Mallory wondered if murder was a low priority in this part of Illinois. Twenty minutes had passed between her phone call and the appearance of a patrol car in the diner’s parking lot. The young state trooper who emerged from the vehicle was close to her own age, though the small nose, almost pug, belonged to a boy years younger. She guessed that he had played football in high school. He carried himself with the confidence of an athlete who has won a few games and fancies that he did that single-handed. Worse yet, he was the moseying type. She marveled that he could drag out the simple maneuver of leaving his car and donning his hat for the long walk of six steps to the diner.
A key to one of the tourist cabins was in her hand, and she planned to make short work of this business so she could get some sleep.
The door swung open, and the trooper nodded to the waitress. “Hey, Sally.” He approached the booth by the window and, with the fine deduction of a hick cop, addressed the only customer as “Miss Mallory?”
“Just Mallory,” she said.
After introducing himself as Gary Hoffman, “Just Gary, if you like,” he settled into the other side of the booth, removing his hat and smiling. “Would’ve been here sooner if I’d known how pretty you are.” When this attempt at charm fell flat, his smile became foolish. He opened a notebook and fished through his pockets to find a pen. “So you want to report a suspicious vehicle.” He looked out the window with a view of the green sedan and the silver convertible. “I’m guessing that old Ford’s not yours. I got you pegged as a Volkswagen girl.”
If the trooper had seen the brief smile that crossed her face, he would not have taken it for any happy expression.
“I want you to pop the Ford’s trunk,” said Mallory.
He gave her a kind but condescending smile, as if he were playing Officer Friendly to a kindergarten class. “Well, now, you see… here in Illinois… there’s a reason why we don’t usually do things like that.”
Mallory squeezed the cabin key until the metal dug into her hand. She was badly in need of sleep, and she was not going to wait around all day for him to finish his sentences. “Last night, back in Chicago, the cops found an unidentified murder victim-and it’s missing a body part.”
“The way I heard it-“
“The corpse was laid out like a damn road sign pointing this way.”
“Ma’am, Chicago is hundreds of miles-”
“I know that. I drove it. That’s why my car has the same water streaks as the Ford.” She nodded toward the window on the parking lot. “Out there, you’ve got an abandoned vehicle that was rained on in Chicago last night. This part of the state hasn’t seen rain for a month. Did you notice the flies all over the back end of the Ford?”
“Oh, flies,” he said, waving off the one that had flown in the door with him. “I’ve seen that before.” And by that, he meant for her to know that he had seen it all-every damn thing. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
She wondered what might have given that away-her accent? Or was it the New York plate on her car, the one parked right under his nose?
“Now what we’ve got here,” said the trooper, perhaps pausing to catch his breath-so many words to get out and all in one day, “well, it’s probably a deer carcass in the trunk… and that’s no reason to break into a man’s c ar.”
“A deer.” Mallory stared at the green sedan, as if reading the trooper’s entire future on the hood of that car: He would never open his eyes to any observation but his own; he would never rise higher in rank; and he would be taken by surprise on the day he was fired. She planned to alter his future, but not from any act of kindness on her part. Cutting this man at the knees would open his eyes very fast-and then she could get some sleep.
“No dents in the front end,” she said. “He didn’t hit a large animal with his car. So you have to figure he was hunting, right? Now, assuming our hunter could fit a full-grown deer into the Ford’s trunk-and he can’t – you don’t think they have enough deer back in Colorado, where his license plate was issued? Maybe they’ve got a shortage? And what’s the deer population in Chicago-where his car got rained on last night?”
The trooper grinned, having thought of a solution for this little problem, too. He opened his mouth to speak, but Mallory was faster, saying, “I favor blowflies over cadaver dogs for finding stray body parts. You’ve got jurisdiction and probable cause. So pop the damn trunk.” And then, when he showed no signs of moving, she added, “It’s a good career move.”
Grinning, he shook his head, as if she had just told him a fine joke. Then he glanced at the row of pies on the shelf behind the counter, maybe planning to stop awhile for breakfast.
But Mallory did not shoot him.
Though she had hoped to avoid this, she laid down the gold badge, an emblem of New York’s Finest. “Don’t fool with me. Just do it.”
The Mercedes-Benz was at a standstill, and Detective Riker waited for an overturned truck to be cleared from the road up ahead. After bumming a cigarette from the driver in the car behind him, he stretched his legs as he sorted through the entries in his notebook. He knew that Mallory had traveled across four states in the fairly straight line of Route 80. That had ended when she stopped for gas in Chicago. Thereafter, she had traveled on back roads separated by stretches of driving on I-55, where that highway had displaced an older one. At first, it had seemed like aimless meandering-just a girl on the road and maybe any road would do. Or the kid might be lost and, true to herself, incapable of asking for direction.
The last pass of her credit card had paid for a meal and a room rental a mile outside a tiny town near the southwest border of Illinois. He knew it for a small town because he recognized it. He also recalled other places she had passed through from night into morning. Riker had a loving memory of that old road in its glory days when he was in his teens, and he could still recite the names of every little burg where a girl had kissed him and bedded him or decked him. This was the Mother Road, the old decommissioned Route 66, still traveled by middle-aged pilgrims seeking vestiges of better times and memories of the way they never were.
He knew young Kathy Mallory did not belong on that road, not as a tourist.
She was hunting.
Mallory opened the window on the parking lot to let in the roar of flies, but the state trooper still did not get it. Sally, however, received a clear message, and she was out the door with a can of insect spray in hand. While the waitress did battle with the cloud of flies, the trooper slowly moseyed out to the parking lot, slid behind the wheel of his cruiser and drove off laughing.
On the way out of the diner, Mallory pulled a metal hanger from the clothes rack and reconfigured the wire to form a straight shaft with a hook. After relieving Sally of her can of insecticide, Mallory jammed the wire between the window glass and the car body to work the lock. Upon opening the door, she reached in and found the lever for the trunk release. She was not up to dealing with the operatic drama of a civilian unaccustomed to gore after breakfast, and so she sent Sally away. And now, standing upon ground layered with dead insects and many that still squirmed, the detective had her first look inside the trunk. The most intrepid flies had found their way in, having survived the waitress’s game attempt at genocide.
After pulling out her cell phone and checking the stored list of numbers, she placed a call to a Chicago homicide detective who was owed a few favors by NYPD. On the other end of the line, a gruff male voice said, “Kronewald!” followed by a slightly menacing “What!” This was not a question; it was an order to state her business or get the hell off his damn phone.
“It’s Mallory from NYPD.”
“No shit!” This was said with sudden good cheer. “How the hell are you, kid? And how’s that partner of yours-Riker?”
Not one for small talk, she said, “I popped the trunk of a car and found a man’s hand. It’s cut off at the wrist.”
“Well, damn! That works real nice with a mutilated corpse right here in Chicago.” Then he told her what had been left in place of the man’s stolen hand, and, in typical Kronewald fashion, he added nothing that she had not already learned from her police scanner last night when a rookie cop had run amuck on an open radio.
Always holding out.
And now she gave him the name of another tourist with car trouble and a dead phone-just like the Ford that carried the dead man’s hand.
The Mercedes was on the move again, but only doing civilian time through the last few miles of Indiana. Where were all these people going so early in the damn morning? It was a rare day when Riker ever made it into work before nine. Responding to the beep of his cell phone, he heard a familiar voice out of Chicago.
“Hey, you bastard, it’s Kronewald. Your partner turned off her damn cell phone.”
“Yeah, she does that a lot,” said Riker. “What can I do for you?”
“You guys have done enough for one morning. Mallory wanted a guard on the green Ford so she could get some sleep. Tell her we’re sending the same trooper back there. His barracks commander thinks the humiliation might do the boy some good.”
Riker listened to the details of an incomplete corpse found at the start of old Route 66 and not far from where Mallory had refueled her car. That Chicago gas station was becoming more interesting all the time. The rest of the body, according to Kronewald, had turned up in downstate Illinois- with Mallory. And how did the mutilation of a Chicago corpse tie in with a gunshot victim on the floor of his partner’s New York apartment? Mentioning Savannah Sirus might be dangerous.
“Did Mallory give you the name of a woman who might figure into this?”
“Yeah, she even told us where to start looking,” said Kronewald, “and thanks. Only took three phone calls to find April Waylon’s motel.”
Four hours had passed before Mallory awakened in the tourist cabin. There was no need to look at the alarm clock on the table; she possessed an interior timepiece that never failed her. However, she did carry a hand-me-down pocket watch for show. The heirloom had belonged to Louis Markowitz, and the back of it bore the engraved names of four generations of police: his grandfather, his father, himself and, last, his foster child, the single name Mallory. Shamelessly, she had pulled it out many a time as a reminder to others of favors owed to that old man, favors she had inherited. And sometimes she opened it in the squad room when she felt most alienated from her coworkers, the fifteen elite homicide detectives of Special Crimes Unit, men who had loved Lou Markowitz with all their hearts and loved her not at all. And now, though her freakish brain kept better time, though no one was watching and there was no advantage to be had, she opened the pocket watch and stared at the antique face for a moment- though she would never admit to a need for comfort or any understanding of sentiment. Mallory had no idea why she did this, and she did it all the time.
After a splash of cold water on her face, she turned the key in the cabin’s lock and headed for the diner, where she expected all the paperwork to be ready for her so that she could sign off on the chain of evidence. That done, she planned to sit down to a cup of Sally’s good coffee, all she needed to get back on the road. Her next landmark was across the state line in Missouri.
She found Tr ooper Gary Hoffman in the parking lot. He was sitting on the hood of his cruiser and swatting flies. The waitress, Sally, had been forbidden to use any more insecticide on the green Ford.
The rest of the lot was crowded with vehicles from the caravan she had passed on the road. She recognized a round trailer hitched up to a car and one of the larger mobile homes. The caravan had swelled in numbers while she was sleeping. The paved lot had space for thirty cars but it could not hold them all, and some were crowded into the neighboring field, where a few dogs were barking from rolled-down windows and others strained at leashes tied to grillework and door handles. The diner would not have seen this much business in the quarter century since Interstate 55 had supplanted the old road.
April Waylon’s red sedan was nowhere in sight. Kronewald’s people must have tracked the woman down before she could get back on the road.
Inside the diner, there were no empty tables or stools and not much hope of fast service, either. Frazzled Sally was pulling sodas from the cooler when three customers invaded her territory behind the counter. The waitress did not struggle when the women captured her by each arm and led her to a table. With the gentlest hands and smiling all the while, they forced her to sit down and relax. Other people had quickly formed an assembly line of waving butter knives coating bread, more hands slapping down meat, and sharper knives at work thin-slicing tomatoes and blocks of cheese. Tw o men at the end of the line acted as sandwich wrappers and bag stuffers, and they called out the menu prices to a woman who noted the cost of the food as they packaged it up for the road.
At the center of the room, the waitress was studying posters and photographs laid out on a table for her inspection. The shake of her head said, no, she could not remember having seen any of these faces. And more pictures were laid out before her.
“Take your time,” said a caravan woman, raising her voice to be heard above the babble of twenty conversations.
Over and over again, Sally said, “Sorry, no. Sorry, not that one, either.”
An elderly man in the far corner booth succeeded in catching Mallory’s eye. He gave her a nod that was both a greeting and a recognition, though they had never met. Since April Waylon had not yet caught up with her friends, Mallory laid the blame on Sally. Apparently, the waitress had been very chatty while her only lodger had been napping in a tourist cabin.
Did all of these people know that she was a cop?
Heads were turning all around the room, smiles and more nods. Every table held a stack of posters for missing children. These people would be in the habit of meeting and greeting the police everywhere they went. At least Sally had not been able to tell them what was in the trunk of the green Ford.
Mallory remained by the door to study the old man in the back booth. He was a standout in this company. Though these people were a jumble of sizes and shapes, races and generations, no one else approached his advanced age. His hair was a mass of white curly tufts and his wrinkles were deep. Also, though the room was crowded, he had a table to himself. Some of the caravan people had formed a short line, stopping by his booth, one by one, to speak with him, then moving on and finally leaving the old man alone again with his collection of spread maps. He was more than their navigator; he was their leader.
The old man’s suit jacket was a loose fit, as if he had come through a long illness, and she guessed by the cut and the cost of the material that he was not poor. His face was gaunt, and this made his sunken dark eyes seem larger. Smiling, he stood up and gestured to a seat in his booth, inviting her to join him, or he might be pointing to the plate of doughnuts on his table-every civilian’s idea of cop bait.
Why not? She was hungry.
She sat down at his table and started to work on the doughnuts before he had a chance to introduce himself as “Paul Magritte. And you could only be Mallory. Is that your first name or your last? The waitress didn’t-”
“Just Mallory.” A group of three people moved to one side, and now she had a view of two dark-haired, blue-eyed children sitting together. A facial resemblance made them sister and brother. Though the little girl was five or six years old, the boy, closer to the age of ten, was feeding her ice cream from a bowl, as if she were too young to wield a spoon. “Those kids should be in school,” said Mallory, always on the lookout for leverage in every confrontation, friendly or hostile.
“I hope you don’t plan to turn them in,” said the old man. “I think, just now, they’re better off with their father. He’s traveling with them.”
That admonition was Mallory’s first warning sign; she had a radar for the psychiatric trade and distrusted all of its practitioners as a species. This profession would explain his suit of good threads and his polyester followers. Now she made him the owner of the only luxury car in the parking lot, for all doctors were rich, and, judging by the rest of the customers, this one lived off the poor.
She glanced at the table where the caravan’s o nly children were seated. They had been joined by a man with the same dark hair and light eyes. He had a well-muscled build and a face that had taken too many blows. By the one ear gone to cauliflower, she took him for a boxer. It was odd to see this hulk of a man so tender with the little girl; he stroked her hair and spoke to her in soft, lilting tones. Another patron, a nervous little man with a tray piled too high with food, accidentally jostled the girl’s c hair. The child abandoned her ice cream to rock back and forth. Arms tightly wrapped around her body to keep herself safe, she hummed the same four notes over and over. The girl was insane, and this was more evidence against the old man who led this group. Paul Magritte was definitely a shrinker of heads, analyst of dreams and secrets-a damn witch doctor.
After wrapping one protective arm around his sister, the little boy glared at the detective, suspicious of any pair of eyes that might fall upon the smaller child, the crazy one. The boy was that rare individual who could win a staring contest with Mallory. She was the first to look away.
“So-no mother. She’s the one they’re looking for?”
“No,” said Paul Magritte. “The missing are mostly youngsters like little Dodie there. A few teenagers like Ariel Finn. She’s Dodie’s sister. I’m sorry, I thought you were aware of the situation. The state trooper hasn’t been very communicative.” The corners of his mouth tipped up even in serious moments, and his somber brown eyes seemed to be forever apologizing. “Our waitress said you carried a badge, but you’re not here to talk to us about the missing children?”
Mallory tapped the window glass to point out the green sedan in the parking lot, but she never took her eyes off Paul Magritte. “Ever see that car before? The Ford with the Colorado plate?”
He was too quick to snap his head toward the window glass; he stared at the car for too long, and now he had become fascinated by the flies gathered around the trunk. Perhaps he even understood what the insects wanted-and yet he smiled. “No, I don’t recognize it.”
Shrinks so rarely gave anything away without a warrant.
“Then I don’t need to talk to you.” Mallory picked up a doughnut and rose from the table, as if she planned to eat it elsewhere, not wanting his company anymore. Paul Magritte raised one veined hand in a gesture to stop her from leaving him.
She knew he would.
“What!” she said, as Kronewald would say it-implying that the old man should spit it out now, or leave her be.
“I know a man from Colorado. He was supposed to join our caravan yesterday, but he never showed up at the meeting place.”
“Which was where?”
He only hesitated for a moment, for it was hardly privileged information. “In Chicago.” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a plastic pen imprinted with a hotel logo and address. “This place.”
“I need your friend’s name and address.” She sensed a stall in the making. No time to think, old man. “Give me his name-now.”
“Gerald Linden. He’s from Denver. I have a phone number,” he said, fumbling with the zippered pockets of a nylon knapsack. “I’m afraid I never knew his street address. We communicated by e-mail. Did something happen to him?” Paul Magritte’s concern was the genuine article.
She knew the Ford was registered to Gerald C. Linden of Denver, Colorado. However, because Mallory was in the business of getting information and not giving it out, she said, “We’re done.”
This time, Magritte wore a smile of relief to see her rise from his table, and she understood his logic: He believed that she would have stayed to ask more questions if this car, which so interested the police, had belonged to the man he knew.
But Mallory had other reasons for leaving a frail old man in peace: Chicago homicide detectives might appreciate her collecting information for them, but not conducting their interviews. Kronewald’s squad could track down the old man and his troop of parents later on. These people would move slowly, stopping everywhere with their posters and photographs of missing children. They would not get far into Missouri before nightfall, and she knew where they were going. They were following old Route 66, and one glance at the maps laid out on the table told her where they would camp come nightfall.
The caravan people were filing out of the diner, arms laden with brown paper bags, and some were carrying coolers freshly stocked with ice and sodas. Mallory discarded her half-eaten doughnut and went behind the counter to check the inventory. She was pleasantly surprised to find the makings for cheeseburgers among the ruins of Sally’s stock.
The waitress remained in her chair at the center table, and she was softly crying. The old man, last to leave, offered her words of comfort before he joined the others outside.
A few minutes later, Mallory was flipping burgers and listening to the day’s news on the radio. The lead story was not a grisly homicide in Chicago, but a sudden change in weather patterns and a forecast of rain.
Most of the vehicles had cleared the parking lot, and Sally was still seated in the same chair. She took a deep breath as she ran a wet rag around the tabletop, slowly gearing up to the job of assessing the damage to her larder. Tw o of the caravan women returned to the diner and set to work taping posters to all the windows, and they would not leave before the counter and every table, chair and stool had been wiped clean, not before they had shaken Sally’s hand and blessed her for her kindness.
Finally the door closed behind them.
The waitress sat back in her chair, dumbfounded as she took in the whole expanse of papered windows-her freshly cleaned windows- looking from one gang of lost children to the next. More tears rolled down her face.
Mallory carried two plates with cheeseburgers to Sally’s t able and sat down to share a meal. “Don’t w o rry about the posters. I’ll help you take them down.”
The waitress was appropriately shocked, but only for a moment. “Can we do that?”
Absolved of all guilt, Sally bit into her cheeseburger with gusto.
Gerald C. Linden’s s e vered hand was only a few yards from where Mallory ate her lunch and listened to the news station on the radio. Chicago Homicide and the Illinois State Police had done a good job of containment-no press leaks. Apart from police, no one knew what had been attached to the corpse on that city crossroad last night. The caravan parents could have no idea-for their faces had all been so hopeful.