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5

Charles Butler was wide awake, a great improvement over yesterday, when he had returned to New York from Europe after being marooned in one airport after another, missing planes for security searches and suffering massive sleep deprivation. Late this morning, he had awakened in the passenger seat of his Mercedes, wondering whither he was bound and what had possessed him to give the car keys to Riker, a man with no drivers license. T r y as he might, Charles could not remember any conversation from the previous night, and thus he had traveled through the morning in the silent fog of the jet-lagged brain.

However, this afternoon he was rather enjoying himself, seated in this bright and lively restaurant. He was in the excellent company of two homicide detectives, who, between bites of steak and potato salad, discussed the bloody details of a recent murder.

So cheerful.

Detective Kronewald bore a slight resemblance to the late Louis Markowitz, particularly when the heavyset man gathered his hound-dog jowls into a brilliant smile. Riker seemed to like this Chicago policeman, and the oft-used phrase you bastard was apparently a term of endearment.

Okay, said Riker, Ill tell you why Mallory turned you down cold. Its the way you dole out information. He leaned closer to the Chicago detective. You think the kid doesnt know you held out on her? Shes a bet- ter cop than I am, and fifteen minutes after I hit town, I found out about the other bodies.

Riker paused a beat to accept the paperwork that would attach him and his absent partner to Chicago Homicide. If you dont give us everything, then I cant talk Mallory into working this case. He unfolded an Illinois map and laid it out on the table. Now, if its not too much trouble-you bastard-just mark the places where the feds dug up the kids bodies.

When Kronewald hesitated, Riker put a pen in the mans hand, saying, Mallorys as good as they come, and you know that. By now, I promise you-these gravesites are all you got left to give away.

No, theres more, said their host, for this meal was compliments of the city. I got it all with me.

Riker made a rolling motion with his hand. Lets have it before my hair turns white.

I got the background check on Paul Magritte. Apparently Detective Kronewald assumed that this name would be meaningful to his luncheon guests.

Charles leaned forward to beg a question from the stout policeman. Sorry, but Im rather late coming into the details on this matter. Indeed, he had only recently discovered that Riker and Mallory were working on a case. Who is Mr. Magritte? While awaiting a response from Kronewald, he saw relief and thanks on Rikers face. And what was that about?

Kronewald responded with the hint, Magrittes leading that civilian parade.

No help. What parade?

Charles turned to Riker for clarity. However, the New York detective was apparently clueless on the subject of parades and unwilling to expose his ignorance.

After crossing the state line, Mallory lowered her visor to reach for a tattered old brochure of the Missouri caverns, but it was gone. She checked her knapsack and the glove compartment. Could she have thrown it away by mistake? No, that was not possible. Even in the privacy of her own mind, she was slow to admit to mistakes. She checked under the seats and in the back, and a search of the trunk proved fruitless. After ransacking her duffel bag, she emptied out the contents of her knapsack and checked each buckled and zippered compartment twice. She could not have thrown it away. Her next theory revolved around a light-fingered member of the caravan. Had she forgotten to lock her car?

Yes, that was it.

No, that would not work. Nothing else was missing from her car, and she was the only person on earth who would see any value in a torn and faded brochure with a few notes that matched the handwriting on Peyton Hales letters. She searched the car again, every hidy-hole and crevice where her hand would fit, and finally forced herself to stop. Where had her mind gone? And the time? She was running out of time.

Enough.

As Mallory put the car in motion, she decided that the wind had taken the brochure while the convertibles top was down. Yes, blame it on the wind.

Kronewald handed a sheaf of papers to his fellow detective. This is background material. If Mallorys right, all the people in that caravan met on the Internet. Paul Magritte runs online therapy groups for the parents of missing and murdered children, but we cant b reak into his website.

Wait, said Riker, a man whose credulity had been overstretched of late. Youre telling me Mallory couldnt hack her way into a simple-

Shes not traveling with a computer, said Kronewald. I thought you knew that. Dont you guys ever talk? Does that kid ever answer her cell phone?

Charles Butler and Detective Riker exchanged glances of perfect communion, both of them sharing the same thought: How could Mallory have become unplugged from her computers-and why? Riker seemed even more disturbed by this radical change in his partner, for he had often voiced the theory that Mallory was not simply in love with high technology, but actually required batteries in order to walk and talk.

Now I got techs that can get me into the website, said Kronewald, but not the private chat rooms, not without a warrant. Mallory was right about that, too. The old guys a bona fide shrink. His sites protected by doctor-patient confidentiality. And while were on the subject of shrinks. He turned a charming smile of apology on Charles. Pardon the expression, Dr. Butler.

Call me Charles. No one ever called him doctor, though his business card had a boxcar line of initials that stood for the degrees of a fully accredited and somewhat overqualified psychologist.

Kronewald leaned down to search a bulky briefcase on the floor by his chair. While the Chicago mans attention was thus diverted, Riker donned his reading glasses-in public-a rare departure from his only vanity. The detective scanned the background information on Magritte, mad to catch up with his missing details. Each finished sheet was handed to Charles, a speed reader who only needed a fraction of the time to cover every line of text, and now he learned that a sorry troop of parents were driving the roads of Illinois in search of lost children. How many of their youngsters were dead and carted away by the FBI as skeletal bones in body bags? And how might this tie in with the murder of a full-grown man?

Oh. On the next sheet, the victim, Gerald C. Linden, was mentioned as a member of numerous Internet groups for parents of missing children. His own child, a little girl, had been taken by a person or persons unknown.

I could use a second opinion on this killer. Kronewald, frustrated in the search through his papers, lifted the heavy briefcase from the floor and emptied out the file holders on top of the map. He turned to Riker, whose spectacles had vanished in a quick sleight-of-hand. I just got off the phone with a state trooper. Hes bringing me the flat tire.

Charles and Riker both smiled and nodded, as if a flat tire might be a perfectly normal thing to drop into the conversation. It made more sense when the Chicago detective had finished laying out Mallorys t heory on the murder of Mr. Linden.

So now, said Kronewald, we got a slew of new questions. Ill tell you what the department psychologist told my squad. He says this insane detail work-stealing a phone battery and sabatoging that air valve-he says that indicates a compulsive personality, a control freak. Everything has to be just right.

The portly detective plucked one folder from the pile and opened a preliminary report on the Linden autopsy. Our shrink saw this and decided that the perp had to be a small man to make the fatal cut to the throat. The medical examiner agrees that Linden was looking down when his throat was slashed. So-the whole picture? Were looking for a short detail freak. And hes probably a very tidy serial killer, not a hair out of place. Hes between twenty and thirty-five years old, and he does this for kicks-a thrill killer. Our shrink also says the guys territorial. Now Im hoping that last parts solid, cause the feds got no right to move in on my case if it doesnt cross state lines. Tell me what you think, Charles.

While he waited for a response, Kronewald cleared the paperwork off of Rikers map so he could mark the requested locations where bones of children had been stolen by the FBI. His pencil stopped in the middle of one of his Xs as he looked up to prompt his civilian guest. So you think our guys right about everything?

No, said Charles.

Well, good, cause I never trusted that shit-for-brains twerp. The man sat back in his chair, his smile exuding a charm so at odds with his language and his manner. What can you tell me?

Very little.

An honest man, said Kronewald in an aside to Riker. He turned back to beam at Charles, the new center of his universe. Okay, gimme what you got.

I cant t e ll you if your killer is short or tall, only that Mallorys t heory agrees with the autopsy. Her Good Samaritan-if thats what were calling him-he was probably holding the flashlight while Mr. Linden changed that flat tire. Then the killer simply leaned down and slashed the victims throat. So you see, the angle of the blade wont help you with the killers height. Linden was most likely looking down at the tire-not a short murderer. And you shouldnt limit yourself to an age range, either. Thats an FBI clich'e.

Riker leaned forward. But we can all agree that the killer is male.

Not necessarily, said Charles. You decide. Ill tell you what argues for a woman. Its a certain physical timidity in the act of murder. Hence all the trouble with the cell-phone battery and the tire valve-to eliminate all the warning signs on a desolate road late at night. And Linden would be less suspicious of a woman, wouldnt he? The detail work only shows a concern that the murder should go smoothly. She wants to avoid combat with her victim-a man. Apart from the murder itself, theres a great deal of exposure and risk taking. Consider the marks from the tow chain-traveling with the victims c ar in tow and a severed hand in the trunk. But there was no risk at all in the act of killing Mr. Linden. That was remarkably well thought out, and women are more detail oriented than men.

Charles, I just cant b u y a woman doing this, said Riker.

Because the victims are children? Lets say Mr. Linden was the first adult victim. A child can be coerced by guile and easily managed with minimum strength. A full-grown man is a whole new problem-for a woman. Hence the careful planning of Lindens murder in contrast to the more risky behaviors-transporting the body and laying it out in such a public place. I see a cockiness that comes from experience and confidence.

Kronewald seemed skeptical. You think the next victim will be another adult?

Since Mr. Linden was the father of a missing child-probably a murdered child-the killer may have changed his focus to the parents.

And that ties back to Dr. Magrittes caravan, said Riker.

The Chicago detective pretended not to hear this, perhaps because the caravan had already traveled into the next state, a moveable feast for a serial killer, and Kronewald was being left behind. He resumed his chore of marking out gravesites between Chicago and the southwest border.

I have one more disagreement with your department psychologist. Charles hardly needed to consult his own map, the one Riker had marked for him in red to show all the different names for the same old chopped-up highway and all the towns it passed through. Lindens killer wasnt out for thrills. He just needed another body to decorate his road.

His road, said Kronewald. The detective lifted his pencil from the map.

Riker leaned over to see what had been drawn. Oh, shit. Five graves on that route, and youre not even done yet, are you? Dont e ven think about spinning me a lie. How many bodies so far?

Kronewald looked down at his map. I swear theres only five confirmed gravesites we can link to the fedsteam of body snatchers. He looked down at his map again. Reluctantly, his pencil moved on to draw more Xs. And now there were ten. These three here. He tapped the map with one finger. These are places where an FBI helicopter was reported landing. Evidence of digging, but no confirmation on whether or not the feds stole a body.

And the last two? Riker leaned closer. Come on! Give!

Fifteen years ago, a pack of kids found a grave here. Kronewald tapped the map location with his pencil. They thought a pile of rocks just looked too neat-like somebody was hiding something. So they started digging. His pencil moved to another gravesite. And this one was found when a phone pole was relocated. That was about ten years ago.

Riker closed his eyes in the manner of a man who has seen enough for one day. Ill ask once. I know about the lines and the circle carved on Lindens face. And I know you were never gonna share that, okay? So dont bullshit me. Just tell me this. Do the lines and the circle look like a number? A hundred and one? A hundred and ten?

Before the other detective could answer, Charles said, My guess would be a hundred and one killings. It works nicely with a sudden drastic change in victim profiles-children to adults. Am I correct?

Kronewald nodded.

Well, then, said Charles. It appears that your department psychologist was right about the territorial aspect. Unfortunately, this killers t e rri-tory ranges for another two thousand miles beyond Illinois. Hes fixated on Route 66.

Eyes wide open now, Riker leaned close to Kronewald, as if to whisper in the mans e ar, and then he yelled, But you already knew that!

Mallory had traveled thirty miles into the state of Missouri to arrive in time for the last tour of the caverns, but it had been disappointing so far. Trailing behind a small group of German tourists on a trek of more than three hundred feet below ground, she listened to the tour guides spiel on points of interest: three species of bats never seen and a river of blind cave fish that were also unseen because they shied away from the light-even though they were blind. Now and then, the guide would pause to turn on a switch so lights could dramatically illuminate stalactites and stalagmites.

Mallory endured all of this.

If she could only believe in the man who had written the letters, the best was yet to come, and he had promised, -the payoff will be Miss Smith.

Onward and upward they walked single-file on a gentle incline to the finale, touted as the worlds largest cave formation. Seventy feet high, said the guide, and sixty feet wide. Millions of years old.

Following the Germans, Mallory climbed some fifty-odd steps to arrive in another cave. This one was outfitted with rows of chairs facing into the dark. When the small audience was seated, the guide turned on the lights to stun them with a formation of stalactites that draped in the shape of an immense theater curtain. The rock bed below it resembled a stage with the hollow of an alcove where a narrator might stand.

Now she understood the poetry that had accompanied this landmark in the letters, lines from Rilke: And you wait, are awaiting the one thing / that will infinitely increase your life / the powerful, the uncommon, the awakening of stones. Mallory stared at this fantastic formation like any other theatergoer who had every right to expect the ancient curtain to part, the rock to open wide. Anticipation alone was exquisite-almost magic.

The guide was reciting a history that involved a large-chested diva of the nineteen fifties, the late Kate Smith, and now he had Mallorys attention again, for Miss Smith was the promised payoff.

On with the show, said the guide as he pressed a button on a console. A womans booming voice sang, God bless America- at a startling volume. The lights flashed red, white and blue, and, for the finale, a gigantic American flag was projected onto the natural wonder of the stone curtain.

The German tourists were tactfully, quietly shocked by this marriage of staggering beauty and kitsch. The guide was crestfallen, perhaps expecting applause for the dead diva, the flag and the disco lights. Those who knew Mallory and swore she had no sense of humor would never have looked to her as the source of the giggling. It bubbled up out of her mouth, and, unaccustomed to any spontaneous outburst of happiness, she was helpless to stop it. Her on/off switch for the giggles had been lost when her mother died. She laughed-she roared. The rest of the party, fearing hysteria, hovered around her but could do nothing with her.

Mallory recalled another line of the letter, the one that had lured her in here; and now she recognized it as the punch line to this joke on a grand scale: The Midwest is a very scary place.

The FBI rendezvous point was near another gravesite, and the special agent in charge could observe the diggers from the window of his room.

Dale Berman was a man of ordinary features and below average height, yet he knew that most of his associates would describe him as handsome in the way that professionally charming people can seem more attractive than they truly are-taller and wittier, too. For the past six months, he had joked about spending his retirement years writing a book on Route 66, a tourist guide on how to survive in these motels. Whether the accommo- dations were deluxe or as shabby as this one, he always slept on the side of the bed that was opposite the telephone, for near that phone-side pillow, the last ten thousand guests had planted their rear ends while calling home.

Special Agent Berman would soon be taking early retirement, and his wife, playful old girl, was counting off the calendar dates by carving wide notches into their front door so he could not fail to have his paperwork in order when the great day came.

He squinted as he leaned closer to the window, watching his team of gravediggers racing the light of day, brushing away the dirt and sifting it for clues to a skeletons identity. In response to a knock at his door, he called out, Its open! He turned to face his last appointment of the day. The man entering the room was the senior forensics technician from the Illinois digs. That sector of the investigation had always been a battleground.

The state of Missouri was less like a war zone due to more covert body snatching. Agents and civilian employees had been gathering here for hours. He planned to address his troops en masse tomorrow. He would deliver an uplifting line of bull, impressions of progress in the hunt for a serial killer also known by a song title, Mack the Knife.

Dale Bermans favorite rendition of that fine old standard was sung by Bobby Darin, and it conjured up Las Vegas nights, smoky rooms and the clink of ice in a glass of booze. It was the only murder song he knew. Once, the boxers c hild had been able to hum more of it for him. But these days, Dodie Finn only had a few notes left in her crazy little brain. He had recently issued memos to the agents who traveled with him and to those flung out along Route 66: Anyone caught singing that song, humming or whistling that song, would be dismissed or shot at the discretion of the SAC, the special agent in charge-himself.

The phone was ringing in his pocket. He responded while waving his guest to a chair and a waiting glass of rye. He held up a bottle. Your favorite brand, right?

After listening to his caller, Berman sighed and tossed the cell phone on the bed. Turning to face the civilian forensics man, he feigned a smile. The Illinois situation just keeps getting better and better. Could I have any more shit on my plate today, Eddie? I dont t hink so.

The forensics man, Eddie Hobart, held a sheaf of papers in one hand and a half-empty glass in the other. He was clearly waiting for his reprimand and probably wondering why it was taking so long. I guess youve seen Agent Cadwallers report already.

No, Eddie, cant s ay I have. The paperwork caught fire while the man was still holding it in his hand. Dale Berman clicked his butane lighter and lit a cigarette. Hes rewriting it now.

Brad Cadwallers new report would not lay blame on any member of the forensics team. No one in Dale Bermans c o mmand ever made mistakes-not on paper.

How could Riker possibly sleep through the noise of the portable siren perched on the roof of the Mercedes?

Charles Butler quite enjoyed the racket-so invigorating-and most of all he loved the sensation of speed. Following Rikers instructions, he had taken the interstate highway, the quicker to close the gap between themselves and Mallory. Ninety miles an hour was his personal best lawbreak-ing in this evening traffic, and he hoped that his passenger, upon awakening, would not be too disappointed in their progress.

His eyes strayed to the sleeping rider. Should he awaken Riker to tell him that something was not quite right? No, he lacked the heart to disturb this man who had driven eight hundred miles in one mad flight. Still, the problem of time and distance would not go away. The dashboard was littered with Rikers notes on Mallorys g asoline purchases between New York and Chicago. If the detective had not been bone tired at the outset of this journey, he would have worked it out for himself with only the times listed at every stop. A V o lkswagen could not have covered that distance so quickly. Even the Mercedes could not do it.

Might she be driving a different type of car?

Charless mind was full of maps and distances. When Mallory had suggested an onboard navigation computer for this car, his eidetic memory had enabled him to recite a virtual atlas of roads for her. She had grudgingly admitted that he was an onboard navigator. As a quasi-Luddite, he had relished that rare win in his ongoing battle against all things computerized and sanitized. He missed those arguments. He missed Mallory.

So he argued with her in absentia.

How could you outstrip the performance of a superior automobile?

No explanation would work with hard logic and geography, time and space.

Oh, fool, I.

The mechanical paradox linked him back to another odd thing: Mallory was totally immersed in high technology, and yet she was traveling without a computer. Perhaps she had exchanged the love of one machine for another. Had she tinkered with her car? Over the years of their friendship, he had never known her to take an interest in automotive engineering. Well, what was an automobile anymore but a mass of computer chips that ate gasoline? Ah, but no amount of tinkering would change the fact that, in comparison to his own car, her V o lkswagen had a smaller, relatively low-performance engine.

Or not.

He wondered if it was possible to blend a Beetle with a race car?

Twenty-five years after the letters were written, it was nearing the end of another blue-sky day, and a low-riding sun shone warm and bright. Mallory barreled down the Mother Road playing vintage rock n roll. Twenty miles later, the sky was clouding over, and she was searching for the next landmark along this stretch of road.

It was the right day in May, the right hour, but decades late.

The letter had described a line of trees, and there was none. She stared at the stark acreage and a row of thick stumps. Only the cement foundation of the old county store remained. And there were no brilliant colors in the sky, not today. The sun was just a patch of lighter gray on the overcast horizon line, a sign that the regional drought would soon end.

However, this stop had not been a complete waste of time. Music selections in the letters made more sense to her now. The current song, an upbeat tune, was all wrong for a sky that promised rain. She flicked one finger around the wheel of her iPod until the car stereo played a ballad to match the cloudy day of another letter, and now Bob Dylan sang to her:

-and you better start swimming or youll sink like a stone-

With the push of a button, the convertibles black ragtop rose to give her cover, and Mallory latched it but left the windows open. She unfolded a letter, taking great care lest it fall apart with one more reading. She was seeking the description of the way the world used to be at this time of day, that time of life.

-the present now will later be past-

A hit-and-run gust of wind stole her letter, ripped it from her hand and escaped through the passenger window. She left the car at a dead run to chase the airborne sheet of paper across the open land, teased by the rise and fall of it as she ran toward it. Her angry eyes turned upward, as if to pin the blame on a Sunday-school God, Whom she had abandoned when she was six, going on seven, the year her mother died.

But she would not believe in such beings anymore. Kathy Mallory was a child of high technology and cold logic. Her nemesis of the moment was only the wind that carried her letter away, farther now and faster. Done with anger, on came panic-a novel emotion for a woman who carried a very large gun, someone who lacked a normal, healthy sense of fear. She was afraid of nothing until she heard the rumble of thunder. A storm was coming. As the letter rose higher and higher in the air, she was afraid it would be lost or wrecked by rain. And now her race was run against time.

The first drops fell. More panic. And then her anger returned in a twisted form of faith that her old enemy was truly up there, hiding from her, stealing from her again.

That Great Bastard in the sky, Mother Killer.

God damn it! she yelled into the wind, hands balling into fists, just six years old again, going on seven, and maddened by events beyond a childs control. Give it back !

In that moment, the letter hovered in the air, motionless, levitating there, as birds do when they fly against the wind. Slowly, it drifted to earth. She ran toward it, heart a banging, as if this bit of paper meant more to her than life.

The laptop was open, and Special Agent Dale Berman scanned recent communiqu'es from Chicago. Staring at the photographs, he moved his head slowly from side to side. He had only finished half of Eddie Hobarts field report, but everything was clear. At last he understood how the team of snatch-and-run gravediggers had wound up in a confrontation with a state trooper in the borderlands of Illinois.

I liked the trooper, said Eddie Hobart, draining his third shot of rye. Nice kid.

The FBI man nodded absently and poured himself another drink. The computer screen was showing him a picture that had been forwarded compliments of Chicagos Detective Kronewald. It was a magnified image of an air valve on Gerald C. Lindens flat tire. I know you didnt miss this tool mark.

Yeah, I did, said Hobart. No time to check it out at the scene, and Cadwaller ordered us to leave the tire behind. He said the helicopter was over the weight limit.

And was it?

No. We had some soil samples and the body bags from three more graves. Little bones dont w e igh much. But the pilot only takes orders from ranking agents. The civilian nodded toward the field report in Bermans lap. Officially, Im taking the hit for everything. I shouldve left Cadwaller behind and loaded the tire instead. Hobart was watching the computer screen when it flipped to the second photograph of a fingerprint on a phone battery. I missed that, too.

The cops found it in a restaurant dumpster north of Chicago. Thats where the victim stopped for his last meal, and it was way off your route, Eddie.

No, that was my screwup. I didnt e ven know the battery was missing from Lindens c e ll phone. Never got a chance to open it. And Im not sure I wouldve gotten around to it, even if Id had the time to do my job right.

Well, somebody opened it.

Couldve been the trooper or that New York cop, Mallory. Hobart leaned closer to the screen. Is the print any good?

Agent Berman shook his head as he read the companion text. Kronewald says its a smudged partial. No clear ridges. Its not even useful for ruling a suspect out.

Well, its enough to make me feel like an idiot.

Dont b e at yourself up, Eddie. Youre just burnt out on this case. Dale Berman refreshed the civilians d rink-the anesthetic. Too many little bodies.

And then there was the problem of close confinement with an abrasive fool. Cadwaller had gone to a lot of trouble to insinuate himself into this investigation. To minimize the damage, Dale Berman had personally assigned the man to grave-robbing detail. More skillful agents had been sent off to deal with the Chicago cops. Bloody as that fight had been, Cadwaller had managed to make a bigger mess with the Illinois State Police.

And the tale was not over yet. It went on, blow by blow, as the sky grew darker. Ice cubes clinked in their glasses, and Special Agent Berman listened to his bedtime story of a tall blonde from New York City, the cop who had run the show at the Illinois diner. In the telling, Eddie Hobart appointed himself president of the Detective Mallory fan club.

Berman nodded and smiled. Shes Lou Markowitzs kid.

No shit!

Youve heard of him? Course you have. Well, I knew her old man when I was with the New York Bureau. My team worked a big case with NYPDs Special Crimes Unit, and we made a made a mess of it. I did. All my fault. We ll, Markowitz exploded. He cleaned all the feds out the cophouse, tossed us on the curb with the rest of the days t rash. Then his homicide squad wrapped the case in less than four hours. It was humiliating and instructive. I had major respect for that old bastard. And I liked him even while he was booting my ass out the door. He stared at his glass. You know there are times when you hear that someones died a man you worked with. And you say, Aw, too bad. You really mean it, but then you go on with your golf game and never miss a stroke. Lou Markowitzs death stopped a lot of people cold. Every agent in the New York Bureau turned out for his funeral. And there were others. They came from everywhere when the old man died. He lifted his glass in a toast. Hell of a cop.

And Mallory?

Shes a pisser. I noticed that Cadwaller isnt even limping, no bullets to the kneecaps. Lous kid mustve been having an off day.

The storm had ended, and no rain had reached this patch of road. The moon was rising.

Mallory turned off the music and her headlights, not wanting to announce herself as the car approached the glow of campfires and lanterns. She cut the engine and coasted into the lot of a convenience store. Its windows were dark, and there was a for-sale sign in the window. Her car rolled to a stop on the far side of the wood-frame building, keeping to the shadows and out of the moonlight. Most of the caravan vehicles were parked together off to one side. She left the car and rounded the store for a look at the encampment. Groups of people were gathered around small fires and cookstoves, and there were more of them now. Paul Magrittes party had grown by a score of travelers since leaving Illinois.

A woman stood in the lighted doorway of a Winnebago. She was handing out camping supplies to a small group of people in an orderly line, and Mallory took them for newcomers. One man was presented with a shiny new hatchet. It was small, but just the thing for chopping the hand off a homicide victim.

The caravan had not been here long. She could see pup tents and larger ones being raised on the perimeter of this caravan city. Some of these people were very poor; there were bedrolls laid out under loose canvas that had been slung over cars and moored to trees.

Where was the protection detail? She should not have been able to come this close to the campsite unchallenged.

The headlights of a new arrival were pulling into a gravel road that bordered the field, but this was no FBI vehicle. She could make out the star of a sheriff s logo painted on the door. And she knew that the driver had not come to protect these people. She could read his angry face when he stepped out of the car. He reached down to uproot the stake of a no-trespassing sign. The sheriff was on a mission to run the campers off this land, down that road and well out of his jurisdiction. He would only need to hold up the sign-all the authority necessary to send them on their way.

Evidently, Paul Magritte had also come to this same conclusion. The old man had spotted the official car, and he hurried his steps to head off the sheriff before the lawman could advance more than a few yards. The wind was with Mallory, and she could hear the conversation from her hiding place.

Good evening, sir. Magritte held up a piece of paper. This is the owners c o nsent to use the land. I made the arrangements a while back, as you can see by the date.

The sheriff lowered the no-trespassing sign, as if it were a gun that he had only half-decided on firing. He leaned it against one leg, freeing both hands to take a proffered flashlight and the paper from the old man. He read the letter of permission, then raised his suspicious eyes to say, Theres still the problem of sanitation. He looked out over the caravan city. I dont see no outhouse, no Port-O-Potties. He waved the paper, saying, This dont mean-

All taken care of, said Magritte. The owners s o n is on the way with a key to that building. He pointed to the abandoned store, and Mallory withdrew to deeper shadow. Well have the use of the restroom inside. The owner wanted cash, so its just a matter of passing the hat to pay his son. And we have mobile homes with toilet facilities.

Other campers had noticed the sheriff s c ruiser, and they came running, waving their posters of childrens faces, all speaking at once. Louder voices in the babble were more distinct, asking if he had any news of Christie, who was sixteen on her last birthday; had he heard of Marsha, only six years old when she was taken; and the rest of the names rolled on and over one another.

The sheriff backed away from them, looking guilty, as if he had killed all their babies single-handed. He was addressing the dirt when he muttered something too low for Mallory to clearly hear. It might have been a prayer or a curse, for God was in the wording. And now he fled to his cruiser and fired up the engine. Wheels spinning, gravel flying, then back on hard pavement again, his roof rack of lights died off down the road.

He had escaped.

Mallory returned to her car. Her headlights were dark as she rolled quietly out of the lot to pursue the sheriff s c ruiser down a moonlit road. The night was bright and he might have seen her if he had once looked back, but he never did. And this was another sign of guilt in Mallorys e yes. She followed him into a town, where he parked his car in front of a municipal building with several doors, and one had a sign for the sheriff s o ffice. She was still his silent shadow as she followed him inside. The man never heard her footsteps, but he caught a look of surprise from the deputy at the reception desk. The sheriff turned to see her standing behind him, and it spooked him.

Good.

Holding up her gold shield and police ID, she said, My name is Mallory.

She thought the man was going to cry.

Oh, Christ. His voice was hoarse. Mallory? Well, if that aint enough to make you believe in signs and omens and God Almighty. He only glanced at her police ID. Turning away from her, he held up one hand, beckoning her to follow him through a door to a private office, where he pointed to a chair. Have a seat. I got a feeling this might take a while.


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