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2

The cars engine idled as Mallory pulled an old letter from her knapsack. This was only ceremony; the pale blue ink was illegible by street lamp, and the discolored paper was falling apart at the folds. The opening line, committed to memory, began with green lions-and there they were. The matched pair of statues flanked the broad steps of the Chicago Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, and they pointed the way down Adams Street.

The letter went on to say, There are travelers who recognize this intersection of commerce, high art and green lions as the beginning of the Mother Road, though its original starting point was elsewhere. Historically a shifting highway, now its vanishing, reduced to a patchwork of interrupted pavement scattered through pieces of eight states, all that remains of a fine romance with the journey and the automobile.

Mallory was not of the romantic ilk. The night was wet and cold, and she was disinclined to wax poetic on the American car culture.

Angling the headlights into the darkness, she anticipated police barricades, but these wooden sawhorses bore the name of a Chicago contractor. The crime scene was also a construction site, and this was one detail that was not picked up on her police scanner. Her high beams lit up concrete segments of an old water main stacked beside earthmoving equipment. The late hour and a recent storm had cleared the area of witnesses-not that she cared. She killed the engine and left her car to push one of the barricades aside, and now she walked toward the bulky machines that might hide more obstructions.

Wooden planks spanned two of the traffic lanes, and an orange sign warned her of a large hole beneath the boards, but all that interested Mallory was a large sheet of crumpled blue plastic nudged along the ground by the wind. At each corner was a crude tear where the thin material had been ripped loose. She easily found the former moorings of this blown-down canopy; bits of twine were still tied around lampposts and signs. Other tarps, ones belonging to the contractor, were made of light canvas and sized to cover machines. The workmen would have needed no cover; they would have been gone before the late-night storm; road repair might carry on in the dark-but not in the rain. And this flimsy material was not something a crime-scene van would carry. It could serve only one purpose here-a temporary cover for a killer who wanted privacy from high windows and the elevated train that bisected Adams Street.

The killer had brought his own tarp to the party, and the crime-scene unit had failed to confiscate this evidence, mistaking it for construction debris.

Mallory pulled out her cell phone and placed a call to Chicago PD. Failing to introduce herself, she demanded the name of the detective who owned this homicide.

Kronewald?

We ll, that conjured up a familiar face. She could picture the old man turning a heart-attack shade of red when he found out what the CSU team had left behind-plastic, a fingerprint technicians wet dream. Tell him to collect the blue tarp. It belongs to the killer, not the contractor.

The desk sergeant was asking for her name as she ended the call. Mallory, never inclined to waste words, was busy just now. One more barricade to go, and then she must be on her way before Detective Kronewald turned up to find a New York cop on his little patch of turf.

The blue plastic was on the move again, and she picked up a piece of concrete to weight it down. The wind had carried it clear of the rough boards that patched the contractors hole, exposing yellow tape laid down to form the crude shape of a body. And this made her smile.

The Chalk Fairy strikes again.

In large towns and small ones, every now and then, a homicide team would arrive at an otherwise pristine crime scene and find this outline drawn with a piece of chalk or a crayon borrowed from a child. An angry detective would then demand to know which helpful idiot had committed this travesty, and guilty-looking young rookies in uniform would flap their arms and fly away with cries of I dunno. It wasnt me.

It was a mystery.

Tonight, Mallory could easily guess the Chalk Fairys secret identity. It could only be the scared young cop who had given up bizarre details of this crime on an all-too-public radio frequency-forgetting everything taught at the police academy. Oddly enough, he had remembered the one thing he should never do, a lesson of television cop shows. Instead of chalk for his outline of the victim, he had used crime-scene tape, tacking it down with construction-site nails when it failed to adhere to wet wood. Thus, with every good intention, the first officer on the scene tonight had butchered the evidence of other nails used by a murderer to stake a human body to the ground.

Damn Chalk Fairy.

She should be leaving now. How much time had passed since her chat with the desk sergeant? A police cruiser could only be minutes away. Instead of heading for her car, she pulled out a penlight and trained the beam on the killers nail holes, the ones inside the taped outline, where the victims wrists and ankles had been pinned to the boards. Scattered at her feet were nails like the ones used to make the wooden road patch. When she dropped one into a hole, it was smaller than the opening.

This killers murder kit had duplicated onsite materials. Obviously a cautious one, maybe he was also a long-range planner, and his plan may have begun long before the city of Chicago decided to rip up this street. So he had packed his kit with bulky plastic, heavy iron nails-and bones. How that rookie cop must have freaked to see those bones attached to a fleshed-out corpse. Now the Chicago police had a double homicide, old bones and fresh kill, one corpse short of the body count needed to call this a serial killing, yet Mallory had no trouble making that call with only the evidence laid out before her.

She stared at the taped outline that described the arrangement of the body, an invitation to a game. It had been laid out for show with one arm extended, pointing down the road to say Follow me.

A distant siren was screaming, coming closer, and yet Mallory did not hurry. When one more barricade was moved aside, she did not run-she walked back to the car, settled in behind the wheel and started up the engine. The siren was louder, almost on top of her. After depressing a button on the face of the speedometer, her trip monitor went down to zeros.

And now it begins.

The car rolled through the crime scene, continuing west on Adams Street for a while, nearly overshooting the turn for Ogden -just as the letter had predicted. Mallory carried no maps, only a route created from words that were written before she was born. Dropping down, southwest through Cicero, she searched for the next landmark. According to the letter, Hes so big, you cant possibly miss him. Yet there was no sign of a giant folk hero holding a large hotdog. She retraced long stretches of Ogden on both sides of Lombard Avenue, where the fiberglass statue belonged, but it was no longer there. Her next landmark was far from here, way past the town of Joliet. She was heading toward a road by that same name and an open field that might not be there anymore. An entire town could have grown over the old baseball diamond since the first yellowed letter was written to say, One day you wont be able to get here from there. This is a time as much as a place, and even the stars might be gone. Thats the problem with progress. Cant see stars by city lights.

Detective Sergeant Riker had Route 80 to himself except for the occasional freight truck. His destination was a gas station where Mallory had last used her credit card, and it was eight hundred miles from New York City.

Flying to Chicago had never been an option, though, given his errand tonight, he might have overcome a secret terror of airplanes. However, at the other end of a flight or a train ride, the car rental companies always expected to see a valid drivers license before they would trust him with their wheels. Years back, when faced with a choice between drinking and driving, he had given up his car. In Rikers e x perience, rehabilitation just sucked all the charm out of life.

Tonight he drove a Mercedes-Benz that belonged to a friend, and the gas pedal was pressed close to the floor. This fine automobile was not a model that he could ever afford or even live up to-not him-not a cop in a cut-rate suit, a man in need of a new pair of shoes and a shave. If he got stopped for speeding on this road, Riker knew he could only be taken for a car thief. A portable siren sat on the dashboard, and he was prepared to slap it on the roof at the first sight of a police cruiser, but since he had not yet crossed New Jersey, he could reasonably expect all the state troopers to be napping at the side of the road until sunrise.

If he could only keep up this speed-nearly three times the legal limit- he would close the gap between himself and Mallory by late morning. Considering the car that his partner was driving these days, that was doable. He knew her lead in miles, but what about time? The doorman at Mallorys New York apartment building had not been able to recall the exact hour of her departure, but then Frank was paid lavish tips to be vague about her comings and goings.

The detective wore a headset for his cell phone, needing one hand free to slug back coffee from a thermos while he spoke to another cop in Illinois. His caller was the man who had picked up the LoJack signal from Mallorys car and tracked her from the safe distance of a mile or two. No shadowing detail could be more covert, less detectable-just the thing for tailing the ultimate paranoid personality. The Illinois cop was bringing Riker up to date on Mallorys t ravels.

She drove through a crime scene?

Yeah, but no harm done, said the man in Chicago. The rain did a lot of damage before she got there. Homicide didnt e ven bother to post a guard.

Riker was well into Pennsylvania when he heard about the number of times that Mallory had traveled up and down the same stretch of road in Cicero.

And the cop from Chicago said, I think shes lost.

Riker thought so, too, but not in terms of geography. And now he listened to a litany of all the places she had gone since then. Oh, Joliet-now that was a memory and a half. He had not traveled south of Chicago since his teenage days, yet these towns that Mallory had passed through or close to, from Elwood to Gardner, had names that sounded like old friends. And then her car stopped on a desolate section of road.

The Illinois cop also pulled over to maintain a covert distance. I know that area. No houses out there. Couple of abandoned buildings. You want me to get closer-see if she ditched the vehicle?

No, dont go near that car.

The cop at the other end of this call had no solid information on the driver, and he could only guess that the vehicle was stolen. By agreement prior to a hefty withdrawal from the Favor Bank, Riker had not provided any details. But now the man in Illinois asked the first hard question, and his voice was more formal-more guarded. Are you making a request to treat her as armed and dangerous?

Riker hesitated. Well, Mallory never went anywhere without her gun, and every wounded creature was dangerous; this one was damaged to the core. But all he said to the Illinois tracker was, Dont get within a mile of that car.

Okay, Ill just sit tight till she moves.

Thanks. When Riker terminated the call, dawn was still a long ways off, but he was already framing excuses for not showing up on the job come morning. He was uncomfortable with the idea of lying to his lieutenant or any other cop.

And yet it had been easy to spin a yarn for a civilian who was also a friend, a fake excuse to explain an urgent need for this fabulous automobile. Maybe that falsehood had come so easily because he had always known that Charles Butler would not believe him. And, since Charles was the quintessential gentleman, it was not in his nature to nail a friend for a lie badly told. The man had only intuited one truth from Riker, and that was desperation-a good enough reason to hand over the keys of a wildly expensive vehicle to a driver who was unlicensed and uninsured, a man whose hands shook when he needed a drink. Riker needed one now. He gripped the wheel tightly.

How would he explain his absence to Lieutenant Coffey? Well, he could say it was a family thing and say no more than that.

Was Mallory family?

He had loved her late foster father, a hell of a cop. He loved the old man still, and he missed him every day. And Riker had always been a strong presence during Mallorys kiddy days, back when he was still allowed to call her Kathy. He had watched her grow up, though, strictly speaking, the little sociopath had never been a real child. He thought of her as the daughter he never had-thank God-the one that people feared in the lottery of parenthood, and, in all the world, there was no one he loved better.

So, yeah, it was a family thing.

His thoughts turned back to his partners c hoice for a new car. The old one had never suited her, but Mallory had held the blindsided idea that a plain tan sedan would help her to blend in with her surroundings, as if she ever could. No, that kid belonged in a hot Corvette, a car with some flash; that would have been his choice for her. But she had bought a Vo lkswagen-still traveling in disguise.

With no signpost, only a triple-story birdhouse as a marker, Mallory turned onto an unpaved side road and parked her car. Here, where the old ballfield should be, was a slab of concrete and a warehouse with a large for-sale sign painted on its doors. By flashlight, she opened the letter and reread a passage describing paths worn into the grass to form the baseball diamond and the night games played by the glow of lanterns and the headlights of cars: We knocked those balls right up to the stars. The crowd roared, the bleachers shook, and the beer flowed all night long.

All gone now. This was the right place, but the wrong time.

The rains had never reached this part of the state, and the air smelled like dust. Following the next instruction, she lowered the convertibles black ragtop. A cold wind ruffled the paper in her hand as she scanned a disappointing sky with only a few bright points of light, far short of the million, billion that the letter had promised. The landmarks were gone, and even the stars had been lost, not that she would miss them. Before tonight, she had never thought to look for them.

All of the letters contained notations on the weather, the route and musical directions for the road. At the Bronx autobody shop, where her cars modifications had been done, the owner had suggested a CD player, but the letter writer had only played cassettes, and that was all Mallory had wanted. However, the world had changed, and the cassette she loaded now was wired up to an iPod that could sing ten thousand songs. The tune she selected followed the letters suggestion for music that worked well with starlight.

Her eyes closed for a moment, and then another. The velvet-soft voice of Nat King Cole was all around her, a blanket of surrounding sound, and singing her to sleep with a stellar rendition of Nature Boy.

-a very strange, enchanted boy-

The car tracker in Illinois assured Riker that the Volkswagen had not moved. Evidently, Mallory had pulled off the road to catch some sleep. Bonus. Breathing room.

He was near the edge of Pennsylvania with only two more states to cross before he entered Illinois. Easing up on the gas pedal, he lit a cigarette. Riker did his best thinking while smoking and coughing; it relaxed him.

The detective returned to the problem of the gunshot victim back in New York City. He was dead certain that Savannah Sirus had decided to take her life after meeting his young partner. One dark picture in his mind was of Mallory teaching her houseguest how to use the gun-so the woman would not bungle the job of self-murder. This bothered him for the next forty miles. Finally, he made peace with the possibility that a violently ruptured heart was Savannahs o w n idea-maybe a metaphor. Perhaps the note left behind was true and the lady had died of love. Riker had suffered the same ailment once or twice, and this was something he could believe in-if only the note had been signed. Maybe Savannah had been too tired to write anymore, so tired of her life. She was always Savannah to him now. He was on a first-name basis with Mallorys d e ad houseguest.

The victims personal effects were in the trunk of the car, and he had hopes of gleaning more from what had been left behind. But his primary mission was to get to Mallory before she cracked up in her mind or in her car.

Deep in reverie and losing track of time, Riker had driven across the Pennsylvania border and into Ohio before his cell phone beeped with another message from the Illinois tracker: Mallorys c ar was on the move again.

The detective drove faster, pushing the speedometers needle toward the outside limit, and a sleeping bug beneath the gas pedal died horribly.

A packet of letters, tied with ribbon, slipped from the passenger seat to the floor mat. Mallory stopped the car to retrieve them, handling them gently, for they had been worn to torn creases during all the years when Savannah Sirus had owned them and read them every day. Mallory knew so many lines by heart and now recalled the description of -awesome heaven and a constellation of stars that hung like notes to a road song. She lifted her face to the sky for the last time that night and saw only a few pinpoints of light arranged with a lack of symmetry. There were no more instructions to follow until sunrise.

She had older guidelines than these, directions handed down by another man, her foster father. Louis Markowitz had given her rules for a life in Copland: Thou shalt protect the sheep; thou shalt not spend a bullet unwisely and get them killed in the process.

Nothing about stars.

However, the old man had loved rock n roll, and these letters shared his taste for songs by the Rolling Stones and The Who. She played them for miles and miles. Sometimes an old tune would coincide with favorites from Lou Markowitzs collection of albums that dated back to the days of vinyl records. And when this happened, that old man rode with her for a stretch of highway the length of a song.

She needed food and sleep.

Tomorrow she would try again to grasp the new rules that Peyton Hale had laid down in his letters. The author, once a California boy, had grown to manhood. Homeward bound, he had retraced his old route, laying down tracks with an odd sense of direction. She had failed in her attempt to follow the illogical instruction for how to look at the road ahead by stopping to look up at the sky.

Click.

The undeveloped photograph came out of the mouth of the camera. The image was slow to emerge inside the square Polaroid format. Now a woman could be seen inside the brightly lit restaurant. Her hair was black, her clothes were red. Still as death, she sat there-in the photograph.

The actual woman was in constant motion, head turning, as if she could have heard the camera clicking out here in the parking lot. Framed once more in the viewfinder, she appeared to be posing for the next shot, frozen in a startled moment. But then she moved again, looking at the other customers, no doubt wondering if one of them was the source of her fears tonight.

Wrong.

And now she must sense that the danger was in the parking lot-good girl-for she picked up her red handbag and moved to another table far from the window.

The photographer started up his vehicle and drove out of the lot to park on a dark side street.



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