State troopers had displaced the remaining FBI agents. By foot and flashlight, they patrolled the perimeter of the caravan city, and, courtesy of a local appliance store, three hundred civilians were watching small television sets powered by batteries, car chargers and mobile home outlets.
The camping experience had begun to wear on Charles Butler. There was no escape from the constant din of changing channels, and the glow of TV screens outshone the firelights and lanterns. The parents watched the New Mexico manhunt play out across the state as if this were not their own story but someone else’s drama-possibly because so much of it was fiction. The news broadcasters aimed to entertain, undeterred by an absence of facts. The caravan’s field reporters had long since departed, following the night’s big story, and the two detectives from New York City sat before an open fire and finished the last of their reports to the local authorities.
Charles was somewhat leery of Riker’s latest experiment, though he approved the use of an old-fashioned pot. After mingling the water and the grounds, the detective brought the whole mess to a boil and then added cold water.
“It settles the coffee grounds,” said Riker, handing a steaming cup to their guest from the state police. “It’s called cowboy coffee. Ever tasted it?”
“You bet I have. Finest kind,” said the New Mexico investigator with a smile of appreciation for this campfire brew. The two of them alternately sipped hot liquid and picked coffee grounds from their teeth. Charles and Mallory abstained.
And now their guest informed them that Paul Magritte had never regained consciousness after surgery. “Sorry, folks. He’s dead,” said the local man. “But it was good of the doctor to mark that bastard for us.” He turned to Mallory as he traced a line on his neck. “That’s how the old man described the cut?”
“Yeah,” said Riker, answering for his partner.
Mallory was distracted and perhaps tired of repeating herself in interviews with state and local police. Her face was lifted to the sky. Charles doubted that she was stargazing, for heaven could not compete with the surrounding illumination of fires and flashlights, lanterns and scores of glowing television screens. Their own campfire was bright enough to light up Magritte’s blood on Mallory’s blue jeans and her shoes, but more alarming than that, one of the laces on her running shoes had come undone and gone unnoticed. And there were other breaks with her compulsive neatness. She was wearing yesterday’s clothes, and some of her fingernails were broken and ragged.
For a short time, Charles had forgotten that he loved her, and he saw her with a clinical eye. She caught him in the act of taking mental notes, and he turned his eyes elsewhere to keep her from reading his every thought-his fears. He stared at her untied shoelace.
The state’s investigator was leafing through his notebook, and now he found a page he liked. “We got the make of the vehicle from the tire treads at the crime scene. So you can leave the rest to us. We’ll get him.” He looked out over the great circle of television screens. “At least he won’t be picking off any more of these folks.”
“Don’t count on him keeping that jeep for long,” said Riker, surprising the man who had not shared the vehicle model. “He’s an experienced car thief.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.” And it was clear by the tone of voice that this investigator did not care to hear any more helpful tips from the New York contingent of the law. “Our boy made a real good choice for off-road driving, so I expect he’ll keep it awhile, and we won’t find him on the interstate. You should get some rest tonight. A manhunt’s best left to people who know the terrain.”
The two detectives, manhunters extraordinaire, appeared to be too tired to find any humor in this.
Done with his coffee, the New Mexico man bid a hasty good night and left them.
A cell phone beeped, and Riker said, “It’s not mine.”
“It’s Magritte’s.” Mallory went digging in her knapsack.
Charles could not recall any mention of her pocketing the doctor’s cell phone, not while the state investigator was making note of all her other details. Until this moment, he had no idea that Paul Magritte had owned one of these devices.
Mallory pulled out a phone that was so large, even Charles could recognize it as an antique by the standards of modern technology. “Analog,” she said with distaste. Extending an antenna, more proof of antiquity, she said, “Hello?” After listening for a moment, she lowered the antenna. “Another hang up.”
“No caller ID?” asked Riker.
“Nothing that fancy.” She turned the phone over in her hand, examining it as if it were an interesting artifact from an old-world culture. “No voice mail either. I’m surprised it works at all.”
Charles stared at her chipped red nail polish, regarding each fingernail as an independent wound. “The calls might be from Dr. Magritte’s patients. They hear a woman’s voice and think it’s a wrong number.”
“Maybe.” Mallory returned the phone to her knapsack. “I’ve got Kronewald’s people working the cell-phone records.” She picked up her knapsack, rose to her feet and walked away from them.
“Wait!” Charles called out to her, making long strides to catch up with her, because Mallory waited for nobody. Circling round the young detective, he blocked her way and held her by the shoulders, forcing her to stand still. And now he released her to kneel down in the dirt at her feet. He tied her loose shoelace, so afraid that she might trip and fall. It was the sort of service one did for a child, yet she allowed it.
He was still kneeling there, head bowed, when she moved on.
“Very classy.” Riker appeared at his side, leaning to down to offer a hand up. “I gotta remember that move.”
On his feet again, Charles watched Mallory drive away. “Where could she be going at this hour?”
“My guess? A five-star hotel,” said the detective. “Camping really isn’t her style.”
Nearby, the few remaining FBI agents and the two disgraced moles were seated around a single portable television set. They were all so young.
“So who’s in charge here?”
Riker clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder, saying, “Me and thee.”
Agent Christine Nahlman passed the first sign for the Albuquerque International Airport. Before she could use the turn signal, another agent’s car swung into the lane alongside her, matching her speed. She was going to miss the exit for the airport road. Hand signals were useless, and the agent in the other car would not respond to her horn. Mannequinlike, he stared at the road ahead. And now they rolled past the exit and continued west on Interstate 40.
What in hell was going on?
Calling the SAC for an explanation was not an option. Dale Berman had forbidden cell-phone contact, no incoming or outgoing calls. And that troubled her, too. She could think of no scenario where that made any sense, but she had long ago ceased to hunt for logic in command decisions.
She turned to her partner. Barry Allen’s face was placid, though he must have seen her boxed into this lane; the boy was green but not blind. Damn him. He had known that they would miss the airport road. That was the plan. Her partner, a good little soldier, had yet to question a single order from Dale Berman. However, this was hardly a good time to accuse Agent Allen of conspiring against her.
Nahlman watched Joe Finn’s reflection in her rearview mirror. Apparently, the boxer had seen nothing amiss. He was wholly concentrated on his children-reading to them from a book of fairy tales that they were much too old for. Yet they listened to his every word, loving this attention from him. Dodie seemed like any normal child, like Peter, enraptured by the sound of her father’s voice, eyes on the big man’s face, unable to get enough of him.
The construction zone ahead was a divided highway. Opposing traffic was separated by high retaining walls. Two lanes of westbound vehicles moved through the narrow canyon of concrete, and Nahlman was reminded of a cattle chute in a slaughterhouse. It went on for miles before she could see ahead to a break in the wall. And then she heard the words that she had been waiting for, counting on.
“I have to pee,” said the little boy in the back seat. “Dodie does, too. See? She’s squirmy. Can we stop?”
“Yes, we can,” said Nahlman. The timing was perfect. She had already spotted the sign for the next gas station, and it carried a warning: the turnoff beyond the construction zone would be a sharp one.
“Call in the toilet stop.”
“We’re not supposed to use the cells,” Agent Allen reminded her. “Dale said-”
“Agent-Barry, you know you can’t use the car radio. To o many private police scanners on the road. So use your cell phone and blame it on me.” Her eyes were on the car driving alongside her, herding her, locking her into a lane with no turns. The exit sign was in view when she leaned toward her partner and raised her voice. “That’s an order !”
A cell phone was quickly pressed to Barry Allen’s e ar. “No answer,” he said. “Dale’s going to be pissed off about- What’re you doing ?”
Nahlman moved into the occupied lane, forcing the other vehicle into the retaining wall. The other agent’s car was dropping back as sparks went flying in the scrape of metal on concrete. And now the lane was hers alone.
Agent Allen’s mouth hung open and his eyes bugged out.
Nahlman glanced at the rearview mirror. The boxer was still reading, turning pages of the storybook, but young Peter, eyes on the passenger window, whispered, “Cool.”
Mallory was a hundred miles short of Gallup, New Mexico. The top was down, the night was fine, and I-40 was light on traffic. The construction zone was like an arcade game, zinging through curves bound by concrete barriers. On the other side of the zone, out on the open road again, there was no sign of the Finns’ FBI escort.
Evidently Dale Berman had ceased to play the fool long enough to find his way to the airport road.
She drove faster until the speedometer’s needle could be pushed no farther, and she was pleasantly surprised. Back in Kansas, Ray Adler had given her more than a roll bar. He must have tweaked the factory settings on her Porsche engine. The hump of the Volkswagen ragtop had previously cut her speed to one-eighty, but now she was doing two hundred and ten miles an hour.
Thank you, Ray.
This was truly a race, for she was bone tired. Before sleep could overtake her, there was one more landmark to see, and, once there, she could close her eyes to doze and dream, though dreams exhausted her.
Waking or sleeping she was always driving this road.
The Chicago detective’s traveling companion was high on the FBI food chain, the Assistant Director of Criminal Investigations, and the airplane seats were first class-courtesy of taxpayers everywhere. Between the Illinois airport and their current holding pattern over New Mexico, the only useful information Kronewald had obtained from this man was a telling protest.
“I haven’t memorized the name of every damned field agent,” said Harry Mars. “Sorry, I can’t recall an Agent Cadwaller.”
Detective Kronewald took this denial as confirmation that Cadwaller was Washington’s spy in Dale Berman’s field office. “Well, the guy’s s u p-posed to have a background in profiling. Does that help any?”
In a further evasion, Harry Mars launched into another Lou Markowitz story that began with “That wonderful old bastard” and ended with “So what do you think of Lou’s kid?”
“Ah, Mallory.” Kronewald forced a smile. His irritation was growing. He knew that Mallory must have done some dirty backroom deal with the fed beside him. But something big was definitely going down-that much was clear. The Bureau’s assistant directors did not run errands; Harry Mars was here to take over and run his own game.
Detective Kronewald had grown weary of being sidetracked and handled. Leaning toward his window, he looked down on the landing lights of Albuquerque International and began the prelude to his best shot. “So, you think Dale Berman can do this one little thing without screwing it up?”
The man from Washington checked his watch. “He’ll be waiting with the Finns when we land.”
“Only if you’re sure Dale doesn’t know what you’ve got planned for him.”
The AD’s composure had been fractured, and Kronewald knew he was on to something. In the past hour, Harry Mars had racked up four failed attempts to make a cell-phone connection, and the Chicago detective did not buy the story that this bureaucrat was calling his wife. So Mars had lost contact with his people on the ground.
The plane touched down on the runway with a bump and then another in a not-so-smooth landing.
Joe Finn was waiting by the door to the ladies’ room when Nahlman emerged hand-in-hand with Dodie. The boxer had only been parted from his daughter because neither child could wait. Now he scooped Dodie up in his arms and carried her off to the aisle of chewing gum, a staple of every child’s road-trip diet.
A state trooper had been watching Nahlman’s back during the potty detail, and now the man faced the convenience store window. “That boss of yours is a real piece of work.”
She followed the track of the officer’s e yes. Dale Berman was outside in the parking lot, casually leaning back against his show-and-tell exhibit, a car missing paint on the side where she had forced an agent to drive it into a concrete barrier.
The state trooper stood beside her, and his voice was low, confidential. “Just for the record, ma’am, that was a real fine piece of driving tonight. I’d b ail out of this detail, too, if I could.” He nodded toward the window on the parking lot and her boss. “You should talk to that asshole about using the radio.” Before she could ask what he meant by that, the trooper turned smartly on his heel, saying over one shoulder, “While you take care of that, I’ll get these folks back to the car.” He walked toward the small family standing by the cash register.
When Nahlman stepped out of the convenience store, Berman pointed to the damaged area of the other agent’s vehicle, saying to her so calmly, “Nobody has to pee that bad.”
Agent Allen had a worried look about him as he hovered at the edge of this conversation. Nahlman smiled. She could not trust her partner; he was Berman’s creature now, but she could appreciate Barry Allen’s concern for her. She turned her eyes to Special Agent Berman, saying, “If we don’t turn around right now and head back to the airport road, we’ll miss the plane to Chicago.”
“We’re not going to Albuquerque International. Our destination is an airport on the other side of Gallup.”
This seemed to reassure her partner, but not Nahlman. “That’s an air force base.”
“And a more secure location,” said Special Agent Berman. “Excuse me if I don’t s hare every damn detail with you. Your only job tonight was to follow the car ahead of you, and you botched that. Oh, and don’t let me catch you using a cell phone one more time.” He turned around to glare at Agent Allen. “Got that, son?”
“Yes, sir.” Barry Allen stood at attention, holding up his phone to show his boss that it was not turned on.
“Now yours,” said Berman.
Nahlman pulled out her cell phone and depressed the button to turn it off.
Dale Berman turned to Barry Allen, saying, “Thanks to your partner, I’m missing two cars that couldn’t make that hairpin turn. That’s four agents, four guns.” Whipping around to face Nahlman, he said, “If anything goes wrong tonight, it’s on your head.” He walked to the nearby state police cruiser. The trooper was keeping his eye on the Finns when the agent in charge leaned down to his window, pointed at the radio and asked, “You mind?”
The trooper nodded and passed the radio handset to Berman, stringing its cord through the window. The officer then turned his eyes to Nahlman and gave her a shrug that said, I told you so.
Dale Berman had made contact with his lost agents, and now he was directing them to fuel up their cars at the nearest gas station. “Then pull over and wait. Our next rendezvous has no gas pumps. It’s a few hours down the road, a highway rest stop just past Exit 96.”
Nahlman shook her head, incredulous, but kept the edge out of her voice. She was long accustomed to Berman’s style of baiting. Normally, she was not inclined to state the obvious; she said this for her partner’s b e ne-fit. “So all the other car radios are tuned to the trooper’s frequency?”
“Well, we’ve got a trooper in the party, don’t we?” Berman thanked the officer and returned the handset.
“Police scanners are as common as dirt on-”
“Shut up, Nahlman.” The man’s back was turned on her partner, and he could not see the younger agent’s well-scrubbed face coming to terms with this advertisement of their position. Barry Allen’s perfect world was cracking, and Dale Berman’s great-guy status was now in some doubt.
A small win.
Berman grabbed the keys from her hand and tossed them to her partner. “Barry, you’ve got the wheel from now on.” He turned back to Nahlman, saying, oh so casually, “No more hysterics in front of your passengers, okay?”
The manager of the El Rancho Hotel had never before been interrogated by a detective. It was difficult to take his eyes off the gun in her shoulder holster. And he still could not fathom his crime.
All the other guests liked their rooms.
“No,” he said in answer to her accusation about renovations, “it was a restoration. Quite a difference, you see. Everything is the same.” His sweeping gesture took in the spacious lobby with its elegant appointments and a southwest flavor of the nineteen forties. The upper gallery was lined with photographs of famous actors from a more glamorous era of black-and-white movies. Indeed, every day when he came to work, he felt as though he had stepped into just such a film, staring up at the grand staircase and waiting for the stars to come down. “And the autographs are authentic, too. They all stayed here while they were filming on location-”
“What about my room ?” The young detective glared at him with strange green eyes that called him a liar. “The furniture is new.”
“Oh, the rooms were renovated. The furniture was replaced with-”
“It’s all different now.”
He gave up. “You’re right.” When a hotel guest carried a gun, this enhanced the meaning of his motto: The guest is always right. “Everything changes.” And, by that, he meant life, the universe-everything outside of his restored lobby. “Nothing stays the same.” He saw the disappointment flicker in her eyes and forgot to be afraid of her. “I’m so sorry.”
Riker stretched out on Joe Finn’s abandoned sleeping bag. The fire was dying, and Charles Butler was keeping him awake-by thinking. “Okay, I give up. What’s bothering you?”
“It’s the cell phone,” said Charles. “I didn’t even know that Dr. Magritte had one until Mallory pulled it out of that knapsack. One thing the doctor and I had in common was an avid dislike for those things. He said it was like a sword hanging over your head. You can’t get away from the world if you carry a cell phone. But now it turns out that he actually owned one.”
“Well, the old man had patients calling him.”
“No, that’s not it. You said that phone was what? Six, seven years old? Dr. Magritte left his regular practice twelve years ago. His Internet groups meet online. The patients might have e-mailed him, but they never telephoned. Now, if he bought one just for the road trip, it would be a new phone, wouldn’t it?”
“Maybe he borrowed it from a friend,” said Riker. “They do come in handy on the road.”
“Is there any way to verify that?”
“Sure thing.” The tired detective pulled out his own cell. “Kronewald should know everything about that damn phone by now.”
The camera flash had taken Pearl by surprise.
And the man with the camera had also looked damned surprised to see her step out of the tow truck.
Well, most of her customers had that same reaction. Pearl Walters was a robust woman and a first-rate mechanic. She had thirty years of experience in every automotive problem that could make a car break down on the road.
She did not offer to shake hands with the man. That put most people off. Though her hands were clean, her fingernails were not quite up to par. Grit and oil went deep where a cleaning rag could not follow. Pearl’s cover-alls were greasy and her boots were showing some fresh spots. Her bright orange vest was stained with years of motor-oil adventures under the carriage of one car or another, but it still came in handy on a dark night. Oncoming traffic could spot the reflective orange a mile away. Parking lots were her favorite place to do business. Yes, this was a good safe spot to work on a car without dodging damn fools asleep at the wheel.
Tonight’s customer was not a talkative man, but then his problem required no explanation. That front tire was just as flat as could be.
“No jack,” was all he said to her.
“No problem,” said Pearl, coming right back at him. “I’ll have you on the road in no time at all.” She knelt down to set up her jack and never felt the pain as a knife slid across her throat. It was more a feeling of wonder.
What the hell?
Hands from behind her pulled open the snaps of her orange vest before she could splatter it with her blood.
Dale Berman turned to the young agent at the wheel. “See any likely comers yet?”
“No, sir,” said the rookie, glancing at his rearview mirror. “Nobody’s following us. You really think he’d try to kill that little girl with all these agents around?”
“You bet I do. I invited him to the party.” Berman lit a cigar, leaned back and smiled. “I’ll tell you how we usually catch these bastards. They get too damn cocky. After a while they do something really stupid.”
“But, sir, this killer’s been active for thirty or forty years.”
“Where’d you hear that? From Nahlman?” Her name was said with derision. He continued his monologue on the serial killer, a rare species he had never encountered in all his years with the Bureau. “This guy’s at the end of his run. His little rituals are falling apart. No more throat slashing. He’s running people down with a damn car. Panic kills. So all his careful detailing-that’s gone to hell. This is his last shot at the kid. He won’t come at us with a plan this time. He’ll just come running, and we’ll see him a mile off.”
The driver kept silent. Perhaps the boy had a contrary theory of his own, or maybe he objected to child-size bait.
In Dale Berman’s view, it was bad for morale when the kids did their own thinking. “Now, our guy was getting reckless even before I put the pressure on.” He had allowed all of his agents to assume that transporting the Finns tonight had been his own idea and not the direct order of Harry Mars. “The perp’s really frantic now.” As if Dodie Finn could ever give him away. Crazy Dodie. Dale closed his eyes, saying to his driver, “Wake me the second we pick up another car on our tail.”
Special Agent Berman feigned the sleep that angst would not allow. It was an all-or-nothing kind of night.