It’s half past one when I return to the 4th floor of GBI headquarters. It looks like Jessica has claimed the cubicle next to Leanne, just one seat away from me.
While I was at the library, Leanne gave Jessica the grand tour of GBI facilities. Leanne went to great lengths to impress the new recruit with her clout and extensive knowledge of statistics. They seem to have hit off like old besties united.
Jessica…It’s been five years but I can tell the prime of your life will carry well into your fifties. From her awkward smile and kind laughter, Jessica’s already figured out that Leanne’s inappropriate workplace humor doesn’t just stop at the occasional one-liner. Like everyone else, Jessica made up her mind to get used to it. Wise, Ms. Arroyo. Very wise. You have indeed matured. And here I am, gawking at you from the hallway with hooded eyes like a hungry velociraptor stalking a foolhardy zookeeper.
“You’ll get used to how loud everyone is on the phone. And if you really need to get away, I usually step into one of the conference rooms. Hahaha! You might need to do that from time to time,” Leanne says, speaking twice as loud as everyone else.
Jessica is still unpacking to decorate the cubicle as she replies with, “That’s good to know. I’m not too worried about it. I grew up in a house full of women. You had to learn to sleep through loud raggae-ton playing all hours of the night. This doesn’t even compare.”
“Oh? So you have a big family?”
“Oh yes!” Jessica says as she sets a picture of herself and another young woman.
“Is that your sister?”
“My baby Angel. Haha, literally. Her name is Angel. She’s starting her final semester at Georgia Tech.”
“Kudos! I have sisters. But ones a stingy bitch and the others a coke whore. So what are you going to do?” Leanne says as if she’s talking about spilled milk.
“Oh! That’s not good,” Jessica says, keeping her chin tucked to hide her high brows.
“Tell me about it! I was on assignment when my mom died two years ago and by the time I came back, these airheads had already squandered our inheritance on a busted up house on the Southside. They wanted to flip it and turn a profit. But really, what they meant was that they wanted me to do all the work, hire the contractors, coordinate with HOA. Girl! I don’t have time for that?” Leanne says, giggling at the absurdity.
“So what did you do with it?” Jessica asks.
“I fixed it up a little and let them live in it. They’re paying rent until I recover on the construction costs.”
“Very smart!” Jessica nods with an approving grin.
“That’s right. I might be an old bird but I still know how to make lemonade out of life! Hahaha!” Leanne boasts.
“You’re not old, Leanne,” I say, approaching with sweat beginning to muster.
The ladies turn in unison. The instant I lock eyes with Jessica, time stops. Sparks fly and that warm sensation of heartfelt adoration washes over. That’s not to sound romantic. I’m not trying to be romantic. I’m trying to stay on my guard. My poker face is rock solid. I don’t know what she’s been up to all these years and I don’t want to give her the upper hand by showing all my cards like I used to.
However, this is unexpected. Here I am, thinking some unsettled dispute would surface. But Jessica’s caring eyes settle on me with such joy. It’s like she actually missed me. A snort escapes from her cupped laughter before the woman glides over and wraps me in an embracing hug. So warm. Her smooth cheeks press against mine. I feel the air in her lungs, the heartbeat against my chest. Even as I raised my arms to hug her back, I exercise caution. My palms graze the toned muscles in her back ever so lightly and I confess, I simply melt.
“What uh…what’s going on here?” Leanne asks as she and several onlookers were dying to know.
Jessica releases me. I straighten out my blazer and try to get a hold of myself.
“I’ve known Cloud since forever. He’s like the brother I never had. Seriously, he’s probably the most decent man I’ve ever met. You probably noticed, right? Let me guess. Annoyingly polite. Always apologizing. Self-sacrificing. The kind of guy who would give up the last chair just so you could sit. The epitome of chivalry. I’m sorry! Hahaha! I’m just so happy to see you! I can’t believe it!” She says, cupping her mouth with jovial laughter.
“Jessica. Good grief,” I mutter in a deep blush.
The office curiosity is satisfied. Her description of me settles in their mind that I’m locked in the “friend-zone,” an idea they’re more than willing to tolerate.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. “Last I heard, I thought you were accepting an offer with a law firm in Evans?”
“I was, but then…I dunno, something about all that stuff that went down our senior year, it changed my mind. I’ve been working as a profiler for the FBI for the last four years. And recently, I decided I wanted to be a little bit closer to home.”
“Wow.” I respond. “Well, welcome! You must be pretty good at what you do to be accepted into the SCU. Most people have to start in uniform and work their way up.”
“You didn’t!” Leanne butts in. “The epitome of chivalry, you say. Hmph! I don’t know, girl. Chivalry is just another word for benevolent sexism.”
“Leanne, there’s no such thing as benevolent sexism.” I insist.
“Well, I just think it’s wonderful you two are together again. Oh hey! I know! Why don’t you two become partners! Wouldn’t that be grand?”
“No, it wouldn’t.” Jessica says, beating me to the punch. “I don’t want to say Cloud doesn’t work well with others, but it’s more like he works so well on his own that putting him with anyone else would be counterproductive. Jesus, Cloud. I just can’t get over how handsome he’s become. Thirty suits you. He looks like that blond actor who plays the British secret agent.”
“I know who you’re thinking about but he has blue eyes. Cloud has brown.” Leanne scoffs.
“I know, but look at his hair, his jaw line. The broad shoulders in this suit. He looks so sophisticated,” Jessica gushes.
As the pair continues to prattle, my inner cynicism can’t help but wonder why Jessica is really here. Has she always admired me this much or is it just the novelty of seeing an old familiar face? Something doesn’t feel right. Then again, it could be nothing. Us over-analytical types are often guilty of that, making a big deal out of nothing.
I shrug off my blazer and place it over the back of my chair when suddenly I hear Chomsky whip his door open. The blinds rattle against the doorframe. The urgency is evident.
“Emergency team meeting! Everyone on the floor, get in here! Beaudry! Donaldson! New Girl. We’re meeting in the Four Seasons! Let’s go!” Chomsky orders.
The office voted on names for the conference rooms. “Four Seasons” was named before my time so I can’t explain it. Jessica and Leanne both shoot me a look as if I know what’s going on. I smirk and extend my open hand, suggesting they follow Chomsky’s orders.
Inside the spacious Four Seasons, Javorius “JV” Moore, the resident technician is behind a laptop computer, hooking up the projector. I’ve known JV for a while now. He’s helped me with some tech stuff in the past. JV’s a little bit older and has the build of a former football player. Sharply dressed, always well groomed, and he has this cool laidback whiskey swagger about him. I could hear him clacking on the keyboard before I even entered the room, but all that stopped when he caught sight of Jessica.
Jessica waves at him and JV responds with the cool head nod that black guys can pull off as if they’re all ballers on the set of a music video. It hasn’t even been five minutes and already…No. I’m not jealous. It’s the memories coming back that’s annoying. I didn’t see a ring on Jessica’s finger but I’ve never known her to be without a boyfriend or options available to her.
The conference room fills up with seventeen agents as I sit next to Chomsky with Leanna and Jessica to my right.
“Jared? Jared? I got you?” Chomsky asks into the intercom embedded in the conference table.
“Yeah. You got me you cheat chompin sum’ a bitch,” replies the voice from the intercom. This is Agent Dixon.
Chomsky and several others laugh off the remark as I force a smile and squint. Agent Jared Dixon Jr. and Nelson Chomsky were friendly rivals. It was college football season. Chomsky was part of Gator Nation and Dixon hailed from Clemson.
“Alright you ole’ bastard I got my young guns in the room. Listen up, everyone. Jared Dixon is the Special Agent in Charge managing our offices in Region Seven. He’s getting up there in age so he’s requested our assistance to help him out on a case that just got bumped up to level eight,” Chomsky explains.
“Where is region seven?” Jessica asks.
“Region seven encompasses Richmond, Columbia, and Burke Counties just to name a few.” Leanne answers.
“Augusta…” I utter.
“That’s correct,” Chomsky says. This case is liable to stir up a shit storm. It’s on the cusp of picking up national coverage and the last thing we need is another Ferguson in the Peach state. Leanne, I’m assigning you and Jessica to work as leads on the case. Everyone else is to support them from here in headquarters with whatever they need. Whatever they need! Research, tests, court orders, you name it.”
“Goodie! Out first case!” Leanne cheers with an enthusiasm in which I can’t quite tell whether it’s genuine or not. Either way, Jessica politely smiles back.
“It’s ready,” JV calls out from the other end of the table.
“Now, what you’re about to see is very graphic.” Dixon warns. “I swear, I ain’t never seen anything like it in all my days. Lord have mercy.”
I was prepared. Or so I thought.
JV presses play on a video from the Richmond County Police Department. The time stamp reads 05:15am, 11-06-2016. The cliché grainy feed shows us the inside of an interrogation room. The point of view came from the upper corner of the room, over the detective’s shoulder, and facing a teenage African-American girl.
Even with the poor quality of the feed, we could tell she was suffering. Her arms were crossed, her shoulders trembled, and her wide-eyed gaze stared at the floor in a near catatonic state. The blue and yellow colors of her jumpsuit were faded and there dark patches of dirt covering her knees.
The large male detective questioning her sat forward in a concerned posture. Clearly the girl was a victim, someone who had survived or seen something horrible. Nothing was said for the first thirty seconds. The detective just stared at the girl waiting for an answer. All we could hear was the droning sound of the heater rattling from the air vent.
“KeNedra. You’re not in trouble here. Understand? Your auntie’s on her way. We’re just trying to get as much information as we can so we can go out and get the bad guy. Tell us. Start from the beginning. What happened?”
My eyes bounce to Chomsky, hoping he didn’t just catch my cheeks twitching with agitation. This detective is an idiot. Anyone with half a brain can see she was traumatized. You don’t push those types. You lead them. And why didn’t he wait for the aunt to show up? The girl’s a minor. Not to mention he would’ve gotten better results when KeNedra had a chance to calm down from the ordeal. Unless…unless there were other victims in need of saving. There better be for this detective’s sake.
She whimpers. It’s soft yet stressed, like taking that last gulp of air before a dive. Her despondent eyes finally rose to settle on the burly detective. She examined him. For a second, I think I recognize a glimmer of hope before she finally spoke up.
“I was just walking down the sidewalk. Just a few blocks from my house. It was the afternoon. The sun was out. Then it was dark. I don’t know how I got there.”
“Got where?” The detective pressed.
KeNedra’s face immediately cringes with a tearful grimace. “The place where he killed the other girl.”
Leanne gasps from my right.
KeNedra continues, “I woke up when I heard her screaming. It was so dark. I was chained to a wall but I could see them in the other room. He was raping her! It was so bad! She was screaming for help. I saw her. She saw me! She reached out for me! She was begging me to help her.”
KeNedra became more and more hysterical, rocking in her chair and shaking her head no as if she was caught in a reoccurring nightmare that was all too real. Another detective entered the room and KeNedra scooted back in her chair with a hard screeching drag.
“She got away from him and started running at me. But he jumped on her like a gorilla with his whole body. Then he dragged her away! I wanted to help her but I chained to the wall! I pulled and yanked so hard!” KeNedra said as she held up her limp disfigured hands.
“Good lord! Get a paramedic in here right away!” said the fat detective.
“Fucking idiot!” Leanne snaps.
We’re all thinking it. I glance over and see the scorn in Jessica’s brown eyes. The sympathy’s contagious. I still don’t know all the details but suddenly, I’m invested.
The second detective immediately left the room presumably to retrieve a first aid kit as KeNedra stood up and paced around in an erratic fashion. The immense pain from her broken wrists seemed to have no effect.
“By the time I freed myself, I saw he was slamming a rock over her face over and over again. Her feet were twitching. There was blood popping up and splattering all over the place. I swear it’s the worst thing I ever seen in my life. So I ran as fast as I could. I was in this field. The bushes were tearing up my legs. I thought he was chasin’ me. He kept shouting that he’d find me no matter where I go. He said there was nowhere I could hide. That he could get me anywhere. That girl. Who was she? What was her name?” KeNedra begged to know.
“KeNedra, right now I need you to focus. Tell me about that man, the bad guy. Did you recognize him? Have you seen him before?” the detective asked.
That’s when KeNedra’s face went blank. It was surreal. All the emotions, the horror and sadness seemed to fade away. It was replaced by the empty gaze of an inmate on death row. KeNedra stood in the corner of the room with her back against the wall, staring at the detective as if her soul had just been taken from her.
“KeNedra. KeNedra! Say something, damnit!” the detective snapped.
After expelling a harsh groan, the impatient detective slapped his clipboard on the table and abruptly stormed out of the interrogation room. I close my eyes. This man left an abducted teenager all alone with immense psychological trauma. I couldn’t believe it. What came next was tragic and hard to watch, more so because it could have been avoided.
The detective was gone no more than ten seconds before an intense scowl painted over KeNedra’s face. There was so much hate and rage. It was grotesque. It was familiar. Without warning, she quickly turned around, faced the wall, and proceeded to bash her head into the cinderblock surface in three hard head-butting strikes before dropping to the floor.
A round of gasps expels from my fellow agents. There was a blotch of crimson on the wall from the point of impact. KeNedra twitched and convulsed in a violent seizure. The cringing sounds of her choking on her own blood and saliva rattled out like paint mixing in a can. She quaked for thirty seconds. Then, she was no more. That fat bastard of a detective wouldn’t return for another thirty minutes.
“Un-fucking-believable!” Leanne growled.
Jessica wipes an angry trail of tears from her cheek while Chomsky and I exchange a mutual glance of indignation. I don’t say anything. I don’t ask questions. I just pick up the printed documents of the case file and begin poring through the notes.
Agent Dixon explains. “That there was 15-year-old KeNedra Thompson, a freshman from Cedar Creek High. Her parents reported her missing last Tuesday when she failed to come home from a majorette practice. A pair of paramedics found her out on route hobbling along the side of Peach Orchard Road at approximately 3:45 Friday morning. This video was taken at 5:15 and she was pronounced dead at 5:37am. Don’t worry. The interrogator in the video has been suspended without pay until a formal hearing. He’ll have nothing to do with the case from here on out.”
“Why would she off herself like that?” Leanne asks out loud.
“I was hoping one of you could tell me. I ain’t never seen nothing like this in my whole godforsaken life. Figured your modern education could shed more light on it,” Dixon admits.
“Fear?” Jessica ponders. “There have been cases where survivors experience such severe mental trauma that they tend to demonstrate self-destructive inclinations. Suicide isn’t uncommon. In fact, one would think it’s inevitable. It’s why I find it incomprehensible as to why she was left alone. And no medical treatment? I thought you said she was picked up by a pair of paramedics. Such neglect. If all of us are upset, you can only imagine the outcry from the general public.”
“What’s the dirt bag detective’s name?” Chomsky demands to know.
“David Hornsby. As I said, he won’t be a problem.” Says Dixon.
“We might need to question him.” Jessica mentions.
“That won’t be necessary. A new detective has been assigned to lead the investigation in tandem with your offices.” Dixon explains.
“So what are we talking here, a manhunt? Do they have a suspect? Have they at least found out where they were keeping the girl hostage?” another agent asks.
“The new lead led a twenty men team to sweep the area around Peach Orchard and Old Waynesboro Road. Sure enough, they recovered the body of a 16-year-old Tiquasia Payne. I’ll send over the photos but it might be a while before we get an official autopsy,” says Dixon.
“And why is that?” Chomsky asks.
“Well I’m glad you asked, Nelson. And here’s where the bag of crap gets dumped all over my nice turkey rug. The location where Tiquasia’s body was recovered was in a small dilapidated shelter behind an old plantation house. Her body was recovered in the slave quarters, Nelson.
“The lead detective somehow got it in his mind that it might be a good idea to check the other plantations in the tri-county area. Of the eleven antebellum plantations still intact, four contained the bodies of teenage girls. All of them, black. All raped and murdered. The commissioner has to give a press conference here tomorrow night and he knows he’s standing on a powder keg.
“Today was a madhouse. The police had to call in forensic teams from Evans and Aiken. Cameras have been swarming on all five locations and the press is goading the white deputies into slipping up with some insensitive comment to make it seem like we’re not taking this matter seriously. This ain’t Atlanta, Nelson. Blacks make up 60% of the population and after the Sanford incident they’ve been known to lash out at law enforcement claiming black lives matter.”
“All right, Jared. I’m sending my best and brightest. We’ll get this thing squared away before the director hears of it,” Chomsky assures him.
“All right now. Yall don’t need to head out tonight, but the locals will be ready and willing to accept your assistance first thing in the morning,” Dixon tells us.
“Inspector…” I say with heat scathing in my chest. “I understand that Agents Donaldson and Arroyo have been tasked to handle this case. However, I’d like to make a special request. Let me assist them.”
“You can. From here.” Chomsky tells me.
“Sir. I insist.” I say, trying to stay calm with all eyes on me. “This took place in Augusta. Agent Arroyo can tell you, this is our hometown. The fact that this happened in my own backyard…the fact that this happened in police custody, I promise if you send me we will solve this case in less than a week. Give me five days and I’ll get to the bottom of it. We’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Chomsky leans back in his chair and examines me with amusement. I know there’s sweat glistening on my face but to wipe it now would make the desperation all too apparent.
“Sir, we recently had that shooting in South Carolina. Instead of rising up with torches and pitchforks the locals preached forgiveness. These young ladies were raped and brutally murdered in establishments that should have been torn down a long time ago. All I’m asking for…”
“Alright, Cloud. Geez.” Chomsky smirks. “Had I known you were so passionate, I would’ve assigned you from the start. Donaldson? Arroyo? Do you object to having Cloud Beaudry assist you on your case? You’ll still be leads, but Cloud will just be Cloud. You know how he is. Digging secrets from the grave and all that.”
“As long as he remembers he’s not my supervisor,” Leanne says.
“Yeah.” Chomsky said. “Now, I’m actually kinda glad you volunteered, Cloud. Welcome to the case. You’re all to report to Dixon’s office at 0800 sharp, so get a good night’s rest. Dismissed!”
I’m brooding, festering in my silence with the case files in my hands. Leanne and Jessica get up to leave with everyone else, but I stay put. I don’t know how to react or what I’ll say if I go out and join the girls now. Because while everyone was talking, I was scanning the case files and a name jumped out at me. It’s the lead detective they now have handling the case, a man by the name of Mark Griffin.
Everything about the case is right up my alley when it comes to the weird and abnormal. I wasn’t lying when I said I was invested. A homicidal rapist is terrorizing the nice young ladies of my hometown. And the fact that Mark Griffin is the lead detective lights a fire in me unlike never before.
Griffin was one of the detectives who was in charge of handling my mother’s homicide five years ago. And instead of doing his fucking job, they ruled her death a suicide. If it wasn’t for this bastard, I would’ve never had to take matters into my own hands. I would’ve never met Maggie and I would’ve never had to repay the burdening debt of having to hunt down senior citizens on my vacations and holidays.
No one should have to go through what I went through. And after seeing KeNedra commit suicide in police custody, it’s like déjà vu. That look on her face was the same I had when I was ready to end it all. Don’t worry KeNedra. I’ll find out who did this to you. And when I do, rest assure they’ll be desperate to kill themselves.