A WHITELEY PRESS BOOK Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer Becton http://www.jwbecton.



The course of his life had already been set—written on his soul as if chiseled in cold, hard stone—and that meant that the bodies would never quit coming. He’d never be able to stop them. Resigned to his fate, the man in the baseball cap paused only for a moment to look into the night sky. The oppressive heat of summer had finally begun to taper off, but fall had not yet arrived. During this in-between time, reality seemed suspended somehow—not quite summer, not quite fall—and he felt nothing, neither anger nor pleasure, as he undertook his task. He simply pushed the limp, lifeless body onward to its final destination. It was what he must do.


“A dead body, a car fire, and a potentially fraudulent death benefits claim,” Ted Insley announced far too cheerfully for eight o’clock on a Monday morning. Too cheerfully for anytime, really, but especially for my first day back at work at the Georgia Department of Insurance after a two-week medical leave. “And good morning to you too,” I tossed back, looking up from my laptop monitor where I’d been catching up on my long-neglected email. I watched my boss saunter into my office, place the new case files in a neat stack on my desk, and take a seat. Ted chuckled as he picked some imaginary lint from his trousers and leaned back into the beam of sunlight that streaked through the window. His silver hair and starched white shirt seemed to glow, and I squinted at him as he said with exaggerated formality, “On behalf of the Georgia Department of Insurance, welcome back, Special Agent Julia Jackson. We’ve missed you around here.” “I’ve missed being here,” I said as I crossed my arms in front of me and tilted my chair back. A shrill squeak of springs filled the room, almost as if the furniture were heckling me for bending the truth. Well, I’d mostly missed being there. Even if I were already mourning the loss of freedom my little mandatory vacation had provided, I could at least be happy about one aspect of my return to the DOI: it meant I’d officially been cleared in the shooting that ended my last fraud investigation. I knew my actions had been justified. After all, an armed gunman had broken into my house and tried to kill me, but in a society fraught with frivolous lawsuits, you just never know what might happen. I half expected the guy’s widow to sue me. That would have been a disaster. Of course, the news of my being cleared in the shooting didn’t fully assuage my conscience. I was still coming to grips with what I’d done—I had taken a life—but at least I knew I wasn’t going to be tried for defending my own. And I wouldn’t be confined to my desk either. “So…,” Ted began in an overly cautious tone that had me cringing after only one word. “How are you feeling? Are you healing well?” He looked pointedly at my left arm, where the bullet had made its impression, and then at my head as if it might conceal a ticking time bomb. Geez, I wasn’t exactly okay with killing another human or being shot myself, but I was definitely not fragile either. I was just…wounded. I forced my thoughts away from the bandage on my arm and smiled brightly at Ted. “Me? I’m just fine.” I hated having people tread carefully around me and despised having them question my ability to cope with a difficult, yet regrettably normal, aspect of a law enforcement officer’s career. But what I loathed even more was the fact that I had been asking myself the very same questions that Ted was dancing around now. “I’m perfectly okay. Thanks for asking,” I repeated in a firm tone that was meant to reassure both of us.

It appeared to work on Ted. “Excellent! The timing couldn’t be better.” He gestured at the files. “This big case came in late last night, and we need someone on the scene today. I was running out of investigators.” I smiled to myself, understanding what Ted had not said. If I hadn’t been cleared and healed enough to come in on this lovely Monday morning, Ted himself would have had to go into the field and investigate the case on his own. Although he was a former field agent, Ted was much more suited to—not to mention comfortable with—sitting behind a desk in a nice clean office where everything was ordered and regular. These days, he avoided the field as much as possible. “Big case, huh?” I asked, already curious about the files in front of me. “Well, nothing like the last one. No one’s been abducted. But there is a body.” Then he added soberly, “It’s not pretty.” Even though I’d taken two weeks off and was supposedly recovered from the shooting, I was surprised that Ted would assign me a case involving a dead body. Why not a nice staged car accident or a simple homeowner’s insurance scam? Heck, even a medical con would be better at this precise moment. Still, I began to thumb through the paperwork in front of me. I scanned the cover sheets and flipped through the rest of the pages, stopping when I saw a few photographs of a burned car leaning unevenly on the shoulder of a wooded road. I shut the folder before I saw any bodies. Still a bit early in the day for that. “It’s not a problem, Ted,” I said, hoping that was the truth. “I was reluctant to assign it to you”—he looked at my arm again—“given the circumstances. It’s not the ideal case for your first day back, but I really need you on it. Everyone else is busy handling the backlog of investigations that accumulated while you were gone.” I restrained a sigh. There was no denying that this backlog of cases was the result of my time off. I knew Ted wasn’t trying to be a jerk by handing the death benefits case off to me, but I wondered if he might be testing me, making sure I was really capable of continuing with my duties after what happened. Well, if that were the case, I would prove to Ted, everyone at the DOI, and even myself that I was more than capable of doing my job. Determined, I flipped the pages of the files again. “If it makes you feel any better,” Ted said, his tone still tentative, “you’ll have help.” I raised my eyes to meet his. “Help?” “Yeah, you remember those new policies mandated by the Atlanta office?” I nodded. The new policies had also been the result of my last case. When it became clear that I’d been the target of an abduction and an attempted murder, the DOI went into cover-yourass mode. Their first mandate was that DOI investigators must be armed at all times during the course of their duties, which explained the Smith and Wesson M&P .40 caliber pistol strapped securely to my hip as I sat at my desk. Now, apparently, they’d added more stipulations to their new list of rules. “All major DOI investigations must be run by no fewer than two agents,” Ted said as if quoting from the official memorandum. “This death benefits claim qualifies as a major case.” “So I’ve got a partner?” I translated. Ted nodded, his expression uncertain as he looked away from me. I wondered if he thought I’d complain about this new mandate.

I leaned back, causing the chair springs to shriek in protest again and wondering if I should protest too, but truth be told, I didn’t mind the idea of working with a partner. I sure could have used a partner beside me when I was staring down the barrel of a revolver two weeks ago. “Who? Gershman?” I asked, thinking he’d likely pair me with the other investigator in the Mercer, Georgia, office. “Me,” a deep voice said. It was clearly not the voice of nearing-retirement-age Webb Gershman.

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