Necessary Ends: A Tai Randolph Mystery #6

Necessary Ends: A Tai Randolph Mystery #6

Tai Randolph is no stranger to solving mysteries. With a taste for danger and a talent for amateur sleuthing, she has helped put an assortment of murderers behind bars, much ...

About The Author

Tina Whittle

Tina Whittle is a mystery writer working in Statesboro, Georgia. Her short fiction has appeared in The Savannah Literary Journal, ...

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Chapter One

The closet was narrow and dusty, with barely enough room for me to stand. Dead insects crunched under my sneakers, and spider webs glued themselves to my ponytail. Though empty of appliances and devoid of air conditioning, the foreclosed duplex was crammed with beat-up sofas and ratty mattresses, and it smelled like sawdust and old shoes. Faux suburban meth-dealer chic.

Trey handed me a weapon. “Do you remember the plan?”

I wrapped my hands around the gun, a semi-auto designed to shoot projectiles, not bullets. My palms were slick with sweat, and I had to concentrate to keep the thing from thudding to the floor.

“Surrender,” I said.

“Because?”

“This scenario is designed to practice surrender protocol.”

“And you are not to…?”

“Fight. Not even a little bit.” I wiped my hands on my jeans one at a time. “What are their chances of getting past you?”

“Not very good. These particular trainees haven’t yet grasped the concept of three-sixty periphery.”

“But they will, after they tangle with you.”

A ghost of a smile flickered at the edge of Trey’s mouth. “Yes.”

He knelt and adjusted my protective vest. He was dressed for special ops—his black BDU pants paired with a long-sleeved tee, also black, plus his old service boots, the ones he’d shoved into storage almost four years ago. His orange-tipped training weapon was a ridiculous contrast, but it was the only thing keeping me in the moment. Otherwise, it would have been easy to get pulled back in time into his SWAT days, and to believe that the Trey on his knees in front of me was the Trey I’d never met, the man who’d existed before the car accident, before the frontal lobe damage, the Trey who really was a cop and not just volunteering at a training session.

I brushed a stray cobweb from his dark hair. “If any of them do make it past you, I’m going to get pocked with paintballs.”

Trey stood and double-checked my body camera, wiped a smudge from my eye protection with his sleeve. “If you surrender and drop your weapon, you’re supposed to come out unharmed. That’s the protocol.”

I sneezed. He produced a bottle of allergy medicine from some hidden pocket, and I swallowed two tablets dry.

“Does this really help?” I said.

“For the dust, yes. The pigeons, however…”

“Not the pills, these scenarios. Deliberately wading into a simulation where people come after you. Does it really make the nightmares better?”

Trey stopped messing with my gear, his blue eyes serious in the slanted light. “Yes. It does.”

When my brother the psychologist had suggested moving Trey back into simulations training, I hadn’t been convinced. I still wasn’t. But I knew he needed something, some way to work out the part of him that sometimes sizzled like an overloaded circuit. There was only so much aggression he could exorcise through running, after all, and smothering it with routine and structure hadn’t worked either. He needed an outlet, and this one—one without actual bullets and bad guys—seemed a safe alternative.

I adjusted my goggles and felt for the spare ammo on my belt. Training rounds, the SWAT version of paintballs. Each pellet contained a harmless green dye, though for actual combat, they came as capsaicin-filled pepperballs. Trey had assured me that the hot shots were banned for this scenario. Only green boxes on the training ground, only orange-marked weapons. It was an elaborately structured game of cops and robbers, and I was a robber. So was Trey.

He gave me a searching evaluation. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m sure.”

He watched my mouth to make sure I was telling the truth. I was. Mostly.

“Okay,” he said. “But remember, you can leave at any time. Tell the sentry you’re vacating the scenario.” He lowered his head to look me in the eye. “You’re not trapped here, Tai. Not at all.”

It was the right thing to say. “Ten-four. I’m good. Let’s go.”

Trey gave me one final looking-over. Then he closed the closet door, and I was alone in the darkness. I listened to his retreating footsteps, the sudden silence of his absence. Despite my best efforts, the first prickle of panic rose, and with it, the memories. The suffocating heat of the trunk. The gators bellowing on the banks. The green dot of the laser sight centered on my heart.

I tilted my head back and closed my eyes. It’s just a simulation, I told myself. Nothing but fake guns and fake bad guys. The chemicals surging in my veins were real, though, and my body responded as if the threat were real too. That was the point, I knew, to stir up the adrenaline spike and then deconstruct it. Rewire the experience, my brother had explained, rewire the response.

I wasn’t sure I was buying his theory.

I heard it then, the light susurration of combat gear sliding against ripstop fabric, the unmistakable thump of police boots on the wooden floor. Not from the back, though, where the team was supposed to enter, but from the front. The sentry abandoning his post.

I frowned. This wasn’t how things were supposed to play out.

I could feel the slosh of my pulse, and as I wrapped my hands around the butt of the weapon, the nervousness peaked and swelled into…something else. Something darker. I recognized that sharp clean jolt, red at the edges. Red, like my nightmares, like kill or be killed. And in my dreams, I killed. I slashed and screamed and bit and…

I pushed out of the closet, unable to take the confinement a second longer.

The trainee stood in the door, fully turned out in riot gear, his eyes wide and bright behind the plastic visor. He switched his gun my way. “Hands up! Weapon down!”

My vision narrowed to the barrel of the weapon, pointed straight at me, and I remembered in a flash all of the other times I’d stared down the wrong end of a firearm. My hands shook, and my finger itched to squeeze the trigger, but I forced myself to place the gun on the counter, orange muzzle pointing at the wall.

I raised my hands to shoulder height. “I surrender.”

The trainee came around the counter, rifle aimed at my heart, and the fight instinct sang in hot spiked surges. He tried to grab my arm, but I snatched it away. He cursed and popped two paintballs into my chest.

The thud against the vest hurt like hell at that close proximity, and I gasped, partly from pain and partly from astonishment. “I just surrendered, you moron!”

“You’re down. So get down.”

“Screw you.”

“I said—”

“Touch me again, and I will rip your arm off!”

I heard the opening of the back door at the other end of the house, the boots, the hushed voices. The covert entry team. And I could feel the panic rising. I was trapped, again, with a man with a gun, again. And I remembered what I was supposed to do—breathe and ground—but suddenly all I wanted to do was get out of there before I lost it, and in my mind, losing it looked like kicking the trainee’s kneecaps into jelly.

Behind him, I saw movement at the door. Not Trey. This man wore the same clothes but was shorter, with red hair. Garrity. I was surprised to see him—as the supervisor of this particular training, he was supposed to be evaluating, not participating. He stayed in the threshold, orange-tipped carbine rifle in hand.

The trainee was sharper than I’d expected, though, and he caught the motion too. He whirled around and aimed his weapon at Garrity, a satisfied smirk on his face. “Got you, sir. Nice try, sir.”

Garrity pointed to the green splotches on my vest, the gun on the counter. “You shot an unarmed suspect.”

The recruit had the decency to color red. “She was noncompliant, sir.”

“Like hell. I watched the whole thing through her camera.”

“But—”

“There are no buts here. You had your orders. What were they?”

The recruit swallowed hard. “Post up outside, guard the secondary entry point. Sir.”

“Right. Which you did not do. You waited for sixty seconds and then started clearing rooms, alone. I could ambush your team right now, and they wouldn’t know what hit them because they think you’ve got the door.”

The recruit clenched his teeth. He was wrong, and he knew it, and he blamed me. I could feel him wanting to shoot me again.

“And then you fire on an unarmed subject!” Garrity said. “How will your wife feel when she sees that on the news?”

The recruit straightened his spine. “Husband. Sir.”

Garrity stared at him for two seconds. “Let me rephrase. How will it feel when your husband is visiting you in prison because you shot and killed an unarmed surrendering suspect with her goddamn hands in the air, and so help me, that’s where I would send you if you pulled such a fuck-up on my watch.”

Then all hell broke loose in the back room. A cacophony of voices, a scuffle, a volley of gunfire.

Garrity leaned backward slightly and stuck his head into the hallway “Seaver!”

“Yes, sir!”

“The count, please.”

“Three down and one…make that four down, sir.”

Garrity sighed. “They never look up.” He returned his attention to the trainee. “And there goes the rest of your team. Y’all some sad-ass police today. Now get outta here before I really lose my temper.”

The trainee filed past Garrity, not even brushing shoulders, and Garrity focused his attention on me. Suddenly he wasn’t Special Agent in Charge anymore. He was my friend, his eyes tight with concern.

He stepped closer. “Hey? You okay?”

I nodded, but my hands were trembling. Not from fear. From pure thwarted anger. I wanted to hurt somebody, preferably the somebody who’d shot me in the chest, and I wanted it so bad I couldn’t stop shaking. Garrity knew the difference. He saw it clearly.

“Ride it out, Tai. Breathe it down.” He folded his arms. “Whose idea was it to bring you here today, Trey’s?”

I put my elbows to my knees and breathed, trying to get the blood back to my head. “Mine. I read it in one of those books my brother gave him. He said it worked for him. I thought it might work for me.”

“Did it?”

I unclenched my fists. There were half-moon indentions where my nails had cut into my skin, and my vision was still red at the edges. “I don’t think so.”

 

Chapter Two

I spent the rest of my Saturday at the gun shop, cursing the decrepit air conditioner. It had one job—keep the temperature below eighty degrees in the dinky one-room floor area—and it was failing. But that was early September in the South: good-bye summer, hello more summer.

I untucked my shirt, rolled up my sleeves. Only one customer remained in the shop, a young woman with cut-off denim shorts and brittle blond hair. She wore a tee shirt with the word Moonshine emblazoned across the front. Ever since the TV series had started filming in Kennesaw, fans of the Prohibition-era werewolf drama had been showing up at my door in packs, desperate for Moonshine-themed hats and posters. I’d pegged her as one of those. But then I’d watched her leave and come back twice, both times visiting the black F150 with the tinted windows parked in front of my door, and I’d known exactly what she was up to.

She was only my fourth customer of the afternoon. Except for my reenactor clientele and their steady appetite for black powder, business had been slow for months. The Civil War’s sesquicentennial was over. All the tourists wanted was Moonshine merchandise. All the locals wanted was guns and ammo and cheap Confederate flags, the larger the better, which they could get on almost any street corner since every Tom, Dick, and Bubba in town sold them from the back of his pickup truck.

I checked the clock. Five-fifty. I locked the front counter and strolled up next to her. “Can I help you with something?”

She pointed to a Smith and Wesson .45 in the display case. “I need that one.”

“You sure? That thing’s heavy, with a trigger pull of eight pounds and a kick like a mule.”

She twisted her mouth. “I can handle it.”

I started to argue some more, but then I heard the unmistakable growl of Trey’s Ferrari. Sunshine glinted off the black metal as he pulled into his preferred parking spot next to the empty flower boxes.

The woman’s eyes jerked toward the door as Trey came inside. He’d changed out of his special ops outfit into workout pants and a tee, his staying-in clothes. He paused in the threshold, curious, wary. I shook my head. After a second’s hesitation, he nodded and went behind the counter. This was his Saturday night routine, running the register while I closed up, and I was always happy to hand off the task. But this time he didn’t start sorting receipts. This time he watched the woman, who was getting antsy.

“You gonna give me my gun or what?” she said.

I hooked my thumbs into my pockets. “Nope.”

“What?”

“You don’t like it, call the cops. I suspect they’ll be keen to know why you came in here claiming to want to buy a gun for yourself when in reality you’re buying it for your boyfriend in the parking lot.”

She blanched. “He’s helping me pick it out, that’s all.”

“From inside his truck?”

“He didn’t want to come in.”

I tsk-tsked. “Don’t blame him there. He’s probably got a felony or two under his belt, which means he can’t buy a firearm. So he sends you in here to buy it for him, which is illegal, but since I didn’t actually sell you a gun, you might only get a few years in prison.”

She directed a furious, fearful glare out the window. That was when she noticed the camera above the door. She turned her head abruptly, but then she saw the camera over the other door.

I smiled. “Yeah, your face is on the video instead of his. Every spook in Washington D.C. is running down your record as we speak. You got any secrets? Guess what? They’re not secrets anymore.”

She made like a jackrabbit for the parking lot. Her boyfriend had the truck started, so she barely had time to shut the door behind her before he was peeling out, kicking up gravel on the sidewalk. Trey watched them drive off. He now had my flashlight in hand, the giant Maglight he’d bought me for my birthday. He was holding it like a police baton.

“Did you get the license plate?” I said.

“I did.”

Not a word I’d said to her was true, of course. Well, the cameras had caught her face. And I would be downloading a still shot into my Do Not Ever Under Any Circumstances Sell A Gun To This Person file for my assistant Kenny.

I switched off the display lights. “I am sick to death of them, all of them. Cheaters. Liars. And I swear if one more person asks me if I have anything with a werewolf on it, I’m gonna commit bloody murder.”

Trey held up one hand, and I tossed him the keys. He put away the flashlight and opened the cash register. While he ran the day’s tally, I went around pulling the shades and double-checking the burglar bars. The air conditioner coughed and wheezed, like an asthmatic alien on its last legs.

“You didn’t stay for lunch,” he said, counting bills into neat stacks. “After the scenario.”

“I had to get back here.”

“You left before I could talk to you.”

“You were busy yelling at the entry team.”

Trey raised his head. He knew I wasn’t telling the whole truth, and I knew there was no use trying to lie—his overly sensitive brain would register the deception before the words left my mouth. The best I could do was throw a bone in some other direction. But it was only him and me in the shop, and I was fresh out of bones.

“Garrity told me what happened,” he said.

I joined him behind the counter. “I’m fine. Paint-splattered, but fine. I still have some in my hair, I think.”

“Did it hurt?”

“Not much.”

“Let me see.”

I unbuttoned my shirt to reveal the reddish splotch above my breastbone—it would be a lovely purple bruise in a few days. Trey ran his fingers lightly across the skin. His touch was delicate, but his expression was sharp and annoyed.

“I recommended that individual be dropped from the training program.”

“You’re just mad because he was mean to me.”

“Garrity said the same thing. Nonetheless.” He dropped his hands, let them rest hesitantly on my hips. The bloodhound in him could smell something wrong even if he couldn’t dig it up easily. “Come back tomorrow. Tomorrow is mantracking at Doll’s Head Trail.”

“I thought you sucked at mantracking.”

“I do. That’s why Price is leading it. I’ll be the target, which I do not suck at.”

Keesha Price. His partner back when he’d been a SWAT sniper with the Atlanta PD. I’d never met her, but I’d heard stories. Suddenly the training held a spark of interest. But then I remembered the sore spot on my chest and the marrow-melting rage that seethed millimeters beneath it.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I mean, I’m happy that reenactment therapy works for you. That’s a good thing. But for me? I still got angry. Super angry. Practically homicidal.”

“That’s to be expected.”

“I almost kicked his knees in.”

“But you didn’t.”

“But I wanted to. Real bad.”

“And yet you didn’t. That’s progress.”

I looked up at him—so earnest, so wanting to help—and sighed. “I’ll think about it. That’s the best I can offer.”

“Okay. Good. Thank you.” He regarded me seriously, his hands still on my hips. “Tai?”

“Yes?”

“I saw the envelope from the lab. Under the drawer in the register.” He hesitated again. “Is it the paternity results?”

I kept the curse under my tongue. Damn it, I’d meant to hide the letter before he’d arrived. He knew I’d been waiting to find out whether or not the disreputable bootlegging felon I’d always thought of as my uncle was actually my biological father. He also knew the emotional gut-wrench I’d been going through, so I understood his concern. Still…

“I’m not messing with that right now,” I said.

“But—”

“You were the one who told me—and I quote—that I get to make these decisions, nobody else. Not even you, you said.”

“Yes. That is true. But sometimes—”

“I know Boone calls you. I know you talk to him.”

Trey’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “Of course you know. I’ve never hidden—”

“What does he want? To get you on his side? Convince you to give him a chance?”

“No. He simply asks how you’re doing. He knows you don’t want to talk to him, so—”

“Of course I don’t. I don’t trust him!” I could feel my heart rate going up again. “You can’t trust him either, Trey. Not one bit.”

“I don’t.” His expression remained calm, but his voice was laced with worry. “Do you want me to stop taking his calls? I will if you—”

“I don’t know!”

Trey didn’t say anything. Six months since that night on the dock, since Boone’s revelation, and I still woke up in a cold sweat, remembering. Three people died that night, including his son, who deserved every lick of hellfire he was surely suffering. Boone himself was dying too, though not by the sword. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis would be his eventual nemesis. It would be a slow, hard death, robbing him of breath long before it robbed him of life. A different kind of hell, especially for a man as vital as he’d once been.

That night he’d told me he was my father. Which would never be true, no matter what the envelope said. My father was Bennett Randolph, a man of hangdog hazel eyes and a tall, lanky frame, an academic who drank himself into a heart attack when I was twenty. Boone was raw-boned and rough, a former KKK Grand Dragon reformed of any race-hating, though two stints behind bars had not broken him of smuggling and gun-running. He’d married my mother’s sister, who had abandoned him with two small boys and fled to parts unknown, probably dying young, as the fast-living and loose-moraled tended to do. That was the story I’d been told, one of them anyway. My mother had edited the family history with a ruthless eye for sanitation, and she hadn’t been afraid to revise.

My mother. Lillian Randolph, a poor redneck who’d made good and who was always trying to make better. Always with her eye on a finer horizon, my mother. Whatever had happened between her and Boone, she’d taken it to the grave. I wished Boone had made the same decision.

“It’s more than I can deal with right now,” I said.

“Okay. It’s just that…” Trey stared at the register, his forehead creased in deliberation. “I know Garrity has told you that after the accident, I was…difficult.”

“He said you were a pain in the ass.”

Trey considered, then nodded. “Not an unfair assessment. But he engaged me, nonetheless. Gabriella too, and your brother, and the PTs. They couldn’t make decisions for me, but they reminded me over and over that I had to decide, even if my decision was no. Because no is a choice. Does that make sense?”

I sighed. “It means you’re gonna keep bugging me about that envelope, that’s what it means.”

He winced almost imperceptibly. To an untrained eye, his expression never wavered—he usually seemed to be a combination of annoyed and bored. But there were subtleties, shadings, like quick clouds scudding before the sun.

“I don’t like bugging you,” he said. “You think I do, but I don’t.”

I felt myself soften. We bugged each other something awful at times. I stepped closer and slid my arms around his neck, ran my fingers under his collar. His skin was warm, fresh from the shower, his hair still damp.

He moved his hands to the small of my back. “You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?”

“Trying to distract me.”

“You always say it like I’m laying some trap. Like you’re just standing there and then, whoops, suddenly we’re making out and you have no idea how it happened.”

He pulled me closer, gently, but with definite intent. “I’m not complaining.”

My bedroom was upstairs, only a few steps away, but I contemplated taking him right where we stood, with all three security cameras still rolling and the OPEN sign still out. And I could forget the envelope in the drawer. And the bruise on my chest. And the cash register with very little cash in it. I stood on tiptoe, the better to reach his mouth.

The front door jingled. A familiar female voice said, “Uh oh, I’m interrupting something, aren’t I?”

I glanced over Trey’s shoulder. He turned toward the door as his right hand instinctively reached for the gun he didn’t carry anymore.

“Finn,” I said.

Reviews of

Necessary Ends: A Tai Randolph Mystery #6

“A fine cast of believable—if eccentric—characters includes conniving actresses, jilted lovers, pushy financial backers, and stalker-fans, each with his or her own weighty agenda. Tai and Trey, with all their strengths and foibles, make a top-notch team. Readers will look forward to their further adventures.”

Publishers Weekly

“While the mystery is filled with complex characters, it’s the uncertainty, pain, and awkwardness of the two leads that drives this intense story. VERDICT Karin Slaughter readers may enjoy this work, but it will be most appreciated by followers of this character-driven series.”

Library Journal

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