The bodies were impossible to miss. They were the first thing the beer-truck delivery man saw when he stepped out to haul the trash to the dumpster behind the little convenience store on Bolivar Point on Friday morning, March 7, 2014. They'd been left in a messy pile and could almost be mistaken for stacked mannequins if it weren't for the trail of blood dribbling toward the street.
One was dressed in men's clothing and work boots and was lying face-down on the pavement. Her head was swaddled in a reddish-brown plaid sheet that covered her face entirely and caught most of the blood. She was small-framed and only about five feet tall, and at first detectives mistook her for a teenage boy because of her clothes. She'd been beaten to death, with the killing blows administered to her head. A young black woman was piled on top of her, their legs tangled. Pretty with a triangle of a face composed of high cheekbones and a small rosebud mouth, the woman was even shorter, with long, dark hair. Her large brown eyes were wide open and blank, her mouth shaped in an almost-perfect circle of surprise. A quarter-size gunshot wound marked her right temple.
Bolivar Peninsula is a narrow, scrubby strip of land covered in sand dunes, marshes and a few palm trees. Nestled just a 20-minute ferry ride from Galveston, the area is forgotten by most people most of the time, and it's a place others think of when they've got something to hide. Fisherman's Cove sits about a mile away from the ferry dock. There's an abandoned, boarded-up motel behind the store and a marshy tract of land a short walk across the road, with surveillance cameras on the front of the store but none in back.
Called to the scene, Capt. Barry Cook, commander of the Galveston County Sheriff's office's criminal investigation unit, couldn't help wondering why the person dumping the bodies had left them outside a dumpster where they would surely be discovered. Investigators found papers on the ground nearby, and the government documents gave them the name of one of the victims. There was also a white and green blood-spattered window shutter propped up against the motel, about 20 feet from the dumpster.
Cook has been in law enforcement for more than 30 years. He's a bluff man with a friendly smile that makes him seem approachable even with his bristly crew cut and the holstered gun and handcuffs that he carries. "It was a strange crime scene," he says now. "The debris found there was unusually placed, the positions and locations of the bodies. There was really no rhyme or reason why they were left in such a public, easily found location. It was almost like whoever did it wanted them to be found and wanted us to know they weren't killed there. There were probably a million places you could have hidden those bodies."
Within a few hours, investigators identified the victims as Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, both 24 years old and from Houston. Crystal had been choked, but ultimately was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head. Britney died from severe head trauma, but the beating that killed her also broke her neck. "Crystal was just shot as if she got in the way, but it was obvious to us that Britney was the victim of a brutal attack. We felt it had to be somebody that was close to her and had emotions," Cook says. "She took a very serious beating, mainly about the head. It was vicious."
Crystal's family last saw her on Wednesday night, and no one had heard from either Britney or Crystal since early Thursday morning. Police had no idea how the two women had ended up in Bolivar. Britney and Crystal had been dating for about two years, and once the story broke that a lesbian couple had been found dead, it almost instantly became national news.
The details that came out in the following days were both provocative and generic. The story was picked up everywhere -- it ran on the Associated Press wire, and there were stories in the New York Daily News and the Daily Mail and on The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Gawker. Accounts provided breathless coverage about the pair. When a family member was arrested in connection with the deaths, Ebony magazine published an essay calling for more tolerance in the African-American community toward LGBT people. Gay-rights groups held candlelight vigils for the couple and followed every detail as the investigation moved forward.
And then it all stopped. More than 40 weeks later, no one has been charged with the murders. Bill Reed, the felony prosecutor for the Galveston County District Attorney's Office, says that investigators are still waiting on some scientific evidence. He says there's no statute of limitations with murder charges and that he prefers not to make any further comment on the case while it's still under investigation.
James Larry Cosby, 47, Britney's father, remains in jail charged with two felony counts for tampering with evidence -- investigators say he moved both women's bodies. Larry, as he is known by his family, has been in jail since March 2014 in lieu of paying a $500,000 bond. While he's awaiting his trial date, February 15, he isn't allowed to talk with members of the media because of a court order issued by Judge Bret Griffin at the request of Larry's court-appointed lawyer, Greg Russell. Russell says he prefers not to discuss the case while it is pending. Letters to Larry requesting comment have received no reply.
Shortly after Larry's arrest, Crystal's father, the Reverend Ivan Jackson, stood in front of a clutch of reporters gathered outside his house on the south side of Houston. He shook his head and his rich preacher's voice turned gravelly as he spoke about the murders. "I did not agree with her sexual orientation either, but I would not kill my daughter and Britney and then take them to Galveston and hide it. I love all my children the same," he said.
Crystal's mother, Mary Jackson, was already angry by the time the police called on Friday afternoon, March 7. Almost two days had passed without a phone call. At 24, Crystal could be flighty -- having a daughter was a responsibility she still hadn't quite adjusted to even though Zaniah was already five years old -- but Crystal always called her mother and let her know where she was. She worked a night shift as a security guard and usually called at about 5:30 a.m. while she was on the bus ride home, but on Thursday morning, Mary didn't get a call.
Maybe Crystal and her girlfriend Britney had gone out of town, Mary told herself. Maybe they'd gotten in trouble and landed in jail. If that was the case, Mary decided, she would let Crystal sit it out behind bars. As soon as she knew exactly where her daughter was -- there was a knot of panic under the anger -- she would coolly inform the police that her daughter would have to take her punishment.
Neither Mary nor Ivan is particularly tall, but Crystal was so short, at less than five feet, and so light, with a weight of only about 100 pounds, that Mary often wished she could find a way to keep her daughter safe and under her roof. "It didn't matter for me. I just wanted to make sure she was okay. I was scared for her to be out there," Mary says.
Crystal never left the house without her makeup, and she loved wearing four-inch heels, huge earrings and long false eyelashes. Ivan would stop her by the front door whenever Crystal tried to leave the house and ask where she was going and who she would be with. Then he and Mary both worried until she came back home.
She was tough, though. Until his retirement, Ivan had worked as a funeral director, and Crystal would go along with him on trips to pick up bodies. The cadavers never bothered her -- she could look at a deteriorating corpse without a qualm, and she would walk into the mortuary in pitch-black darkness, sliding her hand along the wall to the light switch without a second thought.
Crystal was never interested in school -- she made decent grades and stayed out of the principal's office, but that was about it -- and her parents hoped she'd go to mortuary school and get into the business. "She told us that she wanted something different. She said she wanted to do something else with her life," Ivan says.
In high school, she mostly stayed out of trouble -- she got caught shoplifting and tried to explain to her mom with big-eyed innocence how a pair of earrings had left the store. "She told me that she took off her coat and put it on the counter and the earrings got stuck on the coat," Mary says now, laughing and shaking her head. When she got pregnant her senior year, she had to drop out of school and get her GED. The father met Zaniah only a handful of times, Mary says; it fell to the Jacksons to help Crystal raise her daughter.
From there she got a string of jobs. She had a temper and would say what she thought of someone without mincing words, and she lost some jobs because of that. But she could always get something else. Besides, there was a certain restless energy in her. She was always quitting her job for one that paid a few cents more an hour. "She wanted to make more money, to be making $11 an hour, and I'd tell her, 'You've got to crawl before you can walk,' that she needed to be patient and stay put, to show on her résumé that she could be reliable, but she wanted to go right to the top," Mary says.
Crystal would buy extravagant gifts for -Zaniah, although she was otherwise frugal. She would come home with pairs of Air Jordans for her daughter, brushing off Mary's protests that Zaniah would outgrow the shoes before she'd worn out a single pair. Crystal told Mary that she'd always wanted shoes like that when she was a kid so she decided her daughter would get to wear them and Crystal wouldn't even worry about whether the shoes wore out. She loved finding fancy presents for her daughter -- one Christmas, she came home with a small pink jeep with a real motor in it, and every year she made sure there was a big, expensive present for Zaniah under the tree.
She started seeing women years ago, her half sister Laquetia Jackson says. The two would trade relationship woes and talk on the phone or text all day. Laquetia looked up to Crystal and went to her for advice. She didn't care who Crystal dated, but their father told Crystal she was crazy. She'd heard him preach about Sodom and Gomorrah and the evils of homosexuality, so she knew better, he told her. Mary was startled when her daughter said she was gay. "I couldn't help thinking, 'Oh my Lord, my child has come up gay. What are people going to think?' But I realized that past a certain point, I'd raised her best I could and it was her life," Mary says. "She had to make up her own mind. You have to follow your own way."
Crystal and Britney met on a Metro bus, according to Crystal's friend Nita Kae Taylor. They'd both grown up on the south side of Houston and they both wanted a different kind of life. They seemed to click because they wanted similar things, Taylor says.
The first time Britney visited the Jacksons' house, Ivan stood in the doorway and told Crystal that Britney couldn't come in until she pulled up her sagging pants. Crystal told her dad Britney didn't have a belt with her. "I don't care if she has to tie a shoestring around her waist. She's not coming in this house like that," Ivan barked. Britney found something to hold up her pants and then went inside and met Crystal's family. After that first appearance, the family was cool but otherwise cordial to Britney the few times she came around. "It's obvious that Crystal, even though her parents were not happy she was gay, they still loved her and still treated her as a daughter," Cook says. "I don't think Britney ever had that."
Britney was left to the care of her great-grandmother, Annie Lee Cosby, when she was less than a year old. Annie Lee got legal custody of Britney in 1990. Her mother, Loranda McDonald, was very young when she had Britney -- her oldest child and only daughter -- and she "wasn't a mother type," Annie Lee says. Larry was convicted of sexual assault and sent to prison in 1994, according to court records. He was released in 2004, but was sent back to prison in 2011 for failing to register as a sex offender. Annie Lee was one of the few constants in Britney's life.
Britney could be playful, and she loved it when the whole extended family came to town for the holidays. Whenever her cousin KC Cosby and his family pulled into Annie Lee's driveway, Britney would come bounding out of the house to throw her arms around her relatives. But she was mostly a quiet child who kept to herself, Annie Lee says.
Years later, Britney would lecture Crystal on Facebook about the importance of making her daughter a priority, about being there for Zaniah -- something that hadn't happened in her own childhood.
Britney's parents weren't really on the scene for much of her life, KC says. Britney looked like a smaller version of Larry, but the two were never very close. "She talked to her mom from time to time, but with her dad it was never really a good connection. They had their moments, but they would always go back to the other way. Just walking in between the two of them, there was a negative vibe. They bumped heads. They disagreed on a lot of stuff."
In middle school, Britney started hanging out with a rough crowd and dressing in more-masculine clothes. When she was 17, she and two other people used bricks to shatter a -window and break into a house. They took some video games and jewelry, and were caught within hours of the crime, according to court records.
After that Britney started making some changes. First she got a job at KFC and earned enough money to pay back everything she owed because of the burglary. She took nursing classes and learned how to take care of Annie Lee after her 90-year-old great--grandmother developed diabetes and had to have her right leg removed. Britney found a job as a barista at Starbucks and started going to church. "She went through a lot of negative stuff, a rough childhood, but she didn't want to be known as the bad kid anymore. She was going to work, taking care of her [great]--grandmother; she was trying to get her head straight," KC says. "She was just trying to make her life better than what everyone expected it to be."
And then she met Crystal. If there were girlfriends before Crystal, Britney didn't mention them much. KC met Crystal only in February 2014, even though she and Britney had been dating for almost two years. "They seemed good for each other. They were like a power couple, and they were always together. I never saw two people so attached. It was great because I got to see my cousin really happy."
Britney was close to her great-grandmother, but there was a lot she didn't talk about. For one thing, Annie Lee made it clear that Britney could never be honest with her about her sexuality. "Crystal was a nice girl," Annie Lee says now. "I never saw nothing funny about Crystal, and I'm kind of a funny person noticing things about people. I pay attention, and I never saw anything wrong with Crystal."
Annie Lee says, however, that she would never have allowed them to be a couple in her house. "They couldn't have been here together. Not like that," she said. "If it was going on, I didn't see it. And I'm nosy, see. I'm 90 years old. You can't put anything over on me." Annie Lee says she doesn't know what happened to her great-granddaughter and doesn't understand why people -- most people, including his family -- believe Larry was involved. The Jacksons last talked to Crystal on Wednesday evening, March 5, when she and Britney arrived at the house to show off their new car and pick up Zaniah. "That was the first part of Britney's plan," Britney's aunt -Ebony McDade says. "She wanted to get a car so she could go from work to school; she was going to move out of that house and have her own place, her own life. I know where she came from and what she was trying to get away from. To see her try to change her environment and change her life, I was so proud of her."
The two had saved up their tax refunds and other money and bought a silver 2006 Kia Sorento a few days before. Zaniah lived with the Jacksons and stayed at Annie Lee's only occasionally, but the couple planned to change that. The car was the first part of their project to eventually get their own apartment and build their own family with Zaniah. But Thursday morning rolled by without a phone call and Crystal didn't answer texts from her family or messages on social media. By Thursday afternoon, Ivan was calling around to the hospitals, and by Thursday evening, he started calling the jails. Still, as she drove home on Friday to meet with the police, Mary persuaded herself her daughter was running around New Orleans or sitting in jail.
Only when the detectives pulled out photos of a body did Mary realize why they were really there. At first she didn't believe them. Even as she looked at the pictures, her mind refused to register that this was her child. She insisted they had the wrong person until the detectives described Crystal's tattoos. Crystal would show up with a new one every so often and point it out to her mom, grinning and trying to get a rise out of her. She had "Zaniah-" tattooed on her left wrist. When the detectives told Mary the body bore the same image, she knew they were telling the truth.
Numb, the Jacksons went and picked up Zaniah from Annie Lee's house. Crystal had never mentioned Britney's father to her parents, but Larry introduced himself when he opened the front door. Ivan put his arms around the man and offered his condolences. Mary shook his hand.
Afterward, Mary put together her daughter's last hours based on the bits and pieces of information she got from the police. On Wednesday night, March 5, Britney and Crystal stopped and picked up a pizza for dinner. When they got home, Larry was in the kitchen eating a bologna sandwich, Annie Lee's caregiver told the investigators. Larry made a comment about how it wasn't right that he was having to eat bologna while they had pizza. Britney told Larry he could have pizza, too, if he'd go out and earn some money. It was a tense moment, and the caregiver told the police that she grabbed her things and left.
Larry had been released from prison in October 2013 after serving time for failing to register as a sex offender. When he arrived at Annie Lee's house, he found things had changed at the 1,200-square-foot green and white residence in Sunnyside. Britney and Crystal were taking care of Annie Lee, and they shared the back bedroom in the house and used the tiny middle bedroom as a storage closet. Annie Lee had the front room, and Larry was relegated to sleeping on the couch in the living room, a converted garage.
The room was narrow, dark and covered in forest-green carpet. A curtain hung across the doorway to give Larry some privacy. Larry told Britney's mother, Loranda McDonald, that he didn't like the fact that his daughter was gay, Loranda told the media after he'd been arrested. There was also the car. They'd had the vehicle for less than a week when Larry asked to borrow it. Britney refused, Cook says. "These are the things we know. He had resentment. They had a better life. They were being treated differently at that house. He didn't agree with their lifestyle, but neither did the Jacksons. Were they killed for being gay? Who knows? He's the only one who knows and he's not talking."
On Thursday morning, Britney took Zaniah out to the car just before 8 a.m. Zaniah was going on a school field trip to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Authorities aren't clear about exactly what happened next. Britney and Zaniah were about to leave when Britney turned around and went back into the house. That was the last time Zaniah saw her. After sitting in the car for a while, Zaniah got out and went back inside.
That night, video footage captured the Kia Sorento on the Bolivar ferry at 9:18, according to the criminal complaint. Fisherman's Cove is located about a mile from the ferry dock. One of the headlights on the SUV was burned out, and a ferryman stopped and told the man driving the SUV about the burned-out bulb and the two worked to fix it during the crossing, Cook says. At about 10 p.m., Larry made a call from his cell phone and the call pinged a cell tower in nearby Dickinson, Cook says.
Alerted by a friend, Ebony rushed to the house the night the bodies were discovered. Larry was sitting out front. She asked him what had happened, and he told her that Crystal had been killed by a gunshot and Britney was beaten to death. "Then he talked to the police and tried to act surprised, like he didn't know how they died," Ebony says now. The lie made her suspicious, and the way he was acting just seemed off. "His whole demeanor, his body language, it was like a dog died, not his own daughter," she says. "We were shocked by all of this, and he was eating in the kitchen and drinking a beer."
Larry attended the candlelight vigil for his daughter the Wednesday after Britney's and Crystal's bodies were found in Bolivar. He's a huge man, 6'5" and about 250 pounds. He towered over the crowd, but looked drawn and hollowed-out in the video. His face is almost an exact replica of Britney's, only with a stronger chin and some sharp lines of age. He stood in the center of the group clutching a bouquet of blue and white balloons. With Loranda at his side, he said a few words and released the balloons. He didn't look anyone in the eye throughout the vigil, but he watched the cluster of balloons until they disappeared into the dusk. Meanwhile, investigators were searching Annie Lee's house. After the vigil, Larry and his mother, Patricia Nixon, were leaving the parking lot when investigators pulled Larry aside and asked him to come to Galveston to answer some questions.
When they first arrived at the house to conduct initial interviews with the Cosby family, investigators noticed that the window shutters matched the one they'd found in Bolivar. They also saw that one of the front-window shutters was missing, according to the criminal complaint. Then an investigator found blood on the door frame and a smear on the sidewalk that had been shoddily covered with bricks. That was enough to get a search warrant.
The recently cleaned driveway lit up like a Christmas tree when investigators brought in the Luminol. Larry's room was covered with his daughter's blood, Cook says. "The carpet was terrible. It was severely bloodstained, and he had throw rugs placed conspicuously over those spots," Cook says.
Britney's wallet was found in a field near the house, and a fingerprint taken from the Bolivar scene matched Larry's left thumbprint, according to the criminal complaint. He claimed the shutter had been removed from the house before he came home from prison. He couldn't explain how the fingerprint had gotten there. The detectives took Larry to Galveston and attempted to interview him. He didn't cooperate or talk, and they couldn't get any response out of him, Cook says.
Within hours, he was charged with tampering with evidence for moving the bodies. The charges may be upgraded to murder if law enforcement can conclusively identify the murder weapons from the collected evidence being reviewed by the FBI, Cook says. "There's lots of little pieces. There's no doubt in our mind that he killed them, but we can't exactly prove it," Cook says. "Right now we believe there's enough circumstantial evidence to charge him with murder, but we're not the ones who have to prosecute it or prove it. That's the district attorney's job."
Ebony McDade, Larry's sister, posted videos on YouTube shortly after he was arrested and charged with moving the bodies. She had no doubt that he did it, she said. "My brother had a history of things and we knew he was never a straight-line path, but I never thought he would do this," she says in the video.
Later, Ebony explained there was something about her brother that made her apprehensive. "I told my husband Larry would never be allowed to stay at my house under any circumstances," she says. "I was uncomfortable. I had a sense about him." She also heard stories from her cousin about how Larry would act when they went out, how he would approach women so aggressively that it scared them. "I knew something wasn't right with him. There was just this very uncomfortable feeling,"
After Larry's arrest, Ebony visited the Jacksons. "I was scared at first because I didn't know how their reaction would be, but they were very nice," she says. "They talked about forgiveness. I didn't see any hatred toward me."
She also went down to the Starbucks Britney had worked at. The employees burst into tears when they found out who Ebony was, crying as they worked. The manager gave Ebony a hug and told her about Britney as they'd known her. "They loved her. They really did. They all said she was very sweet, very helpful and laid-back, and the customers loved her. That gave me a happiness because I knew that there was a place where people liked her and her lifestyle didn't matter. They liked her for who she was."
KC admits he would have liked to believe his uncle wasn't capable of such a crime, but he arrived at the house as law officers were collecting evidence. He saw the blood-stained carpet in Larry's bedroom. "The evidence points straight to him. I can't escape the facts," he says. "It was clear that the murder didn't take place anywhere else."
While everything was in chaos around Annie Lee's house, KC slipped into Britney's bedroom to have a few moments alone. He found notebooks and stacks of paper, and he realized they were poetry and song lyrics. He grabbed an armful of papers, put them in his car and took them back home to San Antonio. It was a side of Britney even he had never seen when she was alive. "I just still don't think people really worried about the people actually in it. They were talking about two black gay girls found dead, but that was not all they were. My cousin was more than that," he says.
Patricia still goes to visit Larry in jail, and when she's there, she looks at her son and can't believe the man sitting across from her could have committed the murders. "If he did it, that person is someone I just don't know. I don't know what would happen for him to snap and do something like that." She admits that part of this is denial. "Everyone is saying everything leads to him. If Larry did this thing, I just ask them for one thing, to give him life in prison and not the death penalty. I don't know if I could take that."
Police found the SUV in late April. It had been parked at a strip club on the Gulf Freeway without its plates and then towed from the club to a garage. One of the headlights was out, there was a bullet lodged in the back of the vehicle and there was blood inside.
Sometimes Mary pretends none of it ever happened. She'll glance at the clock that hangs in the small living room in South Park and map out the day. Crystal is at work now, she'll think. She'll be on the bus on her way home now or maybe already in bed asleep if it has been a particularly long day. Mary can find excuses for the long silence -- Crystal is busy at work, and now she's only taking a short break for lunch, and now it's because her phone is dead. Mary's smile falters a bit and her eyes are suddenly very bright. She glances down, ducking her head. "Maybe that's crazy. Maybe I was a little crazy for a while, but sometimes it helps."
Mary always thought that Crystal would find a nice man who had steady work and a paycheck and settle down. She'd imagined her daughter wearing a white dress and getting married in church, her father acting as the minister and Mary worrying over the flowers and the food, adjusting smooth folds of some gleaming white gown before her daughter walked down the aisle.
She shakes her head hard and stretches a wide, white-toothed smile on her face, knits her fingers together and places them palms down on the dining-room table as Zaniah pops her head around the corner and interrupts her grandparents' account. "Both of y'all are kind of mixed up because he wasn't in their room; he was in his room. I saw him walk by to wash the blood off. I was pretending to be asleep," she says. After that, Zaniah says, she stayed in Britney and Crystal's bedroom, kept quiet and watched television.
Mary and Ivan try not to talk too much about the details of that day around Zaniah. Aside from some nightmares in the weeks following the murders, she's been fine, Mary says. The families happened to hold the funerals on the same Saturday, just more than a week after the bodies were discovered. Before his arrest, Larry called Ivan and asked if he wanted to hold a double funeral for the women, and Ivan shortly told him no. Larry called back and asked for a donation to help with Britney's funeral -- the Jacksons had life insurance to cover Crystal's expenses, but Britney didn't have insurance -- and Ivan lost his temper. "I cussed him out. Asking for money. I told him I wasn't giving him any money when I needed to take care of my own," Ivan says.
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Britney's family raised about $8,000 through GoFundMe to pay for her funeral. By the day of the funerals, the tensions in Britney's family were so tightly wound that her aunt Ebony posted another video asking people to wear blue, Britney's color, and not to dress in all black. She also made it clear that anyone who came to the funeral aiming to start a fight would be thrown out. A man stood up and started shouting at Ebony during the service, and police stepped in to quiet him down. Two different branches of the family printed up separate versions of the funeral program, and Britney's mother rode separately from the Cosby family in a white limousine. Britney's funeral procession arrived at the same cemetery as Crystal's graveside service was ending. Crystal's half sister Laquetia watched the cars snake through the cemetery toward a nearby plot. She couldn't even be angry anymore. "I don't understand it. Who were they hurting?"
Crystal was buried in a rich mahogany coffin, the best money could buy. It was covered with a spray of red roses. Ivan delivered his daughter's funeral sermon to a packed church -- hundreds had showed up for the service at New Peaceful Rest. He still likes to watch video of the sermon, a rollicking blend of controlled emotions and fervent song. Everyone told him it was great, and he's fiercely proud of that performance, the last thing he was able to do for his child.
Crystal's coffin was placed in a purple vault in the cemetery, top of the line. "My baby was buried like a queen," he says. His voice fades and his face crumples for a moment as he takes a sip of peach schnapps. Ivan tends to stop whatever he's doing and hold tightly to his glass when he talks about his daughter. Her picture hangs in the center of the living-room wall, her head tipped to the side as if she's listening for something. Even with all the makeup and the big earrings she liked to wear, she looks barely out of high school in the photo. "And that was taken last year!" he explains, proud. "My baby."
But he will tell anyone who asks about his daughter his version of the truth. "Crystal was not gay," he says, cutting each word out with care. "She was confused." He says he'll never believe that part of her life was real, was what she really was and what she wanted. Still, he sometimes steps over and pays his respects to Britney when he visits Crystal's grave. Otherwise, they don't talk about Britney at all.