Dying is a lonely thing.
Then again, so is living.
We all spend our lives alone inside our heart of hearts. However much we share with those we love, we always hold something back. Sometimes it’s a small thing, like a woman remembering a secret but long-gone love. She tells her husband she’s never loved anyone more than him, and she speaks the literal truth. But she has loved someone as much as him.
Sometimes it’s a big thing, a huge thing, a monster that cuddles up next to us and licks us between the shoulder blades. A man, while in college, witnesses a gang rape but never steps forward. Years later that man becomes the father of a daughter. The more he loves her, the worse the guilt, but still, still, still, he’ll never tell. Torture and death before that truth.
In the late hours, the ones when everyone’s alone, those secrets come knocking. Some knock hard and some knock soft, but, whispering or screeching, they come. No locked door will keep them out; they have the key to us. We speak to them or plead with them or scream at them and we wish we could tell them to someone, that we could get them off our chest to just one person and feel relief.
We toss in bed or we walk the halls or we get drunk or we get stoned or we howl at the moon. Then the dawn comes and we shush them up and gather them back into our heart of hearts and do our best to carry on with living. Success at that endeavor depends on the size of the secret and the individual.
Not everyone is built for guilt.
Young or old, man or woman, everyone has secrets. This I have learned, this I have experienced, this I know about myself.
I look down at the dead girl on the metal table and wonder: What secrets did you take with you that no one will ever know?
She’s far, far too young to be gone. In her early twenties. Beautiful. Long, dark, straight hair. She has skin the color of light coffee, and it looks smooth and flawless even under these harsh fluorescents. Pretty, delicate features go with the skin: vaguely Latin, I think, mixed with something else. Probably Anglo. Her lips have gone pale in death, but they are full without being too full, and I imagine them in a smile that was a precursor to a laugh; light but melodic. She’s small and thin through the sheet that covers her from the neck down.
The murdered move me. Good or bad, they had hopes and dreams and loves. They once lived, like all of us, in a world where the deck is stacked against living. Between cancer or crashes on the freeway or dropping dead of a heart attack with a glass of wine in your hand and a strangled smile on your face, the world gives us plenty of chances to die. Murderers cheat the system, help things along, rob the victims of something it’s already a fight to keep. This offends me. I hated it the first time I saw it and I hate it even more now.
I have been dealing with death for a long time. I am posted in the Los Angeles branch of the FBI and for the last twelve years I have headed up a team responsible for handling the worst of the worst in Southern California. Serial killers. Child rapists and murderers. Men who laugh as they torture women and then groan as they have sex with the corpses. I hunt living nightmares and it’s always terrible, but it’s also everywhere and inevitable.
Which is why I have to ask the question.
‘Sir? What are we doing here?’
Assistant Director Jones is my long-time mentor, my boss and the head of all FBI activities in Los Angeles. The problem though, the reason for my maybe callous query, is that we’re not in Los Angeles. We’re in Virginia, near Washington DC.This poor woman may be dead, the fact of her death may touch me, but she’s not one of mine.
He gives me a sideways glance, part thoughtful, maybe a little bit annoyed. AD Jones looks exactly like what he is: a veteran cop. He exudes law-enforcement and leadership. He’s got a square-jawed, strong face, hard, tired eyes, and a regulation haircut with no nod to style. He’s handsome in his way, with three past marriages to prove it, but there’s something guarded there. Shadows in a strongbox.
‘Command performance, Smoky,’ he says. ‘From the Director himself.’
I’m surprised by this on a few levels. The obvious is simple curiosity: why here, why me? The other is more complex: AD Jones’s compliance to this unusual request. He has always been that rarity in a bureaucracy, someone who questions orders with impunity if he feels it is warranted. He said ‘command performance’ but we wouldn’t be here if he didn’t feel there was a valid reason for it.
‘Yeah,’ he replies. ‘The Director dropped a name I couldn’t ignore.’
The door to the morgue swings open before I can ask the obvious question.
‘Speak of the devil,’ AD Jones mutters.
FBI Director Samuel Rathburn walks in alone, more strangeness; even before 9/11, FBI Directors traveled with an entourage. He walks up to us and it’s my hand he reaches out to shake first. I comply, bemused.
Looks like I’m the Queen of this ball. Why?
‘Agent Barrett,’ he says in that trademark, politically handy baritone. ‘Thank you for coming on such short notice.’
Sam Rathbun, otherwise known as ‘sir’, is a tolerable mix for an FBI Director. He has the necessary rugged good looks and political savvy, but he also has real experience behind him. He started as a cop, went to law school nights, and ended up in the FBI. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him ‘honest’ – his position precludes that luxury – but he only lies when he has to. This is integrity incarnate for a Director.
He’s reputed to be pretty ruthless, which would not surprise me, and is supposed to be a health nut. Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, no coffee, no soda, jogs five miles in the morning. Hey, everyone has their faults.
I have to angle my head to look up at him. I’m only four foot ten, so I’m used to this.
‘No problem at all, Director,’ I say, lying through my teeth.
Actually, it was a problem, a big fucking problem, but AD Jones will catch any fallout I generate by being difficult.
Rathbun nods at AD Jones. ‘David,’ he says.
I compare the two men with some interest. They’re both the same height. AD Jones has brown hair, cut short in that way that says, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ The Director’s is black, flecked with gray and styled, very handsome-older-man, mover-and-shaker. The AD is about eight years older than Director Rathbun and more worn around the edges for sure. The Director looks like the man who jogs in the morning and loves it; the AD looks like he could jog in the morning, but chooses to have a cigarette and a cup of coffee instead and fuck you if you don’t like it. The Director’s suit fits better and his watch is a Rolex. AD Jones wears a watch that he probably paid thirty dollars for ten years ago. The differences are notable but really, in spite of all of this, it’s the similarities that strike me.
Each has the same tired look to the eyes, a look that testifies to the carrying of secret burdens. They have card-players’ faces, continually holding things close to the vest.
Here are two men who would be hard to live with, I think. Not because they’re bad men, but because they’d operate on the assumption you knew they cared, and that would have to be enough. Love, but no flowers.
Director Rathbun turns to me, again. ‘I’ll get right to it, Agent Barrett. You’re here because I was asked to bring you by someone I’m not prepared to say no to.’
I glance at AD Jones, remembering his comment about how the Director had ‘dropped a name’.
‘Can I ask who?’
‘Soon.’ He nods at the body. ‘Tell me what you see.’
I turn to the body and force myself to focus.
‘Young woman, in her early twenties. Possible victim of homicide.’
‘What makes you say homicide?’
I indicate a series of bruises on her left upper arm. ‘The bruises are red-purple, which means they’re very recent. See the outlines? Those bruises were caused by a hand. You have to grip someone pretty hard to cause bruising as defined as that. She’s cool to the touch meaning she’s been dead at least twelve hours, probably more like twenty with the visible bruising. Rigor hasn’t left the body, meaning she’s been dead less than thirty-six.’ I shrug. ‘She’s young, and someone grabbed her arm hard enough to bruise not long before she died. Suspicious.’ I give him a wry smile. ‘Oh yeah, and I’m here, which means she probably didn’t die of natural causes.’
lsquo;Good eyes, as expected,’ he says. ‘And you’re correct. She was murdered. On a commercial airliner as it headed from Texas to Virginia. No one knew she was dead until after the plane was empty and the stewardess tried to rouse her.’
I stare at him, certain he’s pulling my leg. ‘Murder at 30,000 feet? Is that a joke, sir?’
‘How do we know she was murdered?’
‘The nature of how she was found made it clear. But I want you to see it all fresh, with no preconceptions.’
I turn back to the body, truly intrigued now. ‘When did this happen?’
‘Her body was discovered twenty hours ago.’
‘Do we have a cause of death yet?’
‘The autopsy hasn’t been done.’ He glances at his watch. ‘In fact, we’re waiting for the ME now. He’s probably held up signing non-disclosure forms.’
This oddity brings me back to my original question, and I ask it again. ‘Why me, sir? More appropriately – why you? What is it about this woman that warrants direct involvement from the Director of the FBI?’
‘I’m about to tell you. But first, I want you to see something. Humor me.’
Like I have a choice.
He goes over to the body and lifts the sheet away from her chest. He holds it up.
‘Take a look,’ he says.
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