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They met by chance -or this would be Rikers story. He rehearsed it as he followed Agent Nahlmans car down a side road that led him far south of Route 66. This was a part of the world where people thought nothing of driving fifty or a hundred miles to do a simple errand. In the dark, the two vehicles might be passing through any small American town of windows lighted by the glow of televisions sets.

The FBI agents black sedan stopped in front of a saloon that would cater only to locals, judging by the license plates at the curb and the distance from the interstate. Riker switched off his headlights and waited in the dark until the door closed behind Christine Nahlman. He parked the Mercedes behind her car and waited a patient twenty minutes before following her inside.

The front door opened onto a wall of smoke and sound. A jukebox wailed country-music songs of dead dogs and feckless women, but that had been expected. And it was no surprise to see Nahlman drinking alone at the bar. The lady had a small but appreciative audience of men with baseball caps and pool cues, unshaven and smiling in her direction. They were checking her out and nodding to one another, seeing her as easy prey.

They had no idea that the lady packed a gun and more than enough ammo to dispatch the pool players and the bartender, too, if she felt so inclined.

Riker pulled a barstool closer to hers and sat down.

After the first few minutes of the cop-to-cop small talk that always began, Hell of a day, huh? Agent Nahlman was reassured that he was not here to make a play for her, and that was the truth. He had come to her as a thief to steal whatever he could.

He was picking up Mallorys worst habits.

The detective was quick to find a common ground with Nahlman: the cop and the fed both liked the same brand of cheap Scotch; this was a lie on his part, for he was a bourbon drinker. But he had hopes that this bonding ritual would lead to every field agents pastime, bitching about bureaucrats-like the SAC, Dale Berman. Her ability to hold her liquor was impressive, and it was his fear that she might drink him under the bar before uttering the first disparaging word.

After the third round, he laid on a compliment. So Mallory tells me you did a great job on the geographic profiling-and Dale took all the credit. Riker shook his head to say, Aint life a bitch.

Nahlman shrugged and slugged back her drink. In a way-Dale Berman should get the credit. He was the one who combed every state data-base for unsolved homicides.

He worked cold cases? And they didnt even belong to the feds?

He didnt work anything, she said. He just collected data for deadend homicides-zero evidence, no clues. He favored skeletons discovered years after death.

Riker had a store of trivia for filling awkward silences. Did you know that most murder victims are found by drunks stopping to pee by the side of the road?

Dale tossed those, she said. Not enough similarities. He concentrated on buried victims. A year ago, he gave the list to me, hundreds of gravesites all over the country, and he said, Make me a pattern.

Not find one? Make a pattern?

Thats right. She rattled her ice cubes and spoke to her glass. He wanted to manufacture a serial killer. Its been done before. A perp confesses to a murder in one state, and cops from all the surrounding states come in with their own unsolved cases. Theyre hoping this guy can clear the books for them. And sometimes they get lucky. They find an obliging killer who likes the attention. Nahlman turned her calm gray eyes on Riker. So dont pretend to be shocked, okay? Cops do it, too. Now you promised to tell me how Dale Berman wound up in charge of a field office.

Oh, yeah, said Riker. That bribe had been offered early on with the first drink, the setup. Its a real short story. The bastard screwed up a high-profile case in New York. It embarrassed the Bureau. So naturally they promoted him to make the mess stink less.

Amen, said Nahlman. Always praise the jerk in trouble.

But before Dale got the Texas posting, the Bureau buried him in a North Dakota satellite office-in the winter. It is a balanced universe. Riker lifted two fingers to the bartender for another round, then turned his most sympathetic smile on Nahlman. So the bastard fobbed the whole pile off on you. Why am I not surprised? He was too obvious that time. He could see his mistake in the narrowing of her eyes, a slow wince.

Riker, you should spend more time listening, and less time manipulating me. I think its the lack of finesse that pisses me off the most. She lifted her glass to give him a moment to think that over. I was glad to have the work, even if it landed me in Bermans little dynasty. What a joke-a task force for a killer who didnt exist yet.

He wondered what Nahlman had done to earn this assignment to a disgraced SAC and a limbo of dead-end cases, but he observed the cops etiquette of not asking how she had screwed up her own career. That would be rude. He wondered if it had something to do with drinking on the job. This was not a criticism. It took an alcoholic to read the signs, and this woman was definitely one of his people-almost family.

She drained her glass-again. Are you ready to listen?

Yes, maam. He well understood his own place in this scheme: it was no longer his role to ply her for information-she would never tolerate that; it was Nahlmans plan to feed it to him.

I mapped out a lot of areas, she said, every place where a body was dug up over the past twenty years-hundreds and hundreds of them. Then I found the anomaly-bodies buried close to roads. If a killer only wanted to hide the remains, why risk being seen by a passing car? When I recognized the roads as different pieces of old Route 66, I had my signature for a serial killer. Then I knocked out all but eight of the graves on Bermans list. And I had my pattern.

A pattern for two thousand miles of road?

Just listen, okay? Seven years ago, the telephone company dug up a grave in a place where the pavement doesnt even exist anymore, but it used to be Route 66. I called local police for details. The case was so old. Notes got lost-evidence, too. I dug up my own buried skeleton twenty miles down the road, and then I found another one. I checked missing persons reports on neighboring states and found matches on personal items from the graves. Then-big mistake-I contacted the parents to ask them for DNA samples.

And one of them was Jills D ad? George Hastings?

When Berman found out, he went ballistic. So then he formed the recovery detail.

The body snatchers.

Right, she said. Hit and run, no paperwork with the local cops. Berman had a bona fide serial killer, and he didnt w ant to lose the case to a task force out of D.C.

And he had you. You knew where to dig.

My estimates werent e x act. There were gaping holes in my pattern. So I still have to go out and eyeball the land, looking for likely places-nothing near a town, no homes close by. If theres a house near one of my sites, I have to find out when it was built. And I walk a lot of miles with the cadaver dogs.

So youve been working the case for a year. According to Kronewald, the war of cops and feds had begun with the graves of three children stolen from Illinois.

Working it? Ye s and no. I spend all my time mapping sites for the body snatchers. I dont know how many of them panned out. And Ive got no idea what Dale does with evidence-if he does anything at all. She pushed her glass to the rail of the bar. I know you dont like my boss, but you always call him by his first name. Why is that?

In the town of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, Mallory sat in the dark of her parked car and stared at the facade of Club Caf'e. It was closed-forever.

One of the entrance posts was bent, and a neon sign had been taken down and discarded with other trash to one side of the building. In the younger days of Route 66, this place had done a booming business, and she would have known that even without her fathers letters. A gravel lot adjoined this paved one to catch the overflow of customers on a Saturday night.

They finally closed the doors back in ninety-two, said the gray-haired man in the passenger seat. He opened a cold bottle of beer from his grocery sack. Handing it to her, he lifted a second bottle in a toast. To better times.

The old man had lived in this country for most of his life, but Mallory could hear a trace of Mexico when he spoke of the legendary party that had lasted for years-Club Caf'e.

But most of all, I miss that man, said Aldo Ramon. He turned to his drinking companion, the young woman who had her fathers e yes. Where has Peyton been all this time?

It was my neighbors fault, said Riker as he watched Nahlman sign an illegible scrawl on the register for the fleabag motel. I grew up next door to a man with a dog named Dale.

He had no illusions about this invitation to finish off a bottle in her room. The rest of their conversation simply required more privacy. She paid in cash, no travel vouchers to say that she had wandered away from the other FBI agents-to get tight in a bar.

Outside again, he followed her down a row of doors until she fitted her key in a lock.

So, said Riker, continuing the saga of why he called Agent Berman by his first name, the neighbors dog-

A dog named Dale. She seemed dubious about this part as she waved him inside.

Yeah. Riker plopped himself down in an armchair, lit a cigarette and pulled a bottle from a brown paper sack. Now, when you meet up with a real mean dog, you show some respect, right? Well, Dale-

Your neighbors dog.

Yeah, that Dale. He wasnt ballsy enough to be vicious-no barking, no warning. Hed come up from behind and sink his teeth into your leg. And then hed run for cover. I hated that dog-sneaky, nasty mutt.

You made that up.

Just the part about the dog, he said. Your turn, Nahlman. What about Joe Finns girl? Ariel was a teenager. She never fit your pattern.

I zeroed in on every odd thing along Route 66. Ariels body was left on the road, but the dumpsite matched up with a potential grave. I called the Kansas Bureau and found out about the little sister who did fit that pattern. That case got stranger by the minute. I found out that Ariels father wouldnt even look at the body to make the formal ID.

You suspected him?

No, he was in a Kansas City hospital when Ariel was taken. The first time I met Dodie-sweet kid-she said hello and told me the name of her doll.

So the kid was talking back then. You get anything useful?

Nahlman shook her head. I didnt s it in on the interviews when she was in custody. Im guessing she couldnt describe the man who killed her sister. That wouldve been a lead that even Dale Berman couldnt ignore.

He cut you out of the loop, didnt he?

Well, I never got any feedback on my leads, but I still had a lot of work to do, lots of overtime. I forget the last night I slept in my own bed. She stretched out on the mattress. Her eyes had gone dark, and they wandered from one corner of the ceiling to another.

She was lost.

The next time I saw Dodie-at the campsite in Missouri-she was humming that song. I didnt expect her to remember me. But I dont think she even remembers her dolls anymore. Nahlman turned to Riker. You know that song, right?

Yeah, Mack the Knife.

Thats also the code name Berman used when he opened this case three years ago.

I dont get it. Riker found it difficult to drink, smoke and do math simultaneously. Or had he missed something here? Three years ago, he was still posted in North Dakota-no killer, no case. Wheres the tie to the song?

Its in a bogus case file. The early reports include hearsay testimony of a dead witness, an old woman who tied the song to a murder. But that witness died years before I was assigned to Bermans field office-before I found him a pattern for a serial killer. For some reason, he needed a connection to his early work-collecting random homicides. Do you get it now, Riker?

Youre telling me that Dale taught that song to Dodie Finn?

Thats my theory. Its so easy to plant fake memories in a little kids mind. And by now Im sure Dodie thinks she heard that song when Ariel died-if Dodie thinks at all. Berman went too far.

He pushed her over the edge.

Looks that way, she said.

Why would he do that to her?

Nahlman closed her eyes, and Riker assumed that she had passed out, but it was premature to cover the woman with a blanket. She threw it off as she opened her eyes.

No, Riker, you only think Im dead drunk. I wish I was. Every damn day, it seems to take more and more liquor so I can sleep at night. A blackout night with no dreams, thats all I want. Im giving you information because this has to end, and Dale Berman cant o r wont w rap this case.

As Riker gently pulled the door shut after him, Agent Nahlman was still staring at the ceiling, entirely too sober. No sleep tonight.

Riker stood at the edge of the campsite, discussing the problems of keeping track of caravan vehicles.

Its out of control, said Agent Barry Allen. At last count, we had two hundred and seventy-five license plates on this list, but eight of the parents are missing tonight, and now Ive got close to three hundred vehicles.

Riker scanned the campfires. I still cant find the Pattern Man, and that little guys really easy to spot.

If hes gone again, said Allen, Agent Berman wont s end out another search party. He thinks you were pulling his leg about Mr. Kayhill as a suspect.

Well, Dale has to start somewhere, said Riker. Every good cop needs a shortlist, but your boss never developed one solid suspect.

If this agent knew anything to the contrary, it did not show in his face, nor did he offer another lame defense of Dale Berman. The boy had a defeated look about him as he walked away. Maybe the bosss charm was wearing thin among the troops-or, as Riker referred to them, the kiddy cops. Protocol failures were transparent; with the exception of Barry Allen, none of these youngsters had been partnered with a grown-up. Dale had picked them young for good reason: it was harder to con a veteran field agent.

Mallory came up behind Riker and made him jump when she whispered his name. He blamed her foster father for that heart-stopping habit of hers. Lou Markowitz had taught her this creepy game the year that Kathy had lost interest in baseball. Or maybe she had come to understand why other children never wanted to play with her; she frightened them. But Lou had filled the void as her constant playmate, and the two of them had dreamed up new ways to terrify one another in every room of the old house back in Brooklyn. It had been one of the small joys of Lous life to come home after a long hard day with murderers-and get scared witless the minute he walked in the door.

Whatever Dales up to, Nahlmans got no part in it. Riker recited the highlights of his field report, and then summed it up, saying, None of Dales people have more than a piece of this case.

You trust this woman?

Yeah, I do.

Mallory edged a little closer. Did Nahlman tell you about the little blue pouch?

Riker shook his head.

Then you cant t rust her.

Maybe she figured that Id know what you know. Stupid idea, huh, Mallory? Youre only my damned partner.

His irritation had no effect on her. Mallorys e yes were tracking Paul Magritte as the doctor slowly crossed the campground. Magritte came to a sudden stop and rifled his knapsack. Now the old man changed direction to head for his car and privacy.

Why isnt he in jail? asked Mallory.

Riker would prefer to eat the muzzle of his gun than to ask-one more time-what she meant by that. He walked away from her. He was in no mood for games.

Dr. Paul Magritte held a large, old-model cell phone to his ear and listened to the prelude of every conversation with an old acquaintance, the ritual words, Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. The old man sat in the back seat of his car with all the windows rolled up, and still he looked over his shoulder, fearful of what might be coming up behind him.

No, he said in answer to a question that was also part of their ritual. I will never betray you. Following the callers instructions, he opened the glove box and pulled out a new stack of photographs taken with a Polaroid camera. He fanned them out. This time it was not a corpse, but candid pictures of Dodie Finn. A living child was a break with tradition-or was she dead? Paul Magrittes eyes searched the side window for a sign of her.

Dodie, where are you?

One veined hand groped about inside his nylon sack, where, until very recently, he had kept a rusty gun. His hand slowly closed around the hilt of a newly purchased hunting knife. Dodie Finn is insane, said Magritte to his caller. What harm could she do to you?

He heard a low buzz on the phone and words rising to be heard above the noise. He had the ugly sensation of black flies crawling around in his ear.

Look at her, the caller said. Look to your left, old man. Thats it. You see her now?

Yes. The child was sitting on the edge of a folding chair. Her thin legs were drawn up as she perched there, leaning forward and defying gravity as birds do. She began to rock, and the old man feared that she would fall. Ah, but now her father grabbed her up in his arms and held her close. Joe Finns e yes went everywhere, seeking the cause of this upset.

There. You see it now, said the voice on the phone. She rocks, she hums. Dodies full of little cues and clues.

They debated this for another hour. The doctor held a perfectly rational conversation with the devil. All the while, Paul Magrittes eyes traveled over the dark windows of caravan vehicles. So many newcomers. The FBI agents could no longer keep track of them. Dodie Finns stalker had a gift for procuring cars, and there were many here that might harbor him tonight.

When its over, said his caller, I give you permission to hand over my photographs to Detective Mallory.

Of course. Magritte sighed. He should have foreseen this. Now Mallory had been woven into a serial killers little story of himself-a legend still in the making. It was the young detective who would explain this wondrous design to the world, for Magritte could not be expected to break his silence after all these years. The old man now saw his only role as the archivist- and suddenly he saw the greater value of the photographs, Polaroids with no negatives.

When its over?

What was meant by those words?

Ah, yes, now the elderly psychologist understood it all too clearly. Every legend must have a dramatic finale. But this quest for fame was pathetic, the ploy of a little boy. It was like a letter written to the parents who had run away from him and gone to ground where he could never find them. He would find them now, and it would not matter if he was alive to see their stricken faces. It went beyond revenge-this maniacal communiqu'e of the abandoned child. And it was possible for the old man to pity a killer of children-even as he plotted to destroy him. With suicidal ideation in the mix, the murderer would become more reckless. The time was right. Dodie must survive.

Magritte looked down at the knife held tight in his right hand. What a fool he had been to believe that he could save a child this way. His best weapon had always been words. More pictures to burn, he said to his caller, his torturer.

What did you say?

You didnt think I kept them, did you? Magritte waited out the silence for an endless crawling minute. You never made copies, did you? No, of course not. Well, theyre gone. I burned them all.

The cell-phone connection was broken, and his usefulness to a psychopath was at an end. He sat bolt upright, the knife clutched in both hands now. Hours passed. The sky was lightening, and every star had been lost when he reached that point where even fear could not keep him awake. His eyes closed, but only for the time it took for the sun to clear the horizon line. The early light was slanting through his windshield when he awoke to the noise of barking dogs. The parents were striking camp and packing vehicles. The caravan would soon be underway. When he turned to the side window, he sucked in his breath. Detective Mallorys face was inches from his own, and she was staring at the knife in his lap.

She ripped open the car door. You should be under arrest, old man. What kind of a deal did you do with Agent Nahlman?

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