The beeping cell phone startled Riker, but he was slow to open his eyes. The detective had no memory of crawling off to sleep last night, and now it was day. He awakened in the front seat of the Mercedes. Fortunately, Charles Butler was driving.
Riker pulled out his cell phone and said, “Yeah?” And now, with no pity, he listened to Kronewald’s own story of interrupted sleep in Chicago. “Where’d she call you from?… So our perp’s a car thief… Y eah, thanks.” He tossed the cell phone into the back seat, where it would not trouble him anymore. “Mallory’s in Kansas. Now where am I?”
“You’re approaching a travel plaza.”
Riker patted down his shirt pockets and he found a crumpled pack of cigarettes. “I guess this is weird for you, huh? I mean chasing Mallory.” He was still seeking a way back into the story of Charles’s last meeting with her, the one that had ended with a proposal of marriage.
“Well, I don’t t hink she expects to see me again.”
“So I’m guessing she didn’t let you down easy.” After a few miles of silence, Riker tried again. “Did she at least say good-bye?”
Charles steered the Mercedes onto the exit road for the travel plaza. “That night after dinner, I walked Mallory home, and she kissed me.” He pointed to his left cheek to indicate that this had not been a moment of passion. “Later-a month later-when she wouldn’t return phone messages or answer the door, I realized that the kiss-that was good-bye.” Charles pulled into the large parking lot. “Lunchtime.”
This place was also a rendezvous point for the FBI. Riker’s first giveaway clue was the slew of government cars and the rentals favored by feds in the parking lot. He checked out the young people near these vehicles, almost standing at attention. There were no agency logos in sight, though their clothing approached a kind of uniform in the similarity of blue jeans, hiking boots and navy blue jackets that were missing only the initials of the Bureau. The colors of their T-shirts varied, but the detective gave them no points for this lame attempt at disguise.
“Mallory’s not in Kansas anymore,” said Charles Butler.
Riker turned his head to the other window in time to see Mallory glide across the parking lot with the top down on her silver convertible. And he could not speak nor even move. This was the culmination of night-into-day worries and tension. Finally, the road-weary detective managed to stumble from the Mercedes, and then he treated everyone in the lot to an explosion of involuntary emotion.
Mallory was on foot and heading for the door of the restaurant when she recognized that loud, laughing voice. She turned to face Riker. He walked unsteadily, approaching her V o lkswagen Beetle and pointing at the roll bar. The other hand was holding his side where the laughter had caused him a stitch of pain. An impartial observer might have likened the man’s outburst to hysteria, for he could not stop himself. He was so happy, he was in tears.
Later, he would put his mistake down to lost sleep, but now he committed the worst error on Mallory’s scorecard of crimes against her- derision. He pointed to her convertible and said, maybe a bit too loud, “A roll bar on a VW ?” When laughter subsided long enough to speak again, Riker said, “I’ve seen it all. I can die now.”
Mallory glared at him, perhaps with an idea for arranging this early demise.
He yelled, “Hey, kid! Yo u planning to race this car?” His best line spent, he was truly helpless, leaning against the side of her Vo lkswagen for support. He was enjoying himself so much that he thought he might fall down.
In icy calmness, the control freak turned her back on him with not even a word of hello after all this time when they had not seen one another.
Charles Butler appeared at his side, saying, “Uh, that might’ve been over the top. I’ll just explain to her that you were tired and overwrought.”
“Oh, come on.” Riker slapped the roll bar, saying, “This is funny.”
“I have another theory.” Charles was watching the wide window of the restaurant. “Wait-she’s going into the ladies’ room.” He pointed toward her car. “Can we take a look under the hood?”
“If that car’s got an alarm-and I promise you it does-Mallory won’t even bother to step outside. She’ll just shoot you through that plate-glass window, and then she’ll order a cheeseburger.”
In a test of this theory, with one pull on the handle, the car door opened quietly for Charles.
“Bad sign,” said Riker. “Normally, the kid’s too paranoid to leave a car unlocked.” And now she had walked away from an open convertible. He leaned inside to search for the hood release and found it. He noticed that the dashboard was oddly absent Mallory’s usual road show of technology toys. There were no built-in computers, no global navigator, only a police scanner, but who, besides his anti-tech traveling companion, did not own one of those?
Charles Butler lifted the convertible’s hood, and then his face went blank.
The detective moved toward the front of the car, figuring that his friend was simply clueless about engines. Had Charles expected to find a herd of horses under there-or something equally obvious that would explain the need for a roll bar? Riker looked down at the engine compartment.
What the hell?
Under the hood, where the engine should be on every recent model of this car, there was only a duffel bag.
“Well, that settles it,” said Riker. “The kid’s just getting way too spooky.”
Charles turned to the restaurant’s window, and then he quickly closed the hood. Inside the building, the door to the ladies’ room was opening. The two men edged away from Mallory’s c ar, and Riker was showing more respect for this vehicle.
Mallory sat down at the only vacant table by the window. She reached into her knapsack and retrieved the small notebook of roadside attractions, and a checkmark was placed next to Mickey Mantle Boulevard in Commerce, Oklahoma. She also checked off the blue whale found in the town of Catoosa.
Done with this daily chore, she looked up to glare at the middle-aged man seated near her table, for he had already taken notice of Mallory, who missed nothing, eyes lowered or shut. Caught in the act of staring at her, the little man’s head ducked low, and he resumed a study of his maps, not an odd preoccupation for a traveler at a road stop. However, the hand holding his coffee cup trembled, spilling hot liquid into a tote bag on the floor, where the rest of his map collection was turning soggy and brown. She remembered him from the diner back in Illinois, a customer too twitchy to go ignored.
It was the map spread on the table that made him truly interesting. The state of Oklahoma was overlaid with multicolored lines and arcs-and a small cross drawn with green ink. Other more temporary markers were made with a pencil and evenly spaced along this state’s segment of Route 66.
“We call him the Pattern Man,” said Riker. “That’s his Internet moniker.” Unacknowledged, her partner pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. Charles Butler remained standing, awaiting an invitation. She nodded to him in lieu of hello, for he had not laughed at her car. And now they were three.
“The little guy’s name is Horace Kayhill.” Riker nodded toward the neighboring table.
Charles explained the map collector’s peculiar bent with patterns, but Mallory paid no attention. She was focused on Dodie Finn, who sat with her brother at the center of the room. Their father stood in line at the counter, holding a tray and ordering food for his family. The little girl was silent, but she had begun to rock-a prelude to the humming.
Riker lifted a leather case from his lap and set it on the table in front of Mallory. “I brought this all the way from Chicago. It’s a present from Kronewald. He said you left your computer at home.” In a voice reserved for coaxing small children to eat their vegetables, he said, “This one’s probably loaded with all your favorite goodies.” When she would not even look at him or the gift, he shrugged and left the table to fetch them all a round of coffee and burgers.
Mallory unzipped the case and looked down at the laptop computer. It was a recent model, but she doubted that it would have the software she was accustomed to. She expected no illegal lock-pick programs, nothing useful for unlawful entries in cyberspace. However, she had everything necessary to wake up her slumbering computers back in New York City.
“There’s a sign in the window,” said Charles. “There should be a computer access around here somewhere. Oh.” He watched her unravel a wire, plug it into an outlet by the napkin holder, and then power up the computer.
The FBI icon on the screen gave up Detective Kronewald’s password. But first-a little improvisation. The keys began to click, and a thousand miles away in New York, a computer came to life in her apartment. It yawned in hums and whirs, and then it fed her lock picks and pry bars and her coveted store of stolen passwords. She cut the remote computer loose and entered the Federal Bureau of Investigation, leaving no footprints behind. She passed beyond the Internet holding pen where police inquiries were stalled, and now she jumped three links toward her goal of a secured site. This was, more accurately, the Bureau’s antiquated idea of security. She was inside the vaulted files, free to pillage and plunder whatever she liked. Mallory took no great pride in this, for defeating the FBI’s outdated system was a rite of passage for small children all over America.
She looked up from her screen to smile at Charles Butler. He would need some occupation to discourage him from being helpful. “You see that couple at the corner table,” she said, “the man and woman with red and green baseball caps? They’re with the caravan.”
“Yes, I’ve met them.”
“Watch them for a while. Tell me what you think.” Her fingers flew across the keys, doing a little dance of codes and passwords, evading watchdog alarms and red flags to gain access to an enemy file. Ah, and now the door lay open, and Dale Berman was stripped naked on her screen. Scrolling down his biographical data, she found the report on the New York fiasco with Markowitz, followed by Berman’s reprimand and promotion. That last entry angered her but came as no surprise. Once it had been Dale’s lot to clean up the messes of other agents. He would be too dangerous to fire or demote. Working backward, she found a psychology degree from his younger days. And now she hunted for his job application process, though she had never believed the myth of the foolproof FBI applicant investigation.
With a light touch on Charles’s arm, Mallory called his attention away from the assignment to study the couple in the corner of the room. “Is it true that most people who study psychology have a few screws loose?”
He stared at her for a moment, probably wondering if she was alluding to himself. “Well, a lot of people who work in the field had some early exposure to the mental health process. But that could be any sort of therapy.”
She closed Dale Berman’s file. “So… the couple at the corner table?”
“Well, they wear wedding rings, but they’re not married,” he said. “They never have been. I’d s ay their relationship is relatively new. You can tell by the body language. He’s in pursuit, flirting with her. She’s looking around, hoping that no one hears what he’s saying to her. This is a game they’ve played before. It’s the conversational equivalent of stroking. She’s in retreat from him, but she actually likes the attention. See? Repressing a smile. If not for the setting, I’d c haracterize this as an office romance, one of those relationships that springs from propinquity, perhaps the time they’ve spent together on the caravan.” He turned to Mallory. “They’re the FBI moles. That’s the way Riker introduced them to me. Oh, sorry, was that the short answer you wanted?”
Mallory smiled at this hand-me-down friend of her foster father’s. And to show him how much she had missed his company, she had not interrupted his diatribe once, nor made the usual hand signals to speed it up. “I only want to know who they’re watching.”
“Well, it’s not the little girl.” He seemed pleased with her flash of surprise. “And that’s odd because that was Riker’s guess. No, their only interest, apart from themselves, is Dr. Magritte.”
Mallory glanced at the Finns’table as Dodie began to hum. “Always the same four notes.”
“Eight notes,” said Charles, the man with perfect pitch. “There’s a slightly different nuance that begins the next bar.” One finger went up, as if pointing to the notes passing by. “And there-a minor pause following the eighth note-and she begins again. Hear it now? It’s an old standard.” Charles whistled the string of eight notes with a more upbeat inflection.
Riker returned to the table with a tray of cheeseburgers, coffee mugs- and the lyrics. “ ‘Oh the shark, babe… has such teeth, dear…’ ” And now he added more notes to Dodie’s limited refrain, singing, “ ‘and he shows them… pearly white-’ “
He stopped abruptly, and Mallory followed the track of her partner’s eyes to a dark-haired woman seated nearby with a younger man. Riker had a keen appreciation for the ladies in their forties-and every other age bracket. The brunette stared at him-spellbound.
“Damn, I’m good,” he said as he bowed to this woman. “And now my favorite line. ‘Scarlet billows… start to spread.’ ”
Though the civilian diners took little notice of Riker, Mallory watched other faces turning to stare at the singing detective. It was easy to identify them as FBI agents, and they were not a happy group.
Where was Dodie?
One tiny castoff shoe lay near the Finns’table. Mallory caught sight of the boy standing at the magazine rack, leafing through a comic book. And now she had located his little sister. One shoe off and one shoe on, the little girl had crawled beneath the table. Dodie was not humming anymore, but folding like a flower when night comes, drawing her knees into her chest, head bowing. The toes of one bare foot curled tight.
Charles Butler was also watching the child, and his face was grave when he said, “Riker, don’t s ing anymore.”
“Everybody’s a critic,” said the detective, now aware of the agents all around the room who also wanted him to stop.
Dale Berman was standing frozen by the door, and Mallory made an easy guess that he had heard Riker’s rendition of “Mack the Knife.” Her partner had also noticed Berman and looked down at the floor, not wanting even eye contact with this fed, their common enemy. With this change of perspective, Riker could see the little girl beneath the table.
“Dodie!” yelled young Peter Finn, suddenly noticing that his sister was gone from her chair. His eyes went everywhere, crazed to find her.
“It’s okay, kid!” Riker called out to the boy. “I got her.” He reached under the table to take Dodie’s hand, and she began to scream. He drew back, wounded, for he was a man who loved children. “What did I do? The other night, she was fine with me.”
“Let me guess,” said Dale Berman, drawing closer to the New York detective. “You weren’t w e aring that red shirt.” The FBI man hunkered down by the table and smiled at the rolled-up ball of a little girl. “Hello, Dodie. Remember me? It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Her screaming stopped. She did not reach out to him, but neither did she protest when he took her small hand and led her out of hiding.
Riker stared at Berman. “And she hasn’t seen you for a long time? The kid’s good with faces?”
“No, it’s probably my suit,” said the agent, openly appraising the detective’s flannel shirt and faded jeans and finding them wanting. “Dodie spent a long time with people in suits. She’s very compliant with-”
“Interrogation?” Riker, brows knit together. “A kid?”
Berman ignored this. He only smiled down at the little girl beside him, and Dodie stared straight ahead, blind and deaf to everyone. “Anyway, Riker, it’s nothing personal-just the way you’re dressed-the red shirt.”
Riker marched outside and crossed the parking lot to Charles Butler’s Mercedes. Mallory watched him pull his bag from the trunk and rifle its contents, probably searching for his least rumpled shirt of another color- so a little girl would not be afraid of him anymore. Her partner was a sucker for children, and this child had freckles, his other weakness.
Charles leaned toward Mallory. “You know that man lied to Riker. It wasn’t t he color of the shirt-it was the song.”
Yes, Mallory knew that.
Her eyes were on Joe Finn. The boxer was slow to cross the room. There was great deliberation in each step, and she knew he was trying to bring his temper under control and only succeeding in part. His fists remained at his sides, but his eyes were full of hate when he finally stood before Dale Berman, a poor specimen compared to the prizefighter.
Joe Finn’s voice was oddly soft, almost soothing, and he spoke with the singsong meter of reading his daughter a fairy tale. “Back away from my kid or lose all your damn teeth. Those are the only two choices you get.”
Mallory approved of the boxer, the enemy of her enemy.
Riker returned to the restaurant with another shirt in hand and found himself on speaking terms with Mallory again. He made a mental note-no more car jokes.
“You won’t need that,” she said, taking the shirt away from him and draping it over the back of his chair. With a little backup nodding from Charles Butler, Mallory assured him that Dodie Finn would not care if he changed his clothes. “T r ust me, the kid’s out of it. She wouldn’t know if you were wearing a red shirt or a dress.” She angled the laptop computer so that he could see the screen and a recently purloined FBI file. The code name the feds had selected for this serial killer was Mack the Knife.
“Aw, w hat’ve I done to that kid?” Well, he had sung the words to her scary little tune, and then, as bogeymen will do, he had reached out for her. “And Dale’s little story about the red shirt?”
“Misdirection,” said Charles. “The key to every good magic trick. If you thought it was the shirt, you’d never look at the song.”
Mallory turned to the door as a redheaded man, tall and reedy in a dark suit, entered the restaurant. “Riker, we’ve got trouble.” She nodded toward the new arrival with the crew-cut red hair. “That one’s a witch doctor.”
“Agent Cadwaller?” Riker smiled and held up his cell phone. “Kronewald called. Said to tell you he checks out. You were right. Cadwaller’s last posting was the Freak Squad.”
“You mean the Behavioral Science Unit?” Charles turned to look at the red-haired man. “But they’re not Ph.D.’s. I thought your criteria for a witch doctor was an accredited-”
“You’re right,” said Mallory, cutting Charles off as she usually did when his longer and more predictable sentences tried her patience. “Cadwaller’s just a screwup. That’s probably why they shipped him off to Dale’s field office.”
Riker watched as the man spoke with Dale Berman, who pointed him toward the Finns’table. As Cadwaller approached the small family, Joe Finn was rising from his chair and all too clear about his intent to knock the agent back into the parking lot-via a broken window-if the man took one more step toward the children.
Caring nothing about losing face in a room full of feds and cops, Cadwaller wore a placating smile and raised one hand to beg a pardon as-he-backed-up. Nothing more was needed to classify him: this was a man who rarely, if ever, went into the field. By Bureau regulation, every fed was required to carry a weapon, but this one had the look of a man unaccustomed to walking around with a gun. Or maybe, at the start of this day, the agent had left his sidearm on his motel-room dresser-along with his testicles. A moment ago, Cadwaller had seemed an ordinary man, maybe a little on the pale side, and now Riker found him vaguely creepy, soft and unsexed.
Ten-year-old Peter Finn watched the redheaded man withdraw to a safe distance from his father, and then the man handed a paper to Agent Berman. Now both of them were looking at Dodie. The last time Peter had witnessed this scene, he and his sister had been taken away and not allowed to see their father. It had been so easy for FBI agents to goad Dad into the last fight, the one that left two children screaming for their daddy as the Child Welfare people took them away.
He knew what would happen next, and so did his father. Dad was watching all of this play out and shaking his head slowly to say, No, not again. The big man turned to his young son with a halfhearted smile, a failed reassurance that things would be different this time.
Peter was looking elsewhere for a champion that the FBI could not arrest for fighting back. His eyes passed over Riker, for that man was just too cozy with the lady FBI agent. He settled on the tall blonde, the pretty woman he had first seen in the diner back down the road in Illinois. She had also come to the Missouri campsite to talk with Dr. Paul. Peter remembered being afraid of her then. What had Dr. Paul called her?
And she carried a gun.
Agent Berman was crossing the room toward Dodie. Peter knew he would have to be quick, and he was. Rising fast, the boy ran to the pretty woman’s t able, saying breathless, “You’re a cop, right?”
Without looking up from her computer screen, she said, “I thought you didn’t t alk to strangers.”
“Well, I’m talking now, okay? I need help. I think they’re going to take my sister away.”
“You mean protective custody?” asked Riker. “That might be for the best, kid.”
“No!” Peter pounded the table, his eyes fixed on Mallory. “They don’t care about me and Dad. It’s Dodie they want. The last time they took her, she was worse when she came back. She wouldn’t e ven talk anymore.”
And now Mallory looked up. “What did Dodie tell you-back when she was talking?”
“Please, there’s no time. You have to stop him.” The boy pointed to the man he knew as Special Agent Berman.
Peter’s father pushed Agent Berman away when the man reached out to touch Dodie. And now the FBI man was closing in on her again, one eye on Dad. A moment later, the agent lay sprawled on the floor, bleeding from his lip-and smiling.
Mallory was rising from the table with Detective Riker. She said to Peter in passing. “We’ll talk later. Deal?”
“It’s too late.” Peter stared at the bloodied FBI man on the floor. Pain could only be moments away. The family would all be taken off in separate directions-just like the last time. The boy had tears in his voice, crying, “Not again. We can’t go through this again.” He was looking up at Mallory’s face, her strange green eyes-no mercy.
Agents slowly converged on the boxer from all quarters of the room, trying to appear natural and normal as they skirted the tables of civilian patrons. Joe Finn saw them coming. He did not care. He would take them on, one by one, or in twos and threes. That much was clear by his stance and his closed fists, and Mallory liked this man better and better.
Dale Berman was rising to support himself on one elbow, but wisely staying close to the floor and out of immediate danger.
Only the people from the caravan remained in their seats, and their conversations were ending as each one in turn saw the fallen man and then noticed the encroaching circle of men and women, their holstered guns exposed for quick access.
The two New York detectives moved in quickly to flank the boxer. This brought the group of FBI agents to a standstill; their course of action was less clear now, and all of them lowered their eyes to the prone Dale Berman. They were stalled and awaiting his orders.
Mallory leaned close to Joe Finn, saying, “The bastard on the floor belongs to me. Stay out of my business and sit down. That’s a direct order from a cop. Don’t fool with me.”
The boxer nodded his understanding of a prior claim, and he seemed to have no problem with her authority. This was not about his manhood; this was all about his children. Slowly he settled into his chair.
Riker held up his gold shield, and Mallory drew her denim jacket to one side, displaying the gun in her shoulder holster. Better than a badge, this act screamed cop war to every fed as she revolved slowly, making eye contact with agents all around the room. The feds were not backing down, but neither would they advance, and their own weapons were no longer on view to the gaping civilians. There would be no gunplay today, not with so many sheep in the house, and not ever with cops.
Mallory’s voice only carried as far as the floor when she said, “Berman, call them off before you get up. If I deck you, the troops won’t forget that.”
He smiled. “You think that’s worse than kicking me in the balls in front of-”
“Much worse,” she said, looking down at him with no expression. Her voice was a harsh whisper, and, to the surrounding agents, this must look like a normal conversation. “When you’re picking yourself up off the floor? When you’re just a little off balance? That’s when I take my best shot. Closed fist. They’ll talk about that for a long time. And I won’t pull my punch… like the boxer did.”
“Say, Dale.” Riker spoke softly when he hunkered down, smiling for appearance’s sake, as if he might be consoling the fallen man. “Your front teeth-those are caps, right? Cost much?”
“Don’t interfere,” said Berman. “And that goes for your partner, too. Assault charges-”
“Provoked assault,” said Riker, ever so politely correcting the agent.
“And you had that split lip when you walked in the door,” said Riker. “So you cheated. You saw the punch coming. Hell, you asked for it-and then you rolled with it. More like a tap, I’d s ay. Just dumb luck that Finn reopened the cut on your lip. And I wonder where that came from.”
In unison, both men looked up at Mallory.
Berman spoke to her in a low voice, possibly believing that she was listening to him. “You’ve got three seconds to stand down, Detective.”
“Count real slow,” said Riker. “You giving orders to Mallory-that’s a good one-for a man who’s still walks funny. You thought her shot to balls was bad?” Riker raised his voice to laugh, and this had a calming effect on the surrounding agents; the tension level in the room was dropping. “Don’t fool with my partner. She’ll bite your head off. I’ve seen her kill six pigeons that way.” Riker reached out and ruffled Dale Berman’s hair to assure him that this was just a small joke, and then he leaned in close and whispered, “I have no control over her.”
The man on the floor was a true believer. “All right. Enough.” Berman called out to the surrounding agents. “Everybody settle down. Back to your tables. Now!”
“And no penalty for Joe Finn,” said Mallory.
“No deal,” said the agent as he regained his feet. “Finn’s a prizefighter. He knows the law. His fists are-”
“Considered weapons,” said Riker. “Yeah, yeah.” Before Dale Berman could say any more, the detective jumped up the stakes by humming the opening bars to “Mack the Knife.”
“Okay,” said Berman, magnanimously, “no charges.”
Special Agent Dale Berman gave Mallory a wide berth in passing the table where she was deep in conversation with the boxer’s b o y. Still holding an ice cube on his split lip, the FBI man sat down with Charles Butler and Riker. He laid an official fax communiqu'e in front of the detective.
“I just want to clear up one little thing,” said Berman, tapping the fax. “The sheriff back in Missouri requested protective custody for the Finns.”
“And that would be us,” said Riker, not bothering to even glance at the fax. “Me and Mallory, we’re the protection now. And let’s clear up another little thing. You should pray that Joe Finn doesn’t t alk to a lawyer. Provoked assault, abuse of power-oh, and that time you snatched his kid.”
“In your dreams, Riker.”
The detective glanced at the far table where his partner was discussing murder with a child. “Little Peter makes great witness material, doesn’t he? I’m betting that kid can cry at the drop of a dime, and that might come in handy. Now a charge of kidnapping Dodie-that won’t s t ick in court, but it might get some airtime on the evening news-prime time. And that would be a damn shame. Up to now, you’ve been real good at squashing media interest. So play nice with the boxer. Your balls belong to him now.”
Riker crossed the room to deposit a laptop computer on Mallory’s t able. And now the detective’s tall friend, Charles Butler, was left alone to make conversation, faltering for words and finally saying, “So you’re in charge here.”
Agent Berman smiled in faint appreciation for Butler’s d ry punch line. His smile became more affable when the detective returned to the table. “Riker, I got Kronewald’s presents from Mallory. If you’re curious about the tool mark on the air valve and the fingerprint-”
“Not good enough for matches,” said Riker. “I know.”
“So you and your partner plan to give us a hand on this one?”
“Cooperation? Not your style,” said Riker. “You’d rather cut cops at the knees.”
“Hey,” said Berman, “that business with Kronewald in Chicago-that wasn’t my call,” he lied. “I wasn’t e ven there.” That part was true. He gave Riker his very best good ol’ boy smile and lightly slapped the table with the flat of his hand. “So, we do a little deal? Share and share alike?” “Just like old times?” asked Riker. “With Lou Markowitz?” “What? You’re still pissed off about that ? Mallory, too? Okay, I held out on Markowitz. But that was years ago, and it’s not like somebody died.”
Riker’s response was instant and strong, every muscle tensing. The detective wanted to hit him; that much was very clear. Instead, Riker rose and left the table, and this time he did not plan to return, but slouched into a distant chair with an air of permanent repose.
Agent Berman turned to Charles Butler. “You know what that’s about?” “The old business with Louis Markowitz? Sorry, I don’t have any facts to work with. However, given Riker’s reaction, I’d s ay it’s obvious that someone did die.”
Dale Berman’s luck with Mallory was no better. He waited until the little boy left her table, then pulled up the chair next to hers. “We could help each other on this one.”
To o clearly, he understood the look in her eyes that said, Yeah, right.
“I have legal authorization to take Dodie Finn into custody.” And now, lest she misunderstand and send a knee toward his privates, he held up one hand in surrender. “That’s not a threat. I won’t, o kay? See, I’m just trying to-”
“This is the new and improved FBI?” She continued to stare at her laptop screen. “So now you can disappear a little girl? How did you do it the last time? Did you fob her off as a terrorist? Oh, wait, I forgot. The feds don’t have to give reasons anymore.”
Berman had a comeback for that, but he was interrupted when a large woman settled into the chair beside Mallory’s and introduced herself as Margaret Hardy, widow of Jerold Hardy, and mother to young Melissa Hardy, who had gone missing when she was six years old.
“I think about her every day.” Mrs. Hardy opened her purse and pulled out a fistful of snapshots that pictured a little girl in different costumes and poses. Apparently six-year-old Melissa was a born performer, mugging for the camera in her ballet dress and her Halloween costume. “And this shot was taken at her school play. That’s her in the carrot suit. She likes carrots and peas-just the colors, not the taste-and she plays the piano. I thought you should know that… something… personal.” Mrs. Hardy wore a constant smile, but she seemed always on the verge of tears.
Mallory was on best behavior with this civilian. She looked at each photograph and asked polite questions about the place where Melissa had lived. “Any close neighbors? Did your daughter take a bus to school?”
Even before these questions were answered, Dale Berman knew that the lost Melissa Hardy fit the victim profile-and now Mallory knew it, too.
As the FBI man’s gut knotted up, he had to wonder what else this New York cop had worked out on her own. When Mrs. Hardy had left the table, and Mallory was once more absorbed in her computer, Berman edged his chair closer to hers, saying, “Back to the subject of Dodie Finn. I didn’t want to-” He forgot what he had intended to say, for she finally looked up to acknowledge him, and he wished that she had not.
What cold eyes you have.
The young detective leaned toward him-too close. She was robbing him of personal space, and each of her words had equal weight, as if a metronome could speak. “If you touch that little girl one more time, I will mess you up so bad.”
She turned back to her computer screen. He was now dead to her, and it did not matter whether he left her table or not. There would be no discussion of the good old days or his last assignment in New York. Years had passed since then. How could she hold a grudge? The case had been delayed on his account, but that kidnapped child had been found alive. He decided that Charles Butler must be wrong. No one could have died because of what he had done to Lou Markowitz. Yet the idea would remain with him all through the day.
Riker and Charles took turns shooting covert glances at Mallory, who sat alone on the other side of the room. The caravan parents were also staring at her. Apparently a kick-ass cop had more cachet in this room than ten feds. But none of the parents were quite as brave as Mrs. Hardy. They preferred to admire the young detective from afar.
“I think I’d feel better,” said Riker, “if there was some connection between Savannah Sirus and this serial killer. It’s a pain in the tail working two cases at the same time.”
“Surely Mallory’s not a suspect in Miss Sirus’s death.”
The detective shook his head. “No, Charles. Suicide was Dr. Slope’s official call. The kid’s got no trouble with the law. But the details are gonna get out, and every cop in town will have a problem with that case. And then there’s her little vanishing act-all the days she missed from work. Now, thanks to an out-of-town serial killer, I can put out a rumor that the kid was working this case all that time. But I need a solid reason for Savannah’s suicide-something other cops can believe in… or they might not wanna work with her anymore.”
Charles turned toward Mallory’s t able. “She seems all right to me.”
Riker’s face brightened like a proud parent. “And look. She’s playing with the computer. I think that worried me the most-the kid traveling without one. And that low-tech V o lkswagen. Remember her old car? It had equipment that only another computer could recognize.”
He could see that Charles was about to raise a point about the empty engine compartment, but he cut the man off, saying, “Hold it. Now, just put the invisible engine to one side. Did you get a look at her dashboard? Nothing you wouldn’t find on a regular car, right?”
“I don’t have a police scanner in my car.”
“You wouldn’t e ven have a car if you could get around on a horse. But Mallory? Going low-tech is just strange.” The detective sat well back in his chair and smiled. “But now she’s wired up to a computer again-just like her old self. Yeah, that’s a good sign-a real good sign.”
Rising from her chair without a word or gesture of good-bye, she quit the restaurant, got into her car and drove out of the parking lot in no particular hurry. Riker stared at the laptop, its screen still glowing on the table. She had abandoned it-a very un-Mallory-like thing to do. He closed his tired eyes. “I take it all back.”
A small hand tugged on Riker’s s leeve, and he looked up to see Peter Finn. The boy had panic in his eyes.
“Where is she going?”
“Don’t w o rry,” said Riker. “She won’t be gone long.”
Did he believe that?
We ll, so much depended on the way that Lou Markowitz had raised his foster child, and how much of the old man’s rulebook remained with her. Riker recalled one of Lou’s key commandments: Thou shalt not abandon the sheep… or the lamb.