Chapter 3 — Chasing Ghosts
Getting lectured by his boss wasn’t exactly new, but Jeremy sure seemed to be making a habit of it lately.
”You diverted another task force to investigate a fucking Rallsburg lead?” Aderholt asked, holding up his requisition paperwork.
Jeremy shrugged. Only doing my job, Mr. Station Chief sir. “Thought we had something.”
”The entire thing’s a dead end, Ashe. Drop the case and let the locals chalk it up to their own stats. If those dumb fucks even keep stats. We’ve got more important work on our plates than a freak accident.”
”Sir, it was never ruled as an accident,” Lani put in.
”Do you want to get promoted out of this pit someday, Makaio?”
”Yes, sir, but Jeremy’s right.” Thanks, Lani. Doesn’t really accomplish much, but thanks. “We had several tips called in from Redmond that matched the description of one of the unconfirmed deceased.”
”Ryan Walker, the prep kid from Walla Walla,” Jeremy replied.
Aderholt shook his head. “A blonde haired blue eyed white college kid shows up in tech town. Go fucking figure. Was there anything legitimate in those reports?”
”No, sir,” Jeremy answered, before Lani could speak up.
”Look,” Aderholt started, calming down. “I get it. This shit’s still weird as fuck and no one’s come up with an answer. Fire’s stumped, staties are stumped, God Almighty himself is stumped. We all feel like we’ve lost this one. But there’s nothing new. We haven’t stepped in a single turd of evidence since May. So unless you’ve got something actionable, you’ve got to stop diverting resources. We don’t get enough funding for what we can put away. I can’t have you spending it on crap that’s never going anywhere.”
”Yes, sir.” He’s not exactly wrong. I might be taking this personally. But fuck him, I’m not givin’ up on her yet.
He glanced down at the form again. “What about this kid required a full ten man tac squad to bring him in, anyway? You can’t take out a single twenty two year old guy on your own?”
Jeremy shrugged. “Like you said, sir. We’ve had no leads in months. I wasn’t going to let it get away.”
He sighed. “Kid’s dead, Ashe. They all are.”
”Haven’t been declared that way yet, sir.”
”Don’t remind me,” Aderholt groaned. “I’ve got a shit-ton of pressure to declare that Price kid dead so the state can reclaim their assets.” He sighed. “It’s just a formality though Ashe. Drop it. Time to move on to something else.”
As soon as they’d returned to their office and closed the door, Lani spoke up. “Why didn’t you mention it?”
”Because it could still be nothing.” Jeremy sat down and pulled up his email. The IT guys had finally sent him access to the rest of the video dumps and he was looking forward to a lazy, dull afternoon watching them all and listening to some music. It’s better than paperwork or heading out into the heat, anyway.
”But the report in Redmond said the guy’s wallet had an ID with Ryan Walker stamped right on it. She even had the matching number from the DMV.”
”And when we checked the footage, he looked nothing like the social media pictures,” Jeremy pointed out. “We couldn’t track him down. The barista could have been wrong. Or just an attention seeker. Or someone stole Walker’s ID before this went down. Plenty of reasons.”
Lani frowned. “You’re the one that wanted to sprint down there at a moment’s notice to check it out.”
He shrugged. “And I was wrong. It’s not like it’s the first time.”
Lani sighed and went back to his desk. “At least we got out of the office for a while. It’s been so nice out this week.”
”Didn’t you live on Maui ’til you were twenty one?” Jeremy loaded up the next video on his list and leaned back in his chair, settling into his practiced surveillance stupor. “It’s just been ‘less cloudy than usual’.”
”I’ve been up here five years now, I can still appreciate the change.”
With just one earbud, Jeremy queued up his playlist where he’d left off. He wished he could listen to his music properly, but Aderholt would tear him a new asshole if he missed a call. He flicked the switch to mono sound and grated at the flattened sound. He was just starting to find a groove when Lani interrupted.
”What are you doing now?”
Lani frowned. “I get that you’re happy out here, but I’ve got a career too. They partnered us so I’d learn the ropes from you. Everyone says you’re actually really good at this, but it’s been six months now.”
”So why’d they put me in the least important station of the NSB?” he murmured, not taking his eyes off the screen.
”That was your handiwork, wasn’t it?”
Jeremy paused the video, glancing up. “Hmm?”
”I dug up your old files. You requested this station.”
”Huh, so I did.” Jeremy’s hand hovered over the play button, but he didn’t click it quite yet. He was curious to see where Lani was going with this.
”No one at this level just gets the station they want like that, no questions asked. Either you’re really good at what you do or you’ve got something on the higher ups.”
”Both good guesses.”
”So which is it?”
”You forgot the normal answer. Maybe I just pissed off the wrong director, but he didn’t have the clout or the balls to fire me so he threw me to the ass-end of nowhere, at ‘my request’.” He added air quotes around the last two words with his fingers.
Lani winced. “…Okay, that’s definitely possible.”
Jeremy cracked a smile. “You want to get somewhere in this business? Treat your boss like the fuckin’ king, and make sure you find all the dirt on him you possibly can.” He resumed the video, leaving Lani to stew over his words for a bit.
Lani, of course, wouldn’t give up that easily. Right as Jeremy was getting into the music again, he stood up and walked over to his desk. “The traffic camera videos?”
”We had two full teams go over every inch of those. What are you supposed to find that they didn’t?”
”I’ll know it when I see it.”
Lani sighed. “This isn’t just another way to kill time, is it?”
No, it really isn’t. “Everything’s a way to kill time.”
”Do you mind if I work on the Chancer case then? I’ve got calls to make.”
”Go for it, won’t bother me.”
Lani made his phone calls and did his paperwork, while Jeremy just sat and watched footage. In truth, he thought he was probably wasting time just like Lani said. He wasn’t about to find anything in the endless clips of highway and intersection recordings from the nights around May 16th. Nothing related happened anywhere, according to the neatly collated reports from the tech team. There were two collisions they’d spotted from civilian cameras, plus a burglary in progress and one assault captured on corporate security footage, but they weren’t allowed to disclose any of that. Their jurisdiction was strictly the potential of a terrorist attack or other foreign operation on the small town of Rallsburg. Any crimes outside that window would go unreported, since the files were only handed over under that specific court order.
Jeremy felt a pang of guilt at the couple of assaults he witnessed, and mentally filed away the perpetrators for later pursuit. He’d make sure they were picked up one day on another charge. In the meantime, he’d crawl through every second of recorded video he could stomach. Whether it was the crisp, clean corporate feeds or the barely-usable intersection cameras, Jeremy wasn’t giving up on her yet.
Days dragged by. Lani handled the caseload for the both of them without a single complaint. His young partner was indefatigable, while all Jeremy wanted to do was stay rooted in the comfortable chairs provided by the taxpayers and handle everything from his nice, air-conditioned office. Lani was in and out frequently, and while he did occasionally ask Jeremy for help on protocol or procedure, they rarely spoke otherwise. It was all business, exactly how Jeremy preferred it.
They’d sent him every single piece of camera footage they could find in every direction exiting Rallsburg, both the few days before and after the fifteenth. In the month immediately following the discovery, a dedicated team had gone through every inch of the recordings practically frame by frame, looking for anything that might be of use. The only overhead camera they could find was a snapshot of a satellite mapping the area for NASA, but it had been taking wide shots and didn’t produce anything useful. Nor did the many cameras they’d lifted from the ground — as far as anyone could tell, the entire region had been totally, painfully normal for those five days in May.
So what the hell happened?
Jeremy leaned back in his chair on a sunny Monday morning in September, staring at a still frame of St. Peter Hospital in Olympia. The night before on May 14th, two ambulance helicopters had been dispatched to Rallsburg. One had returned with two patients and two passengers. The first patient died on the flight from a gunshot wound, with his name listed as John Doe and whose remains were never identified. The second patient was reportedly missing the lower third of her leg, and was treated on site before getting lifted to the hospital. She was expected to recover given time. Those two were accompanied by a young woman and a man, all of whom refused to give their names.
The other helicopter had borne a single passenger. William Carbonell, age twenty-two, former student of Rallsburg University and current resident of the town. His medical records read like an anatomy inventory with the sheer number of broken or heavily bruised areas. Given the twisted state of some of the corpses they’d found in Rallsburg, Jeremy suspected he was the best link they had to whatever actually occurred — but before anyone had even noticed what had happened to the town, William Carbonell had vanished without a trace along with the other three.
Hospital security showed no one exiting their floor. The girl who had accompanied the amputee had entered both rooms in the middle of the night, but other than that… nothing. They successfully identified her as Nicole Parsons, age twenty and a native resident of Rallsburg, but nothing else useful. When the nurse had gone to check on Will at five the next morning, they found his bed empty and the equipment disconnected without tripping a single alarm.
William Carbonell and Nicole Parsons were the only two residents of Rallsburg currently presumed alive, but despite making every major watchlist across the country, neither had shown their faces since that night.
The hospital had to have the answer. It was the only real lead. Jeremy had personally interviewed every single member of staff on shift that night, but none of them witnessed anything. The helicopter teams had reported smoke from the northern fire, but it was extinguished before they touched down. One of the EMTs also reported seeing a wolf at the scene where they picked up the gunshot victim. Jeremy wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he’d kept it in mind all the same. Wolf markings weren’t on any of the victims in town, so it didn’t seem to connect to anything else.
What am I missing?
Their office phone rang. Jeremy was still staring at the hospital, lost in thought, and Lani picked it up for him. “Jeremy.”
”Someone on the line for you.”
”Tell ’em I’ll call back.”
”…It’s your sister.”
Jeremy looked up, surprised. He picked up the phone on his desk. “Thanks, Lani.” Lani gave him a thumbs up before returning to his own work. Jeremy put the phone to his ear. “Maddie?”
”Hey, little bro,” said Madelaine Ashe. “How’s it going?”
”I’m fine. Just bored. What’s up?”
”I’m in town, thought you might want to get lunch.”
He glanced at the clock. Sure enough, it was already one thirty. He suddenly realized how hungry he was. “Same place as always?”
”Last one there is buyin’.”
Jeremy saw her sprinting down the sidewalk at the opposite end of the street and made a final blitz for the door. They both reached it at about the same time, and Jeremy slapped it. “I win,” he huffed.
”As if,” Maddie shot back. “Luke, tell ‘im.”
Luke, the proprietor of the small grill, just rolled his eyes. “How about we call it a draw and I charge you both what you order.”
Maddie grinned. “You know, you just don’t get that sort of straight compromise in my line of work anymore. Sound good, Jeremy?”
”Fine,” Jeremy said, still catching his breath.
”Come on, you can’t be that beat. Don’t they make you stay in shape in the FBI?”
”I’m forty two and not getting any younger.” Jeremy stretched out his legs, definitely feeling the consequences of mostly working a desk for the past six months. “Give me some slack.”
”Whatever.” Maddie handed her card to Luke. “I’ll buy. Jere-bear needs some real food to keep up with his big sister. The usual, please. Is our table open?”
”Reserved it for you,” Luke replied with a crooked smile.
”Luke you rascal, you spied on my calendar didn’t you?” Maddie said in mock-outrage. “Is nothing sacred anymore?”
”I keep up with my best customers, miss.” Luke turned and walked back through to the kitchen, tossing a towel back on his shoulder as he went. “And my favorite senators.”
She laughed. “Thanks, Luke.”
Two healthy servings of grilled pork later and Maddie was leaning back in her chair with a satisfied smile. “Perfecto.“
”So why aren’t you in D.C.?” Jeremy asked, stirring the ice around in his water idly. “Isn’t this an election year?”
”It’s always a goddamn election year,” Maddie replied cheerfully. “I wanted to come home for a bit. See how you were doing.”
Jeremy saw right through the lie. “Like hell you did. You here for the devil’s blessing?”
”A woman can’t multitask?” Maddie shrugged. “I don’t need her endorsement to win. If anything, she needs mine now. The polls love me.”
”A Democratic senator in Washington is beloved by her people. What a stunnin’ development.”
”Forty years ago my election would have been very unlikely.”
”Forty years ago you were just out of diapers and I was biting everyone I met.” Jeremy shrugged. “People change.”
”Not all of them,” Maddie sighed. “Maybe not enough of them, either.”
”So fuck ’em.”
”That’s a lot of goddamn people,” she shot back. “I’m supposed to represent them all, and do it without becoming a corrupt bitch-ass senator like everyone else. You know how many fucking lobbyists have tried to buy me off in the last five years?”
”Yes. You’ve called me after every single one.”
Maddie laughed. “Not all of them, or you’d never have a moment of silence. A lot of ’em get handled by my staff. Those are just the ones who pay enough to get my personal number.”
”Must be nice to have a staff.”
”What, Lani isn’t your staff?” Her eyes twinkled.
Jeremy shook his head. “He’s my partner, and a damn good one.”
”Careful, you sound like you’re a fat old detective.” She downed her drink and signaled Luke for a refill. “You’re right though. Lani’s a good one. I trust him with my little brother.”
”I’d hope you did. He asked you to stop by, didn’t he?”
Maddie nearly dropped the glass right after Luke handed it to her. “How—”
Jeremy shrugged. “He’s not exactly quiet on the phone.”
She sighed. “Goddamnit, Lani.” Her face fell, drifting into a concerned frown from the light tone she’d been trying to maintain. “He’s worried about you.”
”Is he now?”
”Jeremy, don’t just play this one off. Should I be worried about you?”
He shrugged again. “I’m just trying to solve a case.”
”A dead case.”
”Didn’t you get reamed for this shit too? Happened right in your backyard. I watched that C-SPAN video.”
”You actually watched C-SPAN?”
”Okay, I watched the talk show summary.”
”Nearly gave me a heart attack.”
”I did watch your whole first day on the floor.”
Maddie grinned. “I remember. I believe you called it ‘the finest example of why nothing ever gets done in the world.'”
”So it’s a broke-ass system with tons of flaws that haven’t been fixed in centuries. You got a better idea?”
Jeremy stared down at the ice cubes in his glass, watching one of them melt just enough to drift around to the top. “Nope. Why do you think I went into enforcement? I don’t want to be the fuckface figuring out the rules.”
”You stick with what you do best, I’ll take care of making sure you’re doing the right thing.”
”Thanks, Maddie.” Her phone buzzed, but she just silenced the ringer and set it aside. He raised his eyebrows. “Shouldn’t you take that?”
”It can wait.” She folded her arms across her chest sternly. “I gotta know, are you good?”
”‘Course I am.”
Maddie’s expression softened. “Jeremy, it’s just you and me. Why are you still all over this case? Shouldn’t you have passed it down to state by now?”
”We’re still calling it a terrorist action, so it’s still mine.”
”You could get them to release it if you wanted. I’d support you.”
Maddie shook her head. “You don’t want to.”
”Christ Almighty, Jeremy, what are we doin’?”
”I have to know what happened.”
”That ain’t you,” Maddie said firmly. “I know you, Jere-bear. You drop cases all the damn time if you think they’re no good. This one’s dead as they come. What’s different?”
”…Did you look at the list of names?”
”I skimmed it. Why?”
Jeremy pulled out his phone and pulled up the list. He never had it further than a few taps away. After scrolling down to the middle, he highlighted the name and handed it over. “Recognize it?”
”Jacqueline Nossinger… Shit, that Jackie?”
He nodded. “Same one.”
”Your old partner was in fucking Rallsburg?” Maddie pressed her hands to her forehead in exasperation. “Christ, Jeremy, why didn’t you say something?”
”Because you’ve got enough on your plate.”
”After what she did for me? Shit, I woulda sent the whole goddamn national guard down there to find her.”
”It’s a good thing you don’t command them.”
Maddie sighed and leaned back. “Well, how the fuck can I tell you to cool off now? You’re trying to find a woman I owe my goddamn life to.”
”Whatever you need, Jeremy. I don’t have a whole lot of pull on the oversight committee, but I can try to leverage DOJ for funding. You just say the word.”
”I don’t have anything,” he replied dejectedly.
”Nothing new since May.”
”Oh…” Maddie’s eyes widened slightly. “You don’t think she’s—”
”She’s not,” Jeremy interrupted. “She’s actually in the system unlike most of the town. None of the remains we found match her at all by DNA, dental or fingerprinting. As far as we know, she’s just missing.”
”Thank God.” She glanced around, as if she were worried they might be overheard. Their usual table at Luke’s was in the back corner, though, and the booth had thick walls. “Should you be on this case? Is it a conflict of interest?”
”We don’t even have a suspect. Conflicts of interest are more about making sure a case gets through trial.” Jeremy shook his head. “You’ve spent way too much time in D.C.”
”For sure.” Maddie reached out and took his hand. “Are you doing okay, though?”
”I’m not giving up on this one yet.”
”Okay.” She smiled. “Then I’m not giving up yet either.” Her phone buzzed again, startling them both. Maddie glared at it. “Damn it, I’m trying to have a moment with my brother. I silenced you, you piece of shit.”
”Who’s calling, anyway?”
”Probably another fucking lobbyist.” She picked it up and looked at the number. “Shit…”
”The devil herself,” Maddie sighed. She showed him the name. Courtney Milton, the current governor of Washington — and their older half-sister. “I have to—”
Jeremy stood up. “How long are you in town?”
”I fly out Friday night. Four whole days with your favorite sister in town,” Maddie grinned. “After I pay the devil her due,” she added, glaring down at the still-buzzing phone.
”You got somewhere to stay?”
”Well, there’s a few hotels to choose from…”
Jeremy sighed. The phone finally stopped buzzing, giving them some peace. “Come stay at my place.”
”You sure? I’m gonna be making a lot of phone calls. I don’t want to keep you up.”
The phone vibrated a third time. “Holy shit, would you give us a minute?” Maddie practically shouted at her buzzing phone. She gave him a quick wave goodbye before the inevitable shouting match began. Jeremy waved back as Maddie reluctantly pressed the phone to her ear, before he turned to head out into the bright afternoon sun and back to his office once again.
”You’re fired, Lani,” Jeremy said as he wandered back into their office. Lani looked up from whatever case he was working on now, surprised.
”As my sister’s spy. You’ve been canned. Next time, just tell her to call me straight, okay?”
Lani smiled. “Went well, then?”
”Yes, you’re both nosy as fuck. Now let me get back to work.”
His face fell. “You’re not done with the case?”
”Hell no, I’m just getting started.”
Lani sighed. “So it went terribly.”
”For you.” Jeremy pulled up the video files again and jumped right back to the night that Will and company had vanished from the hospital. Lani’s phone rang, interrupting his train of thought. Right as I’m getting settled in. He started watching the video again, trying to ignore Lani’s conversation.
A few minutes later, Lani was snapping his fingers for Jeremy’s attention. “What?”
Lani pointed at the phone insistently a few times before hitting the speaker button. A vaguely familiar voice echoed out. “—and normally we wouldn’t call you guys, but it was just way too similar.”
”What was too similar?” Jeremy asked.
”Lani? Is that your partner?”
”Yes. Could you start over, Dave? Sorry,” Lani said apologetically.
”Like I was saying. We found another victim with the same type of massive bludgeoning wounds and avulsions as the original victims. It matches the pattern we saw.”
”Saw where?” Jeremy asked.
”Dave was the forensic team lead,” Lani reminded him with the mute button held down. He released it. “You found another victim? Does it match anyone from the lists?”
”Yeah. Jerry Hauserman.”
Jeremy’s mind flew through his mental dossier. “The ex-con?”
”That’s the one.”
Did this really need a phone call? “Well, that’s one more off our list then, I guess. Thanks for the heads up.”
”I’m sorry, that wasn’t why I called. When we found him yesterday, Hauserman had only been dead for forty-eight hours. Maybe less.”
Jeremy and Lani looked at each other at the same instant. Jeremy spoke first, just as Lani was opening his mouth. “Where?”
They didn’t get any helicopters this time. In fact, Jeremy hadn’t even bothered to report the excursion after the last few turned out so poorly. Lani drove them out himself, enduring the rough traffic in the afternoon to get them all the way out to Olympia. Jeremy briefly considered stopping at the hospital for another look, but the heat of the chase had them both excited for the first time in months. This felt like a real lead, a dash of hope when he’d been searching fruitlessly for months now.
Dave met them outside the lab, ushering them in through a side door. “We’re trying to keep it quiet for now,” he explained as they walked. “You remember the hysteria the first time around. If news gets out that someone was found…”
”Who found him?” Jeremy asked, taking out a pocket notebook.
”Park ranger. He’s here if you want to interview him. It was just a routine patrol though, I think. He didn’t have a clue what he was looking at. No one did until they got him down to us.” Dave lead them straight into the examination room.
”Jesus, he looks like a contortionist,” murmured Lani. He bowed his head slightly in respect.
Jerry Hauserman was laid out on the nearest table. His back was nearly bent in half. One arm was torn clean off, and a hole the size of a cinder block was punched straight through his chest. His face had been beaten in to the point that it was barely recognizable.
Jeremy turned to the forensic scientist. “You identified him by DNA?”
”He was on file from the last time he was in prison, voluntary submission to clear his name on another case. Didn’t take much to match up.” Dave frowned. “I still have no clue what could do something like this.”
”Have the rangers been sweeping the forest?”
”Yes. Started about eight hours ago. Scott found him this morning and the sweep started an hour later.”
Jeremy nodded. “We’ll talk to the ranger, and then we’re heading out there.” He glanced over at Lani. “You good?”
Lani lifted his head again and opened his eyes. “Let’s go.”
As expected, Jeremy didn’t get much out of the park ranger’s interview. He found the corpse in the woods during a routine patrol, just as Dave had said. There didn’t seem to be any particular reason Jerry Hauserman was in that part of the forest, though it was on a trail that lead close to Rallsburg if followed for a dozen miles. Real progress would have to come from the array of rangers now trawling through the thick Olympic forest south of Rallsburg.
Jeremy and Lani joined one of the south-most groups, riding up as far as Lani’s jeep could take them. When the terrain became too steep, they dismounted and continued on foot, catching up to the rangers ahead in short order thanks to radio communications and satellite locating. The wonders of modern technology.
”What do you think we’ll find out here?” Lani asked as they followed a few steps behind the line of rangers.
”You think a person did all this?”
Jeremy climbed over a huge tree root blocking the path, feeling once again how out of shape he was. He resolved to get back into his workout regimen from training as soon as they returned to Seattle. “This confirms it.”
”In Rallsburg you had a ton of fires, explosions, a wrecked town and a bunch of unexplained bodies. Could have been an accident, could have been on purpose. We had no clue.” Jeremy paused for a moment while they waited for one of the rangers to return the latest call out. When he finally did, to a chorus of relieved voices, Jeremy continued. “Jerry Hauserman escaped whatever the hell happened there. He ran for it, then he somehow survived months on his own hidin’ out here. Until they found him.”
”Whoever can do that to people. Tear them up like ragdolls. This was the killer catching the rest of his prey.” Jeremy looked him dead in the eye. “There might be more bodies out here we ain’t found yet, if anyone else managed to make a run for it and got hunted down.”
”How many were we missing?”
”Twenty one missin’ from the total count. Twenty now, since we’ve found Hauserman.”
”You think they’re all dead?”
I hope not. “We’ll find out. That’s our job, remember?”
Unfortunately for the agents, they found nothing but trees that evening in the sweep. After five miles and the sun completely vanishing below the horizon, they finally gave in. The ranger in charge promised to begin a new sweep further north as soon as the sun came back up. Lani thanked them for their time while Jeremy waited for the backup to arrive and drive them back to their jeep.
It had been a long, hard hike for nothing whatsoever and he was getting increasingly frustrated. He should have been used to it after so many months without an inch of progress, but between the conversation with Maddie and the surprise lead in the form of Hauserman’s death, Jeremy had an itch he hadn’t felt in months. There was a real investigation for him to pursue.
Lani drove them back along dark, sparsely populated streets, through Olympia and Tacoma and back into the Seattle area. He dropped Jeremy at his condo, promising to write up the new report for their agitated chief in the morning.
Jeremy dragged himself inside and collapsed on the couch.
”What happened to you?” asked Maddie, pajama-clad and holding a mug of tea. She walked over from the small kitchen and sat down opposite the couch in his favorite lounge chair.
”Hiked five miles with the rangers and remembered how much I hate hiking,” Jeremy grumbled into the pillow.
”With the rangers?”
”New lead.” He rolled over and popped open his laptop on the coffee table, booting it up. “Someone got killed in the same way as those strange deaths in Rallsburg, but it was only two days ago.”
Maddie’s eyes widened. “So that means—”
”He’s not done yet.”
”Jesus Christ,” she murmured. “You’re chasing a serial killer?”
”Maybe. I don’t know what this is yet.” Jeremy connected his laptop to the secure tunnel and opened up his work desktop. He started to pull up his notes to record everything from the day, but stopped. The video of the hospital was still open, right where he’d left it, and it reminded him of a nagging question in his skull about Hauserman.
”Why didn’t he show up anywhere?” he muttered out loud.
”The guy we found tonight.” Jeremy spoke up. He wasn’t normally the type to bounce his thoughts off other people, but his sister Maddie was definitely smarter than him and could often spot connections he never quite made. “Jerry Hauserman. He was out there in the woods for four months. Why didn’t he try to go back to civilization?”
”Maybe he tried to go home? Back to Rallsburg?”
”He was found so far south he may as well have been out of the forest. He was a bit malnourished, but definitely alive until they caught up to him.”
”And murdered him.”
”Yeah.” Jeremy leaned back on the couch, trying to think. “What’s the motivation here? Revenge? Terrorism? Just a random psychopath?”
”Can’t be terrorism.”
Jeremy resisted the urge to make a sarcastic quip. “Why?”
Maddie sipped her tea, looking queasy. “Terrorism is about achieving a political goal through violence and fear. The killer hasn’t said a word. No message, no agenda, no beliefs or anything. He’s killing all the people from that town and we ain’t got a fuckin’ clue on why. If he’s a terrorist, he’s a shitty one. He’s not accomplishing anything.”
”Not terrorism, then,” Jeremy agreed. He looked down at the hospital video, the only other clue he had to go on. Maddie came around to sit next to him so she could see the screen as well. “You know you aren’t supposed to do that.”
”So turn me in,” she said lightly, reaching forward to tap the mouse. “This is security camera footage?”
”From St. Peter Hospital in Olympia.”
”Where that kid disappeared. Will-something?”
”William Carbonell. Plus three others, and one body left behind we couldn’t identify.”
”They made it out,” she said, taking another sip of tea. “They’re running from something.”
”Because they’ve got something to hide,” Jeremy realized aloud. “Something happened in that town, they all knew about it and the killer’s suppressing it.”
”And the guy from today?”
”Hauserman couldn’t show up anywhere because he knew if he did, we’d bring him in. We’d question him and he can’t answer those questions.” Jeremy felt the tingle in his chest, a signal to his brain that he’d stumbled onto a piece of the truth. “They’re all hiding from us as much as they are from the killer.”
”Sounds right to me.” Maddie yawned. “What’s next, though?”
”I don’t know,” he said, feeling a bit defeated after the revelation only a moment before. “It feels right but it doesn’t put me any closer to finding them or the killer. The rangers will keep sweeping the forest, but they don’t need me for that.”
”You’ll figure it out,” she reassured him. Her phone buzzed, but this time she picked it up and chucked it across the room to the chair she’d vacated. “They can go fuck themselves for the rest of the night.”
He smiled. “So how did your dance with the devil go?”
”When was the last time you spoke to that old bitch?” Maddie sighed and leaned back against the end of the couch, stretching out her legs. “She wants me to go stump for her, just like I thought. I’m the one up for election this year and she wants me to help her.”
”Courtney in a nutshell,” Jeremy agreed. “Did she at least offer to return the favor?”
”Fuck no!” Maddie laughed bitterly. “How the fuck did she ever get elected without understanding quid pro quo?”
”Money, rich old fucks on her father’s side, a total willingness to backstab anyone she meets?”
”Right, I forgot, she fucking cheated.”
Jeremy grinned. “Go easy on her, she never learned how to make friends.”
”Because we’re the poster children for loveable public figures.”
”You did manage to recruit my goddamn partner into your web,” he pointed out.
She laughed. “You oughta treat Lani better. He’s a good kid. He cares about you.”
”Unlike a certain sister.” Maddie chucked a pillow at him, which he dodged easily. He got up and headed for the kitchen. “Did you save any of that tea for me?”
”Check the stove, you asshat,” Maddie shot back. She stretched out languorously on the couch with an exaggerated sigh. Jeremy returned with his mug of tea to find the entire thing occupied. He promptly sat down right on her legs. “Hey!”
”You took my spot.” He picked up the laptop while Maddie twisted awkwardly around to get her legs free again. She finally managed to sit up again while he clicked play on the video once again. He wasn’t really expecting to see anything, but it had become such a habit to watch it any time he felt idle.
”I can see why you’d watch C-SPAN when this is your go-to home video,” Maddie said dryly, watching the silent, almost unchanging footage over his shoulder. “What happened to just turning on some porn before bed?”
”Says the Pornography Senator.”
”Freedom of speech, bitch,” Maddie said triumphantly. “I’m just protecting their rights.”
”They aren’t even your constituents. No one makes porn in Washington.”
”I got a lot of good press off that one in my base though. Since I’m a middle aged single woman with no family, I take whatever I can get.”
”Congrats,” Jeremy deadpanned. “Meanwhile, you got tarred and feathered on national news.”
”Yeah, but who cares about that anymore? As long as you’re still getting your votes, the news can say whatever it damn wants. Half the people watching don’t even believe it anymore.”
”Doesn’t that say something about your base, though?”
”That they don’t trust national news anymore?”
”Oh, Jere-bear,” said Maddie sadly. “It’s so much more complicated than that.”
”Explain it to me sometime, then,” he said mildly, clicking over to the next video. The timestamp had run out of the first one, putting them somewhere in the middle of the night on the fifteenth — right around when Will disappeared. He was working through every video following last sighting of Nicole inside the hospital, one street at a time as far out as they had access to.
”Ask me again when it’s not one in the goddamn morning.”
”You could’ve gone to sleep.” Something caught Jeremy’s eye. He paused the video.
”And miss out on such scintillating conversation with my little brother?”
”Word a day app?”
”No, McDonough used in a floor speech a couple days ago.”
Jeremy zoomed in on a portion. It was painfully blurry, but he could still make out enough detail. The shot was from the street six blocks away from the hospital, facing east. A police cruiser was passing underneath. The camera only shot in black and white and it was incredibly grainy, but he’d definitely spotted something.
”What is it?” Maddie asked, noticing his change in posture.
”It’s the Olympia five-oh. What about ’em?”
”It’s not,” Jeremy said firmly. He pulled up a picture to compare. “The color scheme is wrong.”
”The video’s in black and white.”
”The shades are wrong. Look.” He opened a photo of the typical cruiser in an image editor and dropped the saturation down to zero. When he brought them next to each other, it was clear — the squad car in the video wasn’t a normal police vehicle. He picked up a state cruiser picture as well, just to be sure.
”So it’s an old car with a paint job or some shit.”
Jeremy could see just enough detail on the rear of the car now. “Those scratches. On the rear bumper on the left side. That bullet hole just below the back window.” He pointed each of them out as he spoke. The bullet hole looked like gunk on the camera lens until he pointed it out specifically frame-by-frame in the four frames they had recorded before the car passed out of view. “I know that goddamn car.“
He took a deep breath. “I rode around in it for years. I was there when we popped the trunk to duck that shooter. That’s Jackie Nossinger’s cruiser. I’d bet my fucking life on it.”