…but it’s what I’m good at. I know how you’d react in certain situations because I can read you like a book…”
“For instance?” Buck challenged.
“I know you loved you mother but at the same time you’re angry at her…not because of the way she died, but because she left you…alone.”
“You’re walkin’ a fuckin’ fine line here, Standish!”
Ezra shook his head and opened his briefcase and pulled out a file of photographs of the victims, before and after their deaths. “Sheryl Vicor of Carson City Nevada…wanting nothing more than to be a good mother and a good wife. She worked hard at everything she did… How different is she than your own mother, Buck? Not on the physical levels, or the way she died, but how she lived?”
Buck’s jaw clenched and he looked toward the floor.
“I want Mason as bad as anyone…but I can’t do it with you breathing down my neck—questioning my every move.”
Buck nodded: “Okay,” he agreed. He looked up and met the Southerner’s eyes.
Ezra turned and replaced the file into his briefcase. “What are Chris’ plans?”
“He’s still at the hospital with Vin. Nathan and Josiah went to finish up with the reports…signin’ shit. JD’s in the next room over, catching some Zs.”
“My mother was a great woman who died makin’ sure her son had food in his belly and clothes on his back…yeah, she left me…but she didn’t have a choice.” There was a distinct sadness in Buck’s tone, but he spoke bravely of his mother.
“Victims of violent crimes rarely do,” Ezra replied softly.
Buck turned shocked eyes toward the profiler. “How did you know?” His voice shook, and his eyes teared. “That information isn’t in my files.”
“You…in essence, told me,” Ezra replied softly.