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7

The caravan was twenty miles behind her when she found the motel. This was the place Sheriff Banner had named as a federal rendezvous point.

The silver convertible rolled into the parking lot, and Mallory counted up the FBI jackets on people standing by their vehicles, twelve of them. This was not a typical task force. Every face was newly minted, unlined. And where were their mentors? These fledgling agents should be partnered up with senior feds. The youngest of them hurried to block her path before she could drive into the last remaining space.

And Mallory did not run over him.

This was to be expected of kiddy agents-they ran in front of moving cars.

The motels full up, maam. The young man pointed toward the access road. If you get on I-44, itll take you to a-

Mallory flashed her gold shield, but not long enough for him to read the city of issue by the poor light of the motels neon sign. Whos in charge of this operation?

The young man hesitated too long.

The SAC, the special agent in charge, said Mallory, as if she needed to spell out the initials. Give me a name. She made this demand with all the authority of a woman who carried a bigger gun. She left her car to stand toe-to-toe with the rookie agent. You dont w ant to waste my time while people are dying. And I know youve got orders to play nice with cops. So give me a name.

Special Agent Dale Berman.

Bad news-the worst. Why did it have to be Berman? But now she understood this playgroup of unseasoned agents without their mandated babysitters. When did Dale Berman ever pay attention to protocols? She supposed one or two rookies would have to die before someone in Washington realized that the wrong man was in charge.

Where is he?

You just missed him. The agent pointed to a field where a helicopter was spinning its rotors in a small cloud of dust as it lifted into the air. Agent Bermans destination is more than a hundred miles away, but hell be back tonight. If you cant w ait, we can raise him on the radio.

Mallory got back into her car, wondering what the air speed of the helicopter might be. A landing site on Route 66 was predictable, but the aircraft would not be hampered by traffic and winding roads. She would have to move back onto the interstate to catch it-and maybe even beat it. Her engine was a perfect machine, and FBI equipment was crap.

Detective, you dont w ant to drive that distance for nothing. The young fed had to raise his voice, for she was revving the engine to drown him out as he yelled, Agent Berman will probably just turn around and-

He was talking to the air. Mallory was gone.

Riker blew smoke from the passenger window as the Mercedes pulled up to a field lit by campfires and the smaller flames of propane bottles. Spinning cherry lights flashed from the roof racks of cruisers parked out on the road, and officers in uniform patrolled the perimeter on foot.

So thats the caravan. Definitely worth a look. Riker had gotten only a few steps from the car when he held up his badge for the inspection of a man with a deputys s t ar, who now turned his attention to Charles Butler.

Hes with me, said Riker. Maybe you met my partner tonight, Detective Mallory?

Never heard of her, sir. I just got here. The deputy pointed across the hood of his cruiser to an older man a few yards away. You want to talk to Sheriff Banner. Hes in charge.

Riker clipped his badge to the breast pocket of his suit before he approached the sheriff. The two men shook hands and moved in tandem toward a more secluded spot, talking cop to cop as they walked.

Charles looked out over the campsite. Some tents were no more than lean-tos. Others were dome-shaped and lit from within like glowing igloos. Small groups of men and women huddled by firelight and lantern. It was an end-of-the-world scenario peopled with survivors of an apocalypse, and he supposed that, given their loss, this was more than metaphor.

As he walked through the caravan city, dogs barked and then were hushed by their owners, and now he heard a small voice humming. It was a surprise to see two school-age children in this company. The little boy appeared to be on sentry duty, standing over the body of a prone man asleep by the fire. The child was so alert in his stance, so serious in his mission. He moved to one side, giving Charles a better view of the girl, the source of the music, albeit a limited repertoire of one refrain. She sat upon a blanket and rocked back and forth as she hummed, sometimes looking up as sparks flew out of the flaming woodpile. He took this as a startle response and nothing more. The child was not really among them. Her mind had gone elsewhere.

The boy stared at him with distrustful eyes that were far too old for a youngster who could be no more than ten. Charles smiled, and the boy was instantly amused.

Of course he was.

Though a height of six feet, four inches could be intimidating, Charles now presented himself as a hapless, harmless fool, and he knew it. Not his fault-it was all in the genes. He had been born with this great hook of a nose and bulbous eyes with a permanent aspect of surprise, and every time he smiled, he took on the look of a recent escapee from clown school.

He donned his travel-worn suit jacket and straightened his tie as he approached the children. Hunkering down beside their campfire, he spoke softly so as not to wake the sleeping man. Hello, Im looking for Dr. Magritte, he said, pronouncing it Mahgreet and even screwing up his mouth for a funny French r. He presented his wallet identification to the little boy and won the childs heart with this adult transaction. Im a doctor, too.

Dr. Magritte, said the boy with uncertainty.

Yes, Paul Magritte.

Oh, Dr. Paul. The boy pointed toward the other side of the encampment. You can see him from here. Hes the old man, the only one with white hair. Cupping both hands around his mouth, the boy told him that Dr. Pa uls last name was pronounced Mahgrit. He whispered this with great good manners so that the visitor would not be embarrassed in front of nearby campers.

Ah, then Magritte was not a Frenchman, but a fellow countryman, whose citizenship dated back so many generations that his forbearers had ceased to resist the American mangling of the family name. Charles turned to the far campfire and saw one head of curly white hair in a group of other people standing and seated, all facing the old man with rapt attention.

So this was their shepherd.

The helicopter was hovering up ahead, preparing to land. Mallory had matched time with it all along the road, even outstripping its air speed to make up for the extra distance while the chopper flew in a beeline. Her car pulled over to the side of the road near a yellow van with an electric-company logo. The curtains strung up on poles advertised a crime scene disguised as a repair underway by a crew of utility workers. The use of the FBI helicopter was over the top in blowing the local cover story, and now she knew this was one body that Dale Berman needed to see-or steal- in a hurry.

The detective stepped out of her car and was immediately met by a man in his early twenties and a woman twice that age. Though neither of them wore FBI field jackets, they could only be feds. Mallory held up her gold shield for the senior agent. Back in New York, this badge was her crime-scene passport, and she was accustomed to people moving aside for her. But these two had obvious plans to annoy her. They were still blocking her way.

Standoff.

Sorry, I didnt get a good look at your ID, said the younger agent.

It was the older one, the woman, who took the badge when it was shown a second time. After shining a flashlight on the wallet, she returned it, saying, Youre a long way from New York, Detective.

Mallory put all the weight of a gun in her voice. And you thought I might be lost, maybe stopping to ask for directions? Could she communicate any more clearly that she took these two for minions? Im here to see your boss, Dale Berman.

Special Agent Berman isnt in this sector, Detective. And now Ill have to ask you to wait in your car.

Pointing at the helicopter settling to the ground, Mallory said, Thats Berman. His business is urgent, and hell be leaving soon. Gesturing toward the lighted curtains and the fake utility crew, she said, Right after he takes a look at the kids grave. Now, is there anything else I can tell you about whats going on at your own crime scene? No? Then back off.

Neither of them made a move to stop her as she circled round them and crossed the open ground to the helicopter. Feds had standing orders never to lay one hand on a cop. And there was good reason for that: The police were not hampered by any such protocol. So, failing in a block, the tackle was not an option, and the two agents could only follow her-closely.

It was Rikers turn to meet the Finn children, Dodie and Peter. He agreed with the sheriff s t heory, one arrived at after the Missouri lawman had placed a phone call to Kronewald in Chicago: It was no coincidence that a damaged youngster was traveling with this group.

Her bodyguard, a boy of ten, lurched forward as Riker reached out to gently touch the little girls d ark brown hair. The detective smiled at the older child, saying, Its okay, Peter. I would never hurt your sister. He tapped the badge clipped to the pocket of his suit jacket, but this only added to the boys alarm.

Curious.

Now the father was awake-and angry. A police badge should be a magnet for everybody in this group, a source of news, good or bad, and one more cop to look at their posters. But Joe Finn clearly wanted him dead.

Get away from my kids. The big man was rising from the ground, muscles tensing, two fists ready. You freaks have done enough damage.

The man had gone from deep sleep to full alert in an instant. He had seen the flash of a badge but not clearly. Did they share a common enemy? The word freaks was a good clue.

Rikers c hoices were few. He could not ask the sheriff for backup, not without losing face. So he could have his jaw broken by a younger man in better shape-and then there was reverse diplomacy. Im a cop, not FBI. If thats what you thought-well, Im insulted.

This seemed to mollify Joe Finn. Fists relaxing, he rammed his hands into his pockets, thus putting away his only weapons.

And the only apology was extended to the little boy. Sorry, kid, said Riker. I wont bother your sister again. The detective moved away from the campfire in company with the sheriff, a man much like himself; Sheriff Banner would also connect every odd thing with another. They watched the little family from a distance.

So-you think Im right?

Yeah, said Riker. Too bad. If that little girl saw something, shes useless as a witness. But she would make good bait for a child killer, and he looked around for evidence of this idea. Somewhere in this group, he should find at least two moles; FBI agents on this kind of undercover assignment would work in pairs, though many of these parents were solo. He turned to the sheriff for his best guess. Youve talked to most of the campers?

Oh, yeah, all of em, and Ive looked at their posters. Ones a solid match for the little girl in our cemetery. He pulled a folded paper from his pocket and clicked on his flashlight for the detectives benefit. See this line about the horseshoe key chain? Its got engraving on the back. We found that in the dirt where the girl was buried. The FBI had to know whose child she was, but they never told the parents. Aint t hat cold? His eyes were fixed on a couple who sat on campstools, drinking coffee in that companionable silence of husband and wife. And now I have to tell them their kid is dead. Sometimes I hate my job.

Tell them in the morning, said Riker. Ill be here if you want backup. In truth, he would rather face a loaded gun than the parents of a murdered child. And now he had to wonder what had gone through Mallorys mind when she visited the sheriff s o ffice-when she saw the picture of the gravestone with her own name chiseled into the marble. What had that done to her? How close to the edge was she?

Catching up to her in the night might be a bad idea.

Yeah, daylight was best.

He wanted her to see him coming, slow and easy, smiling just like old times. Then she might be less inclined to shoot him, and this was not entirely a little joke he told himself.

The detective was distracted by the arrival of a newcomer in a pickup truck. A bearded man leaned out the drivers w indow to open his wallet for a deputy, and then he parked among the other civilian vehicles. When the tall, skinny driver emerged, he was leading a large black dog on a leash made of heavy chain, and the other dogs were spooked. None of them barked to challenge this animal.

The dog was better fed than his master, a tall, thin man with long matted hair, one gold tooth and one tooth missing. His cracked-leather boots were rundown at the heels; his eyes were the color of dust, and he carried the ripe smell of clothing that had not been laundered in days and days.

However, Charles Butlers first impression of him was not one of poverty, but of disregard for appearances and a loss of appetite for food and creature comforts. Among the parents of the caravan, there were others in this same sorry state. This man only breathed because he must; his body made him do it. But all the acts that were voluntary-these went by the board.

The tall stranger stood before Paul Magrittes campfire, extending his hand and introducing himself as Jills d ad-from Austin, Texas.

Dr. Magritte smiled warmly as he stood up and shook hands, apparently recognizing this man by the mention of his child. Of course, how are you? He turned to Charles. Jills D ad-thats Mr. Hastings Internet name.

Charless attention shifted to the Texans c anine companion; its fur was thick and black. Possibly a cousin to a malamute? No, that was wrong. He had attended many New York dog shows and possessed eidetic memory, but he could not recall a breed quite this strange. However, though he had never had a pet of his own, he always got on well with domestic animals, and now he reached out to stroke the beasts head.

His hand froze in midair.

He was suddenly the sole focus of the dogs attention; it fixed him with pale blue alien eyes, detached from all emotion-chilling. And Charless last thought was that this was not a dog.

Its a wolf, right? Riker materialized at the campfire and quickly pulled Charless hand back before it could be bitten off.

Thank you, thank you.

Mostly wolf, said Jills D ad, maybe one quarter mutt.

The sheriff stepped into the firelight, one hand resting on his holstered sidearm. Lock him up in your truck. If I see that animal out tonight, Ill shoot him dead.

Jills D ad nodded. Man and wolf walked away.

Riker watched the departing animal for a moment. Then he slapped Charles on the back. Its got weird eyes, huh? Real cold. Remind you of anybody we know?

Dr. Magritte was first to respond to this, albeit silently with a look of surprise.

And now the detective turned to the old man and gave him a slow grin. So you had a little talk with Mallory. Was that fun?

Detective Mallory squared off against Special Agent Berman, and there was no other way for him to read her showdown pose. All that remained was the question of whether she intended to draw on him or deck him. As he recalled, she liked her old grudges; she kept them for years.

Agent Cadwaller had been dismissed, but kept looking back over his shoulder as he walked away. Dale Berman waved one hand to move this man along a little faster. The escorts remained, sensing hostility. Hostile was Mallorys o t her name. And now he faced the young cop from New York City, admitting to her that she had guessed right about his moles, the two agents embedded in the caravan. But thats all the manpower I can spare.

Two agents on Dodie Finn? That doesnt w o rk for me, said Mallory. You need more guns riding point and rear.

He could try denial. No-bad idea. This cop was not fishing or bluffing. She knew things about the humming child. Okay, Mallory. Im spread thin, but I could send maybe two more warm bodies for the protection detail.

Youre not protecting anybody, she said. Youre stringing a little girl out as bait. Either you send a real security detail or I organize state troopers for the next two thousand miles. Then I call out the media.

He shook his head. I know you wont do that. Its just what this freak wants.

You think I care? Its more pairs of eyes on those people. Less chance of another one getting killed. Other parents are joining up with that caravan all the time. That should make it easier to work in new agents. Ill tell the old man to back up their cover stories.

All right. Done, said Dale Berman. Ill have agents riding point and rear. He held up both hands in surrender. See? Im perfectly happy to be extorted. Anything else you want? My wallet? He turned his eyes to his audience, Agents Allen and Nahlman.

Mallory took a step closer, saying, One more thing.

He never saw it coming. One moment he was smiling, and then he was bent over with the explosion of pain from his crotch. Mallory had smashed his testicles with a lightning kick. Agent Berman never saw the second shot, either. Her kneecap connected to his jaw and sent him sprawling backward. He was on the ground and tasting blood on the tooth that had split his lip.

Agent Barry Allen was only reacting with wide eyes, but this youngster was new to the job. Agent Nahlman had no such excuse; she was a veteran with eighteen years of experience. And yet there was ample time for Dale Berman to prop himself on one crooked arm and look up at Mallory, yelling, Are you nuts! Now-finally -his agents were stepping forward- a bit late in his view-when he held up one hand to stop them. Teeth clenched, he said to them, Just walk away.

They did as they were told.

When his people were out of earshot, he was still on the ground at Mallorys feet. Standing up to her was important enough to work through a world of pain, and he did. Gaining his feet, he dusted off his suit jacket. I guess your old man had good reason to take a shot at me, but what did I ever do to you?

Mallory gave him half a smile and a look of utter satisfaction that only payback can bring. She turned away from him and walked toward the road with a casual stride, as if decking a federal agent might be an everyday thing with her.

Riker lay beside his duffel bag on the lumpy motel mattress. He was too tired to hunt for his toothbrush.

Charles Butler sat tailor fashion on the other bed. He was examining the contents of Savannah Siruss purse and a suitcase recently pulled from the trunk of the car. Rikers o w n Polaroids of the dead woman were lined up in a neat row. This was all the physical evidence for the psychological autopsy of a suicide victim. And while the psychologist sorted these items, he spoke to the detective from some other compartment of his giant brain where he dealt with the more current problem. Kronewalds very tight with his information. Youre sure that Mallory knows the name of the FBI agent in charge?

Maybe not, said Riker, but hes not the reason shes on this road. Dale Berman is one coincidence I can buy. He was always ambitious. No sur- prise hed worm his way into a major case. Riker pinned his hopes on coincidence, for Mallory was not in any shape to settle old scores with that fed. Her foster father was dead and in the ground, beyond all pain and regret, so what would be the point of going after Dale? He had no desire to talk about this anymore-any reminder of that FBI agent depressed him. So what can you tell me about the little girl from the caravan?

Dodie? She belongs in a hospital. After gathering up all of Savannah Siruss clothing, Charles returned it to the suitcase. Then he laid out the remaining items on different squares of the bedspread pattern, patiently working on a suicide while discussing serial murder with his friend. Dodies missing sister wont fit the victim profile. Ariel Finn was a teenager. He looked up at the detective on the next bed. But you knew that, didnt you? Of course. Sorry. The sheriff told you, right? Ye t youre still interested in that little family.

Charles began to move the items around, departing from his patchwork grid to create orderly piles. Savannahs lipstick was paired with a checkbook, and a folded envelope shared a patchwork square with a black-and-white snapshot. So youre wondering if Dodie Finn mightve been the real target. Maybe her sister Ariel got in the way. And, in answer to a question that Riker had just thought of, Charles said, If Dodie saw her sisters murder, that would be consistent with her present condition. But I cant t e ll you thats what happened. I cant w o rk magic.

Right. The detective continued to watch his friends methodical sorting process. Savannah Siruss postmortem photos, all but one, were cast aside. The groupings of her personal effects made no sense to him. A drivers license now kept company with the round-trip plane ticket.

This woman wasnt s u icidal before she met Mallory. Charles picked up the plastic card. Just look at her in this license photograph.

Rolling on his side, Riker squinted at this picture the size of a postage stamp.

This drivers license is more interesting, said Charles, if you know it was renewed ten days before Miss Sirus arrived in New York. In this picture, her hair is styled. You see? Shes well groomed-eye makeup, rouge and lipstick.

The works. Riker nodded, pretending that he could actually make out these details on the tiny photograph. There was no need to see it clearly. Charles had just described the war paint worn by a middle-aged woman who had a life worth living-until she stepped off a plane in New York City. It was easier to read the larger, more recent photograph in Charless other hand. This was the close-up of a dead woman with lank, dirty hair, and no makeup at all. Mallory did all that damage in just three weeks?

Tell me you dont b e lieve that Mallory deliberately drove this woman to kill herself.

Naw, o f course not, said Riker. First he would have to know what Savannah had done to deserve it.

Charles held up a checkbook. Miss Sirus was planning another sort of trip when she was interrupted.

I saw that, said Riker. The check entry for a cruise line.

This woman wanted to see the world. Thirty thousand dollars would buy stops in a great many ports. The check is recent, and this sort of trip would be booked and paid for months in advance. A woman with suicidal ideation wouldnt be able to plan that far ahead. She wouldnt see any future at all. And, apparently, Miss Sirus-I should say Dr. Sirus-had no money worries. Charles held up a business card. She was a dermatologist. Judging by her other checkbook entries, she was very successful. Mallorys mother was a doctor, too.

But not so successful, said Riker. Mallorys natural mother had been a general practitioner in a tiny town. Cassandra was probably paid in dead chickens and sacks of potatoes.

But theres more, said Charles. Savannahs from Chicago. Did you know that Mallorys mother interned at a Chicago hospital?

Ya wning, Riker said, No, I didnt. The brat never tells me anything.

But you knew Cassandra was originally from Louisiana. Charles held up the drivers license to bring his point home. And Savannah is a southern name.

Riker grinned. He had met New York hookers from Harlem to the Battery who called themselves Savannah.

Charles Butler wore such a patient smile, waiting for the tired detective to put it all together, not wanting to commit a rudeness by stating the obvious thing.

All those phone calls would make sense, said Riker, grudgingly, if Savannah knew Mallorys mother in her younger days. He was thinking of a childs trademark line on the telephone in the late-night hours: Its Kathy-Im lost. All those years ago, had she been trying to find an old friend of the family? Why then, after this happy little reunion, would Savannah Sirus kill herself in Mallorys apartment? And what was the link to Route 66 and a child killer? He so longed to bang his head against the wall. In his experience, that actually helped.

Can you find out if Miss Sirus ever lived in Louisiana?

No, Charles, I cant put that name through cop channels-not till I know what happened back in New York. Somebody might get the idea that it wasnt a suicide. So what else have you got?

I found a letter in the suitcase.

No way. The detective had searched the luggage himself. Ah, but he had been sleeping in catnaps for days. So he had missed something else- maybe a lot of things.

It was in the lining, said Charles by way of apology for contradicting a friend.

Read it to me.

Its short, said Charles. Mallory dated it months ago. She writes, I want the rest of my letters. I want all of them.

What? Mallory isnt t he letter-writing type. She e-mails.

Maybe Savannah doesnt have a computer, said Charles, the sworn enemy of technology. Now consider all the times that Mallory called this woman. Miss Sirus may have stopped answering the phone. Then think about the days that Mallory missed from work-I mean, before she stopped showing up altogether. Maybe she turned up at Miss Siruss door in Chicago. Maybe the door was never opened to her. Hence this letter from Mallory. The postman always gets through. Charles handed him a small black-and-white photograph. This was also in the lining.

Riker squinted at the small portrait of a long-haired boy. Reluctantly he pulled out his reading glasses and donned them. Now he could make out the youngsters T-shirt design as an old album cover from another era. Early Rolling Stones. The kid had taste.

I found that snapshot in here with Mallorys letter. He held up a large manila envelope. It was folded twice in order to fit inside the torn suitcase lining. This is big enough to hold quite a lot of letters.

The detective nodded. Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Letters were all that Mallory had asked for, and it was unlikely that her houseguest would travel to New York empty-handed.

Charles made a show of opening the envelope, turning it upside down and shaking it to demonstrate its emptiness. Apparently all the letters were surrendered to Mallory. Yet, her houseguest found it necessary to tear the lining in her suitcase-just to hide that photograph. Im guessing Miss Sirus never went anywhere without it.

What was this? Witchcraft?

Riker rolled on his side, the better to study the picture by the dim bulb of the bedside lamp. How the hell would you know that, Charles?

Oh, theres a lot more you can extrapolate from that photograph. Perhaps if you looked at it in a brighter light?

These were the last words that Riker heard before falling into a deep sleep.


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