Where Do We Go From Here?
* * * * *
"The battle's done
And we kind of won
So we sound our victory cheer
But, where do we go from here?"
—Cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Once More With Feeling"
* * * * *
A Psych story and Sequel to "Hard To Believe It Will Be Okay "
Chapter One: Will We Burn In Heaven Like We Do Down Here?
The killer, as it turned out, had had a last name. The name stared out at Lassiter from the computer screen in bold black typeface. Grant. Saul Grant. He had no priors before the age of twenty; it seemed, until then, he had been a saint.
Or just too slick or wily to get caught.
His first, on file in Norton, New Mexico, was for theft and vandalism. A barely-out-of-his-teens male juvenile (once, twice and always) acting out.
Lassiter pressed his lips into hard line, holding the grimace long enough to make his jaw ache.
Juliet O'Hara pinched the bridge of her nose, indulging in a few seconds of closed eyes and a shallow breath before stepping up to her partner's desk. He didn't look up, didn't remove his thoughts from the past or tear his eyes from information he felt he needed to glean. "Carlton," Juliet said quietly. She knew better than to push him too much, or lecture him about eyestrain; she knew he'd been at this all day, for weeks now—for months, even before he'd come back, he'd made a point to start it, small things, like phone calls—in the moments he'd deemed as "free" in the spaces of his other open cases. He hadn't so much as told her this was a "cold" case that consumed him—it should, Juliet reflected, be open and shut.
It should, but as often as these things went, it was not. The murderer of these five Santa Barbara victims was dead—she'd made certain of that. And it was, she also reflected, plausible that he'd killed before, many times, with the crimes going unsolved one after the other.
But he had not killed her partner, the sixth victim. The sole survivor. The man had made plans to kill, had executed his torture—physical and mental—slowly, meticulously, assured by the success of his other kills that this one would also be carried through to completion.
But he had not counted on her—but Lassiter had. Lassiter believed, throughout his entire imprisonment, that she was going to arrive—that she had it in her power to save him.
This she knew, because he had told her so. Not right away, but after her many dutiful visits to his hospital room, and in the few nights she'd stopped by his place after her shifts to check in on him, he'd finally played a willing, sentimental card, to tell her that she had been his reason for . . . fighting, hanging on, not giving in, not dying, though his blood loss had been severe, and though . . . as he'd hinted, the mental torture he'd endured was earth shattering.
* * *
He'd stopped her from fussing, gripping her arm and holding on until she sat down. "There's something . . . I wanted to tell you. Need to tell you, O'Hara."
Juliet had to admit she'd broken the hard, icy shell that had encased her since . . . actually, she couldn't pinpoint when. Maybe when she'd resisted seeing him because she was convinced, selfishly, that her own failure had put him in this position, in danger. (Which he'd gone and sobbed wasn't true.) But her guilt slid down her, sticking everywhere like tar. When had she stopped letting herself be Lassiter's friend? Had taken on the role of his "guardian"? He hadn't asked her too, would never ask her to. She felt ashamed. She started to force the words out, to apologize for being foolish, but his lips were already moving, were already making her out to be some kind of long distance angel or convincing hallucination. "It may have been the blood loss," he said, "but I would have sworn you were there. Long before I actually knew you were there." He laughed at himself humorlessly. "That sounds like psycho-spiritual crap, doesn't it?"
She thought it over while he paused, trying to feel deserving of her newest status as angel and savior to Carlton Lassiter. It made her cringe. No, she was still just his friend, and his partner, and herself as junior detective doing her job, stopping a killer who refused to drop his weapons, and back off his prey.
Juliet fought the bitter taste that crept onto her tongue. With the bitter was something hot, like fire, or anger, or pain, and she suddenly wanted to hit something. She ground her fingernails into her palm, her fist low so her partner couldn't see.
She had wanted to be his "guardian" so she had become it. When she had become so angry at a dead man. When had she?
"No," Juliet finally answered. She shook out her fist and patted his hand. "Go on."
Lassiter blew out a breath, and struggled to sit up. She waited, not offering to help or making a move towards him, just in case this was another thing she shouldn't intrude upon. (It was still hard to tell sometimes.) When he groaned, she got a pillow and slipped it quickly behind his back. He'd glared, but it was a partially grateful look.
"I needed to believe in something," Carlton said. "I tried to believe in myself, but as time passed, as he . . . kept talking to me, wounding me, it got harder and harder. And," he paused, turning his head as if to hide a look on his face. A blush? It was hard for her to tell. "And my thoughts kept turning to you. To how good you've been for me . . . to me, at times when there was no way in hell I deserved it."
He turned back, looking embarrassed. "I'm mostly a jerk," he said. "Obsessed with my career, obsessed with getting ahead. I don't care about people as much as I should."
"Carlton," Juliet breathed, "you're not a—"
He shook his head firmly. "I am. But I think you've . . . your presence in my life . . . has helped me to be less of one. Sometimes." He frowned. "I didn't think I'd get the chance to tell you that. How goddamn important you are, O'Hara." He tried to smile. "I believed in you. I mean, I believe in you." He looked at her, his eyes glistening. "I trust you with my life."
There. Was that the moment she was trying to remember? Or was it that certain words set her off, brought up fury?
"Carlton, I . . . I trust you with mine too."
He smiled then, and thanked her for trusting him. And for becoming his friend, though he didn't say it with words, so she strapped this third weight to her back again, though she didn't consider any one of them a burden: partner, friend, guardian. She refused to accept "angel" or "hero"; she didn't consider herself any shining thing.
* * *
Juliet glanced at her partner now as he peered intensely at the screen. "This isn't good for you," she said quietly, inferring less about eyestrain and more about what she saw as self-flagellation.
Lassiter squinted, pursing his lips. He didn't have the heart to—he jerked his eyes from the screen. But he didn't have the mettle to snap at her, to tell her to get the hell out. They'd bonded further over his death, over the killer's death; Lassiter wished, foolishly, he knew, that he could have seen the look in her eyes as she pulled the trigger—but he also thought it over with the peculiar sense that had he seen it, he may have been struck blind.
Hell hath no fury like—
He frowned to himself, knowing that that phrasing didn't entirely fit. He let his eyes drift to his partner, to the bags under her eyes, to the pinched mouth, to the dullness of her complexion. He sighed. "I have to do this, Juliet," he answered just as quietly, as if if they both kept to whispers the secrets which had passed between them would always remain only theirs.
It was a hope of both—though not a thing that either of their police sanctioned psychiatrists appreciated.
She still saw it often, the man's body whipping backwards, flung as if by a strong wind. She could see the splatter of blood as the bullet exploded into his forehead. But she still did not care as much about this death as the few things she'd witnessed the psychopath doing. These were the thoughts that kept her awake at night—these were the all consuming worries that threatened her focus. She had come to learn that she was furious that this one evil man had nearly taken away her partner—a person she had highly invested in, a person of good character, with high attempts at good morals—her friend, who believed in her, trusting her when he trusted no one else but himself.
* * *
No one had come to claim the body.
An attempt had been made to discover the man's identity—to find his next of kin, but so little had been known about the dead man. His fingerprints were not on file in the criminal database, which Juliet found difficult to settle. The man had hardly been an angel; it was impossible to believe that these were the very first murders he'd ever committed. He seemed practiced at abduction too—and had some disturbing black magic to keep even a speck of his DNA from landing on his victims. What was found was exactly what he wanted to be found—his signatures, with the purpose for what he chose unknown. Unknown still. Lassiter knew his first name only, if that was his real name, and had reported that the man spoke of a grandfather who may have raised him—but all of the information Lassiter had been told could be suspect. Psychopaths often lied.
In lieu of fingerprints on record, or a last name—still considering whether or not the first name was real— "Saul Doe"—Lassiter took it upon himself to find out why. He had spent a month, on his lunch breaks, in "free moments", seeking out constant information, anything and everything he could find out about Saul. It had taken him three weeks to procure the last name; now his focus shifted to finding and following the trail of blood and death; these patterns were similar in mostly small towns of the Southwest, in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas . . . and this. Norton, New Mexico. Not only this. Lassiter tapped the his finger on the mouse subconsciously.
It could have started as a harmless quest, a simple solution, but Juliet felt that Vick should have limited his access to all things Saul and killer. This was her fierce opinion, but it was too late to assert it now. Lassiter was hooked. Why he wanted to know—what he wanted to know—Juliet herself could not answer. She was baffled he wanted to get closer to the killer . . . get into the dead man's head. His obsession disturbed her, even brought her the occasional variation of nightmare.
He would never know this; she could keep anything she wanted from him. He wasn't as persistent as she was; lately, he didn't have a desire to know about anything deeper than her skin; that was just fine.
Odessa, Texas. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Cave Creek, Arizona. On and on. The patterns, if there were any, scattered activity all over these states. There was a lot of ground to cover. In his head, he was already drawing up lists, barking orders to special task forces. It seemed so clear. There could be connections, broken links, because no one could see them like he could. One of Juliet's whispered suggestions had been that he was reading too much into what could be just a series of random acts. That he was seeing what was not there. She had been gentle then, gripping his arm just above them elbow, the two of them in the hallway alone. Still early, after his return.
There was one suspicious unsolved death in Colorado, at deep snow time, and it may or may have not been related. Wrists slashed, a few years back, case never solved. But these were among the things that kept Carlton awake at night, drawn, growing paler, thinner by each day.
Juliet noticed. It gnawed at her to watch him slipping, right before her eyes, feeling as if she could do nothing to stop him. Or heal him.
To her, the killer was a brief bleep on the radar—mostly shapeless, faceless for weeks. He produced bodies, he left no traces. Then, she was in his space, holding her gun on him, staring at him with open horror as he stared back with Lassiter's blood on his lips. He bore the fevered look of someone satisfied. He didn't respond at all to her threat—her promise—to shoot.
"Somabitch was a person," Lassiter muttered, startling Juliet, whose hearing had adjusted to take in his low speech clearly; it was one of her secret ways of "keeping an eye on him".
His statement didn't register, or barely did; it knocked on the doors of her thoughts, pleading an audience, but her brain said no, not now. She didn't acknowledge his words, but stopped, waiting with her shoulders hitched to see if there was more. She heard, despite the shuffle of paper and other buzzing of constant activity, a drawer open and close, then, a scrawl of ink pressed onto a pad of paper; Lassiter always pressed hard, writing his notes with purpose. Then. Now. It was one of the few things that had stayed the same.
She wished she had Shawn's gift, could pick up the name from the ether without having the walk over to the pad of paper and take a gander. It was useless. Juliet shook, forcing her hands into hard fists, pulling her arms in to her sides. She nodded tightly and made herself back away to return to her makeshift desk within his line of sight. Her vigil would continue at a distance; it had also become a ritual for her. She remained standing, attentive.
"A real person," Lassiter muttered again, staring at the words he'd written. Saul Grant. He couldn't yet be certain this wasn't an alias, that this dead man hadn't been surviving off someone else's identity (at least by name) to keep some anonymity. But . . . it hardly seemed a thing he would do. Would have done. Saul Grant.
"Name's Saul," the killer had stated conversationally, peering down at his dazed, bound and injured victim. The memory was so vivid, Carlton couldn't be entirely convinced it hadn't happened just a few seconds before.
The truth was . . . too much of the victimization was still perfectly clear. There were also perfect fogs—blank spaces where he must have passed out—or when he was knocked out. What was most clear—almost in entirety—were the times when he was alone with the killer. The pain—physical and emotional—the killer brought him. The mental anguish Lassiter brought himself. The knowledge that he was going die there, alone, forgotten about after the fact—it could still sting his eyes with the harshness of tear gas. "Name's Saul."
He had only spoken Lassiter's full name once, drawling out every syllable. "Dee-tect-ive Carlton Lassiter, badge number 856-SBPD." It made him wonder if the criminal's other victims—all civilians—had been treated to this same, one-time-only, deconstruction of their names before the deconstruction of their bodies—and spirits—began. After, there had only been titles: "Dee-tect-ive" and "Lawman", over and over. Lassiter wished he could . . . his jaw tightened, a familiar response. There wasn't anyone left alive to answer his questions, anyone that knew.
Carlton briefly glanced to his right again; he was aware of the press of her presence near him, her constant vigil. He barely had the heart to tell her to shoo. Or maybe that wasn't it, maybe mettle had nothing to do with it either. He allowed himself to give Juliet another a full glance—quick—enough to see that she was at her usual, glaring at the space above his head; sometimes, when they locked eyes, both began their individual fraying. Not always, but Carlton knew, in these times, Juliet was working up the courage to chew him out. So far, Vick had been letting it slide; an obvious clue that she didn't know the depths he was letting himself fall into—willingly, barely taking in a full breath before he dropped his head into the dark water. Though it was hardly an exercise in drowning; surely Juliet would grab him by the lapels and shake some sense into him if she even suspected—
He could count on her, he knew he could. The knowledge burned him, brought a fire to his insides that he had been certain—for a few months following everything—Saul had desecrated forever. But Juliet had . . . reminded him. He counted on her to be his constant.
Right now, he couldn't—wouldn't let himself—touch the barrier of her anger. The anger had wrapped itself tightly around her limbs, even bringing her hands to resemble claws every now and then. There was, though, a small pang of guilt that throbbed for her under his ribcage; he knew she needed his help, somehow, it had to be him to help her deal with . . . this. They would have to lock eyes, exchange words, and neither of them could make a break for the exits. Just thinking about it made him want to run now, a discreet speed walk giving way to a sprint once he was out of her sight. Part of her pain was inextricably bound to his; helping her meant also letting himself be helped. Which meant talking about . . . Saul. And Saul's deepest, darkest deeds.
Carlton let his eyes drop back to his tasks, only after he'd let himself look at her eyes, let himself give her the chance to turn her glare straight on him. Right now, he couldn't. He had work to do.
Lassiter's jaw tightened again as he looked towards the information in front of him; his tormentor was dead, in a manner of speaking. He pushed back in his chair, the knots in his back having grown tighter since the last time he'd moved.
Vick had barely been able to disguise her consternation when she had ordered Lassiter to desk duty—and he had not protested. He'd taken the news in a daze on his first day back after a long rest in the hospital—after stitches and bandages, blood tests and painkillers, after rehab for his mangled limbs and opened wounds, after so much blood lost and regained—after forced time off at home. It wasn't so much that he now considered himself gun shy, or a liability to his partner, but a change had come over him—and from the constant hawk-like looks from his partner, Lassiter prayed that it was temporary; a gauzy veil that had settled across his perspective with the potential to be lifted.
Or ripped away. He stole a look at his partner's tense form as she walked from his desk stiffly. She had been cleared for fieldwork, though the psychiatric care had been made mandatory.
He was still painfully aware of the bandages still wrapped tightly over his wounds, as well as the horror and humiliation he was forced to relive when he gave his statement; he'd been tested for everything that could be transferred from saliva to the bloodstream. It was twisted, then, that the killer had not been a carrier any diseases—nor anything dormant, waiting to strike—he'd been perfectly healthy.
Lassiter sneered. Not that Saul Grant hadn't left Lassiter with plenty; the physical wounds, psychological anguish, and a strange drive to learn everything he could about this man—so he could even hope to scratch the surface of just how the killer had been able to best him. He still had something to prove to himself, to others, to his own paranoia. This was . . . good for him. This was what he had to do.
Across the room, Juliet O'Hara sighed. She was exhausted trying to fight passive-aggressively with Lassiter. She sighed again, knowing, as she had known when it started, that it was a waste of her energy and resources to argue with him—he was always a detective, tireless in his search for truth. Usually, this quality of his was admirable, but Juliet had a terrible feeling that the prize on the end of this rope was a death of sorts. She sighed for a third time, extracting herself from his line of sight—not that he was looking towards her—to get herself another cup of coffee. These days were going to be long ones, all of them.
* * *
He couldn't sleep again, not after that last dream, not after waking up with his bedsheets tangled around his throat again. Shawn's hand sweep his bedside table, which was currently two orange crates stacked on top of each other, his fingers poised over his iPhone. He wanted to call, wanted to talk, but he knew two things for certain: Gus was not ready to hear his explanations, let alone his near-death experiences, and Shawn was not quite ready to spin it so he came off looking okay; he just wasn't his usual self.
Shawn scrubbed the heel of his hands across his face, eyes, forehead, a soothing motion and pressure that blocked out everything for a few seconds. Then, he was just Shawn Spencer, fake psychic extraordinaire, SBPD consultant, and loyal if not eccentric best friend to Burton Guster. He was not a traitor, a liar, a deceiver, an accessory after the fact, aiding a murderer knowingly or unknowingly, or a near murder victim himself. He was still always a disappointment to Henry, but he was not, in those few seconds, a disappointment to Gus. An embarrassment. A sham. Reckless enough to . . . no, wait, he was still reckless. Gus knew this; this wasn't going to change on either side.
Shawn's body swung on its hinges to bring him upright, and his legs swung over the side of the bed (a mattress propped up on cinder blocks), and he went to the shoebox where he'd put the strange souvenir he'd kept of the crime; proof, other than his own bloodied shirt, which he'd thrown in the trash . . . after puking all over it (as if it wasn't toast before that). Shawn knocked off the lid and grabbed the cloth, unwrapping it feverishly as if it were a gift; each time, he always hoped it would and would not be there, at the same time, that he'd somehow dreamed the whole thing up, but that it had really happened too.
Hat pin, 20 centimeter silver shaft with red Art Deco style teardrop cap, circa 1940s.
Shawn puckered his mouth, wrapped the thing back up and shoved it back into the box. He still didn't know if he was disappointed, or relieved.
He hadn't . . . told a soul. He hadn't even gone to the box to tell a thing to that older guy with the white collar whom Gus referred to as Father Westley. He only really went to make Gus feel better, and because Gus didn't know . . . only had selective knowledge, it seemed like a vain act. And, because the killer was dead, Shawn had conveniently slipped through the cracks on giving a full statement; though he'd mimicked it with slashed through details about his vision, which "put" him at the scene, and then had dutifully—mostly so—repeated what he had seen when he and Juliet arrived; the bare minimum seemed to suffice. After all, the killer was dead.
Shawn had to remind himself of this; he would never again appear to smack Shawn in the back of the head, or wrap his hands—or Shawn's own flannel—around Shawn's throat.
He had a prickly urge to return to the shoebox, to lift its lid and hold the cold pin in his hand. It was such a small detail, holding the suicide king in perfect place on the victims' clothing. Shawn tried to tuck his hands in his pockets before realizing his sweat pants had none; he ran his shaking fingers down the sides of his thighs. It was a small detail; it shouldn't, in some creepy way he couldn't fully explain, hold the embodiment of this man of evil—it was only an object, was hardly important at all.
He should just . . . toss it. His eyes slid across the room, his vision pooling on that space. He didn't know why he was keeping it for. The police had confiscated both boxes Lassiter had mentioned to him—ordinary duplicates of the pins, and several copies—though not filled to the brim—of the homemade suicide kings. When he looked sideways towards the box, after dreams like this, he could remember what those cards looked like—the slant of hearts. How they were off enough to be on—but still off—still catch his eye.
Without thinking about it, Shawn pulled on some clothes. It was early, still dark, but he had little reason to go back to sleep. Even less to stay awake. He didn't want to stay here with . . . with that.
He could visualize it pinned to Lassiter's shirt, the card pressed down over his left side, the back sticky with blood. He could never see if Lassiter's eyes were opened or closed. He could imagine Juliet, arm raised, arm shaking, shooting a dead man. Over and over and over and over again.
He could imagine her dressed in black, walking down the hallway of the police station. Sometimes he added a little hat with a black veil, held to her hair with a . . . hat pin, 20 centimeter silver shaft with red Art Deco style teardrop cap, circa 1940s. He could visualize her washed out skin turning for him . . .
There was a sneer. Or tears. Or blankness.
He always . . . thought up a good quip about how the Goth look was unsuitable for her, but in those moments he could never say it. The space around him was flat.
Sometimes these were in his dreams, and sometimes, they followed him like PIs as he dragged himself around, as he raised his hand to his head in more false gestures for public show, or tipped the latest cup of coffee or glass of beer into his mouth.
They were real enough to feel real. In the back of his mind, Shawn could hear a gnat that was formerly his best friend teasing him over the logistics of that statement. He sighed.
Shawn hadn't really spent time thinking through what others might think, how they would react, if they knew more. He often had a pulsing of emotions right under his skin, gathered often around his neck, that he cared little to deal with. Fear, a steady panic, and deep shame were often most prominent, pushing on him as if he'd swallowed fire.
He hadn't allowed himself to feel good, even though he had been the co-hero. He could gloat about being the one who found Lassiter in the first place, who had been the catalyst for the proper rescue.
But he might have been the catalyst for the proper assault—bad karma; they canceled each other out. Shawn didn't usually care about karma; he lied for a living to find the truth. Before he'd become "serious" about lying for a living, he'd been content enough to help from a distance—to call in what he knew. And he knew he was not a cop. Shawn swallowed deeply, a dry swallow that was not enough to send the fire below. The back of his knees felt weak; he had to sit. He lowered himself to his mattress, let himself fall back against the pillows.
The killer's face flashed in the dark—a determined stare of hard marble, of eternalness. The man knew exactly what he was about to do; Shawn was a hapless prairie dog about to be gobbled by a lion, or a snake.
"So why didn't he finish the job?" Shawn whispered aloud, his eyelids falling heavily. Was it strange that the killer's "residual presence" made him sleepy? Or was that . . . he was thinking of his own death? He tried to push his eyes back open. His failed death? But . . . if he hadn't lived, then how would he have been able to warn Juliet?
One eye opened. Again, there was a bitter taste under his tongue. Did it mean . . . was the killer that smug? That he knew that there was a chance that he hadn't killed Shawn? But there was still the gnawing "Why?" Or "Why not?"
Back, back to this again. There was so much of "this" or "that"—what he knew, what he could glean from a few shaky memories (or even the most vividly intense ones), and what he might never know. He knew way too much—way too little too. And the man who might be able to answer was lying on a slab in the morgue. Not that he would ever tell—not ever.
He might just be the "type" to toy with any survivors—with law enforcement, lawyers, advocates, family members of victims—always enjoying the game, the looks on their faces as he still refused them. Shawn guessed he was the type who had never seen the inside of a prison; who may have, at an earlier point in his "career"—Shawn thought with a quick gulp—once or twice seen the inside of a police station, maybe an interrogation room.
For a moment, Shawn tried to imagine what it would be like to interrogate someone like this.
Who would break first? he wondered. Shawn could picture an "interview" lasting for fifteen hours or more, twenty, before the killer slowly revealed that . . . he wanted a lawyer. Pre Bono, U2. Shawn squinted; another insistence he could almost feel Gus snapping the correct answer, which he had not given. The killer was used to bidding his time. Was used to doing the killing his way.
But Shawn had . . . interrupted. Had this . . . had this ever happened before? A knot tightened in his gut. He wondered if there was a way he could find out. If he was someone not the only one who had managed to survive what should have been his last breath. Besides, of course, Lassie, who barely counted.
Reflexively, Shawn grimaced. This was the wrong thing to say, even though he hadn't spoken it aloud. He wondered what would happen if he cracked a joke like that around Juliet?
Was there a chance he'd be picking his teeth up from the floor? Shawn shuddered a little. He remembered what she looked like on that night, her eyes as sharp as steel. He wondered, briefly, if he could go to her.
What would she say if she knew he wanted to learn more about the killer? How it might be important, while he had to lie to her why he wanted the information?
He wasn't sure he could do it; his usual honey-spun lies were no longer reflex, instinct. She might . . . see right through him. Shawn felt transparent; he had to check the skin on his arms to see if it was so. No, no, it was still the guise of being entirely whole. He touched his throat, then pulled a blanket to his chin. Shawn let both eyes close.