The caravan vehicles followed Riker’s instructions, via waving arms and hand signals, to form a tight configuration around the campsite. This was inspiration from a childhood of cowboy movies: always pull the wagons into a circle. The detective smiled as FBI agents arrived en masse to find parking spaces on the fringe, their cars exiled from the little city.
Supplies were disgorged from one of the mobile homes, but these were automotive: cans of oil, transmission fluid, plugs and points and patch kits for threadbare tires. One of the parents, a mechanic, traveled from one old clunker to another like a doctor making hospital rounds. He listened to odd pings and grinds and other engine noises that only he could decode. On the Internet, he was known as Lostmyalice, but the other parents called him Miracle Man.
Come twilight, Riker and Charles accepted the hospitality of Dr. Magritte, who prepared rib eye steaks from the freezer of a larder on wheels that doled out similar fare to other campers. And now they learned that three of the mobile homes were leased by the doctor and driven by parents who had no vehicles of their own. The old man was a good cook. He favored a grill set over an open fire, and he had actually paid good money for it.
“But the best grills,” in the detective’s opinion, “are those little fold-out pieces you steal from shopping carts.”
Throughout this tasty meal, Riker was working, albeit casually. He chewed his meat and sipped his coffee while noting every new face-there were many-and watching for signs of trouble. He found them. “Doc, your people are scared. Check out the weapons.” With one moving finger, he pointed out pup tents and lean-tos where deer rifles and a few shotguns had been propped up in plain view. “I always knew about the guns, but yesterday they were kept out of sight. Tonight they’re on display.”
“It makes them feel more secure,” said Dr. Magritte. “And the FBI agents haven’t objected.”
“And you know why,” said Riker. “Except for Nahlman, all the agents here are kids. You noticed that, right?”
Paul Magritte opened a cooler to win back Riker’s goodwill with a cold bottle of beer. The old man smiled. The detective did not. But he took the beer.
“And then there’s the problem of the handguns,” said Riker.
This startled Magritte, and he looked around him, squinting to see the distant campfires.
“You’ll never see them,” said Riker, “but they’re here, tucked away in tents and bedrolls-like bombs waiting to go off.” The detective stood up to take his leave of Charles and the doctor. He thanked the man for his dinner and said, in parting, “Don’t go walking after dark. This is a very scary place.”
The detective glanced at his watch. It was time to walk the wolf.
George Hastings, alias Jill’s D ad, led the animal on a chain, and Riker followed them outside the circle of vehicles. None of the camp dogs barked when the wolf was out and about, for every mutt loved its own life; they quieted down and cowered on their bellies, hoping death would walk past them tonight. Man and beast walked a straight line into the dark landscape, and Riker sat down on the ground with his flashlight, a gun and a six-pack of beer. Stone sober he was not a great shot, but, if he had to kill a charging animal, a little alcohol might steady his hand, and four or five spent bullets should hit some vital organ. He had trained Jill’s D ad not to stray beyond the flashlight beam. Riker only took his eyes off the wolf one time to look up at a sky unspoiled by the lights of the caravan city. The evening stars were popping out, one by one, when he heard the first helicopter.
It was about time. He had wondered when the media planned to show up.
Nahlman came to keep him company on wolf watch. She held a clipboard with a list of vehicle registrations as she sat down beside him. “So far I’ve only found one fake name.” The agent highlighted a page with her penlight as one finger traced the lines, then stopped. “This one, Darwinia Solho.” She looked up from her list and caught him in the act of being unsurprised. “You knew.”
“Yeah, it always had the sound of a made-up name.” He placed a bottle of beer in her free hand. “But we’re not hunting for a woman. No offense, Nahlman. Personally, I think women are better at murder.” His eyes were on the sky, reading the call letters of a major television network on the bottom of the helicopter. “Hey, prime-time news.”
“Damn reporters,” said Nahlman. “Our people have the rest of the media bottled up down the road.”
“You have to let ’em through,” said Riker. “Reporters are only manageable when you’re throwing them bones. If you make them dig-and I mean really earn their money-then you lose control.”
“It’s not my decision.”
“It could be,” he said, planting a hint at disaffection from the ranks. “Let’s say we give them easy rules. No parent leaves the circle without an escort, and only the parents get back inside. You see how simple this can be when Dale’s not running the show? And now I need you to call down the road and get those reporters turned loose.”
“I haven’t got the-”
“Do you see Dale Berman anywhere? No, he’s holed up in a motel while you and your partner sleep on the dirt. You’ll never find him when you need him. That makes you the senior agent in command. So just tell the kids down the road to let those reporters come through the lines-or mama will spank.”
Oh, big mistake.
Obviously, the NYPD’s diversity training had been utterly wasted on him. He watched her mouth dip on one side just before she turned her face away from him. Riker looked down at his empty bottle, but he could not put the blame there. That was the problem of being a hard-core alcoholic: He could down so many drinks while talking and walking a sober line.
Riker tried again, one hand on her shoulder. “Hey, sorry, but I need this favor.” He pointed into the heart of the campsite. “It’s for them. It’s so hard for these parents to get five seconds on some backwater news show. This is their only shot at national coverage. And tomorrow, you know they’ll all stay with the caravan. No more dead strays-if we let the reporters join the parade.”
The FBI agent was relenting; he could see it in the slump of her shoulders.
“Dale might go along with it,” she said, “if you were the one who asked him. I think he respects you. God knows why. And I know you’ve got his cell-phone number.”
“Not me. I haven’t had that much beer.” Riker pulled another bottle from his six-pack. “I figure a pretty woman has a better shot.”
Nahlman stood up way too fast, and now her hands were riding on her hips. Showdown! What’s a boy to do? He was too drunk to win a fair fight with a woman, but not drunk enough to stomach one more conversation with Dale Berman.
“I’ll drink faster,” said Riker.
Agent Christine Nahlman made the decision to bypass her boss, and it was not the second bottle of Riker’s beer that had won her over. She wanted no more dead parents on her watch.
The floodgates down the road were opened, the reporters turned loose, and now the circus had come to town. The news crews arrived at the outskirts of the caravan circle, carrying pole lights and cameras, juggling microphones and makeup kits. The parents were overjoyed, holding up their posters and lining up for interviews, but not Jill’s D ad, though his wolf was safely locked up for the night. Another oddly camera-shy parent was Darwinia Sohlo, or whatever her real name was. Joe Finn was not in line, either, but that was no surprise to Nahlman.
While waiting a turn at the reporters, Mrs. Hardy and two other parents could be heard comparing notes on how many seconds their tragedies had received on the local news back home, how many lines of type in their town papers and how many flyers they had tacked up to telephone poles in an average month.
Searching for lost children was very hard work.
Finally, it was Mrs. Hardy’s c hance to face the camera and tell America, “My Melissa plays piano.” She held up the photograph of a six-year-old child. “This little girl,” she would have them know, “has the brightest blue eyes, the sunniest smile. And she plays the piano. Oh, I’m sorry. Did I already tell you that? I’m such a fool.”
After dinner, Peter Finn watched his father work the poles, the canvas and the ropes. Practice should have made this job easier, but it just got harder and harder all the time. Almost done, the big man used the back end of a hatchet to drive the stakes into the ground, each one the mooring for a tent line.
A year ago, this man had been the monster in the dark, a creature who came late at night to sit beside young Peter’s bed. Some nights, his father’s face had been beaten into unrecognizable shapes. Blood had seeped through the bandages applied at ringside by the cut man, another monster in the boy’s c ast of characters from the boxing world.
When Ariel was taken from them, the boxing days were ended, and this man had inexplicably become the Tooth Fairy who paid out coins for baby teeth, the cook and housemaid and packer of school lunches. The boxer was not much good at all these jobs that Ariel had done so effortlessly and fine. Over time, as Peter had watched his father struggle with each small improvement in folding laundry, the boy had cried with overwhelming sorrow and love.
Joe Finn drove the last stake into the ground. All the ropes were taut, and the poles were straight. Oh, but now the big man discovered that he had laid the tent floor on a bed of rock. After pulling up every stake- silently with no complaint-collapsing the canvas and bringing down the poles, the boxer began again.
Young Peter bowed his head. The tears flowed freely.
Riker was alone on nightwatch, unless one counted unseasoned FBI agents. He did not.
Interviews had ended hours ago, and most of the reporters had retired to a town down the road. A few of the jackals still haunted the perimeter of the caravan city, probably hoping for fresh blood, or maybe the sound bite of a scream in the night. Cooking smells haunted Riker with every breeze, though all the campfires were burning low, embers only. The site was better lit tonight. He had appropriated stationary power packs and pole lights from departing television crews. More illumination came from the traveling flashlights of patrolling FBI agents. Apart from the tinny music of a few radios and small conversations in twos and threes, all was quiet.
And along came Mallory.
Riker never heard the sound of her engine or the slam of a car door. She was simply there when he turned around and already passing him by. A knapsack was slung over one shoulder. She carried it everywhere these days, and he wondered if this was where she kept the letters that had once belonged to the late Savannah Sirus.
Mallory walked toward the campfire of Mrs. Hardy, and now he knew whose little girl had been found in the grave down the road.
And the mother sensed it.
Mrs. Hardy sat on a blanket spread before a dying fire. She forced a smile for the approaching detective, perhaps believing that escape was still possible. But no-Mallory’s s t ride had the resolve of a train wreck in the making-this was going to happen. And now the older woman patiently waited for the younger one to come and destroy her with words. The detective sat down on the blanket, and the ritual began: the slow shake of the mother’s head-disbelief-no, not her child-some mistake. And when it was finally understood that denial was wasted on Mallory, the mother collapsed against the young cop’s b reast. Mrs. Hardy cried for a long time. None of the other parents approached her, as if the death of a child might be a contagious thing. And Mallory did not desert her.
Turning his sad eyes away from Mrs. Hardy’s c ampfire, Joe Finn doused his own embers with a pail of water. Then he leaned down to kiss the brow of his sleeping son. Sleep was his only chance, for Peter had arrived at that heartbreak age when he would not hold his father’s hand in public anymore-a big boy now. One day a gangly teenager would take Peter’s place, a sullen moody version who would not even speak to his father, and that time would come all too soon. He kissed his child again, so greedy to love this boy while love was still allowed.
He laid Peter down in the tent alongside sleeping Dodie. Fixing his eyes on his youngest girl, he stared hard, willing her damaged mind to heal. Settling for keeping her safe, he unrolled his sleeping bag in front of the tent so that his body would bar the way to his children.
Irony was not in the boxer’s s t o re of words, but he had the sense of it in every twinge of pain from old fight wounds. He had endured so many blows and spent too much time away from home, and he had done this to buy a fine future for his children. But now he used his savings to go in search of the child that was lost because he had not been there to protect her.
Ariel, my Ariel.
His late wife had drawn from Jewish roots to give their firstborn child that name. In Hebrew, it meant Lioness of God.
“How much can you stand to hear?” Mallory held the crying woman in her arms.
“I want the rest of it. All of it.” Mrs. Hardy’s reply was a struggle, a gurgle of words. “I have to know.”
The FBI agent standing behind them finally made her presence known to the crying mother. Mallory had been aware of Nahlman from the start, listening to the shift of feet, a clue of reticence to come any closer to raw emotion.
Agent Nahlman knelt down on the blanket beside Mrs. Hardy. “I read the old police report. They found blood on the ground at the bus stop. So that’s where Melissa died.”
“Then he didn’t-he never-”
“No,” said Nahlman, “she wasn’t molested. We never found a child with signs of more than one wound-the fatal wound. That’s how I know she died where they found her blood on the road.”
Mrs. Hardy nodded, for this was confirmation of what Mallory had already told her.
“It was a quick death,” said Nahlman. “I don’t t hink Melissa ever saw the knife. There wasn’t e ven time to be afraid. It happened that fast. Shock was setting in. Melissa was losing consciousness.”
“Like going to sleep?” Mrs. Hardy pulled back from Mallory the better to see the young cop’s e yes, wanting reassurance that this was true.
Mallory only stared at the FBI agent and marveled that any mother could be taken in by that fairy tale.
“Yes,” said Nahlman, stumbling for a beat in time, “just like going to sleep… no fear.” Having done her good deed for the night, the agent stood up, turned her back on them and walked away.
Mallory was not a believer in kind lies to grieving parents. She had a clear picture of a little girl with a pounding heart, watching, wild with fear, as the blood flowed from her slashed throat to run like a river down her dress and splatter her shoes. And she could even see the terror in Melissa’s eyes as she was dying.
All through the night, Mallory stayed to cradle Mrs. Hardy, lightly rocking her, patiently waiting for this woman to work through the lies. It was hard to fool a mother for very long; and Mallory should know, for she had two of them: Cassandra, who had borne her, and Helen, who had fostered her. Mothers knew things. They were spooky and wondrous that way.
On toward morning, Melissa’s mother cried fresh tears and said, “She must have been so frightened.”
“Yes, she was.” Mallory held a bottle of water to Mrs. Hardy’s lips, forcing the woman to drink. “I’ll tell you one true thing.” And now she drew upon her own life for the right words to say. “When kids are really scared, they always yell for their mothers.”
“But my Melissa-”
“No,” said Mallory, “she couldn’t yell-her throat was cut. But I know she tried. And that’s how I know Melissa was thinking about you when she died.”
The driver’s-side door of the Mercedes hung open. Riker had one foot on the ground and one hand on his gun. The sun was rising, and he donned his sunglasses to keep watch on the man who walked beside the wolf. This camper had more names than most: In Riker’s notebook, he was the George Hastings who matched up with the owner registration of a pickup truck. On Dr. Magritte’s growing list of parents, he was known only by his Internet moniker. And the young FBI agents had code-named him Wo lfman, a mistake in Riker’s o pinion. This parent was not a mean or quick-tempered sort. He seemed like a very patient man, and this was what worried the detective.
Jill’s D ad led the wolf close to the Mercedes and lifted one hand to show his wristwatch, acknowledging Riker’s rule of only fifteen minutes for exercise. And now he moved on to his pickup truck, where the animal was locked up in the cab as promised.
Riker holstered his gun, but he continued to watch the pair for a while. The man did not appear to have any love for the wolf-and the wolf loved no one. This animal was no pet, nor had it been brought along for security; it never barked. And the man? He carried no posters of his missing daughter and cared nothing for reporters. He had even less use for the FBI.
What listless, lifeless eyes. Yet Jill’s D ad was quick to spot each newcomer and just as quickly disappointed every time. This man was definitely waiting for someone, a person he would know on sight.
Riker knew he should kill the wolf, shoot it right now. Ah, but then Jill’s Dad might buy a gun, and the detective did not want to shoot this man.
Done with his wake-up coffee, he lit a cigarette and tossed the match on the ground. When had he last seen a car equipped with an ashtray or a cigarette lighter? Now there was only a hole for car chargers. He plugged in a portable television set confiscated from a news van. The screen was only eight or nine inches on the diagonal and called for much squinting, but the volume was clear. He listened to a replay of last night’s interview with Melissa Hardy’s mother. And now the anchorwoman gave her national audience the updated report that six-year-old Melissa no longer played the piano. She was dead.
Riker left the Mercedes to greet a state trooper’s c ar as it parked near the circle of caravan vehicles. Tw o civilians emerged from the back seat, and they were introduced to him as the Hardys from the Oregon branch of the family. Some woman named Mallory had called and asked them to come for their cousin. They had taken the very next plane.
And how many Hardys had Mallory called before she found someone to come for Melissa’s mother and take her safe home? This argued well for the existence of a human heart-but it was also police procedure, and so Riker still had no proof in the young cop’s favor.
At this moment, he was watching his partner drive off again, and so was the boy beside him. But Peter Finn did not seem alarmed this time. Her return last night was proof that Riker had not lied to him, and Mallory had not abandoned him-not yet.
The detective and the boy stood side by side as the silver car disappeared down the road. Riker rested one hand on Peter’s s houlder, saying, “Let me guess, kid. You’re wondering if Mallory’s e yes glow in the dark.” He took a drag on his cigarette and exhaled the words with the smoke. “Yes… they do.”
The sun was half risen, and Mallory was running late for this appointment with the road. After rolling the car onto the shoulder and cutting the engine, she opened another letter that had been penned long ago when Peyton Hale last passed through Oklahoma. She read his instructions for how to watch a sunrise by looking at the roadside instead. The land was waking, going from gray to green, silence to gentle noises and birdsong.
But the morning was spoiled. The bottom of this letter was marred by a smudge of lipstick that could only belong to Savannah Sirus, and now this flaw was fixed with the scratch of one long red fingernail. All gone.
The image of this woman remained: Savannah on her knees, mascara running-the weeping had lasted for days; Savannah reaching for the letters-a little moment of horror-they were Mallory’s letters now; Savannah’s hand grasping air.
Mallory did not recall closing her eyes, but an hour had passed before she awakened. She wanted to check off this last stop, but could not find her gold pen, an old birthday gift from Charles Butler.
A pencil would do.
Back on the road again, she recalled placing the pen on a napkin at the restaurant. She had missed the napkin when she reached out to use it, and she had forgotten all about her favorite pen. How was that possible? She carried it everywhere. Mallory put this bit of carelessness down to lack of sleep.
Not a natural-born camper, not a nature lover, the New York detective checked into a motel. The cell phone was turned off, and the shower turned on to fill the bathroom with steam. When the last of the road dust was gone down the drain, she was ready for a few hours of sleep, all she needed, but sleep would not come. She emptied her knapsack on the bedspread, but the lost pen was not there. Ariel’s autopsy photographs mingled with pictures of a man with green eyes. The image that hurt her most was the one of Peyton and Cassandra. The questions posed in yesterday’s letter ran round her brain in an endless chant: Where do we come from? Why are we here? And where are we going?
She had no idea.
And now these mysteries resolved themselves into one: Why did I have to be born?
Riker ended his cell-phone call to the undercover agents riding at the rear of the caravan, and turned to the man at the wheel. “It’s working, Charles. The moles haven’t s potted any cars taking the exits. Who knew reporters would come in handy?”
On the downside, the moles had counted ten more parents joining up with this parade. The caravan had swelled to a hundred and fifty vehicles, yet they moved along the interstate at a good clip. By some miracle, only one old junker had broken down, and that one was now being towed by a Winnebago.
“This is it,” said Riker. “Ta k e Exit 108.”
The exit ramp led them uphill to the Cherokee Restaurant, another travel plaza. When they pulled into the parking lot, the news crews were already there, unloading sound equipment, lights and cameras.
While Charles parked the car, Riker’s e yes were trained on a sign for homemade pies, and he gripped the door handle as soon as the car stopped. But his friend remained behind the wheel and showed no signs of moving.
“Problem?” asked Riker. “Hey, just spit it out.”
“About Mallory,” said Charles. “When were you planning to tell me the rest of it? There has to be more to this than her not showing up for work. You’re so confident that she’s coming apart. You don’t t hink you can trust me with all of it?”
“No, it’s not that.” Riker released his grip on the door handle. He rolled down the window and lit a cigarette. This was going to take some time. “Her doorman, Frank, called me one night. He said there were shots fired in Mallory’s apartment. So I asked him if he’d thought of calling 911. Well, Frank didn’t s ay a word. Finally, he tells me he talked to Mallory on the house phone. She told him somebody left a window open… and she had to kill a few flies. Now the kid’s a real big tipper. So Frank wouldn’t t u rn her in if she shot four tenants right in front of him. He calls me instead. I go over there. Mallory opens the door, but just a crack. I had to muscle my way in. She goes for her gun. She aims it at the wall. I look-I see a fly- I hear a bang. And now there’s a hole in the wall where the fly used to be. She’s good. I don’t know a single cop who could’ve made that shot.”
Charles closed his eyes. “When did this happen?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“When Savannah was there.”
“But I didn’t know that,” said Riker. “I swear-I never saw one sign of her in that apartment.”
“The poor woman was hiding,” said Charles. “So Mallory was-”
“Torturing her houseguest? Probably.” Riker blew smoke out the window and considered the odds that this story would ever be told in a com- petency hearing. He knew that Charles Butler would lie for Mallory in a heartbeat-if he only could. Unfortunately, the man’s face gave away too much, and his blush prevented him from ever pulling off a lie to save her.
“You didn’t t ake her gun away?”
“Naw. This wasn’t her regular gun. It was a small-caliber revolver, and Mallory was only picking off flies on the street-side walls-a double row of solid brick. A twenty-two caliber’s got no penetration.”
“A twenty-two penetrated Miss Sirus’s heart,” said Charles-just a reminder.
“I did tell the kid that they’d lock her up in Bellevue for sure if she didn’t keep the noise down.”
“A short hospital stay for observation might’ve been the best thing.”
“I couldn’t do that to her,” said Riker. “She’d never be a cop again, not after a turn in Bellevue. And I’ve done worse when I was drunk. Now Mallory’s problem is she does these things when she’s sober. Anyway, there was no more gunfire after that.”
“Until Savannah Sirus died,” said Charles-another reminder. “Any ideas about what might’ve set off the fly-shooting incident?”
“Just what Mallory told the doorman. Somebody opened a window and let in some bugs.”
“Well, I think we can guess who that was,” said Charles. “In order to let the flies in, you’d have to open a screen as well as a window. That might’ve been Miss Sirus’s first attempt at suicide-interrupted by Mallory, who then proceeded to teach her houseguest not to let in any more flies.”
“Good theory,” said Riker, biting back the sarcasm. “I like it.” He tossed his cigarette out the window. “So Mallory’s just doing this woman a good turn-preventing Savannah’s s u icide by scaring the crap out of her.”
“Here’s another thought,” said Charles. “Maybe it was Miss Sirus who tortured Mallory.”
Special Agent Dale Berman led Riker and Dr. Magritte away from the Cherokee Restaurant, past the statue of a giant Indian and down a narrow curving road and a chain-link pen with a small herd of buffalo.
“Ah, bison burgers on the hoof.” The detective was hungry and willing to eat wildflowers if this damn tour did not end very soon.
Dale was pointing out the amenities as they entered the public camp- ground at the bottom of the road. “The managers are great people. They opened the facilities to the caravan free of charge.”
On the other side of the paved lot, Riker saw Agent Nahlman riding herd on campers who formed a neat line outside a small building. The parents were holding towels and toiletries, waiting for their first hot shower in days.
Dr. Magritte was less than enthusiastic as he looked over the marked slots that accommodated motor homes and cars. “There’s not enough room to hold all of us.”
“But there is,” said Dale Berman, pointing toward the restaurant at the top of the road. “The parking lot up there is huge. It’ll take the overflow. And now, over there-” He was looking into the trees beyond the lot. “Six cabins. So,” he rubbed his hands together, “everything we need-food, lodging. And the reporters like the idea of a permanent base.”
“Spoken like a true PR man.” Riker turned to Dr. Magritte. “Public relations was Dale’s job a few years back. He’s not thinking this through. That’s a bad habit with him.”
“The restaurant has elevation,” said Berman. “We can see anyone approaching the caravan.”
“And that might work,” said Riker, “if we were expecting an Indian raid. You think you’ll recognize this freak when you see him coming?”
“You won’t,” said Dr. Magritte, raising his voice for the first time. Obviously regretting these words, the old man edged away from them and pretended interest in the bison pen.
The detective marched back up the hill. He was hungry, and a banner hanging outside of the restaurant had caught his eye and promised him homemade pies.
Dale Berman called after him. “We’ll stay the night. See how it goes.”
“No we won’t,” said Riker. He was hoping for blueberry pie, but he would settle for apple, and he planned to cross the state line into Texas before nightfall.
At the top of the road, he headed across the parking lot to the restaurant. A noise close by made him stop. His hand was on his gun as he turned to the passenger window of George Hastings’ pickup truck.
The wolf ’s head hit the window. How many tries would it take before the glass broke? And now the animal drew back, eyes fixed on Riker, seeing him all of a piece, a single piece of meat. The detective’s hands were wet with sweat and clammy. Adrenaline iced his veins, and his heartbeat was jacked up to a faster rhythm. It was a lot like falling in love.
The animal slammed his head into the glass again, but the window held.
Riker wondered if the man had stopped feeding the wolf yet.
Dale Berman accompanied Dr. Magritte back up the road to the parking lot. The FBI man drove away, and the doctor remained to watch his watchers. Back in Chicago, these two undercover agents had introduced themselves as the grieving parents of a missing child, but he had never found the couple credible. Neither had Riker, who alternately referred to them as the moles, or the mole people, and sometimes as Mr. and Mrs. Mole, though they were certainly unmarried.
It did not require his degrees in psychology to spot the early warning signs of love and lust, but theirs had not begun until that first night under the stars and a few hundred miles from Chicago. The moles’ mutual involvement had deepened every day since then. Now they were so taken with one another, feverish in their glances. They had even worked out a little language of their own-hand signals, nods, winks and blinks. The rest of the world did not exist for them, and Paul Magritte found it easy to slip away.
He walked back down the sloping road, past the bison pen and into the woods of pine trees, seeking solitude for his ritual.
Charles had completed his assignment to nail down a table with an ashtray for the smoking detective. Hardly a problem. It was the nonsmoking section that had the least seating. A teenager in a red T-shirt took his order and left him. He was content to sit alone.
After months of licking wounds in the solitude of European hotel rooms, he felt a sense of awakening to the sounds of clinking glassware and people talking all at once-so many voices-proof of life after Mallory. How he had missed her. And now he was chasing after her-again. However, he was resigned to this: Following her was a pleasure; catching up to her was pain. Yet he watched the windows on the parking lot, waiting for a glimpse of her car. At least there was no residual awkwardness on her part. He should have known that she would forget his proposal of mar- riage the day after he had uttered those foolish words. He died every time he saw her, and he could not wait to see her again.
He was distracted from his vigil at the window when a floorshow passed near his table. A middle-aged woman was being photographed each time she paused to strike a pose with one of the parents. A young man in the entourage handed Charles a flyer. According to the text, the woman was a “celebrated criminal profiler.” Apparently, she was interrupting a national book tour for a photo opportunity with the caravan.
Charles was presented with his own copy of her latest book. Agent Cadwaller dropped it on the table as he pulled up a chair. The garish dust jacket was splashed with the blood of printer’s ink, and another version of the lady’s c redentials was printed in large type. “A forensic psychiatrist?”
“That’s what she calls herself.” Agent Cadwaller smoothed back his hair, using a butter knife for his mirror.
Charles turned the book over and read the biography on the back, noting the third-rate medical school and the woman’s home state. It was lamentable that there were places where the most incompetent M.D. could hang out a shingle and call herself a psychiatrist.
A young man introduced himself as the author’s personal assistant, and he made a lackluster defense to the agent’s overheard remark. “She is a forensic psychiatrist. Accredited and board certified.” He presented Cadwaller with a handout sheet. “See for yourself.”
“Already saw it,” said the FBI agent, waving the sheet away with one hand. “She was accredited by a board of clowns, the group with the lowest standards. So, it might be legal, but that doesn’t make it right.”
Charles was also familiar with this board. It took a more in-depth course of study to become an accredited plumber. And now the author was advancing on other parents. He leaned toward the FBI profiler. “Uh, don’t you think this is a bad idea, given the subject of her book-serial killers?”
“I tried to stop it,” said Cadwaller, using his knife blade reflection to straighten the knot of his tie. “The reporters are running the show today. They want a few sound bites from the author, something colorful and bloody. And Berman won’t do anything to piss them off.”
Charles was appalled. The reporters were snapping photographs while the faux psychiatrist hugged a stunned parent against the man’s w ill. “What else do you know about her?”
“She’s a hired gun for defense lawyers. If your client’s a murdering rapist and he needs a bad-potty-training defense, she’s your girl.” The agent held up the flyer and pointed to a line of type. “Now this is a lie. She never worked on a police investigation. Her books profile the perps after they’re caught and jailed. And even then she screws it up.”
When the author and her followers moved in a straight line for the Finn family, Charles stood up, knocking over his chair in his haste to cross the room and plant himself in her path, saying, “You don’t need your picture taken with those children.”
With the air of royalty confronted with a filthy commoner, the author only glanced at her liaison to the masses, a young man, who pranced up to Charles and puffed out his little bird’s chest. “Are you a cop?” He folded his puny arms. “I didn’t t hink so.”
“I’m a cop,” said Riker, moseying into the fray. He only had to touch the smaller man’s c hest with one light finger to deflate it. “T a k e it outside, pal.”
The dinning room quickly became an author-free zone, and three men sat down to lunch.
Cadwaller looked around, saying, “I thought Dr. Magritte was going to join us.”
Riker turned a disinterested eye to the parking lot window. “I left him with Dale, down by the bison pens. He’ll be along. I don’t t hink the old man can take much more of your boss’s idiot ideas about security.”
Cadwaller smiled, obviously enjoying this slam on the special agent in charge. Charles found that odd, but just now his attention was focused on the agent’s hands as the man unconsciously aligned the salt shaker with the pepper shaker.
Mallory would have done that if she had been here.
Dr. Paul Magritte had found a quiet place with the cover of shrubs and trees, and he was deep into his daily ritual.
Unwinding time was a habit with him, and he did it with ease, as if merely fiddling the hands of a clock. Call it penance-undoing the onslaught of hours, days and decades, until all but one of the dead were un-killed. Next came the reconstruction of an afternoon, one detail by another.
He closed his eyes the better to see.
The old Egram place perched close to the highway that ran far beyond Illinois, and some called it the Main Street of America. The lines of the house were not true; the porch sagged and its posts leaned forward, fair warning to every visitor who ventured into the yard. His view was partially blocked by a truck parked in the driveway. The householder’s t rade was boldly but badly lettered on one broad side: Short Hauls and Long Ones- not a profitable business.
The police had never expected a ransom note.
He pictured the Egrams’ oldest child standing outside on the lawn. The younger one was dead and in the ground that day.
Paul Magritte opened his eyes. His hand closed tightly upon a small velvet pouch, the repository of tiny bones, one hand only, the hand of Mary Egram, five years old. She had been the first to die.