Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER THREE)
Tavia recognized the federal agents, men she'd first been introduced to in the hours following the recent shooting at the senator's party. She nodded to the group in greeting as she stepped farther into the room.
It was movie-theater dark inside, the only light coming from the oversized pane of glass that looked into the empty lineup area on the other side. Overhead fluorescent panels bathed the room in a stark white glow that didn't make the place any more inviting. A height measurement chart traveled the length of the back wall, with the numbers 1 through 5 stenciled in evenly placed intervals above the seven-foot mark.
The detective gestured to one of several vinyl-upholstered chairs positioned in front of the large window. "We'll be starting soon, Ms. Fairchild. Have a seat, if you like."
"I'd prefer to stand," she replied. "And please, Detective Avery, call me Tavia."
He nodded, then strode over to a watercooler and countertop coffeemaker in the far corner. "I'd offer you coffee, but it's nasty even when it's freshly made. End of the day like this, it's worse than crude oil." He put a paper cup under the watercooler dispenser and pushed the lever. The clear jug belched a few big bubbles as the cup filled. "House white," he said, turning to hold the water out to her. "Yours, if you'd like it."
"No, thank you." Although she appreciated his efforts to make her feel at ease, she wasn't interested in pleasantries or delays. She had a job to do here, and a laptop full of schedules, spreadsheets, and presentations to be reviewed once she got home. Normally she didn't mind long hours of work that spilled into long nights of the same. God knew, she didn't have to worry about a social life getting in the way.
But she was on edge tonight, feeling the strange mix of mental hyperintensity and physical exhaustion that always dogged her after a round of treatments and examinations at her doctor's private clinic. She'd been under her specialist's care for most of the day, and while she wasn't thrilled about having to make an evening pit stop at the police station, part of her was anxious to see firsthand that the man who'd opened fire on a crowded room of people a few nights ago and then went on to orchestrate a bombing in the heart of the city this morning was, in fact, behind bars where he belonged.
Tavia walked closer to the viewing window and gave it an experimental tap with her fingernail. "This glass must be fairly thick."
"Yep. Quarter-inch safety." Avery met her there and took a sip of water. "It's one-way glass, looks like a mirror on the other side. We can see them, but they can't see us. Same goes for audio; our room is soundproof, but we have speakers tuned in to monitor their side. So when the bad guys are standing against that wall out there, you don't have to worry about any of them being able to ID you or hear anything you say."
"I'm not worried." Tavia felt nothing but resolve as she met the middle-age man's eyes over the rim of the Dixie cup. She glanced at the other officers and agents. "I'm ready to do this. I want to do this."
"Okay. Now, in just a minute, a couple of officers are going to bring a group of four or five men into that room. All you have to do is have a good look at those men and tell me if any of them could be the man you saw at the senator's party the other night." The detective chuckled a little and shot a wink at his fellow officers. "After the detailed description you gave law enforcement following the shooting, I got a feeling you're gonna ace this exercise here tonight." "Whatever I can do to help," she replied.
He swallowed the rest of his water and crushed the paper cup in his fist. "Normally we wouldn't disclose facts about our investigation, but since the guy confessed to everything and waived his rights to legal counsel, tonight's lineup is just a formality."
Avery nodded. "He knows we got him nailed on the trespassing and attempted murder charges. No way he could weasel out of that one when the sketch details you provided were a dead ringer for him and he's sporting fresh gunshot wounds from his escape."
"And the bombing downtown today?" Tavia prompted, looking to the federal agents for confirmation. "He's admitting responsibility for that too?"
One of the suits tipped his chin in acknowledgment. "Didn't even try to deny it. Says he orchestrated the whole thing."
"But I thought there were others involved. The news stations ran coverage of the police pursuit all day. I heard officers killed all three bombers at some local private estate." "That's right," Avery cut in. "He stated he enlisted the three backwoods malcontents to rig the explosion at the city's UN building. Obviously not the sharpest tools in the shed, seeing how they led us right to him. Not that he put up any kind of fight. He came out of the house and surrendered to police right after they arrived on the property."
"You mean he lives there?" Tavia asked. She'd seen images of the mansion and its expansive grounds on the news. It was palatial. The pale limestone construction with its soaring four-story walls, black-lacquered doors, and high, arched windows seemed more suited to old-money, New England elite than a violent maniac with apparent terrorist leanings.
"We haven't been able to substantiate who actually owns the property," the detective told her. "The estate has been held in private trust for more than a hundred years. Got about ten layers of lawyers and legalese wrapped around the title to the place. Our perp claims he's been renting it for a few months, but he doesn't know anything about the owner. Says it came furnished, no contract, and he pays the rent in cash to one of the top law firms downtown."
"Has he said why he did all of this?" Tavia asked. "If he confessed to the shooting and the bombing, is he offering any excuse for what he's done?"
Detective Avery gave a loose shrug. "Why does any lunatic do these things? He didn't have a concrete answer for that. In fact, the guy is almost as much of an enigma as the place he's been living."
"We're not even sure what his real name is. The one he gave us doesn't have a social security number or any record of employment. No driver's license, no automobile registration, no credit report, voter card, nothing. It's like the guy's a ghost. The only thing we did turn up was a donation given to a Harvard University Alumni association made in his name. The trail dead- ends there."
"Well, that's a start, at least," Tavia replied.
The detective exhaled a grunt of a laugh. "It would be, I suppose. If the record didn't date back to the 1920s. Obviously it's not our bad guy. I may not be the best judge of age, but I feel pretty certain he's nowhere near ninety years old."
"No," Tavia murmured. Thinking back on the night of Senator Clarence's holiday party and the man she'd witnessed firing from the second-floor gallery of the house, she would have placed him somewhere around her age, mid-thirties at most. "A relative, maybe?"
"Maybe," the detective said. He glanced up as the door in the other room opened and a uniformed officer stepped in ahead of the line of men behind him. "Okay, here we go, Tavia. Showtime."
She nodded, then found herself taking a step back from the one-way glass as the first of the suspects entered the lineup room.
It was him – the one she'd come to the station to identify.
She knew him on sight, instantly recognizing the chiseled, knife-edge cheekbones and the rigid, unforgiving jut of his squared jawline. His short golden-brown hair was disheveled, some of it drooping over his brow, but not enough to conceal the piercing color of his steel-blue eyes. And he was immense – every bit as tall and muscular as she remembered. His biceps bulged beneath the short sleeves of a white T-shirt. Loose-fitting heathered gray sweats hung from his slim hips and hinted at powerfully muscled thighs.
He prowled into the space with an air of defiance – of unapologetic arrogance – that made the fact that he was in a jail with his hands cuffed behind his back seem inconsequential. He walked ahead of the others, all long limbs and a loose gait that felt more animal than human. There was a slight limp in the otherwise smooth movement of his legs, she noticed. A spot of blood rode on his right thigh, a deep red splotch that soaked into the lighter fabric of his sweats. Tavia watched the stain grow a little with each long stride that carried him across the length of the lineup area. She shuddered a bit inside the warmth of her winter coat, feeling queasy. God, she never had been able to stand the sight of blood.
Over the speakers, one of the police officers instructed the man to stop at the number 4 position and face forward. He did, and when he was standing facing the glass, his eyes fixed squarely on her. Unerringly so.
A jolt of awareness arrowed through her. "Are you sure they can't – "
"I promise, you're perfectly safe and protected in here," Avery assured her.
And yet that scathing blue gaze stayed rooted on her, even after the last of the three other men was led into the lineup and made to face forward. Those other men slouched and shifted, anxious eyes held low beneath inclined heads or darting around and seeing nothing but their own reflection in the large pane of one-way glass.
"If you're ready," prompted the detective from beside her.
She nodded, letting her eyes travel down the line to the remaining three men even though there was no need. The others looked nothing like him. They were a rangy mix of shapes and sizes and ages. One man was rail-thin, with stringy brown hair hanging limply around his shoulders. Another was the size of a bull, broad shoulders and a big belly. He had a mean face framed by thick, dark waves and small eyes that glared out over the swollen red beak of his nose. The third was a balding lump of a man, probably in the neighborhood of fifty, who was sweating profusely under the bright glare of the spotlight.
And then there was him … the intense, almost cruelly handsome menace who still hadn't taken his eyes off her. Tavia wasn't the sort to let things rattle her, but she could hardly stand the weight of that stare – even if she was safely concealed in the darkened viewing area behind quarter-inch safety glass and surrounded by half a dozen armed law enforcement officers. "That's him," she blurted, pointing toward position 4. Although it had to be impossible, she could have sworn she saw his mouth lift into a half smile as she raised her hand to single him out. "That's him, Detective Avery. He's the man I saw at the party that night."
Avery gave her shoulder a light pat as the cops in the other room began instructing the men to step forward one at a time. "I know I said this is just a formality, but we still need you to be sure, Tavia – "
"I'm absolutely certain of it," she replied, her tone crisp as the blood in her veins began to buzz with some kind of innate alarm. She glanced back into the other room just as Number 4 took his two steps forward. "There's no need to continue here. That man is the shooter. I would know his face anywhere."
"Okay, then. That's fine, Tavia." He chuckled. "What'd I tell ya? Done in no time. You did great."
She dismissed the praise as unnecessary, giving the officer a mild shake of her head. "Will there be anything else?"
"Ah, nope. It'll just take a few minutes for us to wrap things up here, and we can get you on your way. If you'd like me to see you home – "
"No, thank you. I'm sure I'll be fine." As she spoke, her eyes clashed once more with the man who might have killed someone at Senator Clarence's party. If he truly was the mastermind of the bombing downtown this morning too, then he had the lives of several innocent people on his hands. Tavia held that penetrating stare, hoping that he could see through the glass to the depth of contempt she held for him in her eyes. After a long moment, she pivoted away from the viewing window. "If that will be all, Detective, the senator has a big presentation tomorrow morning, and I have a lot of logistics and other work to catch up on yet tonight."
The deep growl – the unexpected sound of her name on a stranger's lips – made her freeze for a moment where she stood. She didn't have to wonder who spoke. The low rumble of his voice went through her with the same cold certainty of the bullets he'd rained down on the crowd of party attendees the other night.
Still, shocked by what was happening, Tavia swiveled a questioning look on the detective and the other agents and officers. "This room … I thought you said – "
Avery sputtered an apology and grabbed for a wall-mounted phone next to the viewing window. As he spoke into the receiver, the man standing in the number 4 spot kept talking to her. He kept looking at her, as though there were nothing standing between her and his deadly focus. He took a step forward. "Your boss is in a lot of trouble, Tavia. He's in danger. You could be too."
"Damn it! Get that son of a bitch under control right now," demanded one of the federal agents to the detective on the phone.
The officers in the lineup room snapped into action. "Number 4, shut up and get back in line!" He ignored the order. Took another step forward, even as the second cop moved in from the other side of the room. "I need to find him, Tavia. He needs to know that Dragos will kill him – or worse. It might already be too late."
Mute, she shook her head. What he was saying made no sense. Senator Clarence was alive and well; she'd seen him at the office that morning, before he'd left for a full day of meetings and business engagements downtown.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she murmured, even though he shouldn't be able to hear her. He shouldn't be able to see her either, but he did. "I don't know anyone named Dragos."
Both cops moved in on him now. One on each restrained arm, they tried to haul him back toward the wall. He shook them off like they were nothing, all of his focus zeroed in on Tavia. "Listen to me. He was there that night. He was a guest at the party."
"No," she said, certain he was wrong now. She personally handwrote and addressed each of the 148 invitations. Her memory for things like that was infallible. If pressed, she could recite every name and recount every face on the guest list. There was no one there by that name that night.
"Dragos was there, Tavia." The cops in the lineup room made another grab for him. "He was there. I shot him. I only wish I would have killed the bastard."
She felt her head slowly moving side to side, her brows pinched as the lunacy of what he was saying sank in. There was only one casualty at the party. The only person wounded by the violence that night had been one of Senator Clarence's most generous campaign contributors, a successful local businessman and philanthropist named Drake Masters.
"You're crazy," she whispered. Yet even as she spoke the words, she didn't fully believe them herself. The man holding her gaze so improbably – so impossibly – through the glass didn't seem crazy. He seemed dangerous and intense, utterly certain of what he was saying. He seemed lethal, even with his hands cuffed behind his back.
He kept an unblinking lock on her eyes. Dismissing him as insane would have been easier to accept than the cold knot of dread that was forming in her stomach under the weight of his clear stare. No, whatever his intent the night of the senator's party, she doubted very much that it had been motivated by insanity.
Still, none of what he was saying made sense.
"This guy is deranged," said one of the feds. "Let's wrap this up and get the witness out of here."
Detective Avery nodded. "I apologize for this, Tavia. You don't need to be here any longer." He moved around in front of her. His face was drawn taut with a mix of bewilderment and annoyance as he held his arm out to indicate a path toward the hallway door. The other officers and federal agents slowly regrouped as well and started to fall in behind them.
In the lineup room, Tavia heard the shuffle and grunts of a physical struggle under way. She tried to peer around the detective, but he was already guiding her away from the window.
As they reached the viewing room door, there was a short knock on the other side before it opened ahead of them. Senator Clarence stood in the hallway, snowflakes clinging to his neatly combed hair and navy wool peacoat. "I'm sorry I couldn't be here sooner. My meeting with the mayor ran late, as usual." He glanced at Tavia and his friendly expression went a bit dark. "Is something wrong? Tavia, I've never seen you look so pale. What's going on in there?"
Before she could brush off his concern, the senator strode into the viewing room.
"Gentlemen," he murmured, greeting the other law enforcement officials as he walked farther inside.
At his approach to the viewing window, a low growl erupted from inside the lineup area. It was an inhuman sound. An otherworldly snarl that made the blood go cold in Tavia's veins. Alarm shot through her in an instant, every instinct clanging with warning. Something terrible was about to happen. She pivoted back into the room. "Senator Clarence, be careful – "
The viewing window exploded.
Glass broke and shattered, spitting tiny pebbles in all directions as something huge came crashing through the opening and landed in a heap in the middle of the viewing room.
It was one of the men from the lineup – the dark-haired bull in the Patriots shirt. He was howling in pain, limbs twisted unnaturally. The skin on his face and neck and hands was torn open and bleeding from the impact.
Tavia shot a startled look behind her.
The large pane of one-way safety glass was nothing but air now.
Nothing but air … and, standing in front of its broken frame, a towering menace of hard muscle and deadly intent.
The handcuffs that had restrained him in the lineup dangled useless, one at each wrist. He'd somehow broken free of them. Good lord, how strong must he be if he was able to do not only that but also throw a full-grown man through a plate of safety glass? And how fast must he have moved to have done all of this before any of the officers in the lineup room could stop him? Cold blue eyes looked past her, rooted like lasers onto Senator Clarence. "Goddamn Dragos," the man seethed, fury simmering in his gaze and in the low hiss of his voice. "He already got to you, didn't he? He already fucking owns you."
His right arm shot forward, reaching through the open space of the window. As swift as a cobra strike, he had the sleeve of Senator Clarence's coat in his fist. He yanked backward, pulling the senator off his feet. He hauled the man's entire weight with one hand, dragging him in mere instants through the broken glass and debris.
Oh, God. This man was going to kill Senator Clarence, right here and now.
"No." Tavia was moving before she realized it. She took hold of the metal handcuff that ringed his wrist and pulled with all she had. "No!"
Her paltry attempt to stop him hardly made him pause. But in that split-second moment, his gaze broke to hers. There was something unearthly in those eyes … something that seemed to crackle with unholy fire. Something that cleaved straight into the center of her being like the sharp edge of a blade, even as it stirred a dark curiosity that beckoned her closer. Her heart was racing in her chest. Her pulse hammered, as loud as a drumbeat in her ears. For the first time in her life, Tavia Fairchild knew true terror. She stared into those strangely hypnotic blue eyes, and she screamed.