The elevator doors slid silently open, revealing blue carpet, white walls, and—Jason’s heart sank—BAU Chief Sam Kennedy.
For the craziest moment Jason couldn’t think of anything to say.
Kennedy stared back at him. He wore a black suit paired with a crisp white shirt and a gray silk tie. It was the first time Jason had ever seen him in the traditional FBI uniform of power suit and tie, and the effect was pretty devastating. Nothing like the combo of rugged masculinity and top notch tailoring to weaken your resolve.
Even more devastating was the way Kennedy’s blue eyes seemed to light for a moment as though the unexpected sight of Jason gave him pleasure—before his expression returned to its usual impassivity.
I’ll be remembering what it feels like to touch you this way every time I see you tomorrow.
No. Do not start that.
Jason nodded curtly. He was struggling with how to address Kennedy now. “Sir” stuck in his throat, and “Sam” belonged to a past that increasingly felt like it had occurred in an alternate universe.
“Just the man I wanted to see,” Kennedy said. He was his normal, brusque self, so Jason had surely imagined that fleeting warmth in his gaze.
“Oh yeah?” Jason returned politely. He sounded as enthusiastic as he felt, but Kennedy gave no sign he noticed.
“Grab a cup of coffee, and meet me in your office. I want to go over a couple of things with you.”
Now here was something troubling. If Jason’s immediate boss, George Potts, or SAC Robert Wheat, or ADC Danielle Ritchie, or, frankly, any of his superiors had taken that high-handed tone with him, he wouldn’t have thought twice about it. In fact, if eight months ago Kennedy had taken that high-handed tone with him—and he had, on a regular basis—Jason wouldn’t have thought much about it.
Now it raised his hackles.
That was illogical and unprofessional. This hostile reaction was nothing more than hurt pride, and it made Jason impatient and angry with himself.
So he gave another one of those tight nods and went to get himself a cup of coffee he didn’t want.
When he reached his office, Kennedy had removed the copy of Monet or The Triumph of Impressionism from Jason’s bookshelf and was glancing through it. He looked up at Jason’s entrance.
“This is nice.” His nod seemed to indicate Jason’s office rather than the book. Jason did have more artwork on his walls than agents typically bothered with. In fact, one of his favorite paintings—a fake William Wendt by Lucius Lux—hung behind his desk. The painting had been a thank-you to Jason for keeping Lux out of jail. That had been a good decision on Jason’s part because over the years Lux had developed into a useful informant.
Although he’d been suspiciously silent on the topic of Fletcher-Durrand.
Jason had only once known Kennedy to be ill at ease. That had been in Kingsfield when he’d come to say good-bye—the good-bye that had turned into hello to the possibility of something more. Something real. He was not ill at ease now, but he was not entirely comfortable either. He was watching Jason closely—Jason could feel his gaze even as he did his best to ignore it.
Kennedy replaced the book, taking a moment to study one of the framed photos on Jason’s bookshelf, and said, “This is the grandfather who had a museum wing dedicated to him last night?”
Not much of a guess given the World War Two Naval Reserve uniform.
“That’s right.” Jason sipped his coffee. He stayed on the far side of his desk, resting his hip on the flattop surface rather than taking his chair. He didn’t want to sit while Kennedy stood over him. Which was silly. They weren’t adversaries, after all. And yet, Jason definitely felt on defense.
“And that’s where you developed your passion for preserving and protecting art?” Kennedy asked.
Okay. Jason appreciated the effort at cordiality or whatever this was supposed to be, but enough was enough.
“I take it I’m off the taskforce?”
Kennedy’s brows drew together. “If you mean the investigation into Kerk’s death, there is no taskforce.”
Actually, he did not see.
Kennedy pulled out the hard plastic chair in front of Jason’s desk and sat down, facing Jason. “I’d like to get your thoughts, though.” He opened a manila file and slid a photo across the desk.
Jason set down his coffee cup and picked up the photo. He studied it.
Female, African-American, mid-to-late fifties, and—judging by the clothes and oversize jewelry she wore in the photograph—both arty and affluent.
He looked in inquiry to Kennedy.
“Gemini Earnst. Art critic.”
“Ah. Okay. I know the name. I’ve never dealt with her.”
“Well, you missed your chance. Three months ago her body was found floating in the fountain in the Stuyvesant Town Oval. Someone jabbed a tool, likely an ice pick, into the base of her skull.”
“Ouch,” Jason said automatically. Why the idea of an ice pick was more disturbing than an ordinary knife, he couldn’t say, but it definitely sent a chill down his spine. “Was a fake Monet found at the scene?”
Kennedy’s gaze was one of tacit approval. “No. At least, not initially. The painting showed up three days later. It was still tacky.”
“Still tacky?” Proof of the distracting effect Kennedy had on him, it took Jason a second or two to realize Kennedy was referring to the oils not being cured rather than the gaucheness of leaving bad art at a crime scene.
Kennedy seemed to be waiting for more. Jason said, “So the unsub decided to try to stage the scene after the fact?”
“Which means…” Jason thought it over while Kennedy waited. “Unlike Kerk, Earnst’s death wasn’t planned in advance?”
“Among other things? Yeah. Maybe. Earnst’s may have been a crime of opportunity. Or the offender was still evolving, still formulating his ritual. Earnst may have been our unsub’s first victim, though I’m not convinced of that.”
If anyone would know, it was Kennedy. He’d spent nearly eighteen years hunting monsters. He’d literally written the book on them.
“Last night you mentioned three homicides.” And thirty seconds later Jason had been chasing down Chris Shipka. Which reminded him of the radio news report he’d heard on his way into the office. He was not looking forward to sharing that bit of information with Kennedy.
“Our second known victim.” Kennedy slid another photo across the desk.
Jason picked up the photo, examined it. The image was of a man in his early forties. Multiracial and strikingly attractive with pale, pale blue eyes and bronze dreadlocks.
Jason shook his head. “I don’t know him.”
On the surface there did not appear to be a lot connecting these three victims. Different gender, different race, different age, even different nationality.
“Never heard of him.”
“What about the Lapham Foundation?”
Jason considered. “Nope.”
“Bettina and John Lapham are wealthy art collectors. Wilson was their oldest son. He taught art and supposedly dabbled with painting on the weekends. That’s the only art connection we’ve found so far.”
The word ‘dabbled’ sounded weird on Kennedy’s tongue. But then he was not a man with much patience for dabblers in any arena.
“An art teacher, an art critic, and an art buyer?”
“Is there anything else that connects them?”
“We’ve uncovered nothing so far.”
Jason nodded. He thought over Kennedy’s previous statement. “You said we.”
“The special agent I’ve assigned to this case is a friend of yours. Jonnie Gould.”
Jonnie. Right. She’d resigned from the Bureau following her marriage to a fellow agent, but after Chris had been posted to Quantico, Kennedy had made Jonnie an offer it seemed she couldn’t refuse. You could take the girl out of the Bureau, but you couldn’t take the Bureau out of the girl.
Jason stared down again at the photo of Wilson Lapham. “You said his parents collect art? How big is this Lapham Foundation?”
“I don’t know if it’s of national importance, but apparently it’s a big deal in New England. Lapham was found six weeks ago, floating in the ornamental lake on his parents’ Connecticut estate. Same MO. An ice pick or similar weapon forcibly penetrating the brain tissue beneath the base of the skull. A painting which seemed to depict the crime scene was found beside the lake.”
Kennedy slid another couple of photographs his way. One showed the crime scene, and one seemed to show a painting depicting the crime scene. Jason studied both images, paying close attention to the portrait of the crime scene. Despite the bogus signature and ersatz brushstrokes, this was not Monet. But it was not a generic lake either. The painting captured the same fountain of four herons spouting water from their long bills as graced the photograph of the Laphams’ real-life water feature.
Kennedy commented, “This time the painting was completely cured.”
Jason absorbed that. “Premeditation. Obviously. Also access. The unsub was familiar with both the victim’s schedule and environment.”
Don’t patronize me, Jason thought bitterly. He could feel Kennedy willing him to look up and meet his gaze. Jason continued to study the photos. One thing you learned in the Bureau was how to hide your feelings.
After a moment Kennedy said, “My question for you is why Monet?”
And my question for you is why me? Not like there weren’t ACT members closer to home. The entire operation was based out of DC, so it wasn’t as if Kennedy couldn’t consult with agents every bit as—or more—experienced in art and art-related crimes as Jason.
“You want a disquisition on Impressionism in general or Claude Monet in particular?” Jason asked.
“Disquisition,” Kennedy said thoughtfully. “I might have to look that one up.”
Yeah. Not really. Despite the occasional drawl and cowboy-up attitude, Kennedy held a Masters in Criminal Psychology.
“Did the Laphams collect Monet? Was Earnst an expert on Monet? I can tell you that the Nacht Galerie doesn’t specialize in 19th century art. You won’t find Monet in any of their collections. They’re all about street culture and the avant-garde.”
“Go on?” Jason uttered a short, slightly exasperated laugh. “I’d be guessing. Maybe you’re looking for a Monet wannabe. Maybe the unsub is hostile to the revival in figurative painting as exemplified by Neo Rauch and the New Leipzig school. Maybe the Laphams made fun of one of his paintings. Maybe Earnst wrote a bad review of his last exhibit.”
“That sounds a little too much like bad TV.”
Did Kennedy watch TV? Not that Jason had ever noticed.
“In this case, maybe The X-Files. What I’m saying is I find it difficult to believe Monet plays a significant role in your investigation.”
“Would those paintings merit an exhibition or a showing?”
“God, no. They’re bad. As in dreadful.” Jason made the mistake of glancing up. Kennedy was still watching him, and their gazes collided, steadied, locked on. The intensity of that hard blue stare felt almost physical. It made Jason’s chest ache.
And it made him angry because why was he feeling so much when Kennedy clearly felt nothing? Didn’t even seem to remember that there might be anything to feel.
“By the way,” Jason said. “Chris Shipka and the Valley Voice are reporting that agents from this office as well as a leading profiler on loan from Quantico are working in conjunction with LAPD to catch a serial killer targeting Southern California art patrons.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Kennedy sounded mostly disgusted. “I should have dropped that idiot off the terrace last night.”
“Just like old times,” Jason muttered.
To his surprise, Kennedy laughed. He shuffled his photos back into his file folder. “Speaking of old times, I’d like you to accompany me to the galleries Kerk visited during the past week.”
“Wait. What? Why?” That time Jason didn’t bother to hide his consternation. Spending a day or two driving around town—stuck in the close confines of a car—with Sam Kennedy? No thanks.
Kennedy said coolly, “Because I think it will be helpful, Agent West.”
Jason stood. Kennedy rose too, which did nothing to ease Jason’s feeling of being cornered.
“I don’t— I’m not— I’ve got a full caseload. I’m the only ACT agent on the West Coast right now, and I’m already spearheading the investigation into Fletcher-Durrand. That’s a major case. We may be filing charges. It’s…big.”
“I appreciate that,” Kennedy said smoothly. “But I think you’ll agree stopping a serial killer is also big.”
“That’s not my”—at the last second he managed to switch job for—“area of expertise.”
“I’m well aware of your abilities,” Kennedy said, still infuriatingly cool and calm. “Your background and your contacts within the art world are exactly what I require at this time. And we both know you’re a fully trained and experienced field agent able to step in and assist other units when and if needed.”
He didn’t bother—maybe he was being tactful—to remind Jason that the Art Crime Team was still largely viewed as nonessential, even superfluous, by many who believed those resources could be better used elsewhere. Members of the ACT were subject to being reassigned to other squads and units as deemed necessary. And without warning—let alone debate.
So it was really just stubbornness—possibly tinged with bravado—when Jason said, “No. No fucking way.”
For a split second Kennedy looked startled. Then his eyes narrowed, his expression hardening. “Excuse me?”
Jason had just enough control not to say what he was thinking, which was I’m not working with you again. “My case is at a critical juncture. I’m not jeopardizing it because you think your investigation takes precedence.”
That at least was safely familiar territory and something they’d argued numerous times during those late night phone calls.
If you could save a dozen people or one masterpiece, which would it be?
Jason always came back to which masterpiece and who are the people? Which amused Kennedy, although his answer had been a categorical people over paintings.
Okay, what about sculpture? Jason had countered.
That debate, and similar arguments, had been friendly and philosophical. This felt like a declaration of war.
Kennedy’s pale brows rose—and that derisive half smile was pure déjà vu. He said almost gently, “No? Well, I suggest you have a word with Supervisory Special Agent George Potts.”
“You’re damned right I will.”
Kennedy didn’t bother to respond. He opened Jason’s office door, stepped into the hall, and closed the door quietly, with great finality, behind him.
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