The Wrong Girl
“Senator,” Taylor said, unable to come up with anything more intelligent through his surprise.
“Mr. Taylor, I’ve heard good things about you,” she said, her Southern accent partially hidden by years of speech training, forming a pleasant, almost melodic sound.
Taylor opened his mouth then stopped. How had she heard anything about him? The obvious answer was Whitaker had told her, but how in the world did Whitaker know the senator?
Sure she was a rising star at the FBI. But that did not put her on the level of hobnobbing with future world leaders. His mind whirled through scenarios, and not a single one could explain why the senator was standing in their apartment.
While those thoughts tumbled through his head, Taylor just stood, mouth slightly opened, staring at Senator Caldwell. Normally, Taylor would bluff his way through a situation like this, but the combination of lack of sleep and total surprise had managed to briefly overload the rest of his brain.
“You were right when you said he was a man of few words,” the senator said to Whitaker, her eyes dancing with mirth.
Whitaker smiled back and walked over to Taylor, taking him by the arm and leading him over to stand next to the couch.
“That’s my fault. I’m afraid I kept your identity secret. Mostly because I hardly ever catch him by surprise, and I wanted to see the look on his face.”
“Joe said you had a sense of humor,” the senator said, letting out a dignified chuckle.
Taylor’s brain finally clicked into place, making the connection. Joe would be Joe Solomon, the current head of the FBI. While he was several pay grades above Whitaker, she had been working as the right-hand woman to one of Solomon’s deputies at the moment, and Solomon would have enough contact with Whitaker to know who she was.
Having successfully put the puzzle together, Taylor rallied from his momentary meltdown.
“Sorry about that, Senator. I just got back in town, and I’m jet-lagged. Loretta said you had a problem?”
“Ahh, there we go, straight to business then. A man after my own heart. Yes, I do have a problem, and I’ve been told by multiple sources you are the person to talk to.”
“I’ll do what I can to help, ma’am.”
“Suzette, please,” she said with a charming smile.
Taylor didn’t spend a lot of time around politicians, and those he had met always came off as slimy. He was taken aback by the sheer charisma this woman radiated. Of course, she was a significantly different caliber of politician than those he’d met before.
“Suzette,” he said and gestured for her to take a seat in a large, stuffed chair while he sat next to Whitaker on the couch.
“My problem,” she said, continuing after gracefully perching on the edge of the chair, “is my daughter. Maybe it’s because I’m away so often, but she’s always been a ... free spirit.”
“How free of a spirit?” Taylor pressed.
“She’s always done what she wanted, with no regard for the consequences and for what I have to say on the subject. For example, at her prom two years ago, she showed up high as a kite carrying a bottle of some sort of alcohol, with a mangy boy wearing ripped jeans and a leather jacket. It was an absolute scandal.”
“I see,” Taylor said.
“She started at Georgetown two years ago, although I am beginning to lose hope she will ever graduate. It’s been a rough start, but we did, however, manage to get her to settle down enough to begin campaigning with me this fall.”
“From your description, I’m surprised you got her to help campaigning.”
“Independent as she is, once the credit cards start getting cancelled and the trust fund manager stops the monthly stipends, attitudes tend to adjust.”
“I see,” Taylor said again.
“This past weekend we had a family photo session planned for the next big phase of our media strategy, and Mary Jane didn’t show up. She failed to answer her phone, did not respond to texts, and the staffer I sent to her dorm to retrieve her found no one home. Simply put, she has vanished.”
“Are you concerned she...”
The senator waved her hand, interrupting Taylor, “No, no, nothing like that. I think she went out, got blackout drunk, and ended up in the apartment of whatever boy was around when she started drinking. It is, sadly, not the first time this has happened.”
“So what can I do for you, Senator?”
“Suzette, John. Please call me Suzette.”
“What can I do for you, Suzette?”
“I’ve been told you excel at finding people. I would like you to find my daughter and, if you can’t bring her home, at least let me know where she is so I can have one of my people dry her out. We have the first primary debate in one week, and it would be noticeable if she were missing from the audience.”
“Plus, word getting out your daughter’s hammered and shacking up with lowlifes would not go well with your family values platform,” Taylor said.
He had to clamp his jaws tight to keep from letting out a sound as Whitaker pinched him in the side hard enough to bruise.
“There’s no need for that, Loretta,” the senator said, not missing the byplay between Taylor and Whitaker. “I was amply warned your Mr. Taylor is known for being particularly candid.”
“That’s one word for it,” Whitaker said, looking at Taylor with a glare that promised future retribution.
“I admit my family has problems, John, but I still stand by my belief that strong family values are what make this country great. Sadly, we are not always successful. Despite trying to raise my daughter with the values I was taught as a girl, she has wandered from the path. But I refuse to give up on her, which is why I’m here.”
‘Or because you don’t want her to embarrass you on national television’ Taylor thought, but held his tongue as Whitaker gathered the skin of his arm between two fingers, readying another painful reminder to be on his best behavior.
“So you want me to find her then? Someone of your status, I’m surprised the FBI didn’t volunteer to send a hundred agents out after her.”
“I won’t lie, Mr. Taylor, there are advantages to my position. I, however, need this handled quietly and quickly. I just want her located and followed until I or someone I send can retrieve her. I am aware of your rates, and I’m willing to pay significantly more than your standard retainer.”
“OK, Senator,” Taylor said, standing. “If you, or someone on your staff I guess, could email me her information and a picture, I’ll get started in the morning. Whatever you can get me, cell phone, address, that kind of thing.”
The senator stood as well, reaching out to take the business card Taylor handed to her.
“Thank you, John. I appreciate your help.”
After the senator had replaced her disguise Whitaker walked her out, the two chatting happily. Taylor was just heading for the bedroom when Whitaker returned, her happy demeanor replaced with a scowl.
“You can’t help yourself, can you?” she said, her fists balled up, resting on her hips.
“I think I did OK for myself, Princess. I mean, I had the flight from hell, then you waltz in with Suzette f•©king Caldwell, without an ‘oh, by the way, I’m bringing the Steel Matron by for a chat.’”
“She hates being called that,” Whitaker said, trying to remain pissed at Taylor despite his valid points.
“How do you know what she doesn’t like? What, are you two buddies now?”
“No, we’re not ‘buddies.’ I got called to Solomon’s office yesterday, and he asked me to set up a meeting between the two of you. The first time I ever spoke to her was on the phone this morning to make the arrangements.”
“You could’ve given me a heads up. And did she have to constantly use my first name? It was creepy.”
“OK, fine, I get it. I shouldn’t have sprung her on you like that. You still don’t always have to be such an asshole to people.”
“I am who I am, Princess,” Taylor said with a cocky smile he’d learned worked well on Whitaker.
“Don’t I know it. Now get your ass in the bedroom,” she said, pointing angrily at the door across from them. “I still want to get some of that practice you promised earlier before you pass out.”
Taylor laughed and followed her directions.
Sunlight streamed between the blinds covering the window next to their bed; the light from its scattered rays forcing Taylor to open his eyes. Reaching out with one arm to the other side of the bed, Taylor felt only the lumpy shape of the blanket and an empty spot where Whitaker should be.
Rolling the other direction, Taylor pulled the alarm clock toward him and stared at it through blurry, sleep filled eyes. He must have been even more exhausted the night before than he thought. Even when pushing himself on a case, working all hours of the night, he still always managed to get up early the next morning. But, if this clock were to be believed, it was after ten.
He set the clock back down and pulled himself out of bed, rubbing his eyes. Taylor went through his morning routine methodically, not bothering to rush. He’d agreed to take the case, both because it hadn’t sounded all that hard compared to some of the other jobs he’d had recently, and because it seemed important to Whitaker. But he wasn’t in any particular hurry to get started. Compared to tracking down a girl abducted from in front of her school in broad daylight, finding a wealthy coed who liked to party too much didn’t seem overly urgent.
After he finished showering and what not, he stopped to clean and reassemble his gun, something he’d forgotten to do the night before. Even if this case looked to be relatively straightforward, Taylor never liked leaving the house unarmed if he could help it.
Grabbing his phone, he saw an email from someone named Loren Dashel. It was an unusual name, especially since the picture in the email signature at the bottom of the message showed Loren to be a man, and not a woman as Taylor had first guessed from the name. It also helpfully identified him as one of the senator’s assistants. Scrolling through his email, he saw Mr. Dashel had sent along the information the senator had promised the night before. Multiple phone numbers were included as well as an address and room number of her dorm, along with a picture of the girl.
Most people would say Mary Jane was relatively attractive, although based on the descriptions her mother had given the night before, this picture probably did not match how she usually looked. Like her mother, Mary Jane had light reddish blond hair, although where the senator had hers cut short, Mary Jane’s hair spilled over her shoulders and seemed long. Although it was hard to tell exactly how long from the photo.
She was wearing a sweater with a logo on it, and a blue bow in her hair, smiling sweetly at the camera, which Taylor would bet was not how she usually dressed. He wasn’t an expert, but it seemed her makeup was also tastefully applied. Just enough so Taylor could tell she was wearing some, but all made to be natural shades that might not have been far off what the girl’s lips or skin looked like without makeup.
Smart money said whatever campaign event or flyer this picture was taken for; her mother had paid good money for someone to make Mary Jane look innocent and wholesome. The girl in the picture looked more like a tennis fan or, well, a college coed and not the hard-drinking party girl that had been described.
The one thing that stood out to Taylor, which wouldn’t change no matter how she was dressed, were her eyes. They were a piercing shade of blue, with light flecks of green around the irises.
Clicking off the phone, Taylor headed out of the apartment and to his car. Twenty minutes later he regretted not just taking a taxi. Georgetown was not the easiest place to park, and Taylor ended up leaving his car six blocks from the girl’s dorm. That in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad, but February in DC can get pretty cold, and there was even a light snow on the ground.
Taylor was at least glad he’d looked at the weather and ditched his usual leather jacket for something more appropriate to the weather as he trudged along the sidewalk toward the college. When he walked in the front door of the dorm and stamped the snow off his feet, Taylor had lost feeling in his nose and the tips of his ears.
There was a desk for visitors to check in, and the senator, or more likely the helpful Mr. Dashel again, had not only left Taylor’s name as OK to visit but a room key as well. Taylor briefly wished all his cases were this easy.
Taylor got a few odd looks as he got off the elevator at her floor and let himself into her dorm room. The first thing he noticed was she had no roommate, which was pretty unusual. Even the most elite colleges in the country, like Harvard or Yale, had their undergraduates in dorms with at least one roommate. Finding a sophomore with her own room was weird.
Taylor also wondered why she was in a dorm at all. With the Caldwell fortune behind her, Mary Jane should have swung her own apartment off campus, and her mother had the pull to make sure the college let her. Maybe her mother wanted her on campus. If she was the wild child, the senator portrayed, Taylor could see her wanting a check on her daughter. Not that it mattered one way or another toward Taylor finding her. It was just one of those oddities he ran across from time to time that would end up bugging him.
While Whitaker was a typical Type A personality and never left anything sitting out for longer than she had to, his previous relationships had taught Taylor that women were just as slovenly as most guys, though they generally managed to hide it better.
Mary Jane’s room didn’t fall into either the neat freak or disgusting categories. There were clothes dotted around, but they looked to be from the last time Mary Jane had been in her room, and not multiple day’s clothes strewn haphazardly. Other than clothing and the odd daily use item, everything else seemed to be in its place.
Nothing stood out to indicate anything noteworthy had happened here. There weren’t signs of any struggle or something bad having happened to her in the room. Not that Taylor was expecting any. The smart money was still on her being shacked up with a guy somewhere, but after almost a year doing this, with most of the cases being of a much more violent variety, his eye went to details like that automatically.
Taylor walked the perimeter of the room without touching anything at first. Just looking at everything in plain view, getting a sense of the girl. He wasn’t avoiding touching things out of any worry, it was just part of the process he’d started to develop. While he was in a legal gray area being inside the room, since although her mother paid for the room, she wasn’t the resident and so didn’t have the power to authorize Taylor’s entry, that didn’t bother him. Even those times when he’d blatantly broken into someone’s room, Taylor had done so with few second thoughts. Whitaker, however, took multiple opportunities to remind him of the legal reasons for being inside someone’s house or room, and the problems with going outside of those laws. Taylor and Whitaker had never seen eye to eye on that point. She believed in doing things strictly according to the rules and Taylor preferred a more common sense and expedited process to getting his job done.
Once he’d finished his circle of the room, he first stopped at the girl’s mail and thumbed through it. Not much stood out as noteworthy. A few credit card bills and other junk mail, but nothing personal or otherwise illuminating. Taylor did notice the mail and credit cards were for Mary Jane Norris, and he seemed to dimly recall a news program he’d half-watched some time recently, doing a profile of the senator. It had mentioned her husband, Mary Jane’s father, had passed away from a heart attack, four years earlier. The program had also mentioned the senator had decided to retain her maiden name when she got married. While the news hadn’t been so crass as to point out, she kept her name because ‘Caldwell’ had a cachet and a public profile that would help her a lot more in her political ambitions than the unknown Norris name would have, but Taylor assumed that to be the case.