The scene was bleak. An outline where a corpse used to be, a home that had been ransacked by forensic teams: local and federal, and a family torn in half. The family wasn’t there to James’ delight. He liked the science, the mystery, and the murderer. Not the victims.
He had spent the previous evening brushing up on the case with Ward and then by himself. In Ward’s office, they poured over the stats, the last kill, and some evidence: whatever they had, which wasn’t much. Paint on the hands of the victim’s husband and a traumatized kid was about it: and the boy, who was depicted to have seen the murder in the painting, wouldn’t talk. They had a psychiatrist working with him to try and get him to share his experience.
After Ward called it a day, past the setting of the sun, James went home and studied the case from the perspective of the media. Last years killing, the hype, the concern, and then the eventual drifting off of information as people lost interest due to its stale nature. But now the web was filled with posts and articles about “The Painter.” He had seen the name of the case file and now saw it on his computer screen from the public’s eye. He wasn’t sure how the name leaked, or if the FBI had taken the term from the public.
He didn’t uncover much but was able to familiarize himself with the previous case.
However, his trip home had proven quite peculiar. After leaving the office, he was met on the street side by a woman he never thought he would see again: Brianna’s mother. He was walking towards the subway when she stepped in front of him.
“Hello, Jay,” she said in a friendly tone.
James had not heard that abbreviation of his name in years.
She came near him and embraced him tightly as if there was absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t. And James knew very well, there was.
She was in her late fifties but looked like she was in her late thirties. She had short grey hair that she left undyed which was the only indicator of her age, aside from a few wrinkles around her eyes. She was the same build as her daughter and shared the same eyes.
James hugged her back and remained speechless.
Breanna’s mother pulled away but left both hands on James’ shoulders. “Come, let me drive you home.” She guided him to a car that was parked next to them on the side of the busy street. She opened the door for him and then found her place next to him in the backseat of the black sedan.
She said his address to whom James’ assumed was her personal driver. With that, the car started moving.
“Welcome to the FBI,” she said.
“This was you?” he replied. He put aside the shock hat he felt from seeing her, hugging her, and sitting next to her as his mind raced with the oncoming clarity. “The invitation, the application, the interview?”
She laughed. “Yes. You’re a smart kid, James. But come on. Of course, it was me.”
“But you hate me!”
“What? No, no, no, James. I don’t hate you. Yes, we’ve got our share of history but… I need people like you.”
“Wait,” James looked out the window. “Ward said he had a gut feeling about me. That’s why he picked me. But it was you.”
“Ward does see in you what I do. But, no, he didn’t pick you. It was me.”
“Ward’s boss? In a way.” She chuckled and then patted James’ knee.
“Enough about that, you’re here. That’s what matters. We’ve just got to lay down some-“
“Sorry, Ms. Jones,” James interrupted, “but why? Why me? After everything… why?”
“It’s this case, James. It’s nature just… well it reminded me of you and I realized I’d want someone with your talents on my side. Because God knows I know what it’s like to have your talents on the other side.”
The air went cold and James went pale.
“Will you help me? Will you help Ward?” she asked breaking the deafening silence.
“Of course,” James whispered.
“Thank you. But we should probably talk about Bri.”
James’ heart stopped for a second and he felt his chest tighten. This was going to be awkward.
“She’s been through a lot,” she began, “you know this, don’t you?”
“Then there is just one thing we’ve got to agree on: I don’t want you going anywhere near her. I’ll steer her work away from yours as much as I can. I need you, I like you. But I love her and I don’t want her getting hurt again, got it?”
She sounded so much like Brianna. Except James never feared Brianna, she only loved her. With this woman, however, fear was probably an understatement.
“Understood, Mrs. Jones,” James replied, his head hung.
“Please, son. Call me Martha. Now,” she took her hand off his knee and folded her arms, “if you solve this case, I’ll put your through Quantico as an off-site student. It’s only fair.”
“You’re kidding?” James knew Quantico was the FBI Academy and all agents needed to attend it. He lifted his head and looked at Martha Jones’ green eyes, veiled in the shadows cast by the city’s lights. He couldn’t imagine becoming an agent. He never had even pondered the possibility.
Martha smiled and returned his gaze. “I’m not. If you can identify The Painter and get enough evidence to put him away, I want you on my team permanently.”
“I-“ James paused. “Thank you, Martha.”
Martha’s smile widened, revealing wrinkles that weren’t visible before. James could tell she liked that he called her by her first name. “What exactly is your role with the Bureau?” he asked.
“An answer best saved for later.” She pointed past him at his apartment building. “Good night, James. And good luck with the scene tomorrow.”
James exited the car and stood on the curb. “Thank you for the ride, Martha Jones.” He closed the door behind him.
“You won’t even dream tonight, James Cooper.”
“What do you mean?”
Martha smiled. “Your dreams just came true.” With that, the car drove off into the night.
“Not all of them,” James thought.
James Cooper now stood in the house of the second victim, Scarlet Charles. Her body had already been moved by the local authorities. James looked at her taped outline and then his eyes quickly found the painting. It stood on a stand, behind the crime scene.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Ward said from behind his shoulder.
“Sorry?” James said, emerging from his thoughts.
“Not admirable, but remarkable. To kill and then to paint your kill. Clearly not as his trophy, but perhaps to boast.”
“Perhaps,” James replied. “So I read up on The Painter last night on the Internet. Did you know these killings happened on the exact same day?”
“I told you that yesterday.”
“Right,” James looked back at the painting. “I’d like to cross-reference this with the art community. See if anyone can recognize any signatures.”
“Signatures?” Ward approached the painting.
“Well, yeah. Someone with this kind of skill level has got a unique style and can likely be found in other paintings; even if it’s of something different.”
“Okay. What about our boys down in white-collar crimes?” Ward began in rebuttal. “They’ve seen forgers able to paint a picture almost identical to the original. This ‘style’ of theirs would obviously have to be hidden.”
“It’s just a thought, Ward. What do you have?”
Ward smiled and walked into the kitchen.
“There are no real signs of a struggle,” he began.
“I remember reading that about the Hill case,” James blurted.
Ward cleared his throat. He was in the zone and James interrupted him.
“There are no real signs of a struggle,” Ward began again. “Much like in the Hill case. This either means our killer is someone she trusted, a point spoken as fact in both these cases, or it was someone large enough to overpower her and bring her to the ground quickly.”
“Let’s say it wasn’t the husband, Clyde, right?” James asked. Ward nodded. “If our killer had enough time to paint, he’d have enough time to clean up. I bet there weren’t any prints?”
“A lot of them,” Ward said.
“Don’t say of Mr. Charles or the boy,” James said.
“Don’t tell me what to do. There were no other prints.”
“Ward,” James said. “What if Mr. Charles was inspired by the Hill case? And this was a way for him to get out of it? We start looking for another killer while he walks.”
“But he’s not walking, Cooper. If we don’t investigate and turn up some truth, he goes to prison. That’s not a good plan.”
“Neither is killing your wife,” James said under his breath as he walked down a hall.
“The master’s this way,” Ward said as he walked in the opposite direction of James. James, feeling slightly flustered by Ward kept walking. He found the boy’s bedroom and went inside. It was painted blue with stars on the ceiling and bed covers to match. There was a dresser topped with action figures and a closest with small clothing inside. It was a difficult room to be in. From what James understood, the boy was with his mother’s sister and would probably be adopted by her after his dad’s sentencing. The boy would probably never enter this room again.
James agreed with Ward. They had to find some truth. He made his way back to the painting. It was unbelievably realistic except for the shading around the boy. James looked closely and noticed pressure on the ends, but only on a particular side of each stroke.
“A lefty,” he whispered. Suddenly, an urge cane upon him. He remembered back to that feeling he got when a detective arrived at the scene of a murder in one of his books. It was that inquisitive, brains-storming feeling that helped them pursue all angles, literally and figuratively, to solve the case. Janes hadn’t felt that until now.
“Ward!” he yelled as he ran towards the master bedroom. “Is Mr. Charles a lefty or a righty?”
Ward hadn’t heard him clearly through James’ excited sprint.
“Come again, Cooper?” Ward said as he stood from behind the bed where he had been crouching, examining the room.
“The husband, is he left-handed or right-handed?”
Ward stood there gazing at James while he searched his mind. “Honestly, I do not know.”
“I don’t remember reading it in the report either. Why would they leave that out?” James asked as if he knew what a crime scene report should look like.
Ward pulled out his phone. It rang only once before someone answered on the other end.
“Hey, Ward.” The voice on the other line was loud enough for James to hear.
“Hey, Beck. Listen, I need to know if Clyde Charles is left-handed or right-handed.”
There was a long pause, one that wrenched James’ gut.
“It’s not in the case file,” Beck replied.
“I know. Cooper and I don’t remember reading it. I’ll need you to call officer Harms. She made the arrest so she should know.”
“As if Cooper would know. On it, Ward. I’ll keep you prized.” Beck hung up.
James stood awkwardly upon hearing Beck’s response.
“Don’t let it get to you, Cooper,” Ward began as he went back to surveying the room. “A lot of people are going to be hesitant to accept your role here. A lot of people have worked hard to get where they are. Sometimes people don’t understand that talent can be hard work too.” He said this as he worked and James wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not. It sounded like one.
“Report on your findings. Why do you want to know if Mr. Charles is left or right-hand?”
“It’s the painting. The person who painted this is left-handed. You can tell by the shading around the boy.”
“You can tell. I can’t,” Ward replied seriously.
James had forgotten what it felt like to have Agent Ward correct him. “What have you found in here?” he asked.
“Nothing not already reported. The scene’s clean. I hope we can make some headway with your lefty theory. Forensics should be coming back with a full report today. The autopsy was two days ago.”
“How do you normally hear from forensics?” James replied.
“If I haven’t asked for expedited information from the tech, it’ll probably be a file on my desk tomorrow morning,” Ward replied as he stood again and approached James.
“And did you request expedited information?”
“I always do.” Ward smiled and walked past James.
“So what do we do now?” James asked.
“Honestly,” Ward began,” I’ve been here before. And I see nothing that I missed, or rather didn’t see, last time. I’m glad you caught what you did. When dealing with a serial case, when a lull comes about I always compare cases. See if data can tell us anything. It’s back to the office for us.”
James had been underwhelmed by seeing his first official murder scene. He expected a whole world of excitement and nostalgia to berate him all at once. However, he just felt a sense of heaviness that he couldn’t put his finger on.
He followed Ward to his car and sat down in the passenger’s seat.
On the way, Ward got a call from Beck. Ward answered through the car’s Bluetooth system. “Hey, Beck. What do you have?”
“Thanks.” The call ended abruptly. Beck’s feminine voice had been stern but James couldn’t tell if it were tense. The brevity of their conversation showed a long history of working together.
“That’s not good,” James pointed out.
Ward looked at him and then looked back at the street. “Nope. That leaves forensics and case data. Can I buy you a coffee on the way?” Ward smiled.
James did too. But he still felt heavy. He truly hoped for a win and that he could impress Ward with evidence that showed Mr. Charles’ innocence: something Ward was set to determine.
James’ first coffee was disgusting. He had never had it before and only sipped it three times before deciding to hold onto it until it seemed like an acceptable amount of time had passed for him to dispose of the cup. After a forty-minute drive, they reached the FBI building. There was a general lobby that one could access before going through security to get to the offices and elevators. James noticed Breanna was standing in the lobby, dressed nicely and looking beautiful to him, talking to a courier. She held a clipboard and a parcel that the man had presumably just delivered. James wondered what her role was here. He knew she planned on working for the FBI one day after or during her schooling: when James knew her, she hadn’t figured it out yet. But they did know each other. Just not at that time. It had been three years since James had last seen her and he wasn’t sure how much she had changed.
The woman at the security terminal asked for James’ ID issued by the FBI: a temporary ID that allowed him base level clearance to the first floor. This woke him from his daydreaming of Breanna and forced him to turn his
“Maybe you should clean out your office now? It’ll give you a place to spread out the case files.” Wars suggested, taking note of James’ extended gaze at Breanna. “I’ll call Sam and see if she’s got anyone who can help you out.”
“Sam?” James asked.
“She’s basically our clerical coordinator. First contact for all things office-related.”
“And who’s Beck?”
Ward paused for a second before re-holstering the gun he had sent through the security belt. “She works on the third floor. She’s my eyes in the sky.” He marched forward.
James had only been in the building for the first time yesterday so he rushed after Ward after clearing security. By the time he caught up, Ward was on the phone with Sam. James realized that likely, Breanna held a clerical role and that perhaps, being a junior, she’d be assigned to clearing out an old office for another junior. His heart sunk with hope and anxiety.
But it wasn’t Breanna. “Cooper, this is Fiona Ericsson,” Ward said in an introduction in front of a closed door, just down the hall from Ward’s own office.
“James,” he said as reached for the tall woman’s sturdy hand. She shook it without enthusiasm. James remembered what Ward told him about people be resistant to his role here.
“Let’s get you set up, kid,” she said with a wide smirk.
“Thank you, Ericsson. James, I’ll be in my office,” Ward said as he headed down the hall.
The next couple of hours passed by slowly. Fiona and James didn’t talk much. The room that was now James’ office had probably been someone’s office a decade ago. They cleared out a lot of old file boxes, covered in dust, and had to replace the lightbulb. And at last, James had his office to himself. He didn’t stay there for long as he didn’t have anything to do: all the case files were with Ward. When he got back to Ward’s office, the agent was standing with his back to the door staring at a countless amount of papers spread out on his desk. He held a chalk pen and had recently used it to scribble facts and lines and names all over a blackboard hung on the wall to his right. James saw the man stew and it was quite the sight.
When Ward got wind of James standing in the doorway, he quickly grabbed a piece of paper and hand it to James. “What do you make of this, Cooper?”
It was the forensic reports on the victim’s bloodwork. She showed trace amounts of a foreign substance in her bloodstream. Ward knew James was a fan of chemistry so he wanted to get his thoughts.
James studied the report on the tests done on the substance, which detailed exactly what it was comprised of. There were nine ingredients, however, the quantity of each chemical couldn’t be determined because of how diluted it was in the victim’s blood. Upon realizing what he was looking at his face went pale. He felt dizzy as he came upon the realization.
“Have you ever seen this substance before, Cooper?” Wars asked, taking note of James’ sudden change in colour and balance.
“Yeah… it’s a rare drug that acts as a hallucinogen when you’re awake and a sedative when you’re asleep.” He wasn’t lying. Upon hearing his own words, he shot his gaze upward at award with his eyes wide open. “Did local authorities test the husband’s blood? Clyde Charles’ blood?”
Ward picked up on James’ theory. “It’s not likely. He was arrested when officers arrived at the scene. He’s been in jail ever since.”
“We need his blood tested as soon as possible, Ward. If this drug was used on him as well, it may already be undetectable,” James blurted. With that, Ward made a phone call.
But James hadn’t been completely honest with Ward. Not only did he know the composition and effect of the drug, but he knew its origin. A high school student named Mackenzie Devan and her best friend invented this drug almost five years ago. And Mackenzie’s best friend’s name was James Cooper.