Though Assistant Director Harry Mars had lived most of his life in the east, a Texas drawl was creeping back into his voice as he stood upon the land where he was born. He turned to the young woman beside him. “I won’t be going back to Washington just yet. Tomorrow morning I’ve got a meeting with Kronewald in Chicago. I think that old bastard’s holding out on me.” Oh, but that was the game they all played. It was an easy guess that Kathy Mallory had not disclosed half of what she knew-and neither had he.
The sun had been up for hours when the two sightseers stood on the old road, just beyond Amarillo, Texas. The FBI man was feeling some wear after a long night in Dale Berman’s Nursery. The soil samples had been located, and he planned to ram the tests through the crime lab within the hour. As a final order of business, he had offered a Bureau job to the young detective from New York City, and she had turned him down-much to his relief.
He remembered the year she had joined the NYPD and the toll that had taken on her foster father. “The kid’s not a team player,” Lou Markowitz used say, “but what a kid.”
The old man had proven to be a grand master of understatement. It was a singular cop who could extort the FBI in the upper echelons. Over a morning meal, he had caved in on the last of her demands, only stopping short of giving her a key to the men’s room, and he was damned tired. But now Lou’s daughter also wanted his promise that, following a speedy examination of the remains, one of the dead schoolgirls would be sent straight home.
“It’s a favor to Riker.” She handed him a sheet of paper. “This is the undertaker who’s going to bury George Hastings’ daughter in three days. So Jill’s body is your number one priority. When she’s in the ground, I’ll send you her father’s correspondence with Washington-with you-all those crummy little form letters you signed-and dated.”
It was too late to run a bluff; his jaw had already dropped. Those dates would kill the Bureau’s chance to crucify Dale Berman and then claim clean hands. With this final bit of blackmail, Kathy Mallory was giving up way too much for too little in return-a sack of bones.
After a breakfast of steak and eggs, Harry Mars, native son of the Texas Panhandle and a graceful loser, had offered to play tour guide this morning. “That’s it,” he said, pointing to a far-off row of falling-down dominoes in a cow pasture. That neat line of slanted shapes in the distance was actually a collection of upscale cars that were partially buried nose-first in the ground. “That’s the Cadillac Ranch. I’m not surprised you overshot the field. You were looking for a big sign, right?”
“So that’s it ?”
Could Kathy Mallory be less impressed?
“Well, I always liked it,” he said. “I remember back when those Caddys were new and the local teenagers hadn’t gotten round to the graffiti yet. Damn kids. Sorry, I can see you’re disappointed. I guess it’s not much to look at from the road, but you can’t get any closer. There’s a bull out there with the cows.” And now, because he had some history with her, he added, “Kathy, it would just be wrong to shoot a man’s livestock.”
“Mallory,” she said, correcting him for the third time this morning.
“Right.” Harry Mars watched her check the Cadillac Ranch off her list. He noticed another Texas attraction, the halfway marker for Route 66. “So your next stop is the MidPoint Caf'e.” He waited for some enlightenment, even a simple yes or no, but he did not wait long; he knew her that well. Still staring at her list, he asked, “You plan to tell me how those landmarks figure into this case?”
He had his answer when she closed her notebook, slipped it into the back pocket of her jeans, and said, “Good-bye.”
“Kathy-sorry-Mallory, I could never see you as a damn tourist.” He well remembered their first meeting soon after she had gone to live with Lou and Helen Markowitz. Kathy had been much shorter then, but her eyes had never changed. One look at her, all those years ago, and Harry Mars knew that she had seen it all, whatever the world could find to throw in the path of a child.
The list in her notebook would continue to nag at him. Kathy Mallory would sleep tonight, and he would not. But that was fine by him. He did not care to dream of forty-seven little girls lying upon wooden pallets in a cold warehouse-so young-unfinished when they died.
The detective was ready to leave him now. She sat behind the wheel and revved her engine. There was still one matter that tethered him to her, a question he could never ask; it was a giant rubber band, stretched between them and about to snap as her car rolled away:
Was Dale Berman a major screwup or a very sick man?
Charles Butler parked the car in front of the MidPoint Caf'e in Adrian, Texas. It was as inviting as a private house, small and homey, painted white with black trim. “So is this the way you remember it?”
Riker shrugged. “I was just a kid when I stopped here. And I killed most of my road-trip brain cells with booze. What makes you think Mallory’s gonna show?”
“I saw the name listed in her notebook.”
Once inside, Charles, who loved every old thing, approved of the place immediately. An early model kitchen appliance served as decoration, and all about the dining room were other artifacts of a bygone era. As he joined Riker, taking a stool at the counter, he averted his eyes from the next room, a gift shop stocked with more modern wares.
The woman who waited on them had a long history with the caf'e and a good memory. By the time they were on a Charles-and-Fran footing, Riker had demolished his pie, and now he was ready for business.
The detective’s description only got as far as, “Tall, real pretty, blond hair. She drives a Volkswagen convertible.”
And Fran said, “Peyton’s kid? You just missed her.”
“Peyton,” echoed Charles.
The woman nodded. “The minute she walked in the door, I said, ‘You’ve got to be related to Peyton Hale! Or maybe I just think that because you’ve got his strange green eyes and you’re driving his car.’ ”
Charles smiled. His theory was panning out for the author of Savannah’s coveted letters, and now he finally had a name for Mallory’s father. “I never met Peyton Hale. I gather you knew him quite well. He’s from around here?”
“No, he was a California boy the first time he came through. Then he settled in Chicago. Went to school there. But he drove Route 66 every summer for years and years. So he’d stop by twice, coming and going. Always wanted pie. That’s all he ever ordered. They’re fresh baked every morning.”
Riker’s voice was blunted, and his smile was gone. “When did you see this man last?”
“It was a long time ago.” Fran took a knife to the pie tin. “I’m sure his daughter hadn’t been born yet. He would’ve mentioned that.”
“So it’s been at least twenty-five years, maybe longer,” said Riker. “But you remember her father’s e yes? His car? There’s gotta be more to it.”
“He was a charmer,” said Fran. “Charmed me out of twenty dollars once. Gave me an IOU. Peyton was driving west to California that time. Said he’d pay me back on the way home to Chicago. And that was the last time I ever saw him.” Fran slipped another wedge of pie onto Riker’s plate. “Peyton’s daughter was even more suspicious than you are. She wanted to see the IOU. Well, of course, I didn’t have it anymore, but she settled up anyway.” Fran dipped one hand into an apron pocket and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. “The girl’s a big tipper.”
“Yeah, she is.” Riker, seduced by the bribe of a second slice of pie, was acting less the policeman now. “Did you find out what happened to Mallory’s d ad?”
“I never asked.” Fran was staring at the window on the road. “I like to think he’s still on that road-driving like a maniac. My God, that little car of his could go. Well, like father, like daughter. One second Mallory’s car was out there in the lot, and then voom-gone.”
Another day, another travel plaza.
Finding the caravan was a simple thing; Mallory only had to listen to the parents’ radio interviews being conducted on the other side of Adrian, Texas. When she entered the lot, she found it choked with more cars than parking places. She created her own space on a patch of sidewalk that ran around the restaurant. The young FBI agents on guard duty did not object; they even opened the car door for her, celebrity treatment, and they all but saluted as she passed them by and entered the restaurant.
Mallory favored tables near the window, and she picked one out, unconcerned that it was occupied. It was only necessary to hover a moment or two before the agents seated there decided that they had eaten enough for one day. And now she sat down alone, another preference, and opened her notebook of landmarks and murder suspects. In the manner of a schoolgirl at her lessons, she bowed her head over the list and crossed off the MidPoint Caf'e.
She was done with her meal when she saw Charles Butler’s Mercedes pull into the lot with Riker at the wheel. He parked it behind her own car on the sidewalk, and FBI agents hurried across the room to hold open the door to the restaurant. This sudden anxiousness to please might be the work of Harry Mars.
Riker deposited Kronewald’s laptop on the table by her knapsack. “You keep walking off without this thing.”
Mallory never looked up, and her partner melted away, slouching off in search of a cheeseburger. He passed near a corner table perfect for conspiracy, but failed to catch a word of the conversation between the two FBI agents.
Agent Barry Allen was doing his best to talk his partner back onto the right path following the Bureau’s strict chain of command. “You can’t cut Dale Berman off at the legs that way.”
“I needed those results on my soil samples,” said Agent Nahlman. “The bastard never even ordered the tests. I checked with the lab.”
“You can work around it.”
“No, I can’t. It’s an oddball element. Two different kinds of soil in three of those graves-think about it. The perp dug up his kills and reburied them. If I can pinpoint the original burial sites, I can get names and dates- real leads. But Dale Berman doesn’t c are when we wrap this case. What’s one more death to him? He all but offered up Dodie Finn on a plate.”
“And at least a hundred kids are dead. Mallory was right. This case could’ve been wrapped a long time ago. But people keep dying.”
“And that’s Dale’s fault? So now he’s a killer?”
Nahlman sat back in her chair, surprised that this rookie agent was now on a first-name basis with the SAC. “You really like him, don’t you?”
“He’s a great guy,” said Allen. “So promise me this crazy idea just dies right here, right now.”
How absurd was this? A baby-faced boy assuming the mantle of wise man and doling out advice for her own good.
“All right,” she said, lying. “I’m done with it.”
Or was this the truth? She was so tired of breaking her fists on all the barriers Berman had placed in her way. And she had yet to answer Agent Allen’s question. Did she take Dale Berman for a killer? Oh, yes.
In the neutral territory of a center table, Charles Butler had been waylaid by Agent Cadwaller, and he was doing his best to explain to this man why Joe Finn might want to kill him. “Don’t go near the children one more time. Your people have already done too much damage to Dodie.” He put up one hand. “Please don’t deny that. She was just a little girl, severely traumatized, but she was still talking when she went into FBI custody. Not anymore.” Did this come as a surprise to the federal agent?
“The Finns have to leave this road,” said Cadwaller.
Well, now that was interesting. This man was the only member of Berman’s t e am to share in that belief. However, he was arguing a case for federal custody.
“You know that little girl needs counseling,” said the FBI man. “It would help if I could talk to her. Then I could make arrangements for-”
“No!” Charles had estimated Cadwaller’s credentials as something of a joke, and he had tried every polite way to say that a little dangerous knowledge did not a psychologist make. Having failed in that, he decided that good manners were overrated. “Rather than push Dodie into a psychotic break, I suggest you just pull out your gun and blow her little head off. No, really. Shoot her. It’ll set a good example for the others.”
A broadcast reporter and her cameraman passed Cadwaller’s t able in pursuit of Riker, who warded them off with a New Yorker’s o ne-fingered gesture for love and friendship. And now the detective joined Dr. Magritte, pulling up a chair at the old man’s t able. He wasted no time with pleasantries.
“Okay, Doc, we’re hunting a nutcase and you’re leading a parade of ’em. You gotta have a few favorites who aren’t covered with doctor-patient confidentiality. You said these people came from a lot of different therapy groups.” With a nod, he gestured to the Pattern Man’s t able. Horace Kayhill was sitting alone with his spread maps. “Horace keeps coming back to the caravan. He likes being close to you, doesn’t he? This trip must be nutcase heaven-a doctor who can’t get away from his patients.”
Dr. Magritte gave up a smile of apology and a wave of the hand to say that Riker would get nothing helpful from him, not even the admission that Horace Kayhill was his patient.
Riker watched the doctor’s face, hoping to see something useful there if he should hit upon the right question. “You know who the killer is, don’t you? Do you talk to this freak on the phone? Are you Internet pen pals or what?”
And now the doctor, somewhat surprised, said, “You and your partner don’t communicate very well. I bet you’re wondering how I know that.” He smiled. “Your cheeseburger is getting cold, Detective.”
Special Agent Dale Berman was basking in camera light and sharing a table with a celebrity anchorwoman. This prime-time personality seemed disappointed in his basic profile for a serial killer. She pulled back the microphone to say, “Isn’t t hat sexist? Why not a woman suspect?”
“It was a man.” Dale Berman wore his mask of tragedy today, but only while the camera was on him. “A female serial killer is very rare.”
The newswoman extended her microphone to the next table occupied by the wonderfully photogenic cop from New York City. “What do you say, Detective Mallory? Could a female have done all those murders?”
The detective never looked up from her laptop computer. “Female killers are as common as dust.”
Dale Berman’s face fell.
“Like that prostitute who killed her customers?” The newswoman’s professional smile was waning as she waited for a response. Precious airtime was slipping by. “And then we’ve got mothers killing their own children.” She gave Detective Mallory a smile of encouragement. When was this young cop going to open her damned mouth? The reporter filled in the silence with, “Nurses killing patients? Oh, and the black widows-wives killing husbands for insurance money.”
“I like money motives.” Detective Mallory looked up, finally hearing something of interest to her, but she was facing Dale Berman, not the camera.
The cameraman stood before Mallory’s t able, bowing low, hoping for eye contact, and the reporter said, “So, Detective, you think a woman could be-”
“It was a man,” said Mallory, who had now engaged Agent Berman in a staring match. “Men are monument builders. That’s what the killer’s done with this road.”
“That’s right !” And with these words, Dale Berman had recaptured the cameraman’s attention and the lens. “The killer believes these murders will make him live forever in the-”
“And what do you think, Detective?” asked the reporter as her cameraman swung around to refocus on the New York City blonde.
“Nobody lives forever,” said Mallory to Dale Berman.
At a far remove from Dale Berman and the reporter, Mallory found another empty chair by the window and sat down with the Pattern Man, who promptly spilled his coffee. As she arranged her knapsack and the computer on top of his maps, she had to endure his apologies for clumsiness and listen to the day’s figures for the amount of caffeine ingested by way of coffee and cola. He did not seem to mind that she never spoke to him; the little man was more comfortable talking at her rather than to her. Horace Kayhill unfolded another map so he could describe the new landmarks discovered since his last trip down Route 66. “The road is always changing, you know, just like a living organism.”
Mallory slapped one hand down on the coffee-stained map, and now she had the little man’s attention. “You’re a statistician, right?”
“Yes. I used to work for an insurance company.”
“Give me some odds. It’s a country of three hundred million people, and only a hundred of them have something in common. What are the odds that they meet?”
He adjusted his glasses, preparing to launch into another lecture. “Perhaps you’re referring to a theory of six degrees of separation-that we’re all six connections away from everyone else on the planet. Well, that really won’t apply here, not if you’re looking for a chance meeting. You see, someone has to follow the threads to force the outcome and prove the-”
“I don’t believe in chance,” said Mallory. “I don’t believe in accident or coincidence. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Yes. The caravan parents.”
“Not all of them, just the ones with little girls buried on Route 66.”
“Well, before the advent of computers,” said Kayhill, “those people never would’ve met. But now you have variables that didn’t exist in the past. Today, it’s possible to cross-index every aspect of your life with the whole earth. If you have an odd tic, a rare disease, or, in my case, migraine auras without the headaches, you can find a chat room for that, a website-”
“Or a therapy group.”
“Exactly. I belong to lots of them.” He tapped his head to indicate a problem there. “I’m a bit on the compulsive side. But I spend most of my time compiling statistics and information on Route 66. That’s how I met the first caravan parent-Gerry Linden. An FBI agent called to tell him his child’s body had been found, and this woman gave him the location of the gravesite. But his daughter’s remains were never returned to him.”
Mallory nodded. Last night, she had seen Gerald Linden’s daughter in Dale Berman’s Nursery. The remains had been identified by a small gold pin, a distinctive heirloom.
“So,” said Mr. Kayhill, “Gerry Linden went to visit the burial site. He told me it was the only place he had to leave his flowers-this bit of road where his child had been found.” The Pattern Man leaned forward and smiled. “This is the part where chance comes in.”
And perhaps now he recalled that she was not a big believer in chance, for he dropped the smile and spilled more coffee. “Let’s call it a forced link for the six-degree theory,” he said. “Mr. Linden stayed in the area for a few days-talking to the locals-and he heard a strange story about another grave forty miles down the road. You see, years ago, a man was trying to bury a dog and inadvertently dug up a child. Now that grave was across a state line, and the road was known by a different name, but it was also part of the old highway. So Mr. Linden hooked up with a lot of Route 66 websites. Well, I monitor all of them, and his name cropped up quite a few times. He wanted information on murdered children found along that road.”
“He was the one who told you about Dr. Magritte’s therapy group?”
“Yes, and I joined it. I collected more data from another one of Dr. Magritte’s patients. Now, two such parents with the same psychologist- well, the odds of that happening are just remarkable. That was when I realized that I was onto something huge.”
“But you never had a child,” said Mallory, as if this might be a defect in him. “Magritte’s sessions were only for the parents of missing and murdered children.”
“Oh, no. Where did you get that idea? The only criterion was a computer. The doctor never turned anybody away.” And now, no doubt feeling the need for immediate therapy, Horace Kayhill packed up his maps and fled.
After flopping down in the recently vacated chair at his partner’s t able, Riker handed her a cell phone. “It’s Kronewald. He’s got some news.” Riker’s o w n conversation with the Chicago detective had been illuminating and disheartening.
She held the cell phone to her ear. “It’s Mallory… Right… No, that’s all I need.” After opening the laptop computer, she flicked the keys until she was looking at a map of the continental United States. A route was marked in a thick red line. “Got it,” she said.
Riker could hear Kronewald’s rising voice as Mallory depressed the button that would end the call. The old man was shouting toward the end, as if he knew she was going to hang up on him.
Charles Butler was in flight from Cadwaller’s t able, and seeking sanctuary with the two detectives. He stared at Mallory’s computer screen as he pulled up a chair. “That seems a bit different from the other Route 66 maps. What happened to Santa Fe?”
“This is a route from the sixties,” said Riker, “after the ends of the Santa Fe loop were connected.” The detective gave his partner a disingenuous smile. “I just thought I’d save you the trouble of sharing that.” Turning back to Charles, he said, “It’s a long-haul truck driver’s route from Chicago to L.A.”
“So,” said Charles, “you think the killer is a truck driver.”
“No, but his father was.” Riker turned to Mallory, still smiling but hardly meaning it. “And you were gonna tell me that, right?” And now he told the story of the trucker and his wife abandoning their son after the disappearance of five-year-old Mary Egram. “That’s right, Charles. Our boy didn’t start with small furry animals. He killed his own sister. But I’m sure my partner was gonna mention that-eventually.”
Mallory turned her chair to face away from Riker.
Oh, was his voice getting a little testy? Well, tough.
She spoke only to Charles. “I hope you got something useful off that agent.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Riker was now an invisible man as far as she was concerned. He moved his chair around the table until he was once more in her line of sight. “Cadwaller probably bored poor Charles with his expertise on serial killers. But at least that worthless fed tries to communicate with-”
“Cadwaller has no expertise,” said Charles. “He’s a fraud.”
Okay, playtime with Mallory was over. Riker made a rolling motion with one hand to ask the man to continue that thought.
“Perhaps I was harsh,” said Charles. “I’d s ay, at best, he ’s an expert on bad psychology books written by incompetent hacks for mass consumption. But he’s not a profiler.”
“Kronewald ran a background check,” said Riker. “Cadwaller’s got a history with Behavioral Science Unit.”
“Sometimes,” said Charles, “history gets rewritten. I can only tell you the man is not what he seems.”
This information came as no surprise to Mallory, and Riker had to wonder what else the brat had forgotten to share with him.
“Well,” said Charles, “at least now you have a name for the killer.”
Riker nodded. “For all the good it does. No pictures, no prints, no idea what name the perp’s using now. He’s good at stealing cars. That’s all we know.” He shot a glance at his partner as he corrected himself. “That’s all I know.”
Dr. Magritte passed close to their table, and Mallory turned an accusing eye on Riker, asking, demanding, “Why isn’t t hat old man in custody?”
“What? Back up,” said Riker. “Where does Magritte come in? What did he do? And what the hell did I do wrong?”
Mallory stared at him, incredulous. “Doesn’t Agent Nahlman tell you anything ?”