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9

Ray Adler hovered close to the back door. The aroma of roast beef had drawn him in from the yard, but now he was repulsed by the photographs that Peytons g irl had spread across the kitchen table. They put him off his feed, these pictures of death.

The second crew is working on your car, he said. Itll be finished tomorrow for sure, but it might be real late at night.

She only nodded, then moved down the length of the table, looking from one photograph to the next.

I think youll like the guest room. Your dad used to stay there. His eyes kept straying to her pictures, and now he could not look away. He recognized that patch of road, and it was not every day that a murdered teenager was found in his quiet corner of Kansas. Thats Joe Finns g irl, isnt it?

You know him? She looked up. The spell of the pictures was broken.

No, never met the man. But I saw his last fight. Ray pulled up a chair and sat down at the table. It was maybe a year ago in Kansas City. He was overmatched and a little past prime, but that man would not lie down. I think the other guy just got worn out from punching him. That wouldve been around the time they found his girls d e ad body-and not too far from here. That was a sad business.

The position of Rays c hair gave him a view into the next room, and he could see that she had been busy in there. He could smell the cleaning solvents that must have come from the grocery bags she brought back with her-along with the bloody photographs.

The girl checked the roast in the oven, then opened the refrigerator door. He saw all his beer bottles lined up like soldiers on the bottom shelf, and every other bit of space was filled with six colors of fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses. His crew would eat well tonight, but it made him feel bad that the girl believed she had to work for her roll bar. And he could not argue with her. Peytons d aughter was the willful kind, and she carried a gun.

Dale Berman had ordered them to take the parents onto the interstate, the fastest route to the new rendezvous point-as if speed mattered to him. In Agent Christine Nahlmans view, her supervisor had dragged his feet everywhere he went with this case.

Agent Nahlman drove the point car, and she was the first to witness the desertion as highway patrol cars peeled off and raced away to other destinations, abandoning the caravan. Tw o undercover agents posing as parents were riding in the last car, but it had been the job of the Missouri State Tr oopers to ensure that there would be no defection of parents taking the exits back to the old road. And now the escort was gone.

Nahlman turned to her young partner, who was engrossed in his road map-and missing the road. In her role as wet nurse to a rookie, she asked, Notice anything?

Huh? Agent Allen looked up, and his head swiveled to peer out every window. What happened to the troopers? And now he must have realized that this was a stupid question. Im on it. He pulled out his cell phone and placed a call to the SAC. Its Allen, sir Y es, sir W e were making good time, but now the troopers are gone Y es, sir, Ill tell her No, sirSorry, I thought you were aware ofWere taking them to a campsite on private land Yes, sir. Ill pass that along.

Let me guess, said Nahlman. Hes not happy about the change in plans.

And there wont be any more state cops. Were supposed to keep them out of this from now on. He didnt know you were going to bypass that hotel back in Springfield. You never cleared that with him? Well, anyway, he reserved more hotel rooms up ahead in Joplin.

Thats not going to happen, said Nahlman.

You dont t hink the parents will go for it?

Something like that. She had no plans to string these people out down a corridor of hotel rooms like fresh meat in a butcher shop. Call the moles. They havent c hecked in for a while.

Allen called up the number for the embedded agents riding in the last car. Only half a minute into the cell-phone conversation, he said, Oh, shit. The young agent turned a worried face to his partner. We lost some of the parents when the troopers left. Tw o of them took the exit back to Route 66.

Nahlman nodded. Of course they did. Theyre looking for their children. She smiled at him, never tiring of paper-training the puppy. And now we dont have the state troopers to round up the strays.

Allen looked down at his cell phone, regarding it as something that might explode in his hand. Im sure Agent Berman had his reasons.

For screwing us over on backup? Nahlmans hands tightened on the wheel. It was a mistake to put this youngster on the defensive. He would always defend Dale Berman, a man with a gift for garnering undeserved loyalty. Dont w o rry, she said. I wont ask you to call in for help. Wed never get it.

What if something happens to one of the strays?

Thats what sheepdogs are for, said Nahlman. I knew the trooper escort was all for show. Berman just wanted to keep Sheriff Banner happy. Im surprised it lasted more than six minutes. And now-back to school for Barry Allen; he was about to learn the value of a backup plan. I asked that New York cop and his friend to drive the scenic route. When the parents take exits, the moles will feed the plate numbers to Riker. Hell round them up.

When were you going to tell me?

That Dale was going to screw us over with the troopers? Was that something youd want to hear? She smiled at him with genuine affection. She knew that Barry Allen would give up his life for her, but she could never count on him.

Mallory and Ray Adler sat on the stoop outside the kitchen door, tipping back cold bottles of beer and listening to rock n roll playing in the garage across the yard. The sunset was not spectacular given a cloudless sky, but Ray supplied the evening entertainment, telling her the story of Joe Finns last fight.

I went with my dad-big fight fan. Now, that boxing match was as dirty as it ever gets. My old dad called it close to murder. Joe Finn was about thirty-five years old, and hed stayed in the game too long-too many blows to the head. Not much speed left. The promoters put up a young kid to fight him. We ll, that boy was all cheap shots and no talent. But he was a born killer, and the bookies favored him to win. And Finn? Well, he was no kid, and he had no chance. Just didnt have the juice anymore. Ah, but the moves? Damn. I never saw that kind of grace in a man-even when the blood was in his eyes and he was bouncin off the ropes. It was almost like a dance. My old dad put a bet on that dancing man, knowing he was gonna lose. Dad was Joe Finns b iggest fan. And that night we were ringside for the finish.

Ray Adler made his hand into a fist. That fighter had the biggest heart God ever gave a man. He was beaten half to death, and he would not go down. And every time he landed a punch, the crowd roared, even them that bet against him-on their feet-screaming, whistling-what a night. We watched him go ten rounds of pure punishment, and I think the referee was paid to look the other way. I thought that boxer was gonna die. Cuts filled Finns e yes with blood, but he stayed on his feet-fighting stone blind. And finally the referee stopped the bout My fathers e yes were full of tears In all my life, I never saw Dad cry for anyone but Joe Finn.

Click.

The woman in red was framed in the viewfinder as she exited the convenience store where she had paid for her gas and taped her poster to the window. The camera kept her in frame when she opened the door to her red sedan. Here she paused with a little shudder. Her head was turning slowly.

Did she sense a pair of eyes on her?

Yes. She was looking toward the back of the lot and the row of parked cars and trucks. All in a panic, her movements were jerky as she climbed behind the wheel and started her engine. A rear tire was losing air from a recently broken valve, but it had not gone flat, not yet. That would happen miles down the road in a place where there were no houses, no people-no help.

Click.



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