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21

By the time Charles Butler had climbed into the drivers s e at of the Mercedes, Mallory and Riker were long gone.

His sole passenger, Detective Kronewald, ended another cell-phone call. That was Riker. He says the perp talked to Mallory. I told you guys that phone belonged to the killer.

Oh, Im sure hes the one who bought it. Charles left the old road and turned onto I-40. But the phone belonged to Dr. Magritte. Call it a present, so he could stay in touch with his doctor-his priest. Mallory found the cell phone in the old mans knapsack. Theres no reason for the killer to plant it there.

He might-if he wanted an open line to the cops. Or maybe he just wanted to know if wed found that body yet. Cant you go any faster?

Charles ran the portable siren as he drove down the road at one hundred miles an hour. I think he recognized Mallorys voice when he called. Thats why he hung up. It startled him. He doesnt like surprises.

Okay, lets run with that idea, said Kronewald. If he recognized Mallorys voice, then its somebody she knows. He was riding with the caravan.

Right, said Charles, minding the speedometer. And he wouldve seen Mallory chatting up his doctor a few times.

Interrogating him, you mean. Yeah, I know the kids style. But Dr.

Magritte was an ex-priest, for Christs sake. The seal of the confessional still holds up in court. Even Mallory couldnt break that old man.

Back to the phone, said Charles. Originally, I believe it only had one purpose. Dr. Magritte was a serial killers confessor.

Youre right. Okay, I buy that part. An ex-priest and a shrink-the perfect audience for a serial killer. These freaks just love their bragging rights. But Dr. Magritte could never rat him out-so why kill the old guy?

Perhaps, toward the end, this killer had more faith in Mallory. And now shes got the phone.

At his partners request, Riker fastened his seat belt. That was his only clue that he was in for one hell of a ride. You wanna tell me where were going?

The Painted Desert, said Mallory. Call the park rangers. If the road in is gated, I want it opened up before we get there. Im not ripping up this car going overland.

Wait a minute. This freak told you he was there? In a national park?

No. He only told me he was in a dark place, waiting. He knows this car. Hell blink his lights twice if I get it right. If he sees any cops or feds, hell just kill Dodie Finn and dump her out on the road.

Are you sure the kids still alive?

I could hear Dodie humming.

That desert is huge, Mallory.

But its only got a few segments of the old road running through it. They dont s how up in maps or guidebooks. I think hed know where they are, but no one else would. Even the buffs on the Internet wouldnt know where to look. Its perfect.

Im sorry, said Charles to his passenger. I cant match speed with Mallorys car, and I cant predict an outcome for you.

To o late he had come to understand that his function on this road had nothing to do with the capture of a serial killer. He fixed his eyes upon a highway sign to reassure himself that he had not left the earth for the moon; but he was drawn back to the strange dark landscape framed in his side window. The prairie was so beautiful, though not hospitable to humanity, not welcoming nor forgiving, and it held not one whit of sentiment for the living or the dead. This was his only view into Mallorys mind. One could easily get lost in such a place.

You gotta gimme something, said Kronewald, any damn thing.

Well, it would appear that the killer feels some connection to Mallory-since he invited her to chase him down tonight.

Gimme more, said Kronewald, slipping into the interrogation tone.

I can string together a line of logic for you. Best guess?

Anything.

He definitely plans to kill the child-thats hardly guesswork. The plan will be well thought out. Dodie Finns death will cap off his monument, and hes planning something spectacular. Thats the most logical reason for keeping that little girl alive this long.

So hes got a thing for Mallory?

She probably fascinates him, but its nothing sexual, no fantasizing in that direction. This man is repulsed by the whole idea of physical contact with a living person.

But the guy takes big risks. Hes not afraid shell catch him after he kills this kid?

I think hes counting on it. Mallory thought he got sloppy with the murder of Dr. Magritte-when he left the old mans bloody knife behind. It was the killers blood, his DNA. What if that was deliberate?

Kronewald nodded. He wants credit.

Right. Now, if he wants us to know who he is-then hell escalate his personal risk for the grand finale. He wont c are if he lives through this night.

Back in Chicago, said Kronewald, we call that suicide by cop. So hes planning to take that little kid with him?

Charles nodded. But not Mallory. His eyes were on the road, searching for a familiar pair of taillights. He called her out because he needs an audience tonight-someone who can appreciate his work.

And what would that do to Mallory, who did not take well to failure?

Some people had reoccurring flying dreams. Charles had the toppling dream. An object would be about to fall, and he would startle himself awake by physically reaching out for it. Lately, he dreamed not of objects but a toppling woman, and it was always Mallory he reached for. And now he truly understood why Riker had brought him along. The police did not require his help to catch a serial killer. His job was to catch Mallory-when she fell.

The two detectives had found the first abandoned segment of Route 66 inside the national park and just beyond the ranger station. It had gone to ruin, crumbles only-fruitless and disappointing.

And now Riker had the ride of his life, a dizzy run of turns and curves for miles and miles of dark road.

Mallory said, Watch for a sign. Were looking for Lacy Point.

Riker shouted, There!

The car stopped on the park road, and Mallory stepped out, flashlight in hand, to show him a sight he would never forget.

I had no idea this was here. Riker stood beside her and, disbelieving, head shaking, stared at a road that was not there. It had vanished long ago. Ghosty telephone poles, all stripped of their wires, trailed off into the desert and disappeared in the dark of night beyond the flashlights beam. Nature had reclaimed every bit of land and replanted it with scrub. There was no sign of pavement anymore, nothing left to say that millions of cars had gone this way. All that remained was a straight march of tall wooden poles- grave markers all of them-to show him where an old highway had died.

Mallory blinked her flashlight twice. They waited in the dark, counting off the passing minutes, time enough for despair to settle in. They would not find Dodie out here.

I guessed wrong, said Mallory.

Kid, it was a world-class guess, said Riker. Your knapsack is beeping.

Mallorys caller wanted to voice a complaint. He was still waiting in the dark, and he would not wait for long.

So much time had been lost on the park road through the Painted Desert, and the silver convertible was making up for it in speed, flying westward again on the interstate.

He says he can see for miles and miles, said Mallory. So I know hes not sitting in the pine trees around Flagstaff. Hell be near the old road. No lights, lots of open ground. Hes laying out a murder scene with maneuvering room. He wants me to see him kill Dodie, but he doesnt w ant me to get close enough to stop it. She waited for feedback, but her partner evidently had no better theory. Riker would always defer to her in all things sociopathic and monstrous. Mallory gripped the wheel a little tighter.

Did you hear the kid this time?

No. During that last call, she had not heard Dodie humming in the background.

Riker pulled a beeping phone from his shirt pocket and pressed it to one ear. He turned to her, saying, The Arizona cops turned up a report on a missing pickup truck, the only old junker stolen all day. The detective continued to listen and relay what he was told. Good news and bad news, kid. Theres no airbag on the passenger side. The guy who owns it has an elderly mother-brittle bones-so he had the thing taken out.

And a kid Dodies size might get killed by an airbag, said Mallory. So that must be the good news.

Theres a loaded rifle in the roof rack, said Riker, cupping one hand over his cell. And its no squirrel gun. Ive got the owner on the phone. He says its a damned good gun. He can shoot a flea off the head of an eagle a mile up and in the dark. Infrared. Now that fits. With a rifle sight like that, the perp can see us coming, just like he said. In a car, on foot-no difference. And he can pick us off.

If he even knows how to fire a rifle, said Mallory. Most people cant shoot worth a damn. Find out if the sight is accurate.

After a moment on the phone, Riker said, Its not. This owner has to shoot low and to the left.

Dodie Finn was motionless and dead quiet. The wind was blowing cold, but she did not complain. Her eyes were open, and she saw nothing, only darkness all around. The leash to her harness was loosely wrapped on a piece of rusted chrome, and she could so easily undo it-but she did not. Something small was crawling up her arm, a thing with many legs, and she did not brush it off, nor even glance down at it. Dodie played the childrens game of statue, and all that betrayed her imitation of stone was the prickling of her skin, every downy hair standing on end.

She was on best behavior tonight so that her father and brother would not be hurt like Ariel, who had disappeared, leaving only her blood behind-so much blood.

The many-legged insect was crawling on Dodies face, but she continued to look straight ahead, staring at the world through unfocussed dolls eyes. Inside her head, where she truly lived, she flitted from one side of her brain to the other, screaming, Daddy! Daddy! Her thin arms flapping like white wings in the dark. But outwardly, Dodie so loved her family-she never moved at all.

Charles Butler was running the portable siren as he changed lanes, proposing to take the Crookton Road, Exit 93, heading north toward Seligman, Arizona.

No, not that way. Kronewald waved him over to the side of the road, and obediently, the Mercedes came to a stop.

The Chicago detective put his phone away, giving up on Rikers b u s y signal. Were not gonna find them up there. Kronewald had his personal map of dead children spread on his lap. I got an inventory from Harry Mars. Bermans crews dug up all the graves in Arizona months ago. That roads just like the Santa Fe loop. No bodies were ever found north of I- 40.

Then the FBI missed a few, or perhaps they never looked for them there. Charles nodded to the guidebooks piling up on the floor mat at the detectives feet. My favorite is the Route 66 trivia lovers guide. The Seligman loop is not quite the same as the Santa Fe segment. Youre sure the killers father was a truck driver, right?

Yeah, and the kid used to ride with his old man.

And Mallory believes that hes following his fathers route. Well, Route 40 connects the two ends of the Seligman loop, but it wasnt finished until the nineteen eighties. When your killer was a child, his father wouldve driven the old road north and around the Seligman loop. Now consider this. Those undiscovered graves might be the reason he picked that area. He wants full credit for all of his kills-or his work wont be complete.

Why couldnt he just phone in the grave locations?

Maybe he did.

While Dale Berman was in charge of the case. That incompetent prick. Frustrated, Kronewald turned his face to the passenger window. Okay, I see the problem.

And there are other good reasons, said Charles. Its a dark segment. No lights from the interstate, very little traffic this time of night-

Hey, look! Kronewald pointed to the road as Mallorys car sped past them and then changed lanes for the exit that would lead her to the northern loop of Route 66.

So, said Charles, on toward Seligman?

Up ahead was the Black Cat bar, one of Rikers fond memories of the road through Seligman. He could not recall the cattle ranges that Mallory spoke of. In his teenage days, grazing land had not been on his mind so much as booze and girls and good times that could not be had in the company of cows. The old saloon slid past his window, and he looked out on the scattered lights of small buildings near and far.

Look behind us. Mallory was staring at the rearview mirror, and she was not wearing her happy face. Its the Mercedes-Charles.

Get used to it, kid, said Riker. Every time you turn around, hell be there. I think sometimes he forgets that youre the one with the gun. Riker reached for his cell phone. Ill get ahold of Kronewald.

Get them off this road. If the perp spots a tail-

Even if hes seen Charless car, he wont know one Mercedes from another. The perps looking out for cop cars, not tourists.

Past Seligman, the land opened up. It was dotted with the occasional lights of houses and then nothing but darkness-until he saw the black cow in the headlights, and yelled, Oh, God-theyre all over the road.

The brakes were screeching, smoking, dust clouds rising all around them. Mallory swerved to graze one animal, rocking the car onto two wheels. It slammed back to earth on all four tires, and she cut a hard right to miss the next cow. Riker was lurching the other way, and now back again toward Mallory, rolling as the car rolled over. The air bags imploded, massing up in an instant and blinding him with white; it felt like a punch from a giant fist large enough to pound his chest and his gut with one mighty shot. Just as quickly, the bag deflated, and the last thing Riker saw was a fence pole coming through the windshield, missing Mallory and snapping his arm bone. A second pole hit his head.

Good night, all.

And the car rolled on.


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