They were just about to see the octopus when she received a text alerting her that two hundred people were going to die in two hours.
Kathryn Dance rarely received texts marked with exclamation points—the law enforcement community tended not to punctuate with emotion—so she read it immediately. Then called her office, via speed dial three.
“Boss,” the young man’s voice spilled from her iPhone.
Over their heads:
“Will the ticket holders for the one-thirty exhibition make their way inside, please.”
“Mom!” the little girl’s voice was urgent. “That’s us.”
“Hold on a second, honey.” Then into the phone: “Go on.”
TJ Scanlon said, “Sorry, Boss, this’s bad. On the wire from up north.”
“Let me talk, Mags.”
“Long story short, Alameda was monitoring this domestic separatist outfit, planning an attack up there.”
“I know. Brothers of Liberty, based in Oakland, White supremacists, antigovernment. Osmond Carter, their leader, was arrested last week and they threatened retaliation if he’s not released.”
“You knew that?”
“You read the statewide dailies, TJ?”
“… the Monterey Bay Aquarium is pleased to host the largest specimen of Enteroctopus dofleini on exhibit in the Northern California area, weighing in at 121 pounds! We know you’re going to enjoy viewing our visiting guest in his specially created habitat.”
“Okay. What’s the story?” Dance persisted into the phone as she and her children edged closer to the exhibit hall. They’d waited forty-five minutes. Who would have thought octopuses, octopi would be such a big draw?
TJ said, “Everybody believed they were going to hit somewhere up there, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Fran, but maybe there was too much heat. Oakland PD had a CI inside the group and he said two of their people came down here, set up something. And—”
She interrupted. “ ‘Set up something.’ What does that mean?”
“An attack of some kind. He doesn’t know what exactly. Maybe an IED, maybe chemical. Probably not bio but could be. But the number of victims is for sure, what I texted you. Two hundred plus or minus. That’s confirmed. And whatever it is, it’s up and running; the perps set it and they were headed back. The CI said 4:00 p.m. is when the attack goes down.”
Two and a half hours. A little less. Lord…
“No idea of the victims, location?”
TJ Scanlon offered, “None.”
“But you said they ‘were’ headed back.”
“Right, we caught a break. There’s a chance we can nail ‘em. The CI gave us the make of the car—a 2000 Taurus, light blue. CHP spotted one in Marina and went after it. The driver took off. Probably them. They lost the pursuit on surface roads. Everybody’s searching the area. Bureau’s coming in from the field office. Hold on, Boss. I’m getting something.”
Dance happened to glance up and see her reflection in the glass panel on the other side of which elegant and eerie sea horses floated with sublime, careless ease. Dance noted her own still gaze looking back at her, in a narrow, Cate Blanchett face, hair in a ponytail, held taut by a black and green scrunchy installed that morning by her ten-year-old daughter, currently champing beside her. Her mop-headed son Wes, twelve, was detached from mother and sister. He was less intrigued by cephalopods, however big, and more by an aloof fourteen-year-old in line, a girl who should have been a cheerleader if she wasn’t.
Dance was wearing jeans, a blue silk blouse and a tan quilted vest, comfortably warm. Sunny at the moment, the Monterey Peninsula could be quite fickle when it came to weather. Fog mostly.
“Mom, they’re calling us,” Maggie said in her weegee voice, the high pitch that conveyed exasperation really well.
“One minute, this’s important.”
“First, it was a second. Now it’s a minute. Jeez. One one-thousand, two one-thousand…”
Wes was smiling toward, but not at, the cheerleader.
The line inched forward, drawing them seductively closer to the Cephalopod of the Century.
TJ came back on the line. “Boss, yep, it’s them. The Taurus’s registered to the Brothers of Liberty. CHP’s in pursuit.”
Dance glanced around her at the dim, concrete and glass aquarium. It was holiday break—ten days before Christmas—and the place was packed. And there were dozens of tourist attractions like this in the area, not to mention movie theaters, churches and offices. Some schools were closed but others not. Was the plan to leave a bomb in, say, that trashcan out front? She said into the phone, “I’ll be right in.” Turning to the children, she grimaced at their disappointed faces. She had a theory—possibly unfounded—that her two children were more sensitive to disappointment than other kids their age because they were fatherless… and because Bill had died suddenly. There in the morning, and then never again. It was so very hard for her to say what she now had to: “Sorry, guys. It’s a big problem at work.”
“Aw, Mom!” Maggie grumbled. “This is the last day! It’s going to San Diego tomorrow.” Wes, too, was disappointed, though part of this wasn’t sea life but pretty cheerleaders.
“Sorry, guys. Can’t be helped. I’ll make it up to you.” Dance held the phone back to her ear and she said firmly to TJ, “And tell everybody: No shooting unless it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t want either of them killed.”
Which brought conversation around them in the octopus line to a complete stop. Everyone stared.
Speaking to the wide-eyed blond, Wes said reassuringly, “It’s okay. She says that a lot.”
# # #
The venue for the party was good. The Monterey Bay Seaside Motel was near the water, north of the city. And what was especially nice about this place was that unlike a lot of banquet rooms this one had large windows opening onto a stretch of beach.
Right now, Carol Messner noted, the beach had that December afternoon look to it: bleached, dusty, though the haze was mostly mist with a bit of fog thrown in. Not so focused, but, hey, a beach view beat a Highway 1 view any day, provided the sun held.
“Hal,” she said to her associate. “You think we need more tables over there? It looks empty.”
Carol, president of the local branch of the California Central Coast Bankers’ Association, was a woman in her sixties, a grandmother several times over. Although her employer was one of the larger chain banks that had misbehaved a bit a few years ago, she’d had no part of mortgage-backed securities; she firmly believed banks did good. She wouldn’t have been in the business if she didn’t think that. She was living proof of the beneficence of the world of finance. Carol and her husband had comfortable retirement funds thanks to banks, her daughter and son-in-law had expanded their graphic arts business and made it successful thanks to banks, her grandsons would be going to Stanford and UC-Davis next fall thanks to student loans.
The earth revolved around money, but that was a good thing—far better than guns and battleships—and she was happy and proud to be a part of the process. The diminutive, white-haired woman wouldn’t have been in the business for forty-six years if she’d felt otherwise.
Hal Reskin, her second in command at the CCCBA, was a heavyset man with a still face, a lawyer specializing in commercial paper and banking law. He eyed the corner she pointed at and agreed. “Asymmetrical,” he said. “Can’t have that.”
Carol tried not to smile. Hal took everything he did quite seriously and was a far better i-dotter than she. “Asymmetrical” would be a sin, possibly mortal.
She walked up to the two motel employees who were organizing the room for the Christmas party, which would last from three to five today, and asked that they move several of the round ten-tops to cover the bald spot in the banquet-room floor. The men hefted the tables and rearranged them.
Carol said, “De-asymmetricalized.”
Her vice president laughed. Taking his tasks seriously didn’t mean he was missing a sense of humor.
Hal took the room in. “Looks good to me. Double check the sound system. Then we’ll get the decorations up.”
“The PA?” she asked. “I tried it yesterday. It was fine.” But being the i-dotting banker that she was, Carol walked to the stage and flicked on the PA system.
A few more flicks of the off-on toggle.
As if that would do any good.
“This could be a problem.”
Carol followed the cord but it disappeared below the stage.
“Maybe those workers,” Hal said, peering at the microphones.
“Those two guys who were here a half hour ago. Maybe before you got here?”
“No, I didn’t see anybody. Jose and Miguel?” she asked, nodding at the men on the motel staff, now setting up chairs.
“No, other ones. They asked if this is where the banking meeting was going to be. I told them yes and they said they had to make some repairs under the stage. They were under there for a few minutes, then they left.”
She asked the two motel workers in the corner, “Did you hear that there was a problem with the sound system?”
“No, ma’am. Maria, Guest Services, she handle everything with the microphones and all that. She said it was fine this morning. But she off now.”
“Where are those other workers?” Carol asked. After receiving blank stares, she explained what Hal had told her.
“I don’t know who they’d be, ma’am. We’re the ones, Jose and me, who set up the rooms.”
Walking toward the access door to the stage, Hal said, “I’ll take a look.”
“You know electronics?” she asked.
“Are you kidding? I set up my grandson’s Kinect with his X-Box. All by my little ole lonesome.”
Carol had no idea what he was talking about but he said it with such pride she had to smile. She held open the access door as he descended beneath the stage. “Good luck.”
Three minutes later the PA system came on with a resonant click through the speakers.
Hal appeared and dusted off his hands. “Those guys earlier, they knocked the cord loose when they were under there. We’ll have to keep an eye out, they don’t do it again. I think they’ll be back.”
“Maybe. They left a tool box and some big bottles down there. Cleaner, I guess.”
“Okay. We’ll keep an eye out.” But the workmen were gone from Carol’s mind. Decorations had to be set up, food had to be arranged. She wanted the room to be as nice as possible for the two hundred CCCBA members who’d been looking forward to the party for months.
# # #
A stroke of luck… and good policing.
The CHP had collared the Brothers of Liberty perps.
Kathryn Dance, who’d dropped the disgruntled children off with her parents in Carmel, was standing in the weedy parking lot of an outlet mall only six miles from the California Bureau of Investigation’s Monterey Office, where she worked. Michael O’Neil now approached. He looked like a character from a John Steinbeck novel, maybe Doc in Cannery Row. Although the uniform of the MCSO was typical county sheriff’s khaki, Chief Detective O’Neil usually dressed soft—today in sport coat and tan slacks and blue dress shirt, no tie. His hair was salt-and-pepper and his brown eyes, beneath lids that dipped low, moved slowly as he explained the pursuit and collar. His physique was solid and his arms very strong—though not from working out in a gym (that was amusing to him) but from muscling salmon and other delicacies into his boat in Monterey Bay every chance he got.
O’Neil was taciturn by design and his face registered little emotion, but with Dance he could usually be counted on to crack a wry joke or banter.
Not now. He was all business.
A fellow CBI agent, massive shaved-headed Albert Stemple stalked up and O’Neil explained to him and Dance how the perps had been caught.
The fastest way out of the area was on busy Highway 1 north, to 156, then to 101, which would take the suspected terrorists directly back to their nest in Oakland. That route was where the bulk of the searchers had been concentrating—without any success.
But an inventive young Highway Patrol officer had asked himself how would he leave the area, if he knew his mission was compromised. He decided the smartest approach would be to take neighborhood and single-lane roads all the way to Highway 5, several hours away. And so he concentrated on small avenues like Jacks and Oil Well and—this was the luck part—he spotted the perps near this strip mall, which was close to Highway 68, the Monterey-Salinas Highway.
The trooper had called in backup then lit ‘em up.
After a twenty-minute high-speed pursuit, the perps skidded into the mall, sped around back and vanished, but the trooper decided they were trying a feint. He didn’t head in the same direction they were; instead, he squealed to a stop and waited beside a Tires Plus operation.
After five excessively tense minutes, the Brothers of Liberty had apparently decided they’d misled the pursuit and sped out the way they’d come in, only to find the trooper had anticipated them. He floored the cruiser, equipped with ram bars, and totaled the Taurus. The perps bailed.
The trooper tackled and hogtied one. The other galloped toward a warehouse area three or four hundred yards away, just as backup arrived. There was a brief exchange of gunfire and the second perp, wounded, was collared, too. Several CHP officers and a colleague of Dance’s at the CBI, TJ Scanlon, were at that scene.
Now, at the outlet mall, the perp who’d been tackled, one Wayne Keplar, regarded Dance, Stemple and O’Neil and the growing entourage of law enforcers.
“Nice day for an event,” Keplar said. He was a lean man, skinny, you could say. Parentheses of creases surrounded his mouth and his dark, narrow-set eyes hid beneath a severely straight fringe of black hair. A hook nose. Long arms, big hands, but he didn’t appear particularly strong.
Albert Stemple, whose every muscle seemed to be massive, stood nearby and eyed the perp carefully, ready to step on the bug if need be. O’Neil took a radio call. He stepped away.
Keplar repeated, “Event. Event… Could describe a game, you know.” He spoke in an oddly high voice, which Dance found irritating. Probably not the tone, more the smirk with which the words were delivered. “Or could be a tragedy. Like they’d call an earthquake or a nuclear meltdown an ‘event.’ The press, I mean. They love words like that.”
O’Neil motioned Dance aside. “That was Oakland PD. The CI’s reporting that Keplar’s pretty senior in the Brothers of Liberty. The other guy—the wounded one…” He nodded toward the warehouses. “Gabe Paulson, he’s technical. At least has some schooling in engineering. If it’s a bomb, he’s probably the one set it up.”
“They think that’s what it is?”
“No intelligence about the means,” O’Neil explained. “On their website they’ve talked about doing anything and everything to make their point. Bio, chemical, snipers, even hooking up with some Islamic extremist group and doing a quote ‘joint venture.’ ”
Dance’s mouth tightened. “We supply the explosives, you supply the suicide bomber?”
“That pretty much describes it.”
Her eyes took in Keplar, sitting on the curb, and she noted that he was relaxed, even jovial. Dance, whose position with the CBI trumped the other law enforcers, approached him and regarded the lean man calmly. “We understand you’re planning an attack of some sort—”
“Event,” he reminded.
“--event, then, in two and a half hours. Is that true?”
“ ’Deed it is.”
“Well, right now, the only crimes you’ll be charged with are traffic. At the worst, we could get you for conspiracy and attempt, several different counts. If that event occurs and people lose their lives—”
“The charges’ll be a lot more serious,” he said jovially. “Let me ask you—what’s your name?”
“Agent Dance. CBI.” She proffered her ID.
He smacked his lips. As irritating as his weasely voice. “Agent Dance, of the CBI, let me ask you, don’t you think we have a few too many laws in this country? My goodness, Moses gave us ten. Things seemed to work pretty well back then and now we’ve got Washington and Sacramento telling us what to do, what not to do. Every little detail. Honestly! They don’t have faith in our good, smart selves.”
“Call me ‘Wayne,’ please.” He looked her over appraisingly. Which cut of meat looks good today. “I’ll call you Kathryn.”
She noted that he’d memorized her name from the perusal of the ID. While Dance, as an attractive woman, was frequently undressed in the imaginations of the suspects she interviewed, Keplar’s gaze suggested he was pitying her, as if she were afflicted with a disease. In her case, she guessed, the disease was the tumor of government and racial tolerance.
Dance noted the impervious smile on his face, his air of…. what? Yes, almost triumph. He didn’t appear at all concerned he’d been arrested.
Glancing at her watch: 1:37.
Dance stepped away to take a call from TJ Scanlon, updating her on the status of Gabe Paulson, the other perp. She was talking to him when O’Neil tapped her shoulder. She followed his gaze.
Three black SUVs, dusty and dinged but imposing, sped into the parking lot and squealed to a halt, red and blue lights flashing. A half dozen men in suits climbed out, two others in tactical gear.
The largest of the men who were Brooks Brothers-clad—six two and two hundred pounds—brushed his thick graying hair back and strode forward.
Stephen Nichols was the head of the local field office of the FBI. He’d worked with Dance’s husband, Bill Swenson, a bureau agent until his death. She’d met Nichols once or twice. He was a competent agent but ambitious in a locale where ambition didn’t do you much good. He should have been in Houston or Atlanta, where he could free-style his way a bit further.
He said, “I never got the file on this one.”
Don’t you read the dailies?
Dance said, “We didn’t either. Everybody assumed the BOL would strike up near San Francisco, that bay, not ours.”
Nichols said, “Who’s he?”
Keplar stared back with amused hostility toward Nichols, who would represent that most pernicious of enemies—the federal government.
Dance explained his role in the group and what it was believed they’d done here.
“Any idea exactly what they have in mind?” another agent with Nichols asked.
“Nothing. So far.”
“There were two of them?” Nichols asked.
Dance added, “The other’s Gabe Paulson.” She nodded toward the warehouses some distance away. “He was wounded but I just talked to my associate. It’s a minor injury. He can be interrogated.”
Nichols hesitated, looking at the fog coming in fast. “You know, I have to take them, Kathryn.” He sounded genuinely regretful at this rank pulling. His glance wafted toward O’Neil, too, though Monterey was pretty far down on the rung in the hierarchy of law enforcement here represented and nobody—even the sheriff himself—expected that the County would snag the bad boys.
“Sure.” Dance glanced toward her watch. “But we haven’t got much time. How many interrogators do you have?”
The agent was hesitating. “Just me for now. We’re bringing in somebody from San Francisco. He’s good.”
“He’s good. But—” She tapped her watch. “Let’s split them up, Steve. Give me one of them. At least for the time being.”
Nichols shrugged. “I guess.”
Dance said, “Keplar’s going to be the trickiest. He’s senior in the organization and he’s not the least shaken by the collar.” She nodded toward the perp, who was lecturing nearby officers relentlessly about the destruction of the Individual by Government—he was supplying the capitalization. “He’s going to be trickier to break. Paulson’s been wounded and that’ll make him more vulnerable.” She could see that Nichols was considering this. “I think, our different styles, background, yours and mine, it’d make sense for me to take Keplar, you take Paulson.”
Nichols squinted against some momentary glare as a roll of fog vanished. “Who’s Paulson exactly?”
O’Neil answered. “Seems to be the technician. He’d know about device, if that’s what they’ve planted. Even if he doesn’t tell you directly, he could give something away that’d let us figure out what’s going on.” The Monterey detective wouldn’t know exactly why Dance wanted Keplar and not Gabe but he’d picked up on her preference and he was playing along.
This wasn’t completely lost on the FBI agent. Nichols would be considering a lot of things. Did Dance’s idea to split up the interrogation make sense? Did she and he indeed have different interrogation styles and background? Also, he’d know that O’Neil and Dance were close and they might be double teaming him in some way, though he might not figure out to what end. He might have thought she was bluffing, hoping that he’d pick Wayne Keplar, because she herself wanted Gabe Paulson for some reason. Or he might have decided that all was good and it made sense for him to take the wounded perp.
Whatever schematics were drawn in his mind, he debated a long moment and then agreed.
Dance nodded. “I’ll call my associate, have Paulson brought over here.”
She gestured to the two CHP officers towering over Wayne Keplar. He was hoisted to his feet and led to Dance, O’Neil and Nichols. Albert Stemple—who weighed twice what the suspect did—took custody with a no-nonsense grip on the man’s scrawny arm.
Keplar couldn’t take his eyes off the FBI agents, “Do you know the five reasons the federal government is a travesty?”
Dance wanted him to shut up—she was afraid Nichols would change his mind and drag the perp off himself.
“First, economically. I—”
“Whatever,” Nichols muttered and wandered off to await his own prisoner.
Dance nodded and Stemple escorted Keplar to a CBI unmarked Dodge and inserted him into the backseat.
Michael O’Neil would stay to supervise the crime scene here, canvassing for witnesses and searching for evidence—possibly items thrown from the car that might give them more information about the site of the attack.
As she got into her personal vehicle, a gray Nissan Pathfinder, Dance called to Nichols and O’Neil, “And remember: We have two and a half hours. We’ve got to move fast.”
She pulled out her phone, briefed TJ Scanlon about Paulson and Nichols and turned on the flashing lights suctioned to her windshield.
Dance left rubber on the concrete as she sped out of the parking lot.
# # #
Albert Stemple was parked outside CBI, looking with some contempt at the press vans that were lolling near the front door. Dance parked behind him. She strode to the Dodge.
A reporter—a man with an aura of Jude Law, if not the exact looks—pushed to the barricade and thrust a microphone their way.
“Kathryn! Kathryn Dance! Dan Simmons, The True Story dot com.”
She knew him. A sensationalist reporter who oozed toward the more tawdry aspects of a story like slugs to Dance’s doomed vegetable garden.
Simmons’s cameraman, a squat, froggy man with crinkly and unwashed hair, aimed a fancy Sony videocam their way as if about to launch a rocket-propelled grenade.
“No comment on anything, Dan.” She and Stemple shoehorned Wayne Keplar out of the car.
The reporter ignored her. “Can you give us your name?” Aimed at the suspect.
Keplar was all too happy to talk. He shouted out, “The Brothers of Liberty,” and began a lecturette about how the fourth estate was in the pocket of corporate money and the government.
“Not all reporters, Wayne,” Simmons said. “Not us. We’re with you, brother! Keep talking.”
This impressed Keplar.
“Quiet,” Dance muttered, leading him toward the front door.
“And we’re about to strike a blow for freedom!”
“What are you going to do, Wayne?” Simmons shouted.
“We have no comment,” Dance called.
“Well, I do. I’ve only been arrested,” Wayne offered energetically, with a smile, ignoring Dance and mugging for the reporter, whose disheveled photographer was shooting away with his fancy digital video camera. “I’m not under a gag order. Freedom of speech! That’s what the founders of this country believed in. Even if the people in charge now don’t.”
“Let him talk, Agent!” the reporter called.
“I have no comment at this time.”
Simmons replied, “We don’t want your comment, Kathryn. We want Wayne’s.” He then added, “Were you hurt, Wayne? You’re limping.”
“They hurt me in the arrest. That’ll be part of the lawsuit.”
He hadn’t been limping earlier. Dance tried to keep the disgust off her face.
“We heard there were other suspects. One’s wounded and in FBI custody. The other’s at large.”
Police scanners. Dance grimaced. It was illegal to hack cell phones, but anybody could buy a scanner and learn all they wanted to about police operations.
“Wayne, what do you expect to achieve by what you’re doing?”
“Makin’ the people aware of the overbearing government. The disrespect for the people of this great nation and—”
Dance actually pushed him through the door into the CBI Monterey headquarters, an unimpressive building that resembled one of the insurance agencies or law offices in this business park east of the airport on the way to Salinas, off Highway 68.
Simmons called, “Kathryn! Agent Dance—”
The CBI’s front door was on a hydraulic closer but she would have slammed it if she could have.
Dance turned to him. “Wayne, I’ve read you your rights. You understand you have the right to an attorney. And that anything you say can and will be used against you in court.”
“Do you wish to waive your right to an attorney and to remain silent?”
“You understand you can break off our interview at any time.”
“I do now. Thanks very much. Informative.”
“Will you tell us where you’re planning this attack? Do that and we’ll work out a deal.”
“Will you let our founder, Osmond Carter, go free? He’s been illegally arrested, in contravention of his basic human rights.”
“We can’t do that.”
“Then I think I’m not inclined to tell you what we’ve got in mind.” A grin. “But I’m happy to talk. Always enjoy a good chin-wag with an attractive woman.”
Dance nodded to Stemple, who guided Keplar through the maze of hallways to an interrogation room. She followed. She checked her weapon and took the file that a fellow agent had put together on the suspect. Three pages were in the manila sleeve. That’s all? she wondered, flipping open the file and reading the sparse history of Wayne Keplar and the pathetic organization he was sacrificing his life for.
She paused only once. To glance at her watch and learn that she had only two hours and one minute to stop the attack.
# # #
Michael O’Neil was pursuing the case at the crime scene, as he always did: meticulously, patiently.
If an idea occurred to him, if a clue presented itself, he followed the lead until it paid off or it turned to dust.
He finished jotting down largely useless observations and impressions of witnesses in front of where the trooper rammed the suspects’ car. (“Man, it was totally, like, loud.”) The detective felt a coalescing of moisture on his face; that damn Monterey fog—as much a local institution as John Steinbeck, Cannery Row and Langston Hughes. He wiped his face with broad palms. On the water, fishing from his boat, he didn’t think anything of the damp air. Now, it was irritating.
He approached the head of his Forensic Services Unit, a dark-complexioned man, who was of Latino and Scandinavian heritage, Abbott Calderman. The CBI didn’t have a crime scene operation and the FBI’s closest one was in the San Jose–San Francisco area. The MCSO provided most of the forensics for crimes in this area. Calderman’s team was clustered around the still-vaporing Taurus, practically dismantling it, to find clues that could tell them about the impending attack. Officers were also examining, then bagging and tagging, the pocket litter from the two suspects—the police term for wallets, money, receipts, twenty-dollar bills (serial numbers, thanks to ATMs, revealed more than you’d think), sunglasses, keys and the like. These items would be logged and would ultimately end up at the jail where the men would be booked—Salinas—but for now the team would examine the items for information about the “event” Wayne Keplar had so proudly referred to.
Calderman was speaking to one of his officers, who was swathed in bright blue crime scene overalls, booties and a surgeon’s shower cap.
“Michael,” the CS head said, joining the detective. “My folks’re going through the car.” A glance at the totaled vehicle, air bags deployed. “It’s real clean—no motel keys, letters or schematics.”
Rarely were perps discovered with maps in their possession with a red grease pencil X, the legend reading: “Attack here!”
“We’ll know more when we analyze the trace from the tires and the floor of the passenger compartment and the trunk. But they did find something you ought to know about. A thermos of coffee.”
“And it was still hot?”
“Right.” Calderman nodded that O’Neil caught the significance of the discovery. “And no receipts from Starbucks or a place that sells brewed coffee.”
“So they might’ve stayed the night here somewhere and brewed it this morning.”
“Possibly.” Oakland was a long drive. It could take three hours or more. Finding the thermos suggested, though hardly proved, that they’d come down a day or two early to prepare for the attack. This meant there’d probably be a motel nearby, with additional evidence. Though they’d been too smart to keep receipts or reservation records.
The crime scene head added, “But most important: We found three cups inside. Two in the cup holders in the front seat, one on the floor in the back, and the rear floor was wet with spilled coffee.”
“So, there’s a third perp?” O’Neil asked.
“Looks that way—though the trooper who nailed them didn’t see anybody else. Could’ve been hiding in the back.”
O’Neil considered this and called Oakland PD. He learned that the CI had only heard about Paulson and Keplar, but it was certainly possible he decided to ask someone else along. The snitch had severed all contact with the BOL, worried that by diming out the operation he’d be discovered and killed.
O’Neil texted Dance and let her know about the third perp, in case this would help in the interrogation. He informed the FBI’s Steve Nichols, too.
He then disconnected and looked over the hundred or so people standing at the yellow police tape gawking at the activity.
The third perp… Maybe he’d gotten out of the car earlier, after setting up the attack but before the CHP trooper found the suspects.
Or maybe he’d bailed out here, when the Taurus was momentarily out of sight behind the outlet store.
O’Neil summoned several other Monterey County officers and a few CHP troopers. They headed behind the long building searching the loading docks—and even in the Dumpsters—for any trace of the third suspect.
O’Neil hoped they’d be successful. Maybe the perp had bailed because he had particularly sensitive or incriminating information on him. Or he was a local contact who did use credit cards and ATM machines—whose paper trail could steer the police toward the target.
Or maybe he was the sort who couldn’t resist interrogation, perhaps the teenage child of one of the perps. Fanatics like those in the Brothers of Liberty had no compunction about enlisting—and endangering—their children.
But the search team found no hint that someone had gotten out of the car and fled. The rear of the mall faced a hill of sand, dotted with succulent plants. The area was crowned with a tall chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire. It would have been possible, though challenging, to escape that way, but no footprints in the sand led to the fence. All the loading dock doors were locked and alarmed; he couldn’t have gotten into the stores that way.
O’Neil continued to the far side of the building. He walked there now and noted a Burger King about fifty or sixty feet away. He entered the restaurant, carefully scanning to see if anyone avoided eye contact or, more helpfully, took off quickly.
None did. But that didn’t mean the third perp wasn’t here. This happened relatively often. Not because of the adage (which was wrong) about returning to or remaining at the scene of the crime out of a subconscious desire to get caught. No, perps were often arrogant enough to stay around and scope out the nature of the investigation, as well as get the identities of the investigators who were pursuing them—even, in some cases, taking digital pictures to let their friends and fellow gangbangers know who was searching for them.
In English and Spanish he interviewed the diners, asking if they’d seen anyone get out of the perps’ car behind the outlet store. Typical of witnesses, people had seen two cars, three cars, no cars, red Tauruses, blue Camrys, green Chryslers, gray Buicks. No one had seen any passengers exit any vehicles. Finally, though, he had some luck. One woman nodded in answer to his questions. She pulled gaudy eyeglasses out of her blond hair, where they rested like a tiara, and put them on, squinting as she looked over the scene thoughtfully. Pointing with her gigantic soda cup, she indicated a spot behind the stores where she’d noticed a man standing next to a car that could’ve been blue. She didn’t know if he’d gotten out or not. She explained that somebody in the car handed him a blue backpack and he’d left. Her description of the men—one in combat fatigues and one in black cargo pants and a black leather jacket—left no doubt that they were Keplar and Paulson.
“Did you see where he went?”
“Toward the parking lot, I guess. I, like, didn’t pay much attention.” Looking around. Then she stiffened. “Oh…”
“What?” O’Neil asked.
“That’s him!” she whispered, pointing to a sandy-haired man in jeans and work shirt, with a backpack over his shoulder. Even from this distance, O’Neil could see he was nervous, rocking from foot to foot, as he studied the crime scene. He was short, about five three or so, explaining why the trooper might easily miss him in the back of the Taurus.
O’Neil used his radio to call an MCSO deputy and have her get the woman’s particulars. She agreed to stay here until they collared the perp so she could make a formal ID. He then pulled his badge off his neck and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket, which he buttoned, to conceal the Glock.
He started out of the Burger King.
“Mister… Detective,” the woman called. “One thing….that backpack? You oughta know, when the guy handed it to him, they treated it real careful. I thought maybe it had something breakable in it. But now maybe I’m thinking it could be, you know, dangerous.”
It was then that the sandy-haired man glanced toward O’Neil.
And he understood.
He eased back into the crowd. Hiking the backpack higher on his shoulder, he turned and began to run, speeding between the buildings to the back of the mall. There he hesitated for only a moment, charged up the sand hill and scaled the six-foot chain-link O’Neil had surveyed earlier, shredding part of his jacket as he deftly vaulted the barbed wire. He sprawled onto the unkempt land on the other side of the fence, also mostly sand. It was a deserted former military base, hundreds of acres.
O’Neil and two deputies approached the fence. The detective scaled it fast, tearing his shirt and losing some skin on the back of his hand as he crested the barbed wire. He leaped to the sand on the other side. He rolled once, righted himself and drew his gun, anticipating an attack.
But the perp had disappeared.
One of the deputies behind him got most of the way up the fence, but lost his grip and fell. He dropped straight down, off balance, and O’Neil heard the pop of his ankle as it broke.
“Oh,” the young man muttered as he looked down at the odd angle. He turned as pale as the fog and passed out.
The other deputy called for a medic then started up the fence.
“No!” O’Neil shouted. “Stay there.”
“I’ll handle the pursuit. Call a chopper.” And he turned, sprinting through the sand and succulents and scrub oak and pine, dodging around dunes and stands of dry trees—behind any one of which an armed suspect could be waiting.
He hardly wanted to handle the pursuit alone but he had no choice. Just after he’d landed, he’d seen a sign lying face up on the sand.
It featured a picture of an explosion coming up from the ground. Red years ago, the paint was now pink.
This area had been part of the military base’s artillery range, and reportedly thousands of tons of shells and grenades were buried here, waiting to be cleared as soon as the Pentagon’s budget allowed.
But O’Neil thought of the two hundred people who’d die in less than two hours and began to sprint along the trail that the suspect had been kind enough to leave in the sand.
The unreasonable idea occurred to him that if he took Kathryn Dance’s advice—to move fast—he might be past the cannon shell when it detonated.
He didn’t, however, think an explosion like that was something you could outrun.
# # #
Kinesic analysis works because of one simple concept, which Dance thought of as the Ten Commandments Principle.
Although she herself wasn’t religious, she liked the metaphor. It boiled down to simply: Thou Shalt Not…
What came after that prohibition didn’t matter. The gist was that people knew the difference between right and wrong and they felt uneasy doing something they shouldn’t.
Some of this stemmed from the fear of getting caught, but still we’re largely hardwired to do the right thing.
When people are deceptive (either actively misstating or failing to give the whole story) they experience stress and this stress reveals itself. Charles Darwin said, “Repressed emotion almost always comes to the surface in some form of body motion.”
The problem for interrogators is that stress doesn’t necessarily show up as nail biting, sweating and eye avoidance. It could take the form of a pleasant grin, a cheerful nod, a sympathetic wag of the head.
You don’t say…
Well, that’s terrible…
What a body language expert must do is compare subjects’ behavior in nonstressful situations with their behavior when they might be lying. Differences between the two suggest—though they don’t prove—deception. If there is some variation, a kinesic analyst then continues to probe the topic that’s causing the stress until the subject confesses, or it’s otherwise explained.
In interrogating Wayne Keplar, Dance would take her normal approach: asking a number of innocuous questions she knew the answer to and that the suspect would have no reason to lie about. She’d also just shoot the breeze with him, no agenda other than to note how he behaved when feeling no stress. This would establish his kinesic “baseline”—a catalog of his body language, tone of voice and choice of expressions when he was at ease and truthful.
Only then would she turn to questions about the impending attack and look for variations from the baseline when he answered.
But establishing the baseline usually requires many hours, if not days, of casual discussion.
Time that Kathryn Dance didn’t have.
It was now 2:08.
Still, there was no option other than to do the best she could. She’d learned that there was another suspect, escaping through the old military ordnance storage and practice ground, with Michael O’Neil in pursuit (she knew the dangers of the base and didn’t want to think of the risks to him). And the Monterey crime scene team was still going over the Taurus and the items that Paulson and Keplar had on them when arrested. But these aspects of the investigation had produced no leads.
Dance now read the sparse file once more quickly. Wayne Keplar was forty-four, high school educated only, but he’d done well at school and was now one of the “philosophers” at the Brothers of Liberty, writing many of the essays and diatribes on the group’s blogs and website. He was single, never married. He’d been born in the Haight, lived in San Diego and Bakersfield. Now in Oakland. He didn’t have a passport and had never been out of the country. His father was dead—killed in a Waco/Ruby Ridge–type standoff with federal officers. His mother and sister, a few years older than he, were also involved in BOL, which despite the name, boasted members of both sexes. Neither of these family members had a criminal record.
Keplar, on the other hand, did—but a minor one, and nothing violent. His only federal offense had been graffiti’ing an armed forces recruitment center.
He also had an older brother, who lived on the East Coast, but the man apparently hadn’t had any contact with Keplar for years and had nothing to do with the BOL.
A deep data mine search had revealed nothing about Keplar’s and Gabe Paulson’s journey here. This was typical of militia types, worried about Big Brother. They’d pay cash for as much as they could.
Normally she’d want far more details than this, but there was no more time.
Dance left the folder at the desk out front and entered the interrogation room. Keplar glanced up with a smile.
“Uncuff him,” she said to Albert Stemple, who didn’t hesitate even though he clearly wasn’t crazy about the idea.
Dance would be alone in the room with an unshackled suspect, but she couldn’t afford to have the man’s arms limited by chains. Body language analysis is hard enough even with all the limbs unfettered.
Keplar slumped lazily in the gray, padded office chair, as if settling in to watch a football game he had some, but not a lot of, interest in.
Dance nodded to Stemple, who left and closed the thick door behind him. Her eyes went to the large analog clock at the far end of the room.
Keplar followed her gaze then looked back. “You’re goin’ to try to find out where the…event’s takin’ place. Ask away. But I’ll tell you right now, it’s going to be a waste of time.”
Dance moved her chair so that she sat across from him, with no furniture between them. Any barrier between interviewer and subject, even a small table, gives the perp a sense of protection and makes kinesic analysis that much harder. Dance was about three feet from him, in his personal proxemic zone—not so close as to make him stonewall, but near enough to keep him unsettled.
Except that he wasn’t unsettled. At all. Wayne Keplar was as calm as could be.
He looked at her steadily, a gaze that was not haughty, not challenging, not sexy. It was almost as if he were sizing up a dog to buy for his child.
“Wayne, you don’t have a driver’s license.”
“Another way for the government to keep tabs on you.”
“Where do you live?”
“Oakland. Near the water. Been there for six years. Town has a bad rap but it’s okay.”
“Where were you before that?”
She asked more about his personal life and travels, pretending not to know the answers. She’d left the file outside.
His responses were truthful. And as he spoke she noted his shoulders were forward, his right hand tended to come to rest on his thigh, he looked her straight in the eye when he spoke, his lips often curled into a half-smile. He had a habit of poking his tongue into the interior of his cheek from time to time. It could have been a habit or could be from withdrawal—missing chewing tobacco, which Dance knew could be as addictive as smoking.
“Why’d you leave San Diego, Wayne? Weather’s nicer than Oakland.”
“Not really. I don’t agree with that. But I just didn’t like it. You know how you get a vibration and it’s just not right.”
“That’s true,” she said.
He beamed in an eerie way. “Do you? You know that? You’re a firecracker, Kathryn. Yes, you are.”
A chill coursed down her spine as the near-set eyes tapped across her face.
She ignored it as best she could and asked, “How senior are you in the Brothers of Liberty?”
“I’m pretty near the top. You know anything about it?”
“I’d love to tell you. You’re smart, Ms. Firecracker. You’d probably think there’re some pretty all right ideas we’ve got.”
“I’m not sure I would.”
A one-shoulder shrug—another of his baseline gestures. “But you never know.”
Then came more questions about his life in Oakland, his prior convictions, his childhood. Dance knew the answers to some but the others were such that he’d have no reason to lie and she continued to rack up elements of baseline body language and verbal quality (the tone and speed of speech).
She snuck a glance at the clock.
“Time’s got you rattled, does it?”
“You’re planning to kill a lot of people. Yes, that bothers me. But not you, I see.”
“Ha, now you’re sounding just like a therapist. I was in counseling once. It didn’t take.”
“Let’s talk about what you have planned, the two hundred people you’re going to kill.”
“Two hundred and change.”
So, more victims. His behavior fit the baseline. This was true; he wasn’t just boasting.
“How many more?”
“Two hundred twenty, I’d guess.”
An idea occurred to Dance and she said, “I’ve told you we’re not releasing Osmond Carter. That will never be on the table.”
“Your loss… well, not yours. Two hundred and some odd people’s loss.”
“And killing them is only going to make your organization a pariah, a—”
“I know what ‘pariah’ means. Go on.”
“Don’t you think it would work to your advantage, from a publicity point of view, if you call off the attack, or tell me the location now?”
He hesitated. “Maybe. That could be, yeah.” Then his eyes brightened. “Now, I’m not inclined to call anything off. That’d look bad. Or tell you direct where this thing’s going to happen. But you being Ms. Firecracker and all, how ‘bout I give you a chance to figure it out. We’ll play a game.”
“Twenty Questions. I’ll answer honestly, I swear I will.”
Sometimes that last sentence was a deception flag. Now, she didn’t think so.
“And if you find out where those two hundred and ten folks’re going to meet Jesus… then good for you. I can honestly say I didn’t tell you. But you only get twenty questions. You don’t figure it out, get the morgue ready. You want to play, Kathryn? If not, I’ll just decide I want my lawyer and hope I’m next to a TV in—” He looked at the clock. “—one hour and forty-one minutes.”
“All right, let’s play,” Dance said, and she subtly wiped the sweat that had dotted her palms. How on earth to frame twenty questions to narrow down where the attack would take place? She’d never been in an interrogation like this.
He sat forward. “This’ll be fun!”
“Is the attack going to be an explosive device?”
“Question one—I’ll keep count. No.”
“What will it be?”
“That’s question two but, sorry, you know Twenty Questions: has to be yes or no answers. But I’ll give you a do-over.”
“Will it be a chemical/bio weapon?”
“Sorta cheating there, a twofer. But I’ll say yes.”
“Is it going to be in a place open to the public?”
“Number three. Yes, sorta public. Let’s say, there’ll be public access.”
He was telling the truth. All his behavior and the pitch and tempo of voice bore out his honesty. But what did he mean by public access but not quite public?
“Is it an entertainment venue?”
“Question four. Well, not really, but there will be entertainment there.”
He scoffed. “That’s five. Are you asking questions wisely, Ms. Firecracker? You’ve used a quarter of them already. You could have combined Christmas and entertainment. Anyway, yes, Christmas is involved.”
Dance thought this curious. The Brothers of Liberty apparently had a religious side, even if they weren’t born-again fanatics. She would have thought the target might be Islamic or Jewish.
“Have the victims done anything to your organization personally?”
Thinking police or law enforcement or government.
“You’re targeting them on ideological grounds?”
She asked, “Will it be in Monterey County?”
“Number eight. Yes.”
“In the city of…” No, if she followed those lines of questioning, she’d use up all the questions just asking about the many towns and unincorporated areas in Monterey County. “Will it be near the water?”
“Sloppy question. Expect better from you Ms. Firecracker. Do-over. Near the what?”
Stupid of her, Dance realized, her heart pounding. There were a number of bodies of water and rivers in the area. And don’t ask about the ocean. Technically, Monterey wasn’t on the Pacific. “Will it be within a half mile of Monterey Bay?”
“Good!” he said, enjoying himself. “Yes. That was nine. Almost halfway there.”
And she could see he was telling the truth completely. Every answer was delivered according to his kinesic baseline.
“Do you and Gabe Paulson have a partner helping you in the event?”
One eyebrow rose. “Yes. Number ten. You’re halfway to saving all them poor folks, Kathryn.”
“Is the third person a member of the Brothers of Liberty?”
She was thinking hard, unsure how to finesse the partner’s existence into helpful information. She changed tack. “Do the victims need tickets to get into the venue?”
“Twelve. I want to play fair. I honestly don’t know. But they did have to sign up and pay. That’s more than I should give you, but I’m enjoying this.” And indeed it seemed that Keplar was.
She was beginning to form some ideas.
“Is the venue a tourist attraction?”
“Thirteen. Yes, I’d say so. At least near tourist attractions.”
Now she felt safe using one of her geographical questions. “Is it in the city of Monterey?”
Dance kept her own face neutral. What else should she be asking? If she could narrow it down a bit more, and if Michael O’Neil and his crime scene team came up with other details, they might cobble together a clear picture of where the attack would take place then evacuate every building in the area.
“How you doing there, Kathryn? Feeling the excitement of a good game? I sure am.” He looked at the clock. Dance did, too. Hell, time had sped by during this exchange. It was now 2:42.
She didn’t respond to his question, but tried a different tack. “Do your close friends know what you’re doing?”
He frowned. “You want to use question sixteen for that? Well, your choice. Yes.”
“Do they approve?”
“Yes, all of them. Seventeen. Getting all you need here, Kathryn? Seems you’re getting off track.”
But she wasn’t. Dance had another strategy. She was comfortable with the information she had—tourist area, near the water, a paid-for event, Christmas related, a few other facts—and with what O’Neil found, she hoped they could narrow down areas to evacuate. Now she was hoping to convince him to confess by playing up the idea raised earlier. That by averting the attack he’d still score some good publicity but wouldn’t have to go to jail forever or die by lethal injection. Even if she lost the Twenty Questions game, which seemed likely, she was getting him to think about the people he was close to, friends and family he could still spend time with—if he stopped the attack.
“And family—do your siblings approve?”
“Question eighteen. Don’t have any. I’m an only child. You only got two questions left, Kathryn. Spend ‘em wisely.”
Dance hardly heard the last sentences. She was stunned.
His behavior when he’d made the comment about not having siblings—a bald lie—was identical to that of the baseline.
During the entire game he’d been lying.
Their eyes met. “Tripped up there, didn’t I?” He laughed hard. “We’re off the grid so much, didn’t think you knew about my family. Shoulda been more careful.”
“Everything you just told me was a lie.”
“Thin air. Whole cloth. Pick your cliché, Ms. Firecracker. Had to run the clock. There’s nothing on God’s green earth going to save those people.”
She understood now what a waste of time this had been. Wayne Keplar was probably incapable of being kinesically analyzed. The Ten Commandments Principle didn’t apply in his case. Keplar felt no more stress lying than he did telling the truth. Like serial killers and schizophrenics, political extremists often feel they are doing what’s right, even if those acts are criminal or reprehensible to others. They’re convinced of their own moral rectitude.
“Look at it from my perspective. Sure, we would’ve gotten some press if I’d confessed. But you know reporters—they’d get tired of the story after a couple days. Two hundred dead folk? Hell, we’ll be on CNN for weeks. You can’t buy publicity like that.”
Dance pushed back from the table and, without a word, stepped outside.
# # #
Michael O’Neil sprinted past ghosts.
The Monterey area is a place where apparitions from the past are ever present.
The Ohlone Native Americans, the Spanish, the railroad barons, the commercial fisherman… all gone.
And the soldiers, too, who’d inhabited Fort Ord and the other military facilities that once dotted the Monterey Peninsula and defined the economy and the culture.
Gasping and sweating despite the chill and mist, O’Neil jogged past the remnants of barracks and classrooms and training facilities, some intact, some sagging, some collapsed.
Past vehicle pool parking lots, supply huts, rifle ranges, parade grounds.
Past signs that featured faded skulls and crossed bones and pink explosions.
The suspect wove through the area desperately and the chase was exhausting. The land had been bulldozed flat in the 1930s and forties for the construction of the base but the dunes had reclaimed much of the landscape, rippled mounds of blond sand, some of them four stories high.
The perp made his way through these valleys in a panicked run, falling often, as did O’Neil because of the dicey traction—and the fast turns and stop-and-go sprinting when what looked like a potential explosives stash loomed.
O’Neil debated about parking a slug in the man’s leg, though that’s technically a no-no. Besides, O’Neil couldn’t afford to miss and kill him.
The suspect chugged along, gasping, red-faced, the deadly backpack over his shoulder bouncing.
Finally, O’Neil heard the thud thud thud of rotors moving in.
He reflected that a chopper was the only smart way to pursue somebody through an area like this, even if it wasn’t technically a minefield. The birds wouldn’t trip the explosives, as long as they hovered.
And what were the odds that he himself would detonate some ordnance, mangling his legs?
What about the kids then?
What about his possible life with Kathryn Dance?
He decided that those questions were pointless. This was military ordnance. He’d end up not an amputee but a mass of red jelly.
The chopper moved closer. God, they were loud. He’d forgotten that.
The suspect stopped, glanced back and then turned right, disappearing fast behind a dune.
Was it a trap? O’Neil started forward slowly. But he couldn’t see clearly. The chopper was raising a turbulent cloud of dust and sand. O’Neil waved it back. He pointed his weapon ahead of him and began to approach the valley down which the perp had disappeared.
The helicopter hovered closer yet. The pilot apparently hadn’t seen O’Neil’s hand gestures. The sandstorm grew more fierce. Some completely indiscernible words rattled from a loudspeaker.
“Back, back!” O’Neil called, uselessly.
Then, in front of him, he noticed what seemed to be a person’s form, indistinct in the miasma of dust and sand. The figure was moving in.
Blinking, trying to clear his eyes, he aimed his pistol. “Freeze!”
Putting some pressure on the trigger. The gun was double-action now and it would take a bit of poundage to fire the first round.
Shoot, he told himself.
But there was too much dust to be sure this was in fact the perp. What if it was a hostage or a lost hiker?
He crouched and staggered forward.
Damn chopper! Grit clotted his mouth.
Which was when a second silhouette, smaller, detached from the first and seemed to fly through the gauzy air toward him.
The blue backpack struck him in the face. He fell backward, tumbling to the ground, the bag resting beside his legs. Choking on the sand, Michael O’Neil thought how ironic it was that he’d survived a UXO field only to be blown to pieces with a bomb the perp had brought with him.
# # #
The Bankers’ Association holiday party was underway. It had started, as they always did, a little early. Who wanted to deny loans or take care of the massive paperwork of approved ones when the joy of the season beckoned?
Carol and Hal were greeting the CCCBA members at the door, showing them where to hang coats, giving them gift bags and making sure the bar and snacks were in good supply.
The place did look magical. She’d opted to close the curtains—on a nice summer day the water view might be fine but the fog had descended and the scenery was gray and gloomy. Inside, though, with the holiday lights and dimmed overheads, the banquet room took on a warm, comfy tone.
Hal was walking around in his conservative suit, white shirt andoversized Santa hat. People sipped wine and punch, snapped digital pictures and clustered, talking about politics and sports and shopping and impending vacations.
Also, a lot of comments about interest rates, the Fed, and the euro.
With bankers you couldn’t get away from shop talk. Ever.
“We heard there’s a surprise, Carol,” one of the members called.
“What?” came another voice.
“Be patient,” she said, laughing. “If I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise, now would it?”
When the party seemed to be spinning along on its own, she walked to the stage and tested the PA system once again. Yes, it was working fine.
The “surprise” depended on it. She’d arranged for the chorus from one of her grandson’s high schools to go up on stage and present a holiday concert, traditional and modern Christmas and Hanukkah songs. She glanced at her watch. The kids would arrive at about 3:45. She’d heard the youngsters before and they were very good.
Carol laughed to herself, recalling the entertainment at last year’s party. Herb Ross, a VP at First People’s Trust, who’d injected close to a quart of the “special” punch, had climbed on the table to sing—and even worse (or better, for later water cooler stories) to act out—the entire Twelve Days of Christmas himself, the leaping lords being the high point.
# # #
Kathryn Dance spent a precious ten minutes texting and talking to a number of people in the field and here at headquarters.
It seemed that outside the surreality of the interrogation room, the investigation hadn’t moved well at all. Monterey’s Forensic Services Unit was still analyzing trace connected with the Taurus and the suspects’ pocket litter and Abbott Calderman said they might not have any answers for another ten or fifteen minutes.
Lord, she thought.
Michael O’Neil, when last heard from, had been pursuing the third conspirator in the abandoned army base. A police chopper had lost him in a cloud of dust and sand. She’d had a brief conversation with FBI agent Steve Nichols in a nearby mobile command post, who’d said, “This Paulson isn’t saying anything. Not a word. Just stares at me. I’d like to waterboard him.”
“We don’t do that,” Dance had reminded.
“I’m just daydreaming,” Nichols had muttered and hung up.
Now, returning to the interrogation room with Wayne Keplar, Dance looked at the clock on the wall.
“Hey,” said Wayne Keplar, eyeing it briefly, then turning his gaze to Dance. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”
Dance sat across the table from him. It was clear she wasn’t going to power a confession out of him, so she didn’t bother with the tradecraft of kinesic interviewing. She said, “I’m sure it’s no surprise that, before, I tried to analyze your body language and was hoping to come up with a way to pressure you into telling me what you and Gabe and your other associate had planned.”
“Didn’t know that about the body language. But makes sense.”
“Now I want to do something else, and I’m going to tell you exactly what that is. No tricks.”
“Shoot. I’m game.”
Dance had decided that traditional analysis and interrogation wouldn’t work with someone like Wayne Keplar. His lack of affect, his fanatic’s belief in the righteousness of his cause made kinesics useless. Content-based analysis wouldn’t do much good either; this is body language’s poor cousin, seeking to learn whether a suspect is telling the truth by considering if what he says makes sense. But Keplar was too much in control to let slip anything that she might parse for clues about deception and truth.
So she was doing something radical.
Dance now said, “I want to prove to you that your beliefs—what’s motivating you and your group to perform this attack—they’re wrong.”
He lifted an eyebrow. Intrigued.
This was a ludicrous idea for an interrogator. One should never argue substance with a suspect. If a man is accused of killing his wife, your job is to determine the facts and, if it appears that he did indeed commit murder, get a confession or at least gather enough information to help investigators secure his conviction.
There’s no point in discussing the right or wrong of what he did, much less the broader philosophical questions of taking lives in general or violence against women, say.
But that was exactly what she was going to do now.
Poking the inside of his cheek with his tongue once more, thoughtful, Keplar said, “Do you even know what our beliefs are?”
“I read the Brothers of Liberty website. I—”
“You like the graphics? Cost a pretty penny.”
A glance at the wall. 3:14.
Dance continued. “You advocate smaller government, virtually no taxes, decentralized banking, no large corporations, reduced military, religion in public schools. And that you have the right to violent civil disobedience. Along with some racial and ethnic theories that went out of fashion in the 1860s.”
“Well, ‘bout that last one—truth is, we just throw that in to get checks from rednecks and border control nuts. Lot of us don’t really feel that way. But, Ms. Firecracker, you done your homework, sounds like. We’ve got more positions than you can shake a stick at but those’ll do for a start… So, argue away. This’s gonna be as much fun as Twenty Questions. But just remember, maybe I’ll talk you into my way of thinking, hanging up that tin star of yours and coming over to the good guys. What do you think about that?”
“I’ll stay open-minded, if you will.”
She thought back to what she’d read on the group’s website. “You talk about the righteousness of the individual. Agree up to a point, but we can’t survive as individuals alone. We need government. And the more people we have, with more economic and social activity, the more we need a strong central government to make sure we’re safe to go about our lives.”
“That’s sad, Kathryn.”
“Sure. I have more faith in humankind than you do, sounds like. We’re pretty capable of taking care of ourselves. Let me ask you: You go to the doctor from time to time, right?”
“But not very often, right? Pretty rare, hmm? More often with the kids, I’ll bet.Sure, you have kids. I can tell.”
She let this go with no reaction.
“But what does the doctor do? Short of broken bone to set, the doctor tells you pretty much to do what your instinct told you. Take some aspirin, go to bed, drink plenty of fluids, eat fiber, go to sleep. Let the body take care of itself. And 99 percent of the time, those ideas work.” His eyes lit up. “That’s what government should do: Leave us alone 99 percent of the time.”
“And what about the other 1 percent?” Dance asked.
“I’ll give you that we need, let’s see, highways, airports, national defense… Ah, but what’s that last word? ‘Defense.’ You know, they used to call it the ‘War Department.’ Well, then some public relations fellas got involved and ‘War’ wouldn’t do anymore, so they changed it. But that’s a lie. See, it’s not just defense. We go poking our noses into places that we have no business being.”
“The government regulates corporations that would exploit people.”
He scoffed. “The government helps ‘em do it. How many congressmen go to Washington poor and come back rich? Most of them.”
“But you’re okay with some taxes?”
He shrugged. “To pay for roads, air traffic control and defense.”
“The SEC for regulating stocks?”
“We don’t need stocks. Ask your average Joe what the stock market is and they’ll tell ya it’s a way to make money or put something away for your retirement fund. They don’t realize that that’s not what it’s for. The stock market’s there to let people buy a company, like you’d go to a used car lot to buy a car. And why do you want to buy a company? Beats me. Maybe a few people’d buy stock because they like what the company does or they want to support a certain kind of business. That’s not what people want them for. Do away with stocks altogether. Learn to live off the land.”
“You’re wrong, Wayne. Look at all the innovations corporations have created: the life-saving drugs, the medical supplies, the computers… that’s what companies have done.”
“Sure, and iPhones and BlackBerrys and laptops have replaced parents, and kids learn their family values at porn sites.”
“What about government providing education?”
“Ha! That’s another racket. Professors making a few hundred thousand dollars a year for working eight months, and not working very hard at that. Teachers who can hardly put a sentence together themselves. Tell me, Kathryn, are you happy handing over your youngsters to somebody you see at one or two PTA meetings a year? Who knows what the hell they’re poisoning their minds with.”
She said nothing, but hoped her face wasn’t revealing that from time to time she did indeed have those thoughts.
Keplar continued, “No, I got two words for you there. ‘Home schooling.’ ”
“You don’t like the police, you claim. But we’re here to make sure you and your family’re safe. We’ll even make sure the Brothers of Liberty is free to go about your business and won’t be discriminated against and won’t be the victim of hate crimes.”
“Police state… Think on this, Ms. Firecracker. I don’t know what you do exactly here in this fancy building, but tell me true. You put your life on the line every day and for what? Oh, maybe you stop some crazy serial killer from time to time or save somebody in a kidnapping. But mostly cops just put on their fancy cop outfits and go bust some poor kids with drugs but never get to why of it. What’s the reason they were scoring pot or coke in the first place? Because the government and the institutions of this country failed them.”
“So you don’t like the federal government. But it’s all relative, isn’t it? Go back to the eighteenth century. We weren’t just a mass of individuals. There was state government and they were powerful. People had to pay taxes, they were subject to laws, they couldn’t take their neighbors’ property, they couldn’t commit incest, they couldn’t steal. Everybody accepted that. The federal government today is just a bigger version of the state governments in the 1700s.”
“Ah, good, Kathryn. I’ll give you that.” He nodded agreeably. “But we think state and even local laws are too much.”
“So you’re in favor of no laws?”
“Let’s just say a lot, lot less.”
Dance leaned forward, with her hands together. “Then let’s talk about your one belief that’s the most critical now: violence to achieve your ends. I’ll grant you that you have the right to hold whatever beliefs you want—and not get arrested for it. Which, by the way, isn’t true in a lot of countries.”
“We’re the best,” Keplar agreed. “But that’s still not good enough for us.”
“But violence is hypocritical.”
He frowned at this. “How so?”
“Because you take away the most important right of an individual—his life—when you kill him in the name of your views. How can you be an advocate of individuals and yet be willing to destroy them at the same time?”
His head bobbed up and down. A tongue poke again. “That’s good, Kathryn. Yes.”
She lifted her eyebrows.
Keplar added, “And there’s something to it… Except you’re missing one thing. Those people we’re targeting? They’re not individuals. They’re part of the system, just like you.”
“So you’re saying it’s okay to kill them because they’re, what? Not even human?”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself, Ms. Firecracker.” His eyes strayed to the wall. 3:34.
# # #
The helicopter set down in a parking lot of the outlet mall in Seaside and Michael O’Neil and a handcuffed suspect—no ID on him—climbed out.
O’Neil was bleeding from a minor cut on the head incurred when he scrabbled into a cluster of scrub oaks trees escaping the satchel bomb.
Which turned out to be merely a distraction.
No IEDs, no anthrax.
The satchel was filled with sand.
The perp had apparently disposed of whatever noxious substance it contained on one of his crosscut turns and weaves, and the evidence or bomb or other clue was lost in the sand.
The chopper’s downdraft hadn’t helped either.
What was most disappointing, though, was that the man had clammed up completely.
O’Neil was wondering if he was actually mute. He hadn’t said a word during the chase or after the detective had tackled and cuffed him and dragged him to the helicopter. Nothing O’Neil could say—promises or threats—could get the man to talk.
The detective handed him over to fellow Monterey County Sheriff’s Office deputies. A fast search revealed no ID. They took his prints, which came back negative from the field scanner, and the man was processed under a John Doe as “UNSUB A.”
The blond woman with the big soda cup—now mostly empty—who’d spotted him in the crowd now identified him formally and she left.
The crime scene boss strode up to O’Neil. “Don’t have much but I’ll say that the Taurus had recently spent some time on or near the beach along a stretch five miles south of Moss Landing.” Calderman explained that because of the unique nature of cooling water from the power plant at Moss Landing, and the prevailing currents and fertilizer from some of the local farms, he could pinpoint that part of the county.
If five miles could be called pinpointing.
“Nope. That’s it. Might get more in the lab.” Calderman nodded to his watch. “But there’s no time left.”
O’Neil called Kathryn, whose mobile went right to voice mail. He texted her the information. He then looked over at the smashed Taurus, the emergency vehicles, the yellow tape stark in the gray foggy afternoon. He was thinking: It wasn’t unheard of for crime scenes to raise more questions than answers.
But why the hell did it have to be this one, when so little time remained to save the two hundred victims?
# # #
Hands steady as a rock, Harriet Keplar was driving the car she’d stolen from the parking lot at the outlet mall.
But even as her grip was firm, her heart was in turmoil. Her beloved brother, Wayne, and her sometimes lover, Gabe Paulson, were in custody. After the bomb detonated shortly, she’d never see them again, except at trial--given Wayne’s courage, she suspected he’d plead not guilty simply so he could get up on the stand and give the judge, jury and press an earful, rather than work a deal with the prosecutor.
She pulled her glasses out of her hair and regarded her watch. Not long now. It was ten minutes to the Dunes Inn, which had been their staging area. And would have been where they’d wait out the next few days, watching the news. But now, sadly, Plan B was in effect. She’d go back to collect all the documents, maps, extra equipment and remaining explosives and get the hell back to Oakland. She bet there was a goddamn snitch within the Brothers of Liberty up there—how else would the police have known as much as they did?—and Harriet was going to find him.
It was a good thing they’d decided to split up behind the outlet mall. As the Taurus had temporarily evaded the Highway Patrol trooper and skidded to a stop, Harriet in the backseat, Wayne decided they had to make sure somebody got back to the motel and ditched the evidence—which implicated some very senior people at the BOL.
She jumped out with the backpack containing extra detonators and wires and tools and phony IDs that let them get into the banquet hall where the CCCBA was having their party. Harriet had been going to hijack a car and head back to the Dunes Inn, but the asshole of a trooper had rammed Gabe and Wayne. And police had descended.
She’d slipped into a Burger King, to let the dust settle. She’d ditched the contents of the satchel, but, to her dismay, the police were spreading out and talking to everybody at the mall. Harriet decided she had to find a fall guy to take attention away from her. She’d spotted a solo shopper, a man about her height with light hair—in case the trooper had seen her in the backseat. She stuck her Glock in his ribs, pulling him behind the BK, then grabbed his wallet. She found a picture of three spectacularly plain children and made a fake call on her mobile to an imaginary assistant, telling him to get to the poor guy’s house and round up the kidlings.
If he didn’t do exactly as she said, they’d be shot, oldest to youngest. His wife would be the last to go.
She got his car keys and told him to stand in the crowd. If any cops came to talk to him he was to run and if he was caught he should throw the pack at them and keep running. If he got stopped he should say nothing. She, of course, was going to dime him out—and when the police went after him she would have a chance to take his car and leave. It would have worked fine, except that goddamn detective—O’Neil was his name—had her stay put so she could formally ID the sandy-haired guy. Oh, how she wanted to get the hell out of there. But she couldn’t arouse suspicion, so Harriet had cooled her heels, sucking down Diet Coke, and tried to wrestle with the anger and sorrow about her brother and Gabe.
Then O’Neil and the poor bastard had returned. She’d IDed him with a fierce glance of warning and given them some fake information on how to reach her.
And now she was in his car, heading back to the Dunes Inn.
Oh, Wayne, I’ll miss you! Gabe, too.
The motel loomed. She sped into the parking lot and braked to a stop.
She was then aware of an odd vibration under her hands. The steering column. What was it?
A problem with the car?
She shut the engine off but the vibration grew louder.
Leaves began to move and the dust swirled like a tornado in the parking lot.
And Harriet understood. Oh, shit.”
She pulled her Glock from her bag and sprinted toward the motel door, firing blindly at the helicopter as it landed in the parking lot. Several officers and, damn it, that detective, O’Neil, charged toward her. “Drop the weapon, drop the weapon!”
She hesitated and laid the gun and her keychain on the ground. Then she dropped facedown beside them.
Harriet was cuffed and pulled to her feet.
O’Neil was approaching, his weapon drawn and looking for accomplices. A cluster of cops dressed like soldiers was slowly moving toward the motel room.
“Anyone in there?” he asked.
“It was just the three of you?”
The detective called, “Treat it dynamic in any case.”
“How’d you know?” she snapped.
He looked her over neutrally. “The cargo pants.”
“You described the man in the car and said one was wearing cargo pants. You couldn’t see the pants of somebody inside a car from sixty feet away. The angle was wrong.”
Hell, Harriet thought. Never even occurred to her.
O’Neil added that the man they’d believed was one of the conspirators was acting too nervous. “It occurred to me that he might’ve been set up. He told me what you’d done. We tracked his car here with his GPS.” O’Neil was going through her purse. “You’re his sister, Wayne’s.”
“I’m not saying anything else.” Harriet was distracted, her eyes taking in the motel room.
O’Neil caught it and frowned. He glanced down at her keychain, which held both a fob for her car and the second one.
She caught his eye and smiled.
“IED in the room!” he called. “Everybody back! Now.”
It wasn’t an explosive device, just a gas bomb Gabe had rigged in the event something like this happened. It had been burning for three minutes or so—she’d pushed the remote control the second she’d seen the chopper—but the smoke and flames weren’t yet visible.
Then a bubble of fire burst through two of the windows.
Armed with extinguishers, the tactical team hurried inside to salvage what they could, then retreated as the flames swelled. One officer called, “Michael! We spotted a box of plastic explosive detonators, some timers.”
Another officer ran up to O’Neil and showed him what was left of a dozen scorched documents. They were the floor plan for the site of the attack at the CCCBA party. He studied it. “A room with a stage. Could be anywhere. A corporation, school, hotel, restaurant.” He sighed.
Harriet panicked, then relaxed, as she snuck a glimpse and noted that the name of the motel was on a part of the sheet that had burned to ash.
“Where is this?” O’Neil asked her bluntly.
Harriet studied it for a moment and shook her head. “I’ve never seen that before. You planted it to incriminate me. The government does that all the time.”
# # #
At the Bankers’ party the high school students arrived, looking scrubbed and festive, all in uniforms, which Carol approved of. Tan slacks and blazers for the boys, plaid skirts and white blouses for the girls.
They were checking out the treats—and the boys were probably wondering if they could cop a spiked punch—but would refrain from anything until after the twenty-minute concert. The kids took their music seriously and sweets tended to clog the throat, her grandson had explained.
She hugged the blond, good-looking boy and shook the hand of the chorus director.
“Everyone, everyone!” she called. “Take your seats.”
And the children climbed up on stage, taking their positions.
# # #
The clock in the interrogation room registered 3:51.
Dance broke off the debate for a moment and read and sent several text messages, as Wayne Keplar watched with interest.
“Your expression tells me the news isn’t good. Not making much headway elsewhere?”
Kathryn Dance didn’t respond. She slipped her phone away. “I’m not finished with our discussion, Wayne. Now, I pointed out you were hypocritical to kill the very people you purport to represent.”
“And I pointed out a hole a mile wide with that argument.”
“Killing also goes against another tenet of yours.”
Wayne Keplar said calmly, “How so?”
“You want religion taught in school. So you must be devout. Well, killing the innocent is a sin.”
He snickered. “Oh, please, Ms. Firecracker. Read the Bible sometime: God smites people for next to nothing. Because somebody crosses Him or to get your attention. Or because it’s Tuesday, I don’t know. You think everybody drowned in Noah’s flood was guilty of something?”
“So al-Qaeda’s terrorist tactics are okay?”
“Well, al-Qaeda itself—’cause they want the strongest government of all. It’s called a theocracy. No respect for individuals. But their tactics? Hell, yes. I admire the suicide bombers. If I was in charge, though, I’d reduce all Islamic countries to smoking nuclear craters.”
Kathryn Dance looked desperately at the clock, which showed nearly 3:57.
She rubbed her face as her shoulders slumped. Her weary eyes pleaded. “Is there anything I can say to talk you into stopping this?”
“No, you can’t. Sometimes the truth is more important than the individuals. But,” he added with a sincere look. “Kathryn, I want to say that I appreciate one thing.”
No more Ms. Firecracker.
“What’s that?” she said in a whisper, eyes on the clock.
“You took me seriously. That talk we just had. You disagree, but you treated me with respect.”
Both law officer and suspect remained motionless, staring at the clock.
A phone in the room rang. She leaned over and hit the speaker button fast. “Yes?”
The staticky voice, a man’s. “Kathryn, it’s Albert. I’m sorry to have to tell you…”
She sighed. “Go on.”
“It was an IED, plastic of some sort… We don’t have the count yet. Wasn’t as bad as it could be. Seems the device was under a stage and that absorbed some of the blast. But we’re still looking at fifteen or so dead, maybe fifty injured… Hold on. CHP’s calling. I’ll get back to you.”
Dance disconnected, closed her eyes briefly then glared at Keplar. “How could you?”
Wayne frowned; he wasn’t particularly triumphant. “I’m sorry, Kathryn. This is the way it had to be. It’s a war out there. Besides, score one for your side—only fifteen dead. We screwed up.”
Dance shivered in anger. But she calmly said, “Let’s go.”
She rose and knocked on the door. It opened immediately and two large CBI agents came in, also glaring. One reshackled Keplar’s hands behind him, hoping, it seemed, for an excuse to Taser the prisoner. But the man was the epitome of decorum.
One agent muttered to Dance, “Just heard, the death count’s up to--”
She waved him silent, as if denying Keplar the satisfaction of knowing the extent of his victory.
# # #
She led the prisoner out the back of CBI, toward a van that would ultimately transport him to the Salinas lockup.
“We’ll have to move fast,” she told the other agents. “There’re going to be a lot of people who’d like to take things into their own hands.”
The area was largely deserted. But just then Dan Simmons, the blogger who’d pestered Dance earlier, the Jude Law lookalike, peered around the edge of the building as if he’d been checking every few minutes to see if they’d make a run for it this way. Simmons hurried toward them, along with his unwashed cameraman.
Dance ignored him.
Simmons asked, “Agent Dance, could you comment on the failure of law enforcement to stop the bombing in time?”
She said nothing and kept ushering Keplar toward the van.
“Do you think this will be the end of your career?”
“Wayne, do you have anything to say?” the blog reporter asked.
Eyes on the camera lens, Keplar called, “It’s about time the government started listening to people like Osmond Carter. This never would have happened if he hadn’t been illegally arrested!”
“Wayne, what do you have to say about killing innocent victims?”
“Sacrifices have to be made,” he called.
Simmons called, “But why these particular victims? What’s the message you’re trying to send?”
“That maybe bankers shouldn’t be throwing themselves fancy holiday parties with the money they’ve stolen from the working folk of this country. The financial industry’s been raping citizens for years. They claim—”
“Okay, hold it,” Dance snapped to the agents flanking Keplar, who literally jerked him to a stop.
Dance was pulling out a walkie-talkie. “Michael, it’s Kathryn, you read me?”
“Four by four. We’ve got six choppers and the entire peninsula com network standing by. You’re patched in to all emergency frequencies. What do you have?”
“The target’s a party—Christmas, I’d guess—involving bankers, or savings and loan people, bank regulators, something like that. It is a bomb and it’s under the stage in that room you texted me about.”
Wayne Keplar stared at her, awash in confusion.
A half dozen voices shot from her radio, variations of “Roger… Copy that… Checking motels with banquet rooms in the target zone, south of Moss Landing… Contacting all banks in the target zone.”
“What is this?” Keplar raged.
Everyone ignored him.
A long several minutes passed, Dance standing motionless, head down, listening to the intersecting voices through the radio. And then: “This is Major Rodriguez, CHP. We’ve got it! Central Coast Bankers’ Association, annual Christmas party, Monterey Bay Seaside Motel. They’re evacuating now.”
Wayne Keplar’s eyes grew wide as he stared at Dance. “But the bomb…” He glanced at Dance’s wrist and those of the other officers. They’d all removed their watches, so Keplar couldn’t see the real time. He turned to an agent and snapped, “What the hell time is it?”
“About ten to four,” replied Dan Simmons, the reporter.
He blurted to Dance, “The clock? In the interrogation room?”
“Oh,” she said, guiding him to the prisoner transport van. “It was fast.”
# # #
A half hour later Michael O’Neil arrived from the motel where the bankers’ party had been interrupted.
He explained that everyone got out safely, but there’d been no time to try to render the device safe. The explosion was quite impressive. The material was probably Semtex, Abbott Calderman had guessed, judging from the smell. The Forensic Services head explained to O’Neil that it was the only explosive ever to have its own FAQ on the Internet, which answered questions like: Was it named after an idyllic, pastoral village? (yes). Was it mass produced and shipped throughout the world, as the late President Vaclav Havel claimed? (no). And was Semtex the means by which its inventor committed suicide? (not exactly—yes, an employee at the plant did blow himself up intentionally, but he had not been one of the inventors).
Dance smiled as O’Neil recounted this trivia.
Steve Nichols of the FBI called and told her they were on the way to the CBI to deliver the other suspect, Gabe Paulson. He explained that since she’d broken the case, it made sense for her to process all the suspects. There would be federal charges—mostly related to the explosives—but those could be handled later.
As they waited in the parking lot for Nichols to arrive, O’Neil asked, “So, how’d you do it? All I know is you called me about three, I guess, and told me to get choppers and a communications team ready. You hoped to have some details about the location of the attack in about forty-five minutes. But you didn’t tell me what was going on.”
“I didn’t have much time,” Dance explained. “What happened was I found out, after wasting nearly an hour, that Keplar was kinesics proof. So I had to trick him. I took a break at three and talked to our technical department. Seems you can speed up analog clocks by changing the voltage and the frequency of the current in the wiring. They changed the current in that part of the building so the clock started running fast.”
O’Neil smiled. “That was the byword for this case, remember. You said it yourself.”
And remember: We have two and a half hours. We’ve got to move fast…
Dance continued, “I remembered when we got to CBI Keplar started lecturing Dan Simmons about his cause.”
“Oh, that obnoxious reporter and blogger?”
“Right. I called him and said that if he asked Keplar why he picked those particular victims, I’d give him an exclusive interview. And I called you to set up the search teams. Then I went back into the interrogation. I had to make sure Keplar didn’t notice the clock was running fast so I started debating philosophy with him.”
“Well, Wikipedia Philosophy. Not the real stuff.”
“Probably real enough nowadays.”
She continued, “You and the crime scene people found out that it was probably a bomb and that it was planted in a large room with a stage. When the clock hit four in the interrogation room, I had Albert call me and pretend a bomb had gone off and killed people but the stage had absorbed a lot of the blast. That was just enough information so that Keplar believed it had really happened. Then all I had to do was perp walk him past Simmons, who asked why those particular victims. Keplar couldn’t keep himself from lecturing.
“Sure was close.”
True. Ten minutes meant the difference between life and death for two hundred people, though fate sometimes allowed for even more narrow margins.
One of the FBI’s black SUVs now eased to a stop beside Dance and O’Neil.
Steve Nichols and another agent climbed out and helped their shackled prisoner out. A large bandage covered much of his head and the side of his face. O’Neil stared at him silently.
The FBI agent said, “Kathryn, good luck with this fellow. Wish you the best but he’s the toughest I’ve ever seen—and I’ve been up against al-Qaeda and some of the Mexican cartel drug lords. They’re Chatty Cathy compared with him. Not a single word. Just sits and stares at you. He’s all yours.”
“I’ll do what I can, Steve. But I think there’s enough forensics to put everybody away for twenty years.”
The law enforcers said good-bye and the feds climbed into the Suburban, then sped out of the CBI lot.
Dance began to laugh.
So did the prisoner.
O’Neil asked, “So what’s going on?”
Dance stepped forward and undid the cuffs securing the wrists of her associate, TJ Scanlon. He removed the swaddling, revealing no injuries.
“Thanks, Boss. And by the way, those’re the first words I’ve said in three hours.”
Dance explained to O’Neil, “Gabe Paulson’s in a lot more serious condition than I let on. He was shot in the head during the takedown and’ll probably be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. Which might not be that long. I knew Nichols’d wanted to have a part of the case—and for all we knew at that point he had primary jurisdiction. I wanted to interrogate the only suspect we had—Keplar—so I needed to give Nichols someone. TJ volunteered to play Paulson.”
“So you just deceived the FBI.”
“Technically. I know Steve. He’s a brilliant agent. I’d trust him with anything except an interrogation with a deadline like this.”
“Three hours, Boss,” TJ said, rubbing his wrists. “Did I mention not speaking for three hours? That’s very hard for me.”
O’Neil asked, “Won’t he find out, see the pictures of the real Paulson in the press?”
“He was pretty bandaged up. And like I said, it may come back to haunt me. I’ll deal with it then.”
“I thought I was going to be waterboarded.”
“I told him not to do that.”
“Well, he didn’t share your directive with me. I think he would have liked to use cattle prods, too. Oh, and I would’ve given you up in five seconds, Boss. Just for the record.”
O’Neil left to return to his office in Salinas and Dance and TJ entered the CBI lobby, just as the head of the office, Charles Overby, joined them. “Here you are.”
The agents greeted the paunchy man who was in his typical work-a-day outfit: slacks and white shirt with sleeves rolled up, revealing tennis- and golf-tanned arms.
“Thanks, Kathryn. Appreciate what you did.”
“You were in the operation, too?” Overby asked TJ.
“That’s right. FBI liaison.”
Overby lowered his voice and said approvingly, “They don’t seem to want a cut of the action. Good for us.”
“I did what I could.” TJ said. Then the young man returned to his office, leaving Dance and her boss alone.
Overby turned to Dance. “I’ll need a briefing,” he said, nodding toward the reporters out front. A grimace. “Something to feed to them.”
Despite the apparent disdain, though, Overby was in fact looking forward to the press conference. He always did. He loved the limelight and would want to catch the 6:00 p.m. local news. He’d also hope to gin up interest in some national coverage.
Dance put her watch back on her wrist and looked at the time. “I can give you the bare bones, Charles, but I’ve got to see a subject in another matter. It’s got to be tonight. He leaves town tomorrow.”
There was a pause. “Well, if it’s critical…”
“All right. Get me a briefing sheet now and a full report in the morning.”
He started back to his office and asked, “This guy you’re meeting? You need any backup?”
“No thanks, Charles. It’s all taken care of.”
Heading to her own office, Kathryn Dance reflected on her impending mission tonight. If Overby had wanted a report on the attempted bombing for CBI headquarters in Sacramento or follow-up interrogations, she would have gladly done that, but since he was interested only in press releases, she decided to stick to her plans.
Which involved a call to her father, a retired marine biologist who worked part time at the aquarium. She was going to have him pull some strings to arrange special admission after hours for herself and the children tonight.
And the “subject” she’d told Overby she had to meet tonight before he left town? Not a drug lord or a terrorist or a confidential informant… but what was apparently the most imposing cephalopod ever to tour the Central Coast of California.
One Year Ago
The worst fear is the fear that follows you into your own home.
Fear you lock in with you when you latch the door at night.
Fear that cozies up to you twenty-four hours a day, relentless and arrogant, like cancer.
The diminutive woman, eighty-three years old, white hair tied back in a jaunty ponytail, sat at the window of her Upper East Side townhouse, looking out over the trim street, which was placid as always. But she herself was not. She was agitated and took no pleasure in the view she’d enjoyed for thirty years. The woman had fallen asleep last night thinking about the She-Beast and the He-Beast and she’d awakened thinking about them. She’d thought about them all morning and she thought about them still.
She sipped her tea and took some small pleasure in the sliver of autumn sunlight resting on her hands and arms. The flicker of gingko leaves outside, silver green, silver green. Was that all she had left? Minuscule comforts like this? And not very comforting at that.
Sarah Lieberman hadn’t quite figured out their game. But one thing was clear: Taking over her life was the goal—like a flag to be captured.
Three months ago Sarah had met the Westerfields at a fundraiser held at the Ninety-second Street Y. It was for a Jewish youth organization, though neither the name nor appearance of the two suggested that was their religious or ethnic background. Still, they had seemed right at home and referred to many of the board members of the youth group as if they’d been friends for years. They’d spent a solid hour talking to Sarah alone, seemingly fascinated with her life in the “Big Apple” (John’s phrase) and explaining how they’d come here from Kansas City to “consummate” (Miriam’s) several business ventures John had set up. “Real estate. That’s my game. Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.”
They’d had dinner at Marcel’s the next night, on Madison, with John dominating the five-foot-tall woman physically and Miriam doing the same conversationally, flanking Sarah in a booth in the back. She’d wanted her favorite table, which had room for three (yet was usually occupied by one) at the window. But the Westerfields had insisted and, why not? They’d made clear this was their treat.
The two were charming, informed in a Midwest, CNN kind of way, and enthusiastically curious about life in the city—and about her life in particular. Their eyes widened when they learned that Sarah had an apartment on the ground floor of the townhouse she owned on Seventy-fifth Street. Miriam asked if it was available. They’d been looking for a place to stay. The Mandarin Oriental was, Miriam offered, too expensive.
The garden apartment was on the market but was priced high—to keep out the riff-raff, she’d said, laughing. But she’d drop it to fair market value for the Westerfields.
Still, Sarah had learned about the world from her husband, a businessman who had successfully gone up against Leona Helmsley at one point. There were formalities to be adhered to and the real estate management company did their due diligence. They reported the references in the Midwest attested to the Westerfields’ finances and prior history.
There was, of course, that one bit of concern: It seemed a bit odd that a fifty-something-year-old mother and a son in his late twenties would be taking an apartment together, when neither one seemed disabled. But life circumstances are fluid. Sarah could imagine situations in which she might find herself living with a family member not a husband. Maybe Miriam’s husband had just died and this was temporary—until the emotional turbulence settled.
And Sarah certainly didn’t know what to make of the fact that while the garden apartment featured three bedrooms, when she and Carmel had brought tea down as the two tenants moved in, only one bedroom seemed to be put to that purpose. The other two were used for storage.
But Sarah thought the best of people, always had. The two had been nice to her and, most important, treated her like an adult. It was astonishing to Sarah how many people thought that once you reached seventy or eighty you were really an infant.
That you couldn’t order for yourself.
That you didn’t know who Lady Gaga was.
“Oh, my,” she’d nearly said to one patronizing waitress. “I’ve forgotten how this knife works. Could you cut up my food for me?”
For the first weeks the Westerfields seemed the model tenants. Respectful of landlady and premises, polite and quiet. That was important to Sarah, who’d always been a light sleeper. She didn’t see much of them.
Not at first.
But soon their paths began to cross with more and more frequency. Sarah would return from a shopping trip with Carmel or from a board meeting or luncheon at one of the nonprofits she was involved with and there would be Miriam and John on the front steps or, if the day was cool or wet, in the tiny lobby, sitting on the couch beside the mailboxes.
They brightened when they saw her and insisted she sit with them. They pelted her with stories and observations and jokes. And they could be counted on to ask questions relentlessly: What charities was she involved in, any family members still alive, close friends? New to the area, they asked her to recommend banks, lawyers, accountants, investment advisors, hinting at large reserves of cash they had to put to work soon.
A one-trick puppy, John pronounced solemnly: “Real estate is the way to go.”
It’s also a good way to get your balls handed to you, son, unless you’re very, very sharp. Sarah had not always been a demure, retiring widow.
She began to wonder if a Nigerian scam was looming, but they never pitched to her. Maybe they were what they seemed: oddballs from the Midwest, of some means, hoping for financial success here and an entrée into a New York society that had never really been available to people like them—and that people like them wouldn’t enjoy even if they were admitted.
Ultimately, Sarah decided, it was their style that turned her off. The charm of the first month faded.
Miriam, also a short woman though inches taller than Sarah, wore loud, glittery clothes that clashed with her dark-complexioned, leathery skin. If she didn’t focus, she tended to speak over and around the conversation, ricocheting against topics that had little to do with what you believed you were speaking about. She wouldn’t look you in the eye and she hovered close. Saying, “No, thanks,” to her was apparently synonymous with, “You betcha.”
“This big old town, Sarah,” Miriam would say, shaking her head gravely. “Don’t… you get tuckered out, ‘causa it?”
And the hesitation in that sentence hinted that the woman was really going to say “Don’t it tucker you out?”
John often wore a shabby sardonic grin, as if he’d caught somebody trying to cheat him. He was fleshy big, but strong, too. You could imagine his grainy picture in a newspaper above a story in which the word “snapped” appeared in a quote from a local sheriff.
If he wasn’t grumbling or snide, he’d be snorting as he told jokes, which were never very funny and usually bordered on being off-color.
But avoiding them was gasoline on a flame. When they sensed she was avoiding them they redoubled their efforts to graze their way into her life, coming to her front door at any hour, offering presents and advice… and always the questions about her. John would show up to take care of small handyman tasks around Sarah’s apartment. Carmel’s husband, Daniel, was the building’s part-time maintenance man, but John had befriended him and took over on some projects to give Daniel a few hours off here and there.
Sarah believed the Westerfields actually waited, hiding behind their own door, listening for the sound of footsteps padding down the stairs—and ninety-four-pound Sarah Lieberman was a very quiet padder. Still, when she reached the ground-floor lobby, the Westerfields would spring out, tall son and short mother, joining her as if this were a rendezvous planned for weeks.
If they steamed up to her on the street outside the townhouse, they attached themselves like leeches and no amount of “Better be going” or “Have a good day now” could dislodge them. She stopped inviting them into her own two-story apartment—the top two floors of the townhouse—but when they tracked her down outside they would simply walk in with her when she returned.
Miriam would take her groceries and put them away and John would sit forward on the couch with a glass of water his mother brought him and grin in that got-you way of his. Miriam sat down with tea or coffee for the ladies and inquired how Sarah was feeling, did she ever go out of town, did you read about that man a few years ago, Bernie Madoff? Are you careful about things like that, Sarah? I certainly am.
Oh, Lord, leave me alone…
Sarah spoke to the lawyer and real estate management agent and learned there was nothing she could do to evict them.
And the matter got worse. They’d accidentally let slip facts about Sarah’s life that they shouldn’t have known. Bank accounts she had, meetings she’d been to, boards she was on, meetings with wealthy bankers. They’d been spying. She wondered if they’d been going through her mail—perhaps in her townhouse when John was sitting on the couch, babysitting her, and his mother was in Sarah’s kitchen making them all a snack.
Or perhaps they’d finagled a key to her mailbox.
Now, that would be a crime.
But she wondered if the police would be very interested. Of course not.
And then a month ago, irritation became fear.
Typically they’d poured inside after her as she returned from shopping alone, Carmel Rodriguez having the day off. Miriam had scooped the Food Emporium bags from her hand and John had, out of “courtesy,” taken her key and opened the door.
Sarah had been too flustered to protest—which would have done little good anyway, she now knew.
They’d sat for fifteen minutes, water and tea at hand, talking about who knew what, best of friends, and then Miriam had picked up her large purse and gone to use the toilet and headed for Sarah’s bedroom.
Sarah had stood, saying she’d prefer the woman use the guest bathroom, but John had turned his knit brows her way and barked, “Sit down. Mother can pick whichever she wants.”
And Sarah had, half-thinking she was about to be beaten to death.
But the son slipped back to conversation mode and rambled on about yet another real estate deal he was thinking of doing.
Sarah, shaken, merely nodded and tried to sip her tea. She knew the woman was rifling through her personal things. Or planting a camera or listening device.
When Miriam returned, fifteen minutes later, she glanced at her son and he rose. In eerie unison, they lockstepped out of the apartment.
Sarah searched but she couldn’t find any eavesdropping devices and couldn’t tell if anything was disturbed or missing—and that might have been disastrous; she had close to three quarters of a million dollars in cash and jewelry tucked away in her bedroom.
But they’d been up to no good—and had been rude and frightening. It was then that she began to think of them as the He-Beast and She-Beast.
Sycophants had given way to tyrants.
They’d become Rasputins.
The Beasts, like viruses, had infected what time Sarah had left on this earth and were destroying it—time she wanted to spend simply and harmlessly: visiting with those she cared for, directing her money where it would do the most good, volunteering at charities, working on the needlepoints she loved so much, a passion that was a legacy from her mother.
And yet those pleasures were being denied her.
Sarah Lieberman was a woman of mettle, serene though she seemed and diminutive though she was. She’d left home in Connecticut at eighteen, put herself through college in horse country in Northern Virginia working in stables, raced sailboats in New Zealand, lived in New Orleans at a time when the town was still honky-tonk, then she’d plunged into Manhattan and embraced virtually every role that the city could offer—from Radio City Music Hall dancer to Greenwich Village Bohemian to Upper East Side philanthropist. At her eightieth birthday party, she’d sung a pretty good version of what had become her theme song over the years: “I’ll Take Manhattan.”
That steely spirit remained but the physical package to give it play was gone. She was an octogenarian, as tiny and frail as that gingko leaf outside the parlor window. And her mind, too. She wasn’t as quick; nor was the memory what it had been.
What could she do about the Beasts?
Now, sitting in the parlor, she dropped her hands to her knees. Nothing occurred to her. It seemed hopeless.
Then, a key clattered in the lock. Sarah’s breath sucked in. She assumed that somehow the Beasts had copied her key and she expected to see them now.
But, no. She sighed in relief to see Carmel return from shopping.
Were tears in her eyes?
“What’s the matter?” Sarah asked.
“Nothing,” the woman responded quickly.
“Yes, yes, yes… But if something were the matter, give me a clue, dear.”
The solid housekeeper carried the groceries into the kitchen, making sure she didn’t look her boss’s way.
“There’s nothing wrong, Mrs. Sarah. Really.” She returned to the parlor. Instinctively, the woman straightened a lace doily.
“Was it him? What did he do?”
John…. The He-Beast.
Sarah knew he was somehow involved. Both Marian and John disliked Carmel, as they did most of Sarah’s friends, but John seemed contemptuous of the woman, as if the housekeeper mounted a campaign to limit access to Sarah. Which she did. In fact several times she had actually stepped in front of John to keep him from following Sarah into her apartment. Sarah had thought he’d been about to hit the poor woman.
“Please, it’s nothing.”
Carmel Rodriguez was five feet, six inches tall and probably weighed 180 pounds. Yet the elderly woman now rose and looked up at her housekeeper, who’d been with her for more than a decade. “Carmel. Tell me.” The voice left no room for debate.
“I got home from shopping? I was downstairs just now?”
Statements as questions—the sign of uncertainty. “I came back from the store and was talking to him and then Mr. John—”
“Just John. You can call him John.”
“John comes up and, just out of nowhere, he says, did I hear about the burglary.”
“The neighborhood somewhere. I said I didn’t. He said somebody broke in and stole this woman’s papers. Like banking papers and wills and deeds and bonds and stocks.”
“People don’t keep stocks and bonds at home. The brokerage keeps them.”
“Well, he told me she got robbed and these guys took all her things. He said he was worried about you.”
“Yes, Mrs. Sarah. And he didn’t want to make you upset but he was worried and did I know where you kept things like that? Was there a safe somewhere? He said he wanted to make sure they were protected.” The woman wiped her face. Sarah had thought her name was Carmen at first, as one would think, given her pedigree and appearance. But, no, her mother and father had named her after the town in California, which they dreamed of someday visiting.
Sarah found a tissue and handed it to the woman. This was certainly alarming. It seemed to represent a new level of invasiveness. Still, John Westerfield’s probing was constant and familiar, like a low-grade fever, which Carmel had her own mettle to withstand.
No, something else had happened.
“No, really. Just that.”
Sarah herself could be persistent too. “Come, now…”
“He… I think it was maybe a coincidence. Didn’t mean anything.”
Nothing the She-Beast and the He-Beast did was a coincidence. Sarah said, “Tell me anyway.”
“Then he said,” the woman offered, choking back a sob, “if I didn’t tell him, he wouldn’t be able to protect you. And if those papers got stolen, you’d lose all your money. I’d lose my job and… and then he said my daughter might have to leave her high school, Immaculata.”
“He said that?” Sarah whispered.
Carmel was crying harder now. “How would he know she went there? Why would he find that out?”
Because he and his mother did their homework. They asked their questions like chickens pecking up seed and stones.
But now, threatening Carmel and her family?
“I got mad and I said I couldn’t wait until the lease is up and his and his mother went away forever! And he said oh, they weren’t going anywhere. They checked the law in New York and as long as they pay the rent and don’t break the lease they can stay forever. Is that true, Mrs. Sarah?”
Sarah Lieberman said, “Yes, Carmel, it is true.” She rose and sat down at the Steinway piano she’d owned for nearly twenty years. It had been a present from her second husband for their wedding. She played a few bars of Chopin, her favorite composer and, in her opinion, the most keyboard-friendly of the great classicists.
Carmel continued, “When he left he said, ‘Say hi to your family for me, Carmel. Say hi to Daniel. You know, your husband, he’s a good carpenter. And say hi to Rosa. She’s a pretty girl. Pretty like her mother.’ ” Carmel was shivering now, tears were flowing.
Sarah turned from the piano and touched the maid on the shoulder. “It’s all right, dear. You did the right thing to tell me.”
The tears slowed and finally stopped. A Kleenex made its way around her face.
After a long moment Sarah said, “When Mark and I were in Malaysia—you know he was head of a trade delegation there?”
“Yes, Mrs. Sarah.”
“When we were there for that, we went to this preserve.”
“Like a nature preserve?”
“That’s right. A nature preserve. And there was this moth he showed us. It’s called an Atlas moth. Now, they’re very big—their wings are six or eight inches across.”
“That’s big, sí.”
“But they’re still moths. The guide pointed at it. ‘How can it defend itself? What does it have? Teeth? No. Venom? No. Claws? No.’ But then the guide pointed out the markings on this moth’s wings. And it looked just like a snake’s head! It was exactly like a cobra. Same color, everything.”
“Really, Mrs. Sarah?”
“Really. So that the predators aren’t sure whether it would be safe to eat the moth or not. So they usually move on to something else and leave the moth alone.”
Carmel was nodding, not at all sure where this was going.
“I’m going to do that with the Westerfields.”
“How, Mrs. Sarah?”
“I’ll show them the snake head. I’m going to make them think it’s too dangerous to stay here and they should move out.”
“Good! How are you going to do that?”
“Did I show you my birthday present?”
“No, this.” Sarah took an iPhone from her purse. She fiddled with the functions, many of which she had yet to figure out. “My nephew in Virginia gave it to me. Freddy. He’s a good man. Now, this phone has a recorder in it.”
“You’re going to record them, doing that? Threatening you?”
“Exactly. I’ll email a copy to my lawyer and several other people. The Westerfields’ll have to leave me alone.”
“But it might not be safe, Mrs. Sarah.”
“I’m sure it won’t be. But it doesn’t look like I have much choice, do I?”
Then Sarah noticed that Carmel was frowning, looking away.
The older woman said, “I know what you’re thinking. They’ll just go find somebody else to torture and do the same thing to them.”
“Yes, that’s what I was thinking.”
Sarah said softly, “But in the jungle, you know, it’s not the moth’s job to protect the whole world, dear. It’s the moth’s job to stay alive.”
“You want me to find somebody?” the man asked the solemn woman sitting across from him. “Missing person?”
The Latina woman corrected solemnly, “Body. Not somebody. A body.”
“A body. I want to know where a body is. Where it’s buried.”
“Oh.” Eddie Caruso remained thoughtfully attentive but now that he realized the woman might be a crackpot he wanted mostly to get back to his iPad, on which he’d been watching a football—well, soccer—match currently underway in Nigeria. Eddie loved sports. He’d played softball in his middle school days, Little League and football, well, gridiron, in high school and then, being a skinny guy, he’d opted for billiards pool in college (to raise tuition while, for the most part, avoiding bodily harm). But the present sport of his heart was soccer.
But he was also a businessman and crackpots could be paying clients, too. He kept his attention on the substantial woman across his desk, which was bisected by a slash of summer light, reflected off a nearby Times Square high-rise.
“Okay. Keep going, Mrs. Rodriguez.”
“A body, you were saying.”
“A murdered woman, a friend.”
He leaned forward, now intrigued. Crackpot clients could not only pay well. They also often meant Game—a term coined by sportsman Eddie Caruso; it was hard to define. It meant basically the interesting, the weird, the captivating. Game was that indefinable aspect of love and business and everything else, not just sports, that kept you engaged, that got the juices flowing, that kept you off balance.
People had Game or they didn’t. And if not, break up.
Jobs had Game or they didn’t. And if not, quit.
Another thing about Game. You couldn’t fake it.
Eddie Caruso had a feeling this woman, and this case, had Game.
She said, “A year ago, I lost someone I was close to.”
The iPad went into sleep mode. When last viewed, a winger for Senegal had been moving up through the markers, to try to score. But Caruso let the sleeping device lie. The woman was clearly distraught about her loss. Besides, Senegal wasn’t going to score.
“Here.” Carmel opened a large purse and took out what must’ve been fifty sheets of paper, rumpled, gray, torn. Actual newspaper clippings, too, which you didn’t see much, as opposed to computer printouts, though there were some of those, too. She set them on his desk and rearranged them carefully. Pushed the stack forward.
“News stories about her, Sarah Lieberman. She was the one murdered.”
Something familiar, Caruso believed. New York is a surprisingly small town when it comes to crime. News of horrific violence spreads fast, like a dot of oil on water, and the hard details seat themselves deep in citizens’ memories. The Yuppie Murderer. The Subway Avenger. The Wilding Rape. Son of Sam. The Werewolf Slasher.
Caruso scanned the material fast. Yes, the story came back to him. Sarah Lieberman was an elderly woman killed by a bizarre couple—a mother and son pair of grifters from the Midwest. He saw another name in the stories, one of the witnesses: that of the woman sitting in front of him. Carmel had been Sarah’s housekeeper and Carmel’s husband, Daniel, the part-time maintenance man.
She nodded toward the stack. “Read those, read that. You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
Generally Caruso didn’t spend a lot of time in the free initial consulting session. But then it wasn’t like he had much else going on.
Besides, as he read, he knew instinctively, this case had Game written all over it.
# # #
Here’s Eddie Caruso: A lean face revealing not unexpected forty-two-year-old creases, thick and carefully trimmed dark blond hair, still skinny everywhere, except for a belly that curls irritatingly over the belt hitching up Macy’s sale Chinese-made somewhat wool slacks. A dress shirt, today blue of color, light blue like the gingham that infected the state fairs Caruso worked as a boy to make money for cars and dates and eventually college.
Rhubarb pie, cobbler, pig shows, turkey wings, dunk-the-clown.
That was where he came from.
And this is where he is: not the FBI agent he dreamed of being, nor the disillusioned personal injury lawyer he was, but a pretty good private investigator, which suits his edgy, ebullient, Game-addicted personality real well.
The actual job description is “security consultant.”
Nowadays, everybody cares about security. They don’t about investigating. Why should they? A credit card and the Internet make us all Sam Spades.
Still, Eddie Caruso likes to think of himself as a PI.
Caruso has a scuffed, boring, nondescript office in a building those same adjectives apply to, Forty-sixth near Eighth—decorated (office, not building) with close to twenty pictures he himself has taken with a very high-speed Canon of athletes in action. You’d think he was a sports lawyer. The building features mostly orthodontists, plastic surgeons, accountants, one-man law firms and a copy shop. That’s one great thing about New York: Even in the Theater District, the Mecca of all things artistic, people need teeth and boobs fixed up, their taxes paid and resumes exaggerated. Next door is a touristy but dependable restaurant of some nebulous Middle Eastern/Mediterranean affiliation; it excels at the grilled calamari. Caruso, who lives in Greenwich Village and who often walks the three miles to work (to banish the overhang of gut), likes the five-story bathwater-gray building, the location, too. Though if the city doesn’t stop digging up the street in front of the building Caruso may just write a letter.
Which he’ll never get around to, of course.
Now, Eddie Caruso finished reading the account of the murder, well, skimming the account of the murder, and pushed the material back toward Carmel.
Sarah Lieberman’s story had indeed interested Caruso, as Mrs. Rodriguez here had suggested. Sarah’s itinerant younger days, a bit of a rebel, her settling into life in New York City quite easily. She seemed to be irreverent and clever and to have no patience for the pretense that breeds in the Upper East Side like germs in a four-year-old’s nose. Caruso decided he would have liked the woman.
And he was mightily pissed off that the Westerfields had beat her to death with a hammer, wrapped the body in a garbage bag, and dumped her in an unmarked grave.
It seemed that mother and son had met Sarah at a fundraiser and saw a chance to run a grift. They recognized her as a wealthy, elderly vulnerable woman with no family, living alone. A perfect target. They leased the apartment on the ground floor of her Upper East Side townhouse and began a relentless campaign to take control of her life. She had finally had enough and one morning in July, a year ago, tried to record them threatening her. They’d caught her in the act, though, and forced her to sign a contract selling them the townhouse for next to nothing. Then they zapped her with a Taser and bludgeoned her to death.
That afternoon Carmel returned to the townhouse from shopping and found her missing. Knowing that the Westerfields had been asking about her valuables and that Sarah was going to record them threatening her, the housekeeper suspected what had happened. She called the police. Given that—and the fact that a routine search revealed the Westerfields had a criminal history in Missouri and Kansas—officers responded immediately. They found some fresh blood in the garage. That was enough for a search warrant. Crime scene found the Taser with Sarah’s skin in the barbs, a hammer with John’s prints and Sarah’s blood and hair, and duct tape with both Sarah’s and Miriam’s DNA. A roll of garbage bags, too, three of them missing.
The clerk from a local spy and security shop verified the Taser had been bought, with cash, by John Westerfield a week earlier. Computer forensic experts found the couple had tried to hack into Sarah’s financial accounts—without success. Investigators did, however, find insurance documents covering close to seven hundred thousand dollars in cash and jewelry kept on her premises. Two necklaces identified as Sarah’s were found in Miriam’s jewelry box. All of the valuables had been stolen.
The defense claimed that drug gangs had broken in and killed her. Or, as an alternative, that Sarah had gone senile and went off by herself on a bus or train.
Juries hate lame excuses and it took the Lieberman panel all of four hours to convict. The two were sentenced to life imprisonment. The farewell in the courtroom—mother and son embracing like spouses—made for one real queasy photograph.
Carmel now said to Eddie Caruso, “I kept hoping the police would find her remains, you know?”
John’s car had been spotted several days before Sarah disappeared in New Jersey, where he was reportedly looking at real property for one of his big business deals, none of which ever progressed past the daydreaming phase. It was assumed the body had been dumped there.
Carmel continued, “I don’t know about her religion, the Jewish one, but I’m sure it’s important to be buried and have a gravestone and have people say some words over you. To have people come and see you. Don’t you think, Mr. Caruso?”
He himself didn’t think that was important but he now nodded.
“The problem is, see, this is a simple death.”
“Simple?” The woman sat forward, brows furrowing a bit.
“Not to make little of it, understand me,” Caruso added quickly, seeing the dismay on her face. “It’s just that it’s open and shut, you know? Nasty perps, good evidence. No love children, no hidden treasure that was never recovered, no conspiracy theories. Fast conviction. With a simple death, people lose interest. The leads go cold real fast. I’m saying, it could be expensive for me to take on the case.”
“I could pay you three thousand dollars. Not more than that.”
“That’d buy you about twenty-five hours of my time.” On impulse he decided to waive expenses, which he marked up and made a profit on.
Before he went further, though, Caruso asked, “Have you thought this through?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it was a terrible crime but justice’s been done. If I start searching, I may have to ask you things--you’ll have to relive the incident. And, well, sometimes when people look into the past, they find things they wish they hadn’t.”
“What could that be?”
“Maybe there’d be no way to recover the body, even if I find it. Maybe it was… let’s say disrespected when it was disposed of.”
Carmel had not considered this, he could tell. Clients rarely did. But she said, “I want to say a prayer at her grave, wherever it is. I don’t care about anything else.”
Caruso nodded and pulled a retainer agreement from his credenza. They both signed it. Also, on whim, he penned in a discounted hourly rate. He’d seen pictures of her three children when she’d opened her purse to get her driver’s license number for the agreement. They were teenagers and the parents were surely facing the horror of college expenses.
You’re a goddamn softy, he told himself.
“All right,” he said to her. “Let me keep these and I’ll get to work. Give me your home and mobile numbers.”
A hesitation. “Email please. Only email.” She wrote it down.
“Sure. Not call?”
“No, please don’t. See, I mentioned to my husband I was thinking about doing this and he said it wasn’t a good idea.”
She nodded at the news clippings. “It’s in there somewhere. There was a man maybe working for the Westerfields, the police think. Daniel’s worried he’d find out if we started looking for the body. He’s probably dangerous.”
Glad you mentioned it, Caruso thought wryly. “Okay, I’ll email.” He rose.
Carmel Rodriguez stepped forward and actually hugged him, tears in her eyes.
Caruso mentally bumped his fee down another twenty-five, just to buy her a little more of his time.
When she’d gone he booted up the iPad just to see what he’d missed sportswise. The match was over. Senegal had won five zip.
A BBC announcer, beset by very un-BBC enthusiasm, was gushing, “Some of the most spectacular scoring I have ever seen in all my years—”
Caruso shut the device off. He pulled the stack of clippings closer, to take more notes—and to read up in particular on the Westerfields’ possible accomplice.
He was reflecting that in all his years as a privately investigating security consultant, he’d been in one pushing match that lasted ten seconds. Not one real fight. Caruso did have a license to carry a pistol and he owned one but he hadn’t touched his in about five years. He believed the bullets had turned green.
He wondered if he would in fact be in danger.
Then decided, so be it. Game had to come with a little risk. Otherwise it wasn’t Game.
# # #
Senior NYPD detective Lon Sellitto dropped into his chair in his Major Cases office, One Police Plaza. Dropped, not sat. Rumpled—the adjective applied to both the gray suit and the human it encased—he looked with longing affection at a large bag from Baja Express he’d set on his excessively cluttered desk. Then at his visitor. “You want a taco?”
“No, thanks,” Caruso said.
The portly cop said, “I don’t get the cheese or the beans. It cuts the calories way down.”
Eddie Caruso had known Sellitto for years. The detective was an all right guy, who didn’t bust the chops of private cops, as long as they didn’t throw their weight around and sneak behind the back of the real Boys in Blue. Caruso didn’t. He was respectful.
But not sycophantic.
“You’ll guarantee that?” Caruso asked.
“No beans, so you’re not going to fart. I don’t want to be here if you’re gonna fart.”
“I meant I don’t get the refried beans. I get the regular beans, black beans or whatever the hell they are. They’re lot less calories. ‘Fried’ by itself is not a good word when you’re losing weight. ‘Refried’? Think how fucking bad that is. But black beans’re okay. Good fiber, tasty. But, yeah, I fart when I eat ‘em. Like any Tom, Dick and Harry. Everybody does.”
“Can we finish business before you indulge?”
Sellitto nodded at a slim, limp NYPD case file. “We will, ‘cause sorry to say, the quote business ain’t going to take that long. The case is over and done with and it wasn’t much to start with.”
Out the window you could catch a glimpse of the harbor and Governor’s Island. Caruso loved the view down here. He’d thought from time to time about relocating but then figured the only real estate he could afford in this ‘hood would come with a view even worse than his present one in Midtown, which was a few trees and a lot of sunlight, secondhand--bounced off that Times Square high-rise.
The detective shoved the file Caruso’s way. The Sarah Lieberman homicide investigation. “That was one fucked-up twosome, the perps.” Sellitto winced. “They ick me out. Mother and son, with one bed in the townhouse. Think about it.”
Caruso would rather not.
Sellitto continued. “So your client wants to know where the Dysfunctional Family dumped the body?”
“Yep, she’s religious. You know.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I don’t either. But that’s the way of it.”
“I looked through it fast.” Sellitto offered a nod toward the file. “But the best bet for the corpse is Jersey.”
“I read that in the Daily News. But there were no specifics.”
Sellitto grumbled, “It’s in the file. Somewhere near Kearny Marsh.”
“Don’t know it.”
“No reason to. Off Bergen Avenue. The name says it all.”
Sellitto’s round face cracked a smile. “Ha, you’re funny for a private dick. Why don’t you join the force? We need people like you.”
“Yeah. It’s all swamp. Serious swamp.”
Caruso asked, “Why’d they think there?”
“Ran John Westerfield’s tags. They had him at a toll booth on the Jersey Turnpike. He got off at the Two-Eighty exit and back on again a half hour later. Security footage in the area showed the car parked in a couple places by the Marsh. He claimed he was checking out property to buy. He said he was this real estate maven. Whatever maven is. What’s that word mean?”
“If we were in a Quentin Tarantino movie,” Caruso said, “this’s where I’d start a long digression about the word ‘maven’.”
“Well, it isn’t and I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Sellitto definitely had Game.
Caruso flipped through the smaller folder inside the bigger one. The smaller was labeled John Westerfield. Many of the documents were his own notes and records, and a lot of them had to do with real estate, all the complex paperwork that rode herd on construction in Manhattan: foundation-pouring permits, crane permits, street-access permissions. Interestingly—and incriminatingly—these were all multimillion-dollar projects that John couldn’t possibly have engaged in without Sarah Lieberman’s money.
“Good policing. When was Westerfield in Jersey?”
“I don’t know. A couple days before she disappeared.”
“Before? Was there a toll record of him being there after she disappeared.”
“No. That’s where the grassy knoll effect comes in.”
“Dallas. Kennedy assassination. The other gunman.”
“I don’t believe there was one. It was Oswald. Alone.”
“I’m not arguing that. My point is that the Westerfields probably did have an accomplice. He’s the one who got rid of the body. In his car. So there was no record of Westerfield returning to Jersey.”
“Yeah, my client mentioned there might’ve been somebody else. Why would he be the one who dumped the body, though?”
Sellitto tapped the file. “Just after they killed her—Crime Scene knew the time from the blood--the Westerfields were seen in public so they’d have an alibi. They would’ve hired somebody to dump the body. Probably somebody connected.”
“What ‘connected’ means.”
“I know that. I’m just saying.”
Sellitto said, “We think some low-grade punk. The Westerfields had connections with mob folks in Kansas City and they must’ve tapped some affiliate here.”
“Like Baja Fresh. Mobster franchises.”
Sellitto rolled his eyes, maybe thinking Caruso wasn’t as clever as he’d first thought. The detective said, “The Westerfields stole three-quarters of a million from Mrs. Lieberman, cash and jewelry. They would’ve paid this guy from that.”
Caruso liked it that Sellitto called her Mrs. Lieberman. Respect. That was good, that was part of Game. “Any leads to him?”
“No, but he was after-the-fact and nobody in the DA’s office gave a shit really. They had the doers. Why waste resources.” Sellitto finally gave in. He opened the lunch bag. It did smell pretty good.
Caruso began, “The couple—”
“They’re mother and son, I wouldn’t call ‘em a couple.”
“The couple, they say anything about the third guy?”
Sellitto looked at Caruso as if he’d gotten stupid himself. “Remember, it was gangbangers who killed her. Or she decided to take a cruise and forgot to tell anybody. To the quote couple, there was no third guy.”
“So I go searching in Jersey. Where exactly is this Kearny Marsh?”
Sellitto nodded at the file.
Caruso took it and retreated to a corner of Sellitto’s office to read.
“One thing,” the detective said.
Caruso looked up, expecting legalese and disclaimers.
The detective nodded at the bowl of black beans he was eating. “Stay at your own risk.”
# # #
Eddie Caruso stood about where John Westerfield’s green Mercedes had been parked as the man had surveyed the area, looking for the best place to hide a body.
There was no way he could find where Sarah Lieberman had been buried.
Before him were hundreds of acres of marshland, filled with brown water, green water, gray water, grass, cattails and mulberry trees. A trillion birds. Gulls, ducks, crows, hawks and some other type—tiny, skittish creatures with iridescent blue wings and white bellies; they were living in houses on poles stuck at the shoreline.
New Jersey housing developments, Eddie Caruso reflected. But he didn’t laugh at his own cleverness because he was being assaulted by suicidal and focused mosquitos.
And in the distance the crisp magnificence of Manhattan, illuminated by the midafternoon sun.
The water was brown and seemed to be only two or three feet deep. You could wrap a body in chicken wire, add a few weights, and dump it anywhere.
He wasn’t surprised searchers hadn’t found her brutalized corpse.
And there was plenty of land, too—in which it would be easy to dig a grave. It was soupy and he nearly lost his Ecco.
He wiped mud off his shoe as best he could and then speculated: How much would it cost to hire a helicopter with some sort of high-tech radar or infrared system to detect corpses? A huge amount, he guessed. And surely the body was completely decomposed by now. Was there any instrumentation that could find only bones in this much territory? He doubted it.
A flash of red caught his eye.
It was a couple of people in a canoe.
New Jersey Meadowlands Commission was printed on the side.
Eddie Caruso’s first thought was, of course: Meadowlands. May the Giants have a better season next year.
His second thought was: Shit.
This was government land, Caruso realized.
John Westerfield claimed he’d come here to look into a real estate deal. But that was a lie. There’d be no private development on protected wetlands. And using the toll road, which identified him? He’d done that intentionally. To lead people off. Not being the brightest star in the heavens, he and his mother had probably figured they couldn’t get convicted if the body was never found. So they’d left a trail here to stymie the police.
In fact, they’d buried Sarah Lieberman someplace else entirely.
Eddie Caruso thought back to the police file in Lon Sellitto’s office. He believed he knew the answer.
# # #
An hour and a half later—thank you very much, New York City traffic—Caruso parked his rental illegally. He was sure to incur a ticket, if not a tow, here near City Hall since it was highly patrolled. But he was too impatient to wait to find a legal space.
He found his way to the Commercial Construction Permits Department.
A slow-moving clerk with an impressive do of dreadlocks surrounding her otherwise delicate face looked over his requests and disappeared. For a long, long time. Maybe coffee breaks had to be taken at exact moments or forfeited forever. Finally, she returned with three separate folders.
“Sign for these.”
“Can I check these out?”
“But, the thing is—”
She said reasonably, “You can read ‘em, you can memorize ‘em, you can copy ‘em. But if you want copies you gotta pay and the machines say they take dollar bills but nobody’s been able to get it to take a dollar bill in three years. So you need change.”
“Do you have—”
“We don’t give change.”
Caruso thanked her anyway and returned to a cubicle to read the files.
These were originals of permits issued to three construction companies that were building high-rises on the Upper East Side not far from Sarah Lieberman’s townhouse. Caruso had found copies of these in John Westerfield’s police file, the one that Sellitto let him look through. They’d been discovered in the man’s desk. John had claimed to be involved in real estate work, so who would have thought twice about finding these folders? No one did.
But Eddie Caruso had.
Because why would John Westerfield have copies of permits for construction of buildings he’d had nothing to do with?
There was only one reason, which became clear when Caruso had noted that these three permits were for pouring foundations.
What better way to dispose of a body than to drop it into a pylon about to be filled with concrete?
But which building was it? Eddie Caruso’s commitment to Carmel Rodriguez was to find out exactly where Sarah Lieberman had been buried.
As he looked down at the permits he suddenly realized how he could find out.
He copied the first pages of all three permits, after getting change from another customer because, yeah, his dollars’d all been rejected by the temperamental Xerox machine. Then, returning to the cubicle, he carefully—and painfully—worked the industrial-sized staples from the paper and replaced the originals with the copies.
This was surely a misdemeanor of some kind, but he’d developed quite an affection for Mrs. Carmel Rodriguez (he had dropped his rate by another twenty-five dollars an hour). And, by the by, he’d come to form an affection for the late Mrs. Sarah Lieberman, too. Nothing was going to stop him from learning where the poor woman was resting in peace.
To his relief, the clerk missed the theft, and with a sincere smile Caruso thanked her and wandered outside.
Lord be praised, there was no ticket and in a half hour he was parked outside the private forensic lab he sometimes used. He hurried inside and paid a premium for expedited service. Then he strolled down to the waiting room, where to his delight, he found a new capsule coffee machine.
Eddie Caruso didn’t drink coffee much and he never drank tea. But he loved hot chocolate. He had recipes for eighty different types and you needed recipes—you couldn’t wing it. (And you never mixed that gray-brown powder from an envelope with hot water, especially envelopes that contained those little fake marshmallows like dandruff.)
But the Keurig did a pretty good job, provided you chocked the resulting cocoa full of Mini-Moo half and half, which Eddie Caruso now did. He sat back to enjoy the frothy beverage, flipping through a Sports Illustrated, which happened to describe the Nigeria-Senegal match as the Game of the Century.
In ten minutes, a forensic tech—a young Asian woman in a white jacket and goggles around her neck—joined him. He’d been planning on asking her out for some time. Three years and four months, to be exact. He hadn’t been courageous, or motivated, enough to do so then. And he wasn’t now.
She said. “Okay, Eddie, here’s what we’ve got. We’ve isolated identifiable prints of six individuals on the permit documents from the city commission you brought me.”
Technicians were always soooo precise.
“Two of them, negative. No record in any commercial or law enforcement database. One set are yours.” She regarded him with what might pass for irony, at least in a forensic tech, and said, “I can report that you are not in any criminal databases either. It is likely, however, that that might not be the case much longer if the police find out how you came to be in possession of an original permit, which by law has to remain on file with the city department in question.”
“Oh,” Eddie said offhandedly, “I found ‘em on the street. The permits.”
No skipped beats. She continued, “I have to tell you none are John Westerfield’s.”
This was a surprise and a disappointment.
“But I could identify one other person who touched the documents. We got his prints from military records.”
“Who is he?”
“His name’s Daniel Rodriguez.”
It took five seconds.
Sometimes when people look into the past, they find things they wish they hadn’t….
# # #
Whatever you call your profession, security or investigation, you need to be as professional as any cop.
Eddie Caruso was now in his office, number-crunching what he’d found, not letting a single fact wander away or distort.
Was this true? Could Daniel Rodriguez be the third conspirator, the one who’d actually disposed of Sarah Lieberman’s body?
There was no other conclusion.
He’d worked in Sarah’s building and would have been very familiar with John and Miriam Westerfield. And they had known that Daniel, with three girls approaching college age, would need all the money he could get. He was involved in the trades and would know his way around construction sites. He probably even had friends in the building whose foundation was now Sarah Lieberman’s grave.
Finally, Daniel hadn’t wanted his wife to pursue her plan to find out where Sarah’s body was. He claimed this was because it was dangerous. But, thinking about it, Caruso decided that was crazy. The odds of the other guy finding out were minimal. No, Daniel just didn’t want anybody looking into the case again.
And whatta I do now? Caruso wondered.
Well, there wasn’t much choice. All PIs are under an obligation to inform the police if they’re aware of a felon at large. Besides, anybody who’d participated, however slightly, in such a terrible crime had to go to jail.
Still, was there anything he could do to mitigate the horror that Carmel and their daughters would feel when he broke the news?
Nothing occurred to him. Tomorrow would be a mass of disappointment.
Still, he had to be sure. He needed as much proof of guilt as a cop would. That’s what Game required: resolution, good or bad. Game is never ambiguous.
He assembled some of his tools of the trade. And then decided he needed something else. After all, a man who can toss the body of an elderly woman into a building site can just as easily kill someone who’s discovered he did that. He unlocked the box containing his pistol, nothing sexy, just a revolver, the sort you didn’t see much anymore.
He found the bullets, too. They weren’t green. Which meant, Eddie Caruso assumed, that they still worked.
# # #
The next day Caruso rented an SUV with tinted windows and spent hours following Daniel. It was boring and unproductive, as 99 percent of tailing usually is.
On the surface, round Daniel Rodriguez was a harmless, cheerful man, who seemed to joke a lot and seemed to get along with the construction crews he worked with. Eddie Caruso had expected—and half-hoped—to find him selling crack to school kids. If that had been the case, it would have been easier to report him to the police.
And easier to break the news to his wife and daughters? Caruso wondered. No. Nothing could relieve the sting of that.
Daniel returned home to his small but well-kept house in Queens. Caruso cruised past slowly, parked up the block and stepped outside, making his way to a park across the street, dressed like anybody else in the casual, residential neighborhood—shorts and an Izod shirt, along with sunglasses and a baseball cap. He found a bench and plopped down, pretending to read his iPad, but actually observing the family through the device’s video camera.
Apple had revolutionized the PI business.
The weather was nice and the Rodriguez family cooked out, with Daniel the chef and Carmel and their daughters his assistants. Several neighbors joined them. Daniel seemed to be a good father. Caruso wasn’t recording his words but much of what he said made the whole family laugh.
A look of pure love passed between husband and wife.
Shit, Caruso thought, sometimes I hate this job.
After the barbecue and after the family had been shuffled off to the house, Daniel remained outside.
And something set off an alarm within Caruso: Daniel Rodriguez was scrubbing a grill that no longer needed scrubbing.
Which meant he was stalling. On instinct, Caruso rose and ducked into some dog-piss-scented city bushes. It was good he did. The handyman looked around piercingly, making certain no one was watching. He casually—too casually—disappeared into the garage and came out a short time later, locking the door.
That mission, whatever it was, smelled funky to Caruso. He gave it two hours, for dark to descend and quiet to lull the neighborhood. Then he pulled on latex gloves and broke into the garage with a set of lock-picking tools, having as he often did at moments like this an imaginary conversation with the arresting officer. No, sir, I’m not committing burglary—which is breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony. I’m committing trespass only—breaking and entering with intent to find the truth.
Not exactly a defense under the New York State penal code.
Caruso surveyed the jam-packed garage. A systematic search could take hours, or days. The man was a carpenter and handyman so he had literally tons of wood and plasterboard and cables and dozens of tool chests. Those seemed like natural hiding places but they’d also be the first things stolen if anybody broke in, so Caruso ignored them.
He stood in one place and turned in circles, like a slow-motion radar antenna, looking from shelf to shelf, relying on the fuzzy illumination of the street light. He had a flashlight but he was too close to the house to use it.
Finally he decided: The most likely place one would hide something was in the distant, dusty corner, in paint cans marred with dried drips of color. Nobody’d steal used paint.
In the third and fourth he found what he suspected he would: stacks and stacks of twenties. Also two diamond bracelets.
All, undoubtedly, from Sarah’s safe deposit box. This was his payment from the Westerfields for disposing of the body. They hadn’t mentioned him, of course, at trial because he had enough evidence to sink them even deeper—probably enough to get them the death penalty.
Caruso took pictures of the money and jewelry with a low-light camera. He didn’t end his search there, though, but continued to search through all the cans. Most of them contained paint. But not all. One, on the floor in the corner, held exactly what he needed to figure out Sarah Lieberman’s last resting place.
# # #
“Come in, come in,” Eddie said to Carmel Rodriguez, shutting off the TV.
The woman entered his office and glanced around, squinting, as if he’d just decorated the walls with the sports pictures that had been there forever. “My daughter, Rosa, she plays soccer.”
“That’s my favorite, too.” Eddie sat down, gesturing her into a seat across from the desk. She eased cautiously into it.
“You said you found something.”
The PI nodded solemnly.
Most of Eddie Caruso’s work involved finding runaways, running pre-employment checks and outing personal injury lawsuit fakers, but he handled domestics, too. He’d had to deliver news about betrayal and learned there were generally three different reactions: explosive anger, wailing sorrow or weary acceptance, the last of which was usually accompanied by the eeriest smile of resignation on the face of the earth.
He had no idea how Carmel would respond to what she was about to learn.
But there was no point in speculating. It was time to let her know.
“This is going to be troubling, Carmel. But—”
She interrupted. “You told me there might be things you found that I might not like.”
He nodded and rose, walking to his other door. He opened it and gestured.
She frowned as her husband walked into the room.
The man gave her a sheepish grin and then looked back at the carpet as he sat next to her.
“Daniel! Why are you here?”
Caruso sat back in his office chair, which was starting to develop the mouse-squeak that seemed to return once a month no matter how much WD-40 was involved. He whispered, “Go ahead, Daniel. Tell her.”
He said nothing for a minute and Carmel asked pointedly, “Is this about Mrs. Sarah? Is this about what happened to her?”
The round-faced man nodded. “Okay, honey, Carmel—”
“Tell me,” the housekeeper said briskly.
“I haven’t been honest with you.” Eyes whipping toward her, then away. “You remember last year you told me the Westerfields wanted you to find Mrs. Sarah’s papers?”
“Yes. And when I said no they threatened, sort of threatened our daughter.”
“They did the same to me. They said they couldn’t trust you, you were too good. They wanted me to help them.”
“You?” she whispered.
“Yes, baby. Me! Only it wasn’t just find the papers. They…”
“What? What did they want?”
“Miriam told me Sarah didn’t have long to live anyway.”
“ ‘Anyway.’ What do you mean ‘anyway’?”
“She said Sarah had cancer.”
“She wasn’t sick! She was healthier than that bitch Miriam,” Carmel spat out.
“But they said she was. And she’d told them she’d cut us out of her will. We’d get nothing. They said, if I help them now, if she died now, they could make sure we had lots of money.”
“Helped them out.” Carmel eyed her husband coolly. “You mean, helped them kill her.”
“They said she was greedy. Why should she have so much and people like them, and us, have nothing? It was unfair.”
“And you didn’t tell me? You didn’t tell anybody they were dangerous?”
“I did tell somebody.”
“Who? Not the police, you didn’t.”
Daniel looked at Eddie Caruso, who picked up the remote control and hit ON.
The TV, on which a webcam sat, came to life with a Skype streaming image.
On the screen an elderly woman’s face gazed confidently and with some humor at the couple in the chairs and Eddie Caruso. “Hello, Carmel,” Sarah Lieberman said. “It’s been a long time.”
# # #
What Eddie Caruso had found in the last paint can in the Rodriguez’s garage was a letter from Sarah to Daniel with details of where she’d be spending the rest of her life—a small town near Middleburg, Virginia, with her widower nephew Frederick. Information about how to get in touch with her if need be, where she would be buried and the name of certain discreet jewelers whom he could contact to sell the bracelets Sarah had given him, along with suggestions about how to carefully invest the cash she’d provided, too.
He’d confronted the handyman this morning and while the letter seemed plausible, Caruso had insisted they both contact Sarah Lieberman this morning. She’d told them what had happened and was now telling the same story to her housekeeper.
The simple death he’d described to Carmel Rodriguez was anything but.
“I’m so sorry, Carmel… I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. You remember that day in July, just a year ago? I was going to take the phone Freddy gave me and record them?”
“Yes, Mrs. Sarah.”
“After you left, I started to go down there. But I met Daniel on the stairs.” Her gaze shifted slightly, taking in the handyman. “He had me come back to my apartment and he told me what they’d just said—that the Beasts wanted him to help kill me. He said they had it all planned. There was nothing anybody could do to stop them.”
“Why not go to the police?” Carmel demanded.
Sarah replied, “Because at worst they’d get a few years in jail for conspiracy. And then they’d be out again, after somebody else. I started thinking about what I told you. Remember the moth?”
“The big moth you and your husband saw in Malaysia. With the wings that look like a snake.”
“That’s right. But I decided: One way to protect yourself is to disguise yourself as a snake. The other way is to be the snake itself. I fight back. I couldn’t kill them but I could make it look like they killed me. I didn’t ask Daniel to help me but he wanted to.”
“I was so mad at them and worried about you and about Rosa! John hinted that he’d been watching her, watching our daughter!”
Sarah said, “The Westerfields were very accommodating. John already had the Taser and the tape and the garbage bags.” She gave a wry laugh. “Think of all the money I’ll waste at Beacon Brothers funeral home here—that damn expensive casket. There are so many cheaper ways to go.”
Daniel said, “We pretended to forge a contract selling the building to them and then took all of the jewelry and cash Mrs. Sarah had in the apartment. She kept some and gave me a very generous amount.”
“And in my will I left Freddy here—” Sarah glanced to the side of the sun room she sat in, apparently where her other coconspirator, her nephew, sat. “—all my personal belongings. Probate took a little while but six months later everything was delivered here. Ah, but back to the scene of the crime, eh, Daniel?”
He winced and looked at Carmel. “When the Westerfields were out and you were shopping, we both went downstairs. I put on gloves and took one of John’s hammers and Mrs. Sarah cut herself. We got her blood on it and some hairs, too. And put some duct tape on her mouth for a minute and we added some of Miriam’s hairs. I rubbed her toothbrush on it, for the DNA. Sarah stuck herself with the sharp points on that Taser. We hid those things in their apartment, then I tried to hack into Mrs. Sarah’s banking accounts from Miriam’s computer.”
“I used to watch CSI,” Sarah said. “I know how these things work.”
“I left the city permits and maps in John’s office.” Daniel started to laugh then reined in when he saw his wife staring at him in dismay. “I was going to say it was funny because we thought the permits would be obvious. But the police missed those entirely; they thought she had been buried in New Jersey. But they missed it; it was Mr. Caruso who figured out about the foundations.”
Sarah said, “And I took the train down here. I’ve had to lead a pretty quiet life—they call it staying off the grid, right Freddy?”
A man’s voice, “That’s right, Aunt Sarah.”
“But I love it in Virginia. It’s so peaceful. I lived here a long time ago and I’d always thought I’d come back to spend my last years in horse country.”
Daniel now turned to Carmel. “I’m sorry, love. I couldn’t tell you!” Daniel said. “This was a crime, what Mrs. Sarah and I did. Putting those people in jail. I wanted to, I wanted to tell you a hundred times. I couldn’t let you get involved.”
Carmel was regarding her husband. “And the money… You said you were opening an account for the girl’s school… And you always had those fifty-dollar bills. I always wondered.”
Sarah said, “He risked a lot to save me. I was very appreciative.” Her voice faded. “And now I think it’s time for my nap. I’d invite you to come down but it’s probably not a good idea for either of you to visit a dead woman, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, Mrs. Sarah.”
Both women held their hands up in waves of farewell and Eddie Caruso, a good judge of timing, clicked the TV off.
Caruso said good-bye to the family, suspecting there would be more discussion of the events between husband and wife on the way home. He thought about lowering the bill yet more, but decided against it. After all, he’d done the job, and the case had had more or less a happy ending.
Even if it was entirely unexpected.
But that’s another thing about Game, maybe what really defines a person or event as Game or not: You never know ahead of time how it’s going to turn out.
Speaking of which…
Eddie Caruso propped up his iPad and typed on the keyboard. He was just in time to see Tottenham versus Everton. Fantastic.
You could never lose with Premier League football.
On one side was rock, dark as old bone. On the other a drop of a hundred feet.
And in front, a Ford pickup, one of those fancy models, a pleasant navy-blue shade. It cruised down the steep grade, moving slow. The driver and passenger enjoying the Colorado scenery.
Those were his choices: Rock. Air. Pickup.
Which really wasn’t much of a choice at all as a means to die.
John Pellam jammed his left boot on the emergency brake again. It dropped another notch toward the floor. The pads ground fiercely and slowed the big camper not at all. He was going close to sixty.
He downshifted. Low gear screamed and the box threatened to tear apart. Don’t lose the gears, he told himself. Popped the lever back up to D.
Sixty mph… seventy…
Choose one, Pellam thought. His foot cramped as he instinctively shoved the useless brake pedal to the floor again. Five minutes ago he’d been easing the chugging camper over Clement Pass, near Walsenburg, three hours south of Denver, admiring the stern, impressive scenery this cool spring morning. There’d been a soft hiss, his foot had gone to the floor and the Winnebago had started its free fall.
From the tinny boom box on the passenger seat Kathy Mattea sang “Who Turned Out the Light?”
Pellam squinted as he bore down on the pickup, honking the horn, flashing his lights to warn the driver out of the way. He caught a glimpse of sunglasses in the Ford’s rearview mirror. The driver, wearing a brown cowboy hat, spun around quickly to see how close the camper really was. Then turned back, hands clasped at ten to two on the wheel.
Pellam picked mountain. He eased to the right, thinking maybe he could brush against the rock and brush and pine, slow down enough so that when he went head-on into a tree it wouldn’t kill him. Maybe.
But just as he swerved, the driver of the truck instinctively steered in the same direction--to the right, to escape onto the shoulder. Pellam sucked in an “Oh, hell” and spun the wheel to the left.
So did the driver of the Ford. Like one of those little dances people do trying to get out of each other’s way as they approached on the sidewalk. Both vehicles swung back to the right then to the left once more as the camper bore down on the blue pickup. Pellam chose to stay in the left lane, on the edge of the cliff. The pickup veered back to the right. But it was too late; the camper struck its rear end--red and clear plastic shrapnel scattered over the asphalt—and hooked onto the pickup’s trailer hitch.
The impact goosed the speed up to eighty.
Pellam looked over the roof of the Ford. He had a fine view of where the road disappeared in a curve a half mile ahead. If they didn’t slow by then the two vehicles were going to sail into space in the finest tradition of hackneyed car chase scenes.
Oh, hell. That wasn’t all: A new risk, a bicyclist. A woman, it seemed, on a mountain bike. She had one of those pistachio-shell-shaped helmets, in black, and a heavy backpack.
She had no clue they were bearing down on her.
For a moment the pickup wiggled out of control then straightened its course. The driver seemed to be looking back at Pellam more than ahead. He didn’t see the bike.
Seventy miles an hour. A quarter mile from the curve.
And a hundred feet from the bicyclist.
“Look out!” Pellam shouted. Pointlessly.
The driver of the pickup began to brake. The Ford vibrated powerfully. They slowed a few miles per hour.
Maybe the curve wasn’t that sharp. He squinted at a yellow warning sign.
The diagram showed a 180-degree switchback. A smaller sign commanded that thou shalt take the turn at ten miles an hour.
But they’d be on the cyclist in seconds. Without a clue they were speeding toward her, she was coasting and weaving around in the right lane, avoiding rocks. And about to get crushed to death. Some riders had tiny rearview mirrors attached to their helmets. She didn’t.
“Look!” Pellam shouted again and gestured.
Whether the driver saw the gesture or not Pellam couldn’t say. But the passenger did and pointed.
The pickup swerved to the left. Another squeal of brakes. The camper rode up higher on the hitch. It was like a fishhook. As they raced past the bicyclist, her mouth open in shock, she wove to the side, the far right, and managed to skid to a stop.
That was one tragedy averted. But the other loomed.
They were a thousand feet from the switchback
Pellam felt the vibrations again, from the brakes. They slowed to sixty-five then sixty. Downshift.
Five hundred feet.
They’d slowed to fifty.
Danger Sharp Curve.
Down to forty-five leisurely miles an hour.
The switchback loomed. Straight ahead, past the curve, Pellam could see nothing. No trees. No mountains. Just a huge empty space. The tourist marker at Clement Pass said the area boasted some of the most spectacular vertical drops in Colorado.
Forty miles an hour. Thirty-nine.
Maybe we’ll just bring this one off.
But then the grade dropped, an acute angle, and the wedded vehicles began accelerating. Fifty, fifty-five.
Pellam took off his Ray Bans. Swept the pens and beer bottles off the dash. Knocked the boom box to the floor. Kathy continued to sing. The song “Grand Canyon” was coming up soon.
A hundred feet from the switchback.
With a huge scream the pickup’s nose dropped. The driver had locked the brakes in a last desperate attempt to stop. Blue smoke swirled as the truck fishtailed and the rear of the camper swung to the left. But the driver was good. He turned into the skid far enough to control it but not so much that he lost control. They straightened out and kept slowing.
They were fifty feet from the edge of the switchback. The speed had dropped to fifty.
But it wasn’t enough.
Pellam threw his arms over his face, sank down into the seat.
The pickup sliced through the pointless wooden guardrail and sailed over the edge of the road, the camper just behind.
There was a loud thump as the undercarriage of the Ford uprooted a skinny tree and then a soft jolt. Pellam opened his eyes to find the vehicles rolling down a gentle ten-foot incline, smooth as a driveway, into the parking lot of the Overlook diner, sitting in the middle of a spacious area on an outcropping of rock high above the valley floor.
With a resounding snap the camper’s front bumper broke loose and fell beneath the front tires, slicing through and flattening them, a hard jolt that launched the boom box and possibly a beer bottle or two into Pellam’s ear and temple.
He winced at the pain. The truck rolled leisurely through the lot and steered out of the way of the Winnebago, which hobbled on, slowing, toward the rear of the diner.
Pellam’s laughter at the peaceful conclusion to the near-tragedy vanished as the camper’s nose headed directly for a large propane tank.
Hitting the useless brakes again, couldn’t help himself, he squinted. But the dead tires slowed the camper significantly and the result of the collision was a quiet thonk, not the fireball that was the requisite conclusion of car chases in the sort of movies Pellam preferred not to work on.
He lowered his head and inhaled deeply for a moment. Not praying. Just lowered his head. He climbed out and stretched. John Pellam was lean of face and frame and tall, with not-quite-trimmed dark hair. In his denim jacket, Noconas, well-traveled jeans, and a black wrinkled dress shirt converted to casual wear, he resembled a cowboy, or at least was mistaken for one in places like this, though not in the low-rent district of Beverly Hills—yes, they exist—that was his mailing address. The cowboy aura he tended to perpetuate not for image but for sentiment; the story went that he was actually related to a figure from the Old West, Wild Bill Hickok.
Pellam walked stiffly toward the pickup, noting the damage wasn’t terrible. Scraped paint and hitch, broken brake- and taillight.
The driver, too, shut off the engine and eased the door open.
Pellam approached. “Look, Mister, I’m really sorry. The brakes…”
The Stetson came off swiftly, unleashing a cascade of long chestnut hair. The woman was in her midthirties, petite, about five two or so. With a heart-shaped face, red lips, brows thick and dark, which, for some reason, made them wildly sensual.
The passenger-side door opened and a young man—well-built in a gangly sort of way, with an anemic goatee and short ruddy hair--climbed out. A cautious smile on his face. He looked as if he wanted to apologize for the accident, though passengers were probably not the first suspects traffic officers looked at.
Pellam continued toward the driver.
She took off her own Ray Bans.
He was thinking that her eyes were the palest, most piercing gray he’d ever seen when she drew back and decked him with a solid right to the jaw.
# # #
A cold Colorado desert wind had come up and they were all inside the diner, the cast now including the town sheriff, fiftyish and twice Pellam’s weight. His name was partially H. Werther, according to his name plate. He stood near the counter, talking to the cowgirl.
Pellam was sitting at a table while a medic who smelled of chewing tobacco worked on his jaw. Pellam was mad at himself. He’d been in more fights than he could-- or cared to--count. He’d seen the squint in her eyes as he stepped close and had an idea that it was an about-to-swing squint. And all the while Pellam kept grinning like a freshman on a first date and thinking, Now, those are some extraordinary eyes.
For Christsake, you might’ve ducked at least.
The fist had glanced off bone and hadn’t caused any serious damage, though it loosened a tooth and laid open some skin.
Six other patrons—two older couples and two single Cat-capped workers—watched with straight-faced amusement.
“She got you good,” offered the medic, in a low voice, so the sheriff didn’t hear.
“It was the wreck, stuff flying everywhere.” He looked out the window at the damaged Winnebago. The medic looked, too. And, okay, it didn’t seem all that damaged. “Things flew around.”
“Uhn,” he grunted.
“A boom box.” He decided not to mention the beer bottles.
“We’re trained to look for certain contusions and abrasions. Like, for domestic situations.”
She barely tapped me, Pellam thought and wobbled the tooth again.
The driver stood with her arms crossed. The hat was back on. The brown was set off by a small green feather. She gazed back as she spoke to the sheriff; the beige-uniformed man towered over her and his weight, not insignificant, was a high percentage muscle. Probably the only peace officer in whatever town this was; Pellam had passed a welcome-to sign but that had been just as the emergency brake pad had pungently melted and he hadn’t had the inclination to check out the name and population of the place where he was about to die. He guessed it was maybe a thousand souls.
As the sheriff jotted in a small notebook Pellam studied the woman. She was calm now and he thought again how beautiful she looked.
Pale eyes, dark eyebrows.
Two red knuckles on her right hand.
She and the sheriff stood next to the cash register, an old-time hand-crank model. The diner itself was a real relic, too. Aluminum trim, paint-spatter Formica countertops, black-and-white linoleum diamonds on the floor. Arterial blood red for the vinyl upholstery—booth and stool.
The man who’d been in the passenger seat of the Ford stepped out of the washroom, still wearing a cautious smile. He was dressed in dark, baggy clothes--the sort you’d see in TriBeCa or on Melrose in West Hollywood. Pellam--for whom the line between movies and reality was always a little hazy--thought immediately that he could have stepped right out of a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez flick. He wore no-nonsense hiking boots. Clutching his backpack, he laughed nervously again. To Pellam he nodded a rueful glance--the sort soldiers might exchange when they’ve just survived their first firefight. His hair was cut flat on the top, short on the sides--the kind of cut Pellam associated with characters in the comic books of his childhood; he mentally dubbed the man Butch.
Was she his wife? Girlfriend, sister? She wore a wedding ring but was easily ten years older. Not that that meant anything nowadays—if it ever had. Pellam was experienced, but not particularly successful, in the esoterica of romance. His job didn’t allow much room for relationships.
Or that’s what he told himself.
The medic pressed a bandage on his jaw. “You’re good to go. Keep your guard up.”
“It was a—”
“Then against dangerous entertainment devices.” The man nodded a farewell to the sheriff, shoved a chaw in his mouth and left with his fix-’em-up bag.
Pellam rose unsteadily and walked toward the driver and sheriff, who said, “Everybody, pull out some tickets for me, if you would.”
Butch said evenly, “Yessir. Here you go.” A moment’s pause as he dug through his wallet, which was thick with scraps of paper. Pellam noted his license was Illinois. Taylor was his real name. Pellam was somehow disappointed at this.
“Don’t look much like you,” the sheriff said, examining the license.
“I didn’t have a beard then.” Pointing to the picture. “Or short hair.”
“Can see that. I ain’t blind. Still don’t look like you.”
“Well…” Taylor offered, for no particular purpose.
“This your current residence? Chicago?”
“For the time being. Where I get my mail.”
The sheriff took Pellam’s license, too, which contained a picture that did look like him. Still, the sheriff frowned slightly, perhaps at the word on the top, California. You saw a lot of Californians in Telluride and Vail and Aspen. Probably not a lot down here in this neck of the woods.
The door opened and a woman walked in. She looked around. “Hey, Sheriff. Everybody all right?”
Pellam squinted. It was the bicyclist they’d nearly squashed. Frizzy blond hair, massive curls. The helmet was gone. She was short and stocky. The bicycle latex revealed serious thighs. She’d taken off her sunglasses and was scanning them all with green eyes—Pellam in particular, probably because of the bandage. A spattering of sun-enhanced freckles dusted her face.
Somebody had come to pick her up. The bike was racked on the roof of an old battered car, a man in the driver’s seat. Short hair, lightish colored, but Pellam couldn’t make out any details of the driver. He was preoccupied with something else—the camper, it seemed.
“Lis,” the sheriff said, glancing their way. “Fine. More or less. That Chris with you?” A nod toward the car.
She explained that she was a witness, not mentioning that she’d nearly been run down. “Happy to give a statement if you want.”
“Good of you to come forward,” Werther said. “Most people wouldn’t’ve.”
“I figured you’d track me down sooner or later. Didn’t want to be leaving the scene of an accident.”
“Go ahead. Tell me what you saw.”
She gave a pretty accurate description. He jotted a few notes, every fifth or sixth word, it seemed. This was apparently the investigation of the year.
“That’s helpful, Lis. Thanks. And why don’tcha give them one of our cards. For their insurance companies.”
A little hesitation, as if she hadn’t counted on this level of attention.
She dug into a massive purse, found some cards and gave them out. Lis and Chris were the codirectors of the Southeastern Colorado Ecological Center. Seemed a little odd that such a group was based here, since vegetation was sparse and the human footprint minimal.
“Scared the you know what out of me.”
“I’m sure,” Pellam said. “Sorry about that.”
The driver was silent. She didn’t seem to care. She pulled a cell phone from her pocket, looked at the screen. Pellam was impressed. Hers was one of those new fancy ones where you didn’t need to tug the antenna up.
She put the phone back.
“Thought you guys were racing at first, but then I saw what happened. Brakes went?”
“Mine, yeah,” Pellam said.
“Good thing there was nobody in the oncoming lane.”
That was sure true. Though there hadn’t been much traffic going in any direction on barren State Route 14. Not here, where it was close to a hundred miles to any kind of town.
Lis was cute and maternal. Pellam guessed her first reason for coming here was in fact to see if anyone was hurt, rather than cover her ass about leaving the scene.
“Thanks to you. And Chris,” the sheriff said, looking out the door toward the old car, a Toyota. Had to be twenty years old. The gloss was gone from the paint entirely.
Pellam played out a scenario that the group had been threatened because they protested land use or something or because they were hippies and Sheriff Werther had stood up for them.
It would have made a bad scene in a movie and it was surely not true. But that was the way Pellam’s mind worked. He wrung stories from dry rocks.
The earth-mother left, climbed in the car and they sped away, she and Chris.
Without a word the sheriff stepped outside to write down VINs and to radio in the details and see who was who and what was what.
The driver got a coffee, not asking if anybody else wanted any. She paid with steady hands. “Look,” she said softly. “I’m sorry I hit you. I wasn’t thinking… The pickup was a birthday present. Just last week. It’s got eight hundred miles on it.”
Pellam thought about making a joke that out here that meant two trips to the grocery store and one to Blockbuster.
But he didn’t, mostly because she didn’t sound particularly sorry she’d slugged him.
“ ‘S’okay,” he said automatically as his tongue poked a loose tooth. “I didn’t really get the impression you were out for blood.”
Though he happened to be tasting some at that moment.
He added, “It was a boom box hit me. That’s what happened.” He nodded toward the sheriff.
“Thanks. I get carried away sometimes.”
The pain was starting now. Probably more than boom box pain.
Then the issue of assault was gone and she looked impatiently at her watch.
It seemed an appropriate time for intros. Her name turned out to be Hannah Billings. “With an ‘h.’ ”
A back-end h. “I’m John Pellam. This isn’t a line--but I have to say I’ve never met a Hannah before. Pretty name.”
It conjured up a heroine in a World War II film, a resistance fighter, wearing a tight frock, whatever a frock might be.
Taylor brushed his butch hair and said, “It’s a palindrome. Her name.”
“A word that’s spelled the same backward and forward. ‘Madam, I’m Adam,’ ” he said. “I wrote an entire poem in palindromes once.”
Hannah said, “And this is Taylor…”
The poet filled in, “Duke.”
More relationship mystery.
“As in the Duke. Being out here makes you think of old-time Westerns, doesn’t it?”
Hannah had no clue what he was talking about.
How could somebody not know John Wayne?
“So everybody okay?” Taylor asked. “That was freaky, I mean. Seeing the road doing that turn, what’s it called? A…?”
“Switchback,” Hannah offered and dumped sugar into her coffee. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’ve had worse.” As if Pellam were an afterthought. “You?”
“I used to be a stuntman. I’ve had worse.”
“Stuntman.” She was curious.
Taylor, too: “Wow. Hollywood?”
“Fascinating.” He dug into his massive backpack for a notebook and wrote something down on the stained, limp pages.
Hannah muttered to him, “Didn’t quite work out the way you’d hoped, looks like.”
He shrugged. “Not your fault.” Taylor had a bulky presence but he seemed like a pretty soft-hearted guy.
There was a formality between the two of them. Pellam just couldn’t figure out their relationship. She had a Colorado license, he’d noted. And Taylor Illinois. Was he a distant relative?
Taylor looked around, offering a faint laugh. “This place is something. A real diner. It oughta be in black and white. Like an old TV show.”
Pellam quoted. “ ‘You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas… You’ve just crossed over into… the Twilight Zone.”
“Controlling the vertical and the horizontal,” Taylor replied. Pellam believed that was a different show. But nodded anyway.
The woman completely ignored them. She took her coffee outside to make another cell phone call.
Taylor, the film- and TV-loving poet, went for some coffee, too, sitting down at the counter. He smiled, more friendly than flirtatious, at one of the waitresses: the younger of the two, a slim woman in a white uniform, which was only slightly jelly-marred. Rita, if Pellam read the scripty typeface above her left breast correctly. Taylor ordered, adding, “How ‘bout this diner, isn’t it totally authentic?” And, “Man, a real piece of America.” She glanced at him as if he’d told her he’d just seen Elvis mountain biking through the pines and went off silently to pour his coffee. It arrived in a chipped white mug that must’ve weighed close to a pound.
Pellam watched Hannah smoking half a cigarette, quickly. She returned inside, waving her hand about her to shoo away the smoke, as if trying to get rid of the evidence. It told Pellam her husband or some other family member wanted her to give up the habit, and, while she was courteous about the practice, she wasn’t going to stop.
She seemed more impatient yet, staring out toward the sheriff, hunched over his cruiser calling the incident in to points unknown. Finally she joined Pellam.
“I tried to get around you,” he said.
“I know, I saw.” Again, studying the sheriff.
Pellam reflected: Pale eyes but a great tan. Dark and rich, without a single crow’s foot to show for it. Taylor was tan, too, but only hands, face, and part of his neck. The rest was pale as paper. It told Pellam he spent a lot of time outside but wearing most of his clothes.
Ah, he deduced: hitchhiker. Made sense, that tan and the backpack. And those boots. Really serious boots.
But would a single woman have picked up a man who outweighed her by seventy pounds or so?
A woman with that right hook like she had was clearly somebody who could handle herself.
And as for her tan—it seemed to be everywhere. Which was, to John Pellam, an interesting matter for imaginative speculation.
The sheriff returned and looked over the threesome without suspicion or disdain. Still, he was a pro and there were questions to be asked. He asked Pellam, “You been drinking, sir?”
Ah, welcome to Gurney.
Pellam finally scored the name of the town; it was on the sheriff’s shoulder.
Hell of a name for a place. Wasn’t that some kind of medical stretcher?
“So you say. Didn’t answer my question.”
“Then the answer is: No. Last drink I had was a beer…”
“Sure it wasn’t two?” the law enforcer asked wryly.
“S’all anybody ever drinks. Two beers. A fella’ll tank down a fifth of Old Crow and when we pull him outa the wreck he says he’s only had two beers. What they always say. Now, how many’d you really have?”
This was pretty funny, Pellam thought. As a follower of COPS, it was true.
“One beer and it was yesterday.”
“Yessir. We’ll just have you breathe into our little magic box. You object to that?”
“Not at all.”
“He hasn’t been drinking,” Taylor said. “You could tell.”
It was a Land’s End knapsack he held. He kneaded it with long fingers that could have used a good scrubbing. The backs of his hands were tanned, the palms pink.
“Doesn’t really matter what he seemed to you, sir. We’ll let science string him up. Or not. As the case may be.”
“Then let’s do it,” Pellam said agreeably.
In the end the Sheriff settled for a little heel and toe walk, along the checkerboard of the diner floor, and the law enforcer was satisfied with the result. “I just don’t want to see any empties in the front of a vehicle, you understand me? I—”
“—even if they got themselves propelled there by the quote force of the impact.”
Pellam kind of liked this sheriff and—as a stranger in a lot of towns—he’d come under some scrutiny in his day.
“And your jaw? How’d that happen?”
Pellam looked him in the eye, “Boom box.”
“You were listening to rap on a boom box and you fell?”
“You can listen to anything on a boom box. I was listening to country.”
“And…?” He pointed to the bandage.
“It hit me in the face when we went off the road.”
“Okay.” Said in the way that cops always say, “Okay.” Like they don’t exactly believe you and they don’t exactly not believe you. Then he took in the driver. “You’re from Hamlin. And Billings? You Ed Billings’s wife?”
“That’s right. You know Ed?”
“Not personal. Know some folks who’ve retired to one of his developments? Paso Verde.”
“That’s a big one, yeah.” She looked at her watch. “Popular.”
“And what’s your story, sir?”
Taylor said, “I’m headed to Berkeley.”
“California. Taking a poetry course there.”
“I’m hitching from Denver to Hamlin.”
Hannah said, “I was driving back from some meetings in Colorado Springs. The Ford had a flat and he fixed it for me.”
“You have business in Hamlin?” the sheriff asked.
“I’m getting the Amtrak there. To Oakland.”
“Rather than from Denver.”
“You got money for the train, why’re you hitchin’?” the sheriff asked.
Pellam thought these questions, while delivered pleasantly, were a bit intrusive, directed as they were to a man who, in this particular scenario, was an innocent bystander. But Taylor was happy to talk. “The experience of it.” He gave his enthusiastic little laugh again. “I’d hitch all the way if I had time. I mean, the whole point of life is experience. Right?”
“You’re not thumbing on the interstate, are you?”
“Ramps only,” Taylor said automatically. With a grin. He’d been through this before.
The sheriff looked at Hannah, who didn’t know the drill ahead of time, but caught on. She said sourly, “I was on Fourteen when I had the flat.”
Route 14—the highway where the pickup/camper run-in occurred.
“Okay. Now, I’m not writing anybody up.”
“Thank you, officer,” Taylor said. Though, once again, Pellam had no clue what he might get written up for. He was acting so easygoing that Pellam knew his pack had to be drug free.
Hannah didn’t say thanks; her beautiful but severe face gave off the message: I got rear-ended in my birthday truck. Why the hell was a citation even an issue?
Licenses and registrations were redistributed. Except Pellam’s. Which the sheriff thumbed slowly. “Now you, sir.”
“The brakes went.”
“I said I’m not citing anybody. But on that, you know you have an obligation to check your equipment.”
Pellam didn’t think he’d ever looked at a brake line. He doubted he could recognize one.
“What I’m curious about is, are you making movies here?”
When the sheriff had checked the VIN on the Winnebago’s dash he must have seen the Colorado Film Board’s location permit.
“That’s right. I’m a location scout for a film company based in L.A.”
“Really?” Hannah asked, her curiosity piqued for the first time and sour attitude on hold. Pellam got this a lot. He wondered if she’d ask for a walk-on part. He had an amusing image of her as a femme fatale; she had the right look and spirit to be a really good bad girl. Sexy, too, which was another requirement. In fact, he was scouting for a film noir at the moment, an indie titled Paradice.
“And you’re setting it here?” she asked.
“Well, I was going to recommend it. Came across this place east of here fifteen miles or so. What’s it called? Devil’s…?”
“Playground,” Hannah said, shaking her head. “Be a good setting for a Stephen King movie, that’s about all.”
Taylor asked, “That’s near where you picked me up, right? Spooky.”
It was. The place was nestled at the base of two mountains, a huge craggy plain of pits and arroyos. Bleak as could be. But extremely photogenic.
“But I called the county supervisor this morning. He won’t issue film permits.”
“That was him.”
“Hey, Hube, you just bought some land up near there, didn’t you?” Rita, the young waitress, piped up. “Near that lake?”
Hube, Pellam reflected. Hubert. No wonder he went by a solitary H.
The sheriff didn’t answer.
“Let him make his movie on your property,” Rita continued. “And, Mister, I’m available, you need a leading lady.”
Taylor said earnestly, “I’ll put you in a poem.”
Again, the Elvis-has-been-spotted look. Taylor’s hitchhiking-weathered face blushed.
“Okay, that’s all I need,” Werther said. “Just get those vehicles up to the law.”
“Whatta you mean?” Hannah asked.
“No brake light, no turn signals. No backup. You can’t drive without ‘em.”
“You’re kidding. It’s still daylight.”
“Where?” she asked, her eyes going, for some reason, to Pellam.
The sheriff answered, “Rudy’s. ‘Bout four blocks thataway. Best mechanic in town.”
“That the only one in town?” Pellam found himself asking.
“That’s right.” The sheriff gave him the phone number from memory.
Pellam asked, “He by any chance related to you?”
“Hah, that’s funny.” The sheriff’s smile might not have been real and Pellam reminded himself to watch it. He couldn’t afford to spend the night in jail on suspicion of fraternizing with empties in the front seat of a vehicle.
# # #
Ten minutes later Pellam and Hannah walked into the repair shop with the world’s most beautiful view.
The windows looked out over mountains to the west and north and craggy flats—salt or sand—to the east. Now, early afternoon, the peaks were lit brilliantly, the stunning light firing off the late spring snowcap. Way in the distance he noted a particularly impressive, elegant mountain. Was it Pike’s Peak? Probably not.
Hannah had driven them both here in her rear-light-challenged Ford, with an okay from Sheriff Werther. The Winnebago was gingerly towed to a spot in front of the service station and lowered to its damaged front paws.
The garage was filthy and cluttered. The owner, Rudy, came out of the bays smiling. He nodded, but from habit, didn’t shake hands. His fingers were black. He wore a Carhartt brown jacket, stained beyond saving. He smiled at them in a way that was only a bit like a cat regarding a plump mouse and started talking like they were old friends. He was rambling on about life here in Gurney, his family (one boy in the army, one girl in nursing school) and assorted relatives. “Hube’s a good man. You know, he’s got a grandkid with that autism problem. It’s pretty bad, needs special help a lot. Hube works two jobs. Sheriff and security at Preston Assembly plant. His wife, my sister—”
Pellam was content to let him go because, he figured, the more like friends and family this seemed, the less the chance of getting robbed blind. But Hannah wasn’t in the mood. She interrupted curtly, “You mind getting to those estimates? The pickup first.”
“Well now, I’ll do that.” With a crinkly-eyed look that meant he’d just added a hundred or two onto the bill.
He headed outside. So did Hannah, setting the Stetson firmly on her head, against the up-and-coming wind. She pulled her cigarettes out of her pocket but then looked at assorted open containers of liquids that might or might not be flammable. She grimaced and put the Marlboros away. She made some calls.
Pellam did, too, pulling up his antenna and finding an acceptable signal. He told the director that he’d been in an accident, which the man responded to with more or less genuine concern. When he learned that the county would not under any circumstances issue permits, the director had a more intense reaction.
“Fragile eco system.”
“Fragile? You told me it was rocks and sand.”
“Joe, that’s what they said. What they mean is that they don’t want horny actors and slutty actresses carousing around in their county.”
“We’re behind schedule, John.”
“I’ll get the camper fixed and head south tomorrow.”
A sigh. “Okay. Thanks.” The voice grew grave: “You okay, for sure?”
Concern in tone, not in spirit.
He disconnected and happened to be looking at a map of the area. The Devil’s Playground area seemed to be the best locale for Paradice, the fictional town where the movie was set, as well as being the film’s title.
And Pellam laughed to himself, realizing that, damn, the indie was about a stranger coming to a small desert town, like Gurney, and getting into all sorts of trouble. There wasn’t much of a story to go with it, but sometimes—especially in noir—all you needed was a misspelled word in the title, some hunky lead and a sexy babe, and betrayal. Oh, and a fair amount of gunplay.
Hannah finished her own call, walked farther away from conflagration risks, and had a portion of a cigarette. Then she returned to the waiting room, staring out the window, too. She flopped down in a cracked fiberglass chair. “I told Ed. He wasn’t happy.”
Pellam got the impression she didn’t much care.
“Your husband, the real estate man.”
She looked at him as if asking, You heard that before. Why ask?
“Where’s Butch?” Pellam asked.
Oh. Right. “Taylor.”
“Headed to this little park in the middle of town. He wanted to write a poem.”
“A poem? He’s serious about that?”
Hannah continued, “Said he’d felt inspired by the experience of being out here. In a small western town.” She shook her head, meaning: I don’t get it. “There’s nothing to experience. Not here. Dust maybe, rednecks, losers, coyotes. Hamlin’s got a mall.”
Pellam wondered if the shopping center comment was delivered with the irony that seemed warranted. Apparently not.
A few minutes later the huge, bearded mechanic lumbered into the office, rearranging the grease on his fingers with a filthy rag.
“Damn shame ‘bout that pickup. Needin’ bodywork when you can still smell the new leather. That’s always the way, ain’t it? Now, miss, I got two options. First’ll get you home sooner: I can remove the old bulbs—that’s tricky since they’re busted—and then screw in new bulbs and mount the lenses. That’ll be four hundred eighty dollars. Number two, which I’d recommend, would include all that, plus the body work and replacing the hitch. You don’t want to tow nothing with it in that present condition. Paint, too.”
“And how much is that?”
Hannah squinted. “Really? I can have my guy in Hamlin do the bodywork for a thousand. The hitch is fine, I’ll buff off the scratches myself. And why’s that even an option? Didn’t your brother-in-law tell you I was in a hurry?”
“So, we’re down to option one. And let’s think it through.”
She continued patiently. “You can get bulbs for six bucks a pop at NAPA, cheaper at Wal-Mart. I need four of them. The lenses? Let’s be generous. Fifty bucks each. Just need two. That’s a grand total of one twenty-four in parts. Labor? Now, the bulbs aren’t screw-mount, like you said. They’re bayonet.”
Rudy’s face had gone red beneath the smudges. “Well, I meant ‘screw,’ you know, in a like general sense.”
“I’m sure you did,” Hannah muttered. Which was really a very funny line, even if she didn’t seem to realize it. “You put a glove on. Right? Stick your finger into the broken base and push and twist. You can do all four in a minute or two. Takes you another five minutes to mount the new ones. So you’re basically charging me four hundred dollars for twenty minutes’ work. That’s a thousand dollars an hour. My lawyer doesn’t charge that. Does yours?” A look at Pellam.
“I don’t have a lawyer.” He did but he wasn’t going to get involved in this. He was enjoying himself too much.
Silence for a moment.
“I have overhead” was the only defense Rudy could mount.
From beneath her dark, silken eyebrows, she gazed unflinchingly into his evasive eyes.
“Two fifty,” he muttered.
“One fifty,” Hannah said firmly.
“Cash?” came the uneasy riposte.
“Okay. Jesus.” The mechanic sullenly retreated into his garage to fetch the tools.
Pellam glanced at the Winnebago. He had no talent whatsoever when it came to motor vehicles, except for the uncanny ability to attract state troopers when he was speeding. Rudy was going to hose him. Maybe he should have Hannah go over the estimate.
He walked to the vending machine and bought a Moon Pie. Pellam noted the “complimentary” coffee and thought about making a joke that it better say nice things about you because it looked like sludge. But Hannah just didn’t seem to be the sort to share clever comments with. He bought a vending machine instant coffee. Which wasn’t terrible, with the double milk powder.
“You really picked that fellow up?” Pellam asked her after a moment. “I clock a hundred thousand miles a year but I never pick up hitchers.”
“Even pretty women?”
“Especially them. Though I’ve been tempted.” A glance into her pale eyes. Then he grazed her tan.
She chose not to flirt back. “I normally wouldn’t’ve, but he did help me out. And I mean, really, a poet or grad student? He’s about as harmless as they come.”
“Still could be pretty dangerous,” Pellam said gravely.
She looked at him with consideration.
“What if he started reciting poetry at you?”
A blink. “Actually, he did. And it sucks.”
“You ever been to Berkeley?”
“No. I don’t travel much. Not out of the state.”
Pellam had scouted for a film there. The movie was about the regents at a fictional school, which happened to look a lot like UC-B, tear-gassing protesting students in the sixties, and the rise of the counterculture. All very politically correct. The critics liked it. Unfortunately most of the people who went to see it, which was not very many, did not. Pellam thought the concept had potential but the director had ignored his suggestions—because he was JTLC. And even though he’d been a successful director himself years ago, anyone who was Just-the-Location-Scout, like Just-the-Grip or even Just-the-Screenwriter, was bound to be ignored by God.
“He seems old to be a student.”
A shrug, a glance toward Pellam, as if she was noticing him for the first time. “Maybe one of those perpetual college kids. Doesn’t want to get into the real world. Afraid of making money.”
The Moon Pie was pretty good. He thought about offering her a bite.
But he liked it more than he liked her, despite the glance from her cool, gray eyes.
Pellam eyed a ‘74 Gremlin, painted an iridescent green that existed nowhere in nature. Now, that was a car with personality, whatever else you could say about it. From the tiny engine to the downright weird logo of, yes, a gremlin. He stuck his head inside. It smelled like what 1974 must have smelled like.
Rudy finished the job in jiffy time and even washed the windshield for her, though the water in the pail didn’t leave it much cleaner than before.
She paid him and the big mechanic went on to look over Pellam’s Winnebago. Two flat tires, wrecked bumper, probably front-end work. Maybe the fan. If a bit of paint and fixing some dents was going to cost Ms. Hostility nearly three grand, what the hell was his estimate going to be? At least he had the production company credit card, though that would entail a complicated and thorough explanation to the accounting powers that be—and in the film business those were formidable powers indeed.
Rudy went off to do his ciphering. Pellam expected him to lick his pencil tip before he wrote, but he didn’t.
“Where the hell’s Taylor?” Hannah looked around with some irritation. “I told him to meet me here.”
Pellam decided that with her impatience, edge, and taste for authentic jewelry, in quantity, a poet would not make the cut in a relationship.
Good luck to you, Ed.
“You have Taylor’s number?” Pellam asked.
“No phone. He doesn’t believe in them. One of those.”
He didn’t know exactly what that category was, but he could figure it out. “How big can Gurney be?” Pellam asked.
“Too big,” she said.
She was tough but Pellam had to give her credit for some really good lines.
Rudy came back and, maybe it was Hannah’s presence, but the estimate was just under three Gs. Not terrible. He said okay. Rudy explained he’d call for the parts. They’d be here in the morning. “You’ll need to get a room for the night.”
“I have one.”
“Oh, right.” The mechanic returned to his shop.
Pellam ate some more Moon Pie and sipped coffee.
She looked around the repair shop office and didn’t see anything to sit on. She started to ask Pellam, “You…?”
But she was interrupted when two law enforcement vehicles, different jurisdictions, to judge from the color, pulled into the lot in front of the station. They parked. Werther got out of the first and was joined by the second car’s occupant, a young Colorado state trooper, in a dark blue shirt, leather jacket and Smokey the Bear hat.
Pellam and Hannah left the shop, stepping into the windy afternoon, and joined them.
“Ms. Billings, Mr. Pellam, this’s Sergeant Lambert from the Colorado State Patrol. He’d like to talk to you for a minute.”
Heads were nodded. No hands shaken.
Lambert wasn’t as young as he seemed, looking into the weathered face up close, though he was still a decade behind Pellam. His dark eyes were still and cautious.
“You were both near Devil’s Playground around 10:30 a.m. today, is that correct?”
“I was,” Pellam said. “Around then.”
Hannah: “Probably, yeah.”
“And the sheriff says you weren’t alone.”
“No, a man was with me. Taylor… Duke was with me.”
“I see. Well, seems a man was murdered about that time near the Playground. On some private land near Lake Lobos.”
“Really,” Hannah said, not particularly interested.
“His name was Jonas Barnes. A commercial real estate developer from Quincy.”
Pellam pitched out the remaining Moon Pie. For some reason it just seemed like a bad idea to eat junk food pastries while being questioned about a homicide. The coffee went, too.
The trooper continued, “He was stabbed to death. We think the killer was surprised. He started to drag him to one of the caves nearby, but somebody showed up nearby and he fled That tells us there was a witness. Either of you happen to see anyone around there then? Parked vehicles? Hikers, fishermen? Anything out of the ordinary?”
Hannah shook her head.
Pellam thought back. “This was in the Devil’s Playground?”
“South of there. The victim was looking over some land he was thinking of buying.”
“Where that spur to the interstate’s gonna go?” This was from Rudy, who’d wandered up, doing more grease rearranging. He nodded a greeting to his brother-in-law.
“That’s the place, yeah,” the trooper offered. Werther said he didn’t know.
“Well, that’s what I heard. Connecting Fourteen to I-Fifty-two.”
Ah, the infamous State Route 14. He looked at Hannah Billings again. Her cool eyes and grim mouth didn’t make her any less attractive. He’d never see her again after today, of course, but he wondered just how married was she? Women like that, that was a natural question. It asked itself.
Hannah said, “I wasn’t in the park. I had a flat about a half mile south. It was near a café.”
“Duncan Schaeffer’s place.”
She looked at the mechanic with a gaze that said, And why the hell would I know who owns it?
The trooper said, “And the fellow who helped you with the flat? The hitchhiker? He might’ve seen more, since he was on foot.”
“Could be,” she offered.
“Where is he now?”
“He was downtown. He’s supposed to meet me. Should’ve been here by now, I’d think.”
The trooper took down their information and said he’d get an update while he waited until Taylor Duke returned. With ramrod-straight posture, he returned to his car, sat down, and began to type onto his computer. Sheriff Werther finished a conversation with Rudy, who headed back to the shop. The sheriff started up the cruiser and headed off.
Pellam spotted a convenience store fifty yards up the dusty road. He could get a frozen dinner to nuke and curl up with a whiskey and a map of southeastern Colorado to find a shooting location for Paradice. He’d get something, but he was pissed he’d been denied Devil’s Playground. It was perfect.
Stepping away, Hannah lit another cigarette, having some trouble getting the tobacco lit in the stream of wind. He caught a glimpse of her pale eyes, her dark eyebrows, jeans tight as paint, as the flame flared. She snapped the lighter shut—a silver one, not disposable.
Madam, I’m Adam…
She ambled in his direction, as a fierce gust of wind pushed her starboard a few inches. As she closed in, she hung up. “Don’t get married,” she muttered. “Ever.”
This intelligence about Ed was interesting. So was what she said next. “We go inside?” A nod at the camper.
But when he responded, “You bet we can,” he wasn’t flirting. The damn wind had chilled him to bone.
# # #
Once they were in the confined space, Pellam noted immediately that they both smelled of service station—a sweet and ultimately unpleasant astringent smell, courtesy of Rudy and Gurney Auto Service, We Fix All Makes and Models, Foriegn too!! Dump your Oil HERE.
Hannah noticed this as well and smelled her leather sleeve. “Jesus.” She settled into the bench seat behind the tiny kitchenette table. “Kind of homey.”
“I like it.”
Eyeing her beautiful face, to gauge if she was bored by his narrative, he told her about life on the road, what appealed to him. She did seem more or less interested. She rose, went to the cupboard. “Vodka?”
“Headache.” She seemed to pout.
Pellam was amused. Hurrying off into the windy afternoon to buy her vodka was just the sort of thing that the straight guy, the innocent, the mark would do for a femme fatale in a noir movie like Paradice. And it was generally a bad decision on all fronts.
Hannah looked him over carefully once more and then sat down on the bed, rather than the banquette. Her head dipped, her eyes locked onto his.
He asked, “Grey Goose or Belvedere?”
# # #
Ten minutes later he’d shelled out big bucks for the premium and bought himself an extra fifth of Knob Creek, just to be safe. Two Stouffer’s frozen lasagnas too. They were both for him. He didn’t think Hannah would stay around for dinner.
Don’t get married. Ever.
At first he’d thought that was a warning, not an invitation. But seeing her on the bed he wasn’t so sure.
The wind kept up its insistent buffeting and Pellam walked with his head down, eyes squinted to slits. He’d spent a lot of time in deserts and it seemed to him that the grit in Colorado, Gurney in particular, was the sharpest and most abrasive. Imagination probably.
He lifted his head and oriented himself, then adjusted course. Pellam walked past an abandoned one-story building that had been a video store. There were fewer than there used to be. Talk in the industry was that soon cable TV was going to be offering nearly first-run films on special units that duplicated the clarity of theater screens. You could even watch movies on your computer—not with discs, which were soon going to take over the market from VHS tapes, but through your phone line or however you connected to the Internet. Pellam was skeptical of all this technology and, in any case, he didn’t like it. There was an intimacy about going to a theater to watch a movie. Lights going down, the hush of the crowd, then experiencing the images big and loud and awash with the reactions of everyone else. He couldn’t imagine—
Whatever hit him weighed fifty pounds easy. It shattered the vodka and whiskey and sent Pellam tumbling into the street.
But stuntmen instincts never quite go away. He rolled rather than impacted, diffusing the energy. And in a smooth motion he sprang up, flexing his right hand to see if it was broken—it wasn’t. Two fists and he was ready to fight.
The assailant, however, wasn’t. He was already sprinting away from the attack, through the brush. Pellam couldn’t see him clearly, but he noted that it seemed the man had a backpack on.
Pellam was about to go after him, but glanced toward the camper, about a hundred feet away, and saw the body lying on the ground.
In dark clothing.
Hell, was it Hannah?
He ran forward and stopped fast.
No, it was the State Patrol trooper. He was lying on his back, one leg straight, the other up, knee crooked. His throat had been slit, deep. A lake of blood surrounded his head and neck. His holster was empty. Bootprints led from the body into the woods behind the service station.
Then a man’s voice from nearby: “Help me!”
Pellam spun around. From the repair shop Rudy staggered toward the street. He’d been stabbed or struck on the head and blood cascaded down to his shoulder. He was staring at his hand, covered with the red liquid. “What’s this? What’s this?” He was hysterical.
Pellam ran to the mechanic. The wound wasn’t deep—a blow to the back of the head, it seemed. He eased the man to the ground and found a rag, filthy, but presumably saturated with enough petrochemical substances to render it relatively germ free. He pressed it against the wound.
Pellam ran to the camper and flung the door open.
“Any sign of--?” Hannah’s question skidded to a halt as she looked him over, covered with the aromatic dregs of whiskey and vodka, which glued dust and dirt to his body.
“Jesus. What’s going on?”
Pellam opened the tiny compartment beside the door. He took out his antique Colt .45 Peacemaker, a cowboy gun, and loaded it. Slipped it into his back waistband.
“Trooper’s dead, Rudy’s hurt. Somebody decked me. I think it was your hitchhiker. I couldn’t see for sure but I think so.”
“You have a gun? Where’d you get a gun?”
Recalling that Taylor would have the trooper’s weapon, he opened the camper door slowly and stepped into the wind.
No shots. And no sign of the man. Where would he have fled to?
He pulled out his cell phone and hit 911.
He got the operator, but five seconds later he was patched through to the sheriff himself.
Pellam didn’t think that was the sort of thing that ever happened in the big city.
# # #
Ten minutes later Hannah joined him outside as Werther showed up.
Hannah Billings was not the sort of person who stayed inside when she didn’t want to stay inside, whatever threats awaited.
The sheriff jumped out fast and ran to the trooper first, then saw there was nothing he could do for the man. He went to his brother-in-law, sitting on a bench in front of the service station. After a word or two with the man he returned to Hannah and Pellam. He made a radio call to see about the ambulance and to call in several other state patrol cars.
And then he pulled his weapon out and pointed it toward Pellam. He arrested him for murder.
Pellam blinked. “You’re out of your mind.”
Werther was his typical calm, the statue of reason. “You told me you weren’t where Jonas Barnes was killed this afternoon.”
“Well, I didn’t know where he was killed. I told you as best I could.”
“Witness saw you standing over the body.”
Pellam closed his eyes and shook his head. “No. I didn’t see a body.”
“And it looked like you were holding a knife. Which is how Barnes died. You started to drag him away into a cave and then you realized somebody was nearby. You ran.”
“Who is this witness?”
“It was anonymous. But he described you to a T.”
Hannah said, “It was Taylor. It had to be.”
Pellam pointed to the ground. “Those footprints! Those’re just what he was wearing. And he attacked me.”
“You say that. I didn’t see it.” He looked to Hannah. “Did you see it?”
She hesitated. “He couldn’t’ve done it.”
“Was he with you?”
Before she spoke Pellam said, “No, I was just coming back from the store up there and I got jumped. Then I found them. Why would I call 911 if I was the guilty party?”
“So you wouldn’t look guilty, of course.”
“Jesus Christ. Taylor’s getting away.”
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
Pellam turned around and gave it ten seconds for Werther to holster his weapon and get his cuffs out. He fast-drew the Colt from his waistband and touched the muzzle against the sheriff’s belly, pulled out the man’s Glock and flung it into bushes across the road.
The man gasped. “Oh, Lord. Please, I got a family…”
“And if you want to see ‘emyou’ll hand the cuffs to your brother-in-law.”
Pellam stepped back and now aimed at Rudy. “Sorry, but do it.”
The big man hesitated, looked at the gun, then at the spreading lake of blood around the trooper. He took the cuffs. “Cuff him.” Pellam then barked, “Now! I don’t have time to wait!”
The big man said, “I don’t know how they work.”
“Mister, this’s going to mean nothing but trouble for you for a long, long time.”
Pellam ignored the law enforcer and explained the cuffs to Rudy. Everyone, Hannah included, probably wondered why he knew this esoteric skill.
Motioning Rudy back, Pellam frisked Werther and found plastic hand restraints. He bound Rudy’s wrists behind him. Then, pointing his Colt Hannah’s way, he said, “I’m taking your car… and you. You’re driving.”
“No, I’m tired of listening,” Pellam snapped. “Move now!”
“Pellam,” Werther called. “You won’t get but a mile. Troopers already have roadblocks up.”
But he was gesturing Hannah into the truck. The big engine fired up and she skidded into the road, the fix-your-seatbelt light flashing but the chime disconnected. Hannah seemed like the kind of woman who couldn’t be bothered with things like safety restraints.
# # #
Pellam slipped the gun away. “Sorry. I didn’t have any choice.”
“No,” she said. The word might’ve been a question.
“I didn’t kill Barnes,” he said. “Or anyone.”
“I didn’t think you had. Why’d you kidnap me?”
“It’s not a kidnap. It’s a borrowing. I need your car… and, okay, I needed a hostage.”
She snickered bitterly.
He continued. “The only way to prove I’m innocent is to find your goddamn poet. He’s not driving out of here either. He’ll be hiding out someplace. The cops’ll be checking all the motels. He’ll camp out somewhere. Caverns or someplace like that, I’d guess. You have any ideas?”
“Me?” she snapped, sounding insulted. “I’m not from here. I was just passing through this fucking place when you rear-ended me. Most I’ve ever done in Hamlin ‘fore today’s bought overpriced gas.”
She took a turn at nearly fifty, inducing a slight skid, which she controlled expertly. Pellam’s knees banged the dash. So she could reach the pedals, she’d moved the seats all the way forward.
She was staying off the main roads.
Pellam thought for a minute. “I’ve got an idea.” He dug in his pocket for a business card.
# # #
The office of Southeastern Colorado Ecological Center was outside of Gurney in an area that looked more like ski territory than desert: pines, brush, grass and scrub oak or low trees that looked like they ought to be called scrub oak even if they weren’t. The building seemed to include offices, a small museum, and an even smaller lecture hall.
A sign announced that people could learn about the relationship between carbon dioxide and “our green friends” next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Pellam supposed the audience would be local. He didn’t know who’d drive from Mosby, the next town north, let alone Denver, three hours away, for entertainment like this.
“No troopers. That’s the good news.” Pellam was looking over the three cars parked in the employee lot. None of them were hybrids; that was one of the ironies about the eco movement. Even many people in the field couldn’t afford to practice what they preached. He counted four bicycles, though.
Inside, at the desk, he found the woman who’d been bicycling along Route 14 when Pellam had slugged the rear of Hannah’s truck. Lis, of Lis and Chris.
She looked up with her official visitor-greeting grin. Then blinked as a wave of recognition descended over her. “Today… the accident… Hey.”
And no other reaction. Pellam looked to Hannah and the meaning was, so Werther hasn’t been in touch asking her to report a kidnapper and kidnappee.
“Sorry, I forgot your names.”
“John and Hannah,” Pellam offered.
“Sure. What can I do for you? Is this about the insurance?”
“No, actually,” Hannah said, delivering the spiel they’d come up with in the car. “We’re trying to find that friend of mine? Was in the diner with me?”
“With the crew-cut?”
“Right. He was talking about camping out, maybe around some caverns in the area. But my truck got fixed up sooner than I thought. I want to get back to Hamlin now. He’ll want to come with me.”
“Camping, hm? Hope he brought his long underwear. Gets cold there.”
“So there’s a place you think he might be?”
Lis pulled a map out of a rack on the edge of her desk. She consulted it and pointed. “Here, I’d bet. Just past the old quarry.”
It was about three miles or so from where they were.
“Appreciate that. Thanks.”
Pellam took the map. He noted the price was two dollars. He gave her a ten. “Consider the rest a donation.”
“Hey, thanks.” She gave him a button that said “Earth Lover.”
This time Pellam drove, fast and just a bit recklessly. Hannah didn’t mind one bit. If anything, she seemed bored. She fished under the seat and found a small bottle of screw-top wine, the sort they give you on airplanes. She untwisted the lid with a cracking sound. She drank half. “You want some?”
Pellam wouldn’t have minded a hit of whiskey, but his Knob Creek was history and there was nothing worse than airplane wine. “Pass.”
She finished it.
In ten minutes they were at the quarry. A chain-link fence attempted to seal it off but even a sumo wrestler could have squeezed in through the gaps.
Pellam looked at his watch. It was nearly six-thirty. He checked the gun once more. Thinking he should’ve brought more shells. But too late for that.
“You head on back. Tell ‘em you escaped.”
“How’ll you get out?”
“I’ll have to call our friend Werther, whatever happens. Whether I find Taylor or not I’m going to get busted. The only difference’ll be how long it takes to recite the charges against me.”
# # #
Eerie as hell.
Devil’s Playground had been plenty spooky but the Gurney Quarry at dusk on a windy day ran a very close second.
Of course some of that might have to do with the fact that there was possibly a killer wandering around here. There’d been one at the Playground, too, it seemed, but Pellam hadn’t known it. That made a big difference. In the failing light he could just make out the austere beauty of the place, the chalky bone-white cliffs, the turquoise water at the base of the quarry going from azure to gray, the sensual curves of the black shadows of the hills.
Soon, in the dark, it would just be a maze of hiding places and traps, the wind howled mournfully over the landscape.
Thinking about Taylor. Sheriff Werther. And about Hannah. He thought about Ed some, too. He moved forward slowly, nervously thumbing the hammer of the Colt and not hearing a single boot on rock as a killer snuck up behind him.
An owl swooped low and snagged something--mouse or chipmunk--then veered off into the sky. The squeak had been loud and brief.
For half an hour, he tracked along the ground here, looking for suitable hiding places. With the cowboy gun and the ambiance here, he was thinking of his ancestor. Wild Bill Hickok—James Butler; no “William” was involved in any part of the name. The gunslinger/marshal had been murdered, shot in the back of the head by a man he’d beat at poker the day before. But what specifically Pellam was recalling was that Hickok felt bad for Jack McCall, the murderer, and gave him back some of what he’d lost.
But McCall had thought the gesture condescending, and that was the motive for the murder, not cheating, not arrogance.
A good deed.
Pellam shivered in the wind. He moved more slowly now—dusk was thick and moonlight still an hour away. But he saw no signs of anyone.
But then, a hundred yards away, the flicker of light. From one of the large caverns near the edge of the quarry. Pellam moved quickly toward the cavern where he’d seen it, dodging rocks and scrub oak and wiry balls of tumbleweed. The cavern was in a cul de sac. On one side a sheer wall rose fifty feet into the air, its surface scarred and chopped by the stone cutters. On the other side, the quarry fell into blackness.
Twenty feet from the entrance to the cavern. The light seemed dimmer now.
Moving closer, listening. Moving again. Hell, it was noisy, this persistent wind. Like the slipstream roaring through the window of the Winnebago that afternoon.
Mountain, truck or air…
He saw nothing other than the dancing light. Was it a fire? Or a lantern?
And then: What the hell am I doing here?
A question that was never answered because at that moment a man stepped from the shadows beside him and aimed his pistol at Pellam’s head.
“Can I set it down?”
Pellam dropped the gun.
It wasn’t Taylor. The man had salt-and-pepper hair. He was in his fifties, Pellam estimated, and he was wearing khaki hiking clothes. He gestured Pellam back and retrieved the Peacemaker. Into a cell phone he said, “He’s here.”
“Where is he?”
That being the hitchhiker/poet.
Though Pellam knew the answer to the question: The ramblin’ man was either dead or tied up somewhere nearby.
Was this fellow in front of him, with the gun, Chris? The husband or partner of green-minded Lis, who had murdered Jonas Barnes near the Devil’s Playground today—presumably because Barnes was going to rape the earth by putting in a shopping center along the spur to the interstate?
If that was the case, then he reflected that it was rather ironic that they’d nearly run her down as she was returning from her deadly mission.
And, sure enough, he heard a woman’s voice. “I’m here, it’s me.”
Glancing toward the sound, Pellam realized that his theory about Barnes’s demise, while logical, was in fact wrong.
The murderer was not earth-loving Lis.
It was Hannah Billings.
Pellam turned to the man with the gun and said, “So, you must be Ed.”
# # #
“Does that thing work?” she asked her husband.
The man was looking over Pellam’s Peacemaker with some admiration. “Nice. I have a collection myself.”
Pellam had the bizarre thought that Ed Billings was going to start a genial conversation about antique firearms.
With a neutral glance Pellam’s way, Ed walked into the cavern and hauled Taylor to his feet. He was tied—though not duct-taped—which would, presumably, leave a residue that crime scene folks could detect. They were good at that. Pellam had served time. The police were all over the evidence. Pellam’s extremely expensive defense attorney hadn’t bothered to try to sever the head of that testimony.
“What the hell is going on here?” he pleaded. “Who are you?”
Pellam could picture clearly what these two had planned: Oh, damn, we got it wrong, the sheriff would announce. That Pellam fellow wasn’t guilty after all. It was that weird poet who killed Jonas Barnes. A hitchhiker, what did you expect? Pellam tracked him down—to prove he was innocent—and the man jumped him. They fought, they died.
The poor hitchhiker was as baffled as he was terrified.
Pellam nodded. “Was it the real estate?”
Hannah was ignoring him. She was looking over the scenery, approaches, backdrops. Hell, she looked just like a cinematographer blocking out camera angles.
But Ed was happy to talk. “Barnes had an option to buy the five hundred acres next to Devil’s Playground.”
“Worth millions to whoever owned the land,” Pellam said. “When the spur was finished.”
Ed Billings nodded. “Fast food, gasoline and toilets. That kind of describes our country, doesn’t it?”
Pellam was distracted, since the man’s gun—a very efficient Glock—moved toward his abdomen, now his groin. There’s no traditional safety on a Glock. You simply pointed and shot. And the trigger pull was pretty light. Pellam felt certain parts south contracting.
“But his estate could exercise the option.”
“No, we know the wife. She wasn’t interested in real estate.”
Pellam said to Hannah, “You killed Barnes but you needed a fall guy, so picked up the hitchhiker, who would’ve taken the blame. It was going to be easy. Kill the real estate guy, plant some of his things on Taylor, a little DNA… It probably would’ve worked. But then—ah, got it now-- then came the monkey wrench. Me.”
Hannah said, “After Barnes was dead I saw you with that fancy video camera of yours. I was afraid you’d got me on tape.”
“And you undid my brake line.” He gave a brittle laugh. “Sure, you know cars—the way you talked Rudy down with the brake lights incident. You were going go through the wreckage and find the camera and tapes.”
“Except you got to the switchback faster than I thought you would and rammed into me.”
Pellam understood. “Change of plans, sure. You decided to go for cocktails in my camper. You get the tapes when I went to the convenience store?”
“I got ‘em.” She nodded, presumably at the truck, parked nearby.
“But you still needed the fall guy.” Pellam looked toward Ed Billings. “And you showed up to kidnap Taylor, dress up in his clothes and kill the trooper.”
“And now I kill Taylor and he kills me. End of story.”
Hannah had lost interest in the narrative. “Yeah,” she said. “Shoot him. I’m bored with all this crap. I want to get home.”
Hamlin has a mall…
Just like the end of a Quentin Tarantino film. The filmmaker tended to fall back on the good old Mexican Standoff, everybody pointing a gun at each other.
“Only one thing,” Pellam said, buying time.
“What’s that?” Ed asked.
“When does she shoot you?”
“That’s the scenario, situations like this. The girl sets it all up and then shifts the blame to her husband. He takes the fall and she rides off into the sunset with the money.”
A brief pause. Ed said, “You know the flaw in that? You can only do it once. And so far we’re worth more to each other alive.”
He lifted the Glock.
Which was when a series of lights came on and voices started shouting, “Police, police! On the ground, drop the weapons!” and similar assorted cop phrases, all enthusiastically punctuated.
Pellam supposed that Sheriff Werther and the others were charging forward with their assault rifles and executing some nifty arrest procedures.
He couldn’t say. At the first flash of spotlight he’d dropped to his belly and ducked. Another aspect of noir stories is that everybody has a gun and is always real eager to use it.
# # #
Fifteen minutes later Pellam was leaning against the side of Sheriff Werther’s car. He handed back the tracking device—it looked like a garage door opener—that the man had slipped into his pocket at the sham arrest two hours ago, in front of the Winnebago.
“Worked pretty good,” Pellam observed.
Werther, though, winced, looking at it. “Truth be told, seems there was only five minutes or so of battery left.”
Meaning, Pellam assumed, that if they hadn’t tracked him to the quarry in that time he’d now be dead.
But considering that the sheriff’s plan had been thrown together quickly, it was understandable that there’d been a glitch or two.
When Pellam had been patched through to Werther after finding the trooper dead and Rudy injured, the sheriff had explained that the medical examiner had given the opinion that the man had been stabbed by someone who was short—five five or less, given the angle of the knife wounds. “And remember, somebody’d tried to drag the body to a cave? The trooper thought it was that they’d been spotted. Fact is, I decided they just weren’t strong enough.”
Those facts suggested the killer might be a woman, he explained.
Well, there were two women having something to do with the case, Werther had said: Hannah and Lis. And each of them had a male partner who could be an accomplice. So the sheriff decided to set up a trap to find out if either of them was the killer. But he needed Pellam’s help. The location scout was supposed to let both Hannah and Lis know that he was searching for Taylor.
Turning himself into a fall guy.
Whoever showed up at the quarry to kill him would be the guilty party.
Taylor was at the hospital in Redding for observation. Ed Billings had whaled on him pretty bad. When he’d said good-bye to Pellam a half hour before, he’d smiled ruefully and said, “Hey, quite an experience, hm?”
“Good luck with the poems,” the location scout had told him as he walked to the ambulance.
“Say,” Werther now asked Pellam, “did you get anybody on tape at Devil’s Playground?”
Pellam gave a sour laugh. “Not a soul.”
“Hm, too bad. Though I don’t suspect we need the evidence.”
“You’ve got property around there, too, don’t you, Sheriff?” Pellam asked wryly.
“Oh, what Rita was saying? Yeah, I do. Vacation house that I rent out. Helps for some of the expenses my son has.”
For his autistic grandchild, Pellam recalled.
“You suspect me?” Werther asked.
“No, sir, never occurred to me.”
“Okay… Now, about that little matter you and I horse traded on? It’s all taken care of,” the sheriff said.
“You earned it.”
Pellam then asked for his brother-in-law’s phone number.
“Rudy? He can’t get your camper in shape until tomorrow.”
“This is about something else.”
Motion in the corner of his eye. Hannah Billings was being led across the parking area in front of the quarry to a squad car. She glanced his way.
A phrase came to Pellam’s mind:
If looks could kill…
# # #
Here’s Rita at the diner, her name proudly stitched on her impressive bosom.
She’s doing what she does best with diligence and polite mien, and with no tolerance for nonsense from former movie directors turned location scouts, from flirtatious poets, from killers noir at heart, from saints. Anybody. She takes waitressing seriously.
Pellam wasn’t in the mood for frozen so he’d arranged a private vehicle rental from Rudy (yes, the bile-green Gremlin, which was, he knew, a very underrated vehicle—it could beat the Pinto and VW Beetle hands down, at least with the optional four-speed Borg-Warner).
He’s finished a meatloaf dinner and orders pie with cheese. He didn’t used to like this combo but, really, who shouldn’t? It doesn’t get any better than sweet apples and savory Kraft. He’d go for a whiskey, but that’s not an option at the Overlook, so it’s coffee, which is exemplary.
He gets a call on his Motorola cell phone. The director of Paradice is ecstatic that Pellam has secured a permit to shoot in Devil’s Playground after all.
“How’d you do it?”
Put my life on the line to catch a femme fatale, he thinks, earning Sheriff Werther’s friendship and assistance in all things governmental here.
“Just pulled some strings.”
“Ah, I love string-pullers,” the director says breathily.
Pellam thinks about suggesting a new name for the film: Devil’s Playground. But he knows in his heart that the director will never buy it—he just loves his misspelled title.
Fine. It’s his movie, not mine.
As he ends the call Pellam feels eyes aimed his way. He looks up and believes that Rita is casting him a flirt, which is not by any means a bad thing.
Then he glances at her with a smile and sees she is, in fact, looking a few degrees past him. It’s toward a young man standing beside a revolving dessert display, featuring cakes that seem three feet high. He’s looking back at her. The nervous boy is handsome if pimply. He sits down at the end of the counter, isolated so he can gab a bit with her in private. He also will, Pellam knows, leave a five-dollar tip, though he can’t really afford it, on a ten-dollar tab, which will both embarrass and enthrall her.
Ain’t love grand?
The pie comes in for a landing and Pellam indulges. It’s good, no question.
His thoughts wander. He’s considering his time in Paradice, wait, no in Gurney, and he decides that, just like State Route 14, life sometimes is a switchback. You never know what’s going to happen around the next hairpin, or who’s who and what’s what.
But other times the road doesn’t curve at all. It’s straight as a ruler for miles and miles. What you see ahead is exactly what you’re going to get, no twists, no surprises. And the people you meet are just what they seem to be. The environmentalist is simply passionate about saving the earth. The hitchhiking poet is nothing more or less than a self-styled soulmate of Jack Kerouac, rambling around the country in search of who knows what. The sheriff is a hard-working pro with a conscience and a grandkid who needs particular looking after.
And the sexy cowgirl with red nails and a feather in her Stetson is exactly the bitch you pretty much knew in your heart she’d turn out to be.
Also by Jeffery Deaver
The Kill Room*
Carte Blanche, a James Bond Novel
The Burning Wire*
Best American Mystery Stories 2009 (Editor)
The Watch List (The Copper Bracelet and The Chopin Manuscript) (Contributor)
The Bodies Left Behind
The Broken Window*
The Sleeping Doll**
More Twisted: Collected Stories, Volume Two
The Cold Moon*/**
The Twelfth Card*
Garden of Beasts
Twisted: Collected Stories
The Vanished Man*
The Stone Monkey*
The Blue Nowhere
The Empty Chair*
Speaking in Tongues
The Devil’s Teardrop
The Coffin Dancer*
The Bone Collector*
A Maiden’s Grave
Praying for Sleep
The Lesson of Her Death
Mistress of Justice
Death of a Blue Movie Star
Manhattan Is My Beat
Bloody River Blues
A Century of Great Suspense Stories (Editor)
A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime (Editor)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Introduction)
*Featuring Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs
**Featuring Kathryn Dance
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Fast, a Kathryn Dance story
Paradice, a John Pellam story
Also by Jeffery Deaver
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Gunner Publications LLC
Cover design by Elizabeth Connor. Cover photo © Julie Hagan / Shutterstock. Cover copyright © 2013 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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