As Lisbon walked across the charred ground, her shoes crushing dead bits of tree into black dust, she knew she should be grateful. They'd caught a major break with that private plane.
If not for a bunch of lawyers, flying back from a business trip, she and her team might never have been called in. Even someone with Rigsby's eye for accelerant trails probably wouldn't have noticed such a large-scale pattern, if someone hadn't seen it from above when it had first been lit.
But they'd caught a break. And thanks to seven guys in suits – and some very fancy iPhones – YouTube was now flooded with images of a fifty-foot-wide Red John smiley face, branded in fire across a dark stretch of Montana woods.
It was a unique situation, in many ways. Lisbon only needed one hand to count the number of times Red John had killed out-of-state. She only needed one finger to count the number of times he had left his signature in something other than blood. And then there was the fire itself –
Red John almost never burned anyone.
Lisbon blinked to clear her eyes. Up ahead, she could see the murdered girl's body, lying in a bed of ash, her flesh and life burned away right down to fragile bone. They had a pretty good idea who the girl was, based on the Missing Persons report. But until dental records could confirm, the body of who they believed was Meredith Hanson would officially remain a mystery.
About twenty feet away lay another body – the incinerated corpse of a dog, which was a mystery unto itself.
Lisbon crossed the scorched ground slowly, letting her weary eyes wander the rest of the scene. Six months ago, it would have been a different story. Six months ago, she would have fought to get to this crime scene, even while the wildfires were still burning. Six months ago, Lisbon would've been poring over this forest with an actual magnifying glass, scouring for the tiniest clue, feeling that urgent itch not to miss one single, tiny detail.
Now, all she felt was sad.
Why did this girl have to die in one of the most horrible ways possible? Why had Red John felt the need for such drastic overkill, destroying nearly three square miles of wilderness just to dispose of one body?
These were the kinds of questions Lisbon had long since gotten tired of asking.
Why did Red John do anything? Why had he left her alive, and taken Jane instead?
Lisbon had spent too many years of her life trying to figure out the motives and behaviors of an insane man who got too much publicity, too much credit, and all too often, got away with murder.
When Minelli had first handed her the Red John case file, Lisbon had been young, hopeful, naïve. Eager to prove that a girl could win the race, and solve the case that had all the boys stumped. She'd chased after that shiny brass ring with gusto. But the faster she ran, the more it seemed like there was a string tied to that ring – every time she got close, the prize would get yanked away from her. And along the way, people around her started to fall: Bosco, Minelli, Kristina…
Now, twenty-two miles into the marathon, Lisbon was no longer running to win. She just wanted to cross the damn finish line. Cuff Red John or kill him – it didn't really matter which – and then walk away and never think of him again. Never give one more second of her time to the man who had already taken everything.
Six months ago, she had felt very differently. Back then, when it was still a rescue mission, a tight wire of tension strung her bones together. Her hands shook constantly from too much coffee and her eyes burned from trying to read too many leads.
In those times, Lisbon remembered rarely sitting down at work. Rarely going home. Sleeping fitfully on Jane's couch when she could no longer keep her eyes open. And always, always snatching up her phone on the first ring.
She'd driven her team mercilessly, their case-closed rate soaring as they plowed through their regular workload in half the time, just so they could get back to this case.
Find Jane. Save Jane.
Any and all leads were golden. Down-time was to be avoided at all costs – it gave Lisbon too many opportunities to think about what Red John might be doing to Jane…or making Jane do.
Jane was clever and committed – he'd once faked a mental breakdown for six whole months – but even Jane had his limits. He could only go so far, pretend so long, before he wound up carrying a watermelon in a cardboard box, instead of a human head.
What would happen when Red John found the line that Jane just wouldn't cross?
Nine months after Jane went missing, Lisbon got her answer. The little black box with the red bow was sitting on her desk one morning, waiting for her. No card. No explanation of how it got there.
Inside the box, nestled carefully in white cotton, lay a single human finger.
It was Cho who found the note underneath, while Lisbon was hunched over a toilet in the Ladies' Room. Just a strip of paper with one neatly-written word: "Naughty."
Forensics determined that the digit had been sliced off a living person, not a corpse – which meant that Jane was probably still alive, but what next? Would she come in one day and find an ear, a tongue? Or would Lisbon come home one night and find something else entirely? She began to imagine stepping into her silent, darkened apartment and feeling the tip of a knife trace her throat, as Jane's voice whispered in her ear:
Red John was pushing Jane, torturing him. There were only so many ways it could go: Jane would either give in, or die for refusing to do so, and Lisbon honestly didn't know which was worse…until she got the call.
Eighteen months after Jane disappeared, a male body was found in Yellowstone Park. Badly burned and missing a pinky finger, local police feared that they had found the CBI's wayward consultant at long last. Lisbon, however, briefly clung onto hope – there was no wedding ring on the body, and Jane never took that ring off, not once. It was like a part of him.
She remembered urgently pacing outside the coroner's office, convincing herself in a million ways how the body could not be Jane, while the rest of her team sat solemnly in plastic chairs, waiting and dreading.
When the coroner finally emerged from the autopsy with his findings, Lisbon actually wanted him to just hurry up and blurt it out, so she could get back to looking for Jane. But the coroner looked at her strangely, almost pityingly…and then he said the words:
"I'm so sorry, but the dental records were a match."
And suddenly, Lisbon very badly needed the plastic chair that Cho had pulled up behind her.
So, it was over. All this time wondering if Jane was better off dead than a monster, and now she had her answer: a resounding, unequivocal "no." No matter what Jane did – whether he slaughtered some innocent young blonde on Red John's command, or whether Jane held a knife to Lisbon's own throat, all could be forgiven. Whatever Jane lost as a result of Red John's torture, could be found again. They could get him help, find a way to heal him.
The only people beyond all possibility of help or hope, were those who were already dead…
As Lisbon blinked away the past, a soft breeze washed through the burned-out forest, filling the air with ash. She watched the grey flakes float down, settling over the girl's body like gentle snow.
"I know it doesn't do you much good now," Lisbon told her softly, "but my name is Teresa Lisbon, and I'm gonna find out what happened to you."
Somehow, after Lisbon said the words, the girl seemed more peaceful. Lisbon turned to leave, but something about the body's position caught her – one arm lay on the ground, the hand open and relaxed. The other arm was across the girl's chest, fist clenched tight. It was a gesture Lisbon knew well – in times of fear or trouble, she often reached up to feel the solace of the silver cross around her neck.
Lisbon wondered if this girl had a cross, too. If she was clutching it tight, as a last comfort before death. Slipping on a pair of gloves, Lisbon knelt down and very carefully began to pry open the girl's fingers.
Something gleaming and golden spilled from her grip, landing on the ash-littered ground, but it wasn't a cross – it was a wedding ring. A man's wedding ring. Lisbon's hand shook as she reached out for it.
Holding it in the sunlight, she could read the scrawl of fine engraving on the inside of the band: "To Patrick, My Love Forever, Angela." And right beside those words, three new ones, painstakingly etched into the metal:
"I am alive."