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18

Paramedics hooked the old man up to portable machines, and then they stabbed him with needles to fill his veins with drugs and plasma. Troopers were standing by for escort duty, and Paul Magritte was nearly stable enough for transport to a hospital.

When Mallorys car reached the paved highway at the end of the dirt road, she was in a quandary. East or west? The New Mexico State Police now owned the manhunt, and the structure of her day had been lost. She could not even guess the time, for the days were getting longer-too long.

She turned east-one decision made. Now for the music. After fiddling with the iPod, she found her old Eagles album. The volume was turned up as high as it would go.

-take it eeeeasy, take it eeeeeasy-

On the way back to the caravan, she passed the cars of FBI agents trailed by news vans, all heading off in the direction of the new crime scene-her crime scene.

-dont let the sound of your own wheeeels make you craaazy-

When the first sign for Clines Corners came into view, Mallory seemed to awaken in the moving car. How much time had passed? How much road? She could not say. The caravan parents were gathered in the parking lot, milling about in disarray like refugees from the end of the world. She parked at the far edge of the lot and watched them for a while. Should she stay or go? There was still time to get back on the road unseen. She could travel westward and rid herself of all these needy people.

To o late.

Agent Nahlman appeared at the side window, bending low to say, I heard about Dr. Magritte. You knew he was a target, didnt you? Is that why you told me to feed him to Berman?

Does it matter anymore? The detective opened the door and stepped out of the car. Magritte will be dead by morning. Or he might live a bit longer if she trusted no more federal agents with his life. Back at the crime scene, she had arranged for local police to guard the old mans hospital room.

Nahlman was behind her and talking to her back as they crossed the parking lot. The agent was almost indignant when she asked, Why couldnt you let me in on it? I wouldve turned the bones over to Berman as evidence. Dr. Magritte wouldve-

You didnt turn in the bones? Mallory leaned heavy on a tone of disbelief, though all the while the pouch of bones was resting in her knapsack. Some punishment was called for here.

The FBI womans understanding came with a look of pain. If I had, Magritte wouldve been arrested. Hed be in custody instead of-

That was the plan, said Mallory.

Riker stood at the edge of the crowd milling around in the parking lot. He turned to the tall man beside him. Charles, I need help. The perps cleaning up his loose ends and Dodies one of them. The Finns have to go into custody. Kronewalds working out a deal with Harry Mars.

What about the other parents?

As long as they stay on the road, our boys gonna pick them off one by one. He just loves all this media attention. And the reporters are so excited theyre pissing their pants. So, yeah, its time for the rest of these people to go back where they came from.

Thats a pity, said Charles. Most of them are better off here than they were at home.

Oh, sure. Riker nodded, as if this made perfect sense to him. You mean apart from the fact that theyre getting killed?

Theres dying and theres dying. Charles imagined each one of them sitting around the house with only profound grief for company, knitting socks for grief and spoon-feeding it with melancholy. Here, on this road, these people had a mission. At last, something lay ahead of them, and they could see into the day after tomorrow. The caravan city had nurtured them; it was solace and companionship, and, while the old man had been among them, there had been some order to their daily lives.

All of this came to an end as the ambulance bore their shepherd away.

The emergency vehicle raced past the travel plaza. The parents faced the road in silence, helpless to do anything but watch the distant ambulance spinning its lights, siren screaming, disappearing down the interstate. They revolved in place, turning this way and that, as if they lacked the ballast to withstand the wind of a blown kiss, ultimately deflating, collapsing to sit upon the ground or squat by their cars.

Mallory walked toward them, and, one by one, they turned their eyes to her. Charles understood what was happening. She was law and order to them, a protector of sheep.

Their new shepherd.

They watched as she came closer. Their necks were elongating, eyes widening, bodies all but levitating with expectation.

And Mallorys first pronouncement?

Go home!

Well, not the best of beginnings.

The people remained quiet, still hopeful, waiting for the next and perhaps more inspiring words, but Mallory turned her back on them and walked away. They followed her awhile with their sheeps e yes, then nodded to one another, as if agreeing all around, Excellent choice.

Riker shook his head. Charles shrugged, then followed after Mallory- an old habit of his.

When the new campsite had been paid for and the vehicles drawn into a circle, Riker sat on the fender of the Mercedes, his eyes turned to open land. The New Mexico mesas were dark purple and the grasslands had turned to gray at nine oclock.

Charles sipped coffee, and Riker smoked cigarettes while he speculated on the suicide of Savannah Sirus.

The way I see it, said the detective, it was all about guilt. Lets say Mallorys mother was pregnant when Peyton left her for the other woman. So Savannah went to New York looking for absolution- He threw his hands up. And the lady just picked the wrong confessor.

A bit simplistic, said Charles. Back up a bit. First she mustve sent Mallory a token letter written by Peyton Hale. Maybe she thought that would end the matter.

Then Mallory wants the rest of the letters, all of them, said Riker. She knows shes been cheated. Savannah spent three weeks in Mallorys apartment, more than enough time for a full confession. Ive seen the kid break hardcore felons in less than an hour.

All right, said Charles. But Mallory was simply behaving like- Mallory. You might as well ask a gun to change its nature. I dont see any intent here, no campaign to drive that woman to suicide.

Their conversation ended with Mallorys approach. And Charles wondered if she could read the guilt in his face. Of course she could-if she wanted to, but Mallory never even looked his way. She sat down on a campstool and settled the computer on her lap. She seemed to want their company, but not their conversation. Her eyes were trained on the glowing screen except for occasional glances at a nearby campfire where a little girl lay asleep on a bedroll.

Joe Finn was struggling to assemble the pup tent without waking his daughter. His son, Peter, was staring at Mallory. The boy was rising now and walking toward her. When Peter came a little closer, Charles could see that his shining young face was at odds with his eyes-the eyes of an old man. The childs walk had purpose in every step he took toward the young detective. He had some serious business with her.

Be careful, boy.

Peter Finn tapped Mallory on the shoulder, but he was unsuccessful in getting her attention away from the computer in her lap.

What is death?

You know what it is, she said, never looking up from the glowing screen.

But you know more than I do.

Charles closed his eyes. It all made sense. The boy had picked the person least likely to tell a kind lie and most likely to know the truth on this subject.

Death, said the boy, tell me about it?

Eyes still on the screen, she said, Its the next thing that happens after life.

And then?

Now she did raise her eyes to the boy and gave him a look of mild surprise that asked, You want more?

And, no, Charles could see that the boy did not. This life was quite enough, more than enough. Life was hard. The childs idea of heaven was apparently kindred to Mallorys. Simply put: no more of this existence- and nothing more than that.

My sister Ariel-shes really dead, isnt s he?

Yes, said Mallory, lover of brevity.

Well, thats all right then, said the boy. No more of this for Ariel. Will you tell that to my father-so we can go home?

You think hed listen to me? said Mallory.

Apparently not. His last hope exhausted, the boy turned around and walked away, a hundred years older now.

Charles went after him. May I talk to you for a moment?

Peter stopped and turned around, saying, Please dont tell me that Ariels in heaven.

Charles knelt down on one knee to be eye level with the boy. Ill tell you everything I know about heaven. I learned this in Sunday school. Christ said, Heaven is all around them and men do not see it. I think he was onto something there. Personally, I cant imagine anything that can eclipse life. The best part is up ahead, and you dont w ant to miss that.

He could see that this was cold comfort to a weary child who needed structure and a sense of normalcy if he was to survive. A good start would be something simple like a conventional bed where Peter could lay his head each night. Charles turned to watch the boxer struggle with each rope and stake, trying to work a simple tent into its ultimate shape, all the signs of depression in each failure.

Im going to have a talk with your father.

The young fatalist shook his head. Dad wont listen to you.

As Charles approached Joe Finn, he mentally turned a leaf in the Mallory Book of Hard Truth and Bad Manners. He planned to stab this man in the heart with hard facts. Ariel is dead, and you know that. She died a long time ago. And your son wants to die.

Now that he had all of the boxers angry attention, Charles turned to look at the mans surviving daughter, awake now, distraught and humming. And thats gone on much too long. She needs more help than you can give her. I can arrange for a child psychiatrist to work with Dodie. But first you have to go into protective custody in Chicago. Its the police this time, not the FBI.

He sensed the boxers resistance. The mans closed fists were a clue.

Shes the child most like you, said Charles. If this pilgrimage doesnt end now, you and Dodie will be rocking side by side, humming in the dark, and your boy will be all alone. And then hell die. I know you want to do the right thing. Thats what this is all about, isnt it? Fathers always go out into the night in search of the lost child. Well, Ariels dead. Its the other two who are lost.

Thats not what the man wants to hear, Charles. Mallory had materialized behind the boxer, making him spin around to face her. She ignored him and spoke only to Charles. Hes not listening to you. She had removed her jacket, and the gun in her shoulder holster was on display. Now she turned to acknowledge Joe Finn, her legs apart, arms slightly bent at her sides. And Charles found this a most interesting moment-a gun-slinger squaring off against a pugilist.

Mr. Finn doesnt w ant to hear any more crap about denial, said Mallory, eyes on the boxer. He knows that Ariels dead, and now hes planning to get even. She glanced at Charles. If you want to know anything about revenge, you come to me. Ive seen it all. I know the signs.

And now it was her turn to go ignored. Joe Finn went back to his chore of planting a tent pole, one of two. Mallorys hand flashed out so fast, he had no time to react before she uprooted the pole and tossed it aside, as if it were merely a toothpick.

Youve got no right- He shut his mouth when the little girl at his feet began to hum and rock.

Youre stressing her out, said Mallory. Thats the signal, isnt it? She turned to Charles. When Dodie hums, theres something going on that she cant handle. A few days ago, Finn noticed it happening more and more-and he was looking around, checking faces for someone to blame. He was looking for the man who killed Ariel.

Mallory circled around the boxer, and he revolved to follow her. She looked down at the child, who was humming softly, rocking slowly. Thats a low-level alert. When Dodie cranks up the sound, thats your cue, Finn. Dodies your little bird dog. She cant talk, but she can point the way, humming, rocking, scared to death. But what do you care? Youre a man on a mission.

Its not true!

Save the lies, okay? You think you can take on a serial killer and win? Well, if you kill the wrong man, maybe you can make a nutcase defense for murder. Maybe Charles was onto something. Plead insanity and you could wind up in Dodies asylum. Then the two of you can just rock and hum all day.

She turned to Charles. You wasted your time with him. Dodie wont get any help unless Social Services comes to take her away from her father- if she survives what hes doing to her. Back to the boxer, the target. This man youre hunting, Id put good money on him over you. Hes a plotter, a stalker, a long-term planner, but you only know how to use your fists.

Charles noticed that Mallory was holding something behind her back, and it was not her gun. The weapon was still resting in its holster.

I can look after my own, said Joe Finn.

Ariel gave up her life to save her little sister. Mallorys hidden hand came forward. She held up a photograph of a dead body. It was a teenage girl, dark of hair, blue of eye-Ariel.

Thats not my daughter, said the boxer.

You know it is, said Mallory. Look at her hands, Finn. You know how those bruises are made. Your daughter took the first shot. The perp didnt catch Ariel. She attacked him. She was buying the time for Dodie to run.

Mallory put one finger on the crucifix that hung from his neck, pushing it into his skin, as if to brand him. And the boxer seemed powerless to move her hand away.

Ariel was a hero, said Mallory. But if you get Dodie killed, then Ariels death is pointless. She reached for the tents remaining pole and pulled it up with the mooring stakes, then let it drop to collapse the canvas. The boxer was felled, too, taken down by words and pictures. He turned away from her and called out to his son to come and help with the packing, for they were leaving the caravan.

And the boy came-running, grinning-back to life.



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