Ben Brice opened his eyes to a dog needing to pee.
“Don’t worry, Buddy. I’m still alive.”
This man’s best friend slapped a wet tongue across Ben’s face once more just to make sure. Ben wiped the golden retriever’s saliva on the sheet then pushed himself to a sitting position. He groaned. Each beat of his pulse through the veins in his head felt like a ball-peen hammer pounding the inside of his skull. He didn’t remember finishing off the empty whiskey bottle sitting on the night table. But then, he never did.
He rubbed his bare arms against the chill of an April dawn and stood, but he had to grab the door to stay standing. He leaned against the wall until the world stood still, then he rode a hand-hewn pine log into the main room of the small cabin. He let Buddy out the back door and dropped down to the floor.
Lying face down on the coarse wool rug in his long underwear bottoms, he inhaled the Navajo scent that would forever inhabit the native weave. He closed his eyes and considered trying to sleep again, but he knew it would be in vain: a lifetime of reveille at 0500 wouldn’t allow it. Resigned to his fate, he brought his legs together, placed his hands palms down under his chest, inhaled deeply, and exhaled as he pushed. His triceps trembled as his rigid body rose from the rug. One. He dropped down hard and felt as if he might pass out. But he inhaled and exhaled and pushed his body up again. Two. Down to the rug. Pushed up. Three. Down. Up. Four. He reached a rhythm at twenty-five and finished at fifty.
He rolled over onto his back. He locked his hands behind his head, lifted his knees to a ninety-degree angle to his spine, contracted his abdominal muscles until his shoulders lifted off the rug, and twisted his torso to touch his left elbow to his right knee then his right elbow to his left knee. Then down. And up again and twist right then left and down. And up. Right. Left. And down. Fifty times.
He stood, steadied himself, and walked over to the kitchen sink. He stuck his head under the gooseneck faucet and turned the cold water on full; he braced himself as the well water traveled four hundred feet from inside the earth’s gut and sputtered then gushed out of the pipe. His body shivered; it felt as if he had plunged his head into a bucket of ice water. He dried off with a dishtowel then opened the refrigerator and drank orange juice out of the carton. He closed the door and paused to look at her-the blonde hair, the blue eyes, the bright smile. The refrigerator door was covered with photos of her, alone and with her family, the only blonde in the bunch.
Ben walked out the back door of the cabin and without looking dropped the empty whiskey bottle into the recycling bin filled with empty whiskey bottles. His breath fogged in the cold air. He was now wearing jogging shoes, sweats, and a baseball cap pulled down low to shield his blue eyes from the bright morning sun. The endless sky was empty except for a vulture circling breakfast in the distance. He went over to the garden, picked a few weeds, and watered the neat rows with the sprinkler bucket. Buddy was barking, ready to get it on.
“Okay, boy, let’s go.”
They ran into the rugged terrain surrounding the cabin, Buddy leading the way, Ben lagging behind; his body ached from sixty years of life and thirty years of Jim Beam. He soon lost sight of Buddy in the sagebrush. But Ben knew he’d find his four-legged friend at the rock outcropping two miles out; and when Ben arrived, Buddy was there, sitting and waiting patiently for him to run up, bend over, and throw up, a morning ritual.
Ben spat out the last of the bile and wiped his mouth with a red handkerchief; he took a moment to gather himself. Only his hard breathing broke the silence of the land. All around him stretched the vast solitude that is New Mexico: the Taos Plateau bordered by the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range rising tall into the blue sky, a land so beautiful and harsh that only an artist or a man running from his past would find it hospitable. To the north was Colorado, to the south Albuquerque, to the west Taos, and to the east the solitary cabin situated on a low rise, the metal roof reflecting the sun.
“Beat you back to the cabin, Buddy.”
Ben ran toward the rising sun and Buddy gave chase, delighted-this was the fun part.
Half an hour later, Ben had cleaned up and was wearing jeans, boots, and a corduroy shirt, eating a granola bar, and drinking a cup of coffee brewed from the strongest beans available in Taos; they had come with a money-back guarantee to break through the haze of the worst hangover.
He walked outside, past the garden, and to the workshop. Inside, woodworking tools hung on the walls and what rich people in Santa Fe regarded as fine art in the form of furniture crowded the floor. He pulled a low stool next to the rocking chair he had fashioned out of mesquite, ran his hands along the arms, and began sanding the rough spots. Buddy spun around three times, plopped down in the doorway, and settled in for the day. The sound of sandpaper scraping over wood and Buddy’s snoring soon joined in a melody of sorts, the only music of Ben Brice’s life.
The sun’s rays now angled low across the workshop floor, the only evidence that another day of his life had passed. Ben laid his tools down, stood, and stretched his back. He walked outside and around to the west side of the cabin porch and sat in his rocking chair where he would watch the sun melt and the sky over Taos turn orange, where he would listen to the coyotes’ lonesome cries and sometimes he would answer them, where he would remain until the distant city lights dimmed and the night chill set in. His thoughts would then return to the past, always to the past that owned his life like a bank holding a mortgage that would never be paid in full. He would think of the life that might have been-a young man’s dreams, the great adventure that was not, the death of the brother he never had, a wife who loved him but left him… and then he would think of his failures, revisiting each one until he arrived at the failure that would forever haunt his nights, and he would reach for the bottle. And so his life would go until one morning he would not answer Buddy.
But the day was not yet over and his thoughts not yet there. He whistled, and Buddy appeared and bounded up onto the half-sized rocking chair next to his. Ben reached over and scratched Buddy’s neck then ran his fingers over
the block letters carved into the seat back: GRACIE.
Seven hundred miles away, a blonde-haired girl sprinted down a soccer field in Texas.
“Run, Gracie, run!”
Gracie Ann Brice could run like a boy, faster than most boys her age, ten going on thirty, which made playing soccer against girls her own age seem almost unfair. But she was fun to watch, if your daughter was on her team.
She pushed the ball up the sideline, past the parents cheering in the stands and Coach Wally wearing a Tornadoes jersey and her dad filming her with the camcorder-she made a face for the camera-while shouting into his cell phone: “Cripes, Lou! Tell those New York suits it’s my killer app, it’s my company, it’s my IPO-and the price is gonna be thirty a share and not a freaking penny less!”
Multitasking, he called it.
Without breaking stride, Gracie drove the laces of her white Lotto soccer shoe into the ball, kicking it over the oncoming defenders’ heads and right to Brenda on the far side of the field. Then she pulled up and looked back at her skinny thirty-seven-year-old SO (Significant Other) on the sideline. He was now gesturing with the camcorder, swinging it up and down and videotaping the ground, the sky, the ground, the sky, all of his attention on the cell phone. She couldn’t help but shake her head and smile, the kind of smile grownups use on small children, but only those related to them by blood.
“God bless him,” she said.
Her father was a total geek. He was wearing black penny loafers with white socks, wrinkled khakis, a long-sleeve blue denim shirt with the tail hanging out, a yellow Mickey Mouse tie (the one she had given him last Father’s Day), and narrow black-framed glasses; his curly black hair looked like he had styled it by sticking his finger in an electrical socket. (Mom always said he looked like Buddy Holly with a blow dryer, but Gracie didn’t know who that was.) All that was missing from this picture was a white pocket protector stuffed with mechanical pencils. John R. Brice was a doofus to the max, but Gracie loved him dearly, as a mother might love a child with special needs. He was now filming the parking lot.
“God bless him,” she said again.
“Gracie, gosh darnit, we need a goal to tie! Quit foolin’ around and score!”
Jeez, Coach, don’t have a cow. Gracie turned away from her dad and focused on the game. Across the field, Brenda was losing the ball to number twenty-four, the Raiders’ star player (she was eleven) and a real snot. Brenda was chubby and not much of an athlete. She hadn’t scored a goal in the three seasons they had played together. Gracie grimaced as the snot charged Brenda and knocked her to the ground then stole the ball. Bad enough, but then the snot stood over Brenda like the football guys do after a big hit and snarled down at her: “Give it up, Fatty!”
Gracie felt the heat wash over her, the same as right before she had beaten up Ronnie down the street for tripping Sam, a five-year-old alien who had taken up residence in their home. (They swear he’s her brother.) Afterward-after running down the street to a safe distance, of course-Ronnie had yelled “lesbo” at her, which had seemed a particularly mean remark given that she was in love with Orlando Bloom like every other girl in fourth grade. She figured Ronnie had called her that because she was a tomboy and kept her blonde hair cut boy short, or because she had bigger leg muscles than him, or because she could bloody his big fat nose-or maybe because she wanted a tattoo for her eleventh birthday. Mom, however, said that her superior athletic ability threatened Ronnie’s masculinity, always a fragile component of the male psyche. Um, whatever. The next time Gracie saw the little dweeb, she threatened his life and gave him a black eye.
“Gracie, she’s on a breakaway! Stop her!”
The snot was now driving the stolen ball down the field toward the Tornadoes’ goal, obviously suffering from some kind of-what had Mom called it? — oh, yeah, diminished capacity, thinking she could actually outrun Gracie Ann Brice to the goal. As if. Gracie turned on the speed.
“Watch out for number nine!” someone yelled from the Raiders’ bench. Gracie wore number nine because Mia Hamm wore number nine. The select team coaches currently competing for her talents said that with proper coaching (by them), she could be as good as Mia one day. Mom said they were just blowing smoke up her skirt, saying anything to get her to play for their teams. Still, the thought of being another Mia Hamm and leading the USA team to World Cup victory, that was like, way too cool to imagine.
“Gracie, block the shot!”
But maybe she’d better lead her team to victory in the girls’ ten-to-eleven-year-old age bracket first.
Up ahead, the snot was slowing down and maneuvering for the best angle on goal; Gracie was sprinting up from behind and thinking, You know, for an eleven-year-old, she’s got a really big butt. But she also had a really good shot opportunity at low post. The snot planted her left foot, kept her head down, and drove her right foot into the Air?
Nothing but air, girlfriend! Gracie thought as she slid feet first under the snot, executing the most totally awesome sliding tackle in the history of girls’ youth soccer, clearing the ball from goal, and leaving the snot’s foot kicking at nothing but air.
The crowd cheered!
But not the snot. “She fouled me!” she screamed, pitching a red-faced hissy fit right in the middle of soccer field no. 2. “She fouled me!”
But the referee shook his head and said, “All ball.”
Gracie jumped to her feet and chased down the loose ball. She had the entire field and eight defenders between her and the Raiders’ goal and not much time to get there. She decided on a sideline route- duh — but she first had to eliminate some of the defenders. So she dribbled the ball straight up the middle of the field, suckering the defenders in from their sideline positions- come to mama, girls — until five of the Raiders had congregated at the center line close enough to hold hands like the kindergartners on a class outing. Then Gracie explodeddrive hard right at them, stop on a dime, spin left, and go, girl!and left them in her dust as she hit the sideline and turned on the speed, an all-out race down the chalk line, past the Tornadoes’ stands, parents on their feet and shouting “Go, Gracie!”
— Coach’s arms windmilling her on as he ran down the sideline with her, his exposed belly jiggling like pink Jell-O below his jersey- now that is like, majorly gross — past her SO filming the other parents in the stands, God bless him, and to the Raiders’ goal and- POW! — blasting the ball past the diving keeper’s outstretched arms and into the net.
Gracie threw her arms into the air. She considered ripping off her jersey and throwing it into the air, too, revealing her stylish black Nike sports bra, but she decided against it because she wasn’t wearing a bra. Mom said her breasts might come in next year.
The other girls mobbed her and congratulated her and jumped up and down with her… but they all froze when those two words boomed out from the Raiders’ sideline, instantly silencing players and spectators alike and making Gracie feel as if someone had punched her in the stomach.
“Not again,” Brenda groaned.
They all turned to the Raiders’ sideline as the words rang out again-“Pa-a-a-a-nty che-e-e-ck!”-and hung over the field like a foul odor. The man had a megaphone for a mouth, the big creep! He was dressed in a slick suit, grinning like a fool and drinking from an oversized plastic mug-and from his red face, he was drinking something stronger than Gatorade.
“Does he really think there’s a penis in your panties?” Brenda said.
“He knows you’re not a boy,” Sally said. “He’s just jealous ’cause you’re way better than his daughter, that little snot.”
He was the snot’s father and a big butthead, a football dad at a girls’ soccer game, taunting the players from the sideline. Gracie bit her lower lip and fought back the tears. Coming from Ronnie the dweeb down the street was bad enough, but from a grownup? She wished she were bigger and older; she would run over and beat this guy up, too. She looked over at her dad, wishing he would- Daddy, do something! Please!
But he did nothing. He hadn’t even heard the jerk. He was in his Helen Keller mode (deaf, dumb, and blind to the real world), facing away from the field, holding the phone to his ear with one hand and waving the camcorder around with the other like he was swatting gnats by the pool. Of course, what could he do anyway? The big butthead was twice his size; he would pound Dad’s meatware (as he called his brain) into the turf. Gracie instinctively touched the silver star dangling on her necklace.
Sally said, “If your mother was here, she’d kick his big butt into next week.”
Mom was definitely not one to turn the other cheek. She was one to rip your face off. Don’t get mad, get even. Mom’s words of wisdom. Not exactly “sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you,” but then, her mother was a lawyer. She wished Elizabeth Brice, Attorney-at-Large (as Dad called her behind her back) was here.
But most of all, she wished to die.
Over on the Raiders’ sideline, the other parents were shaking their heads in disgust at the creep, but he was too big to risk saying anything and getting punched out, always a possibility with a football dad. A mother, obviously the creep’s wife, was pulling on his arm, desperately trying to move his big butt away from the field. He was protesting all the way: “What’d I do? I was just kidding, for chrissakes!” From Mrs. Creep’s embarrassed expression, she had been there and done that with Mr. Creep before. Brenda shook her head and sighed.
“Another deranged dad at a children’s sporting event.”
Brenda’s words brought the smile back to Gracie’s face and another original country song by Gracie Ann Brice to mind. Facing the Creep family, she started singing, loudly, in her best Tammy Wynette twang:
“D-I–V-O-R-C-E, Hey, lady, don’t you see? Your man ain’t no Or-lan-do B., You best dump his fat ass A-S-A-P.”
The girls laughed. The referee, a way cute guy about fifteen, smiled at her. The parents in both stands applauded. Shoot, maybe she had the next hit single for the Dixie Chicks! Gracie’s spirits soared; the creep was now a distant memory, just another painful life experience for her to sing about. Like all the country girls say, you’ve got to experience pain in order to sing about pain, especially in front of fifty thousand screaming fans chanting Gra-cie, Gra-cie, Gra-cie…
That was no screaming fan. That was a screaming coach. Gracie snapped; the whistle had blown to restart the game, and Coach Wally was spazzing out on the sideline, frantically pointing at his watch like he had just discovered time.
“Time’s running out! We need another goal to win! Gracie, it’s up to you!”
Gracie’s official position was striker, but Coach had told her to play the entire field. That required extra running, but she could run the whole game. She could run all day. She was running now, to the sideline, to the ball — to the ground, face first, breaking her fall with her hands and elbows, hitting hard, sliding across the field, and eating dirt and grass.
A snarling voice from above. Gracie rolled over to see the snot glaring down at her. The snot had tripped her from behind, a flagrant foul and a real cheap shot, especially for a girl.
What a total hussy!
The snot ran off. Gracie spat out the gritty dirt and grass and vaulted to her feet; her teeth and fists were clenched and her entire four-foot-six-inch, eighty-pound being was filled with an overwhelming urge to chase after the snot and thrash her right there in the middle of soccer field no. 2.
“Gracie, get a goal!”
But the victory was more important than introducing the snot’s face to Ms. Fist. So Gracie chased after the ball instead, barely noticing the blood and burning on her elbows.
Sally blocked a shot at goal and cleared the ball. Gracie anticipated Sally’s kick and thigh-trapped the ball. One quick fake and she was sprinting up the sideline toward the Raiders’ goal; the referee was keeping pace down the middle of the field, and the snot, her face screwed up with anger, was closing down on Gracie. The snot had the angle, which meant Gracie couldn’t simply outrun her. So Gracie slowed slightly, allowing the snot to catch up, then she took a big step forward, hoping the snot would think she was going hard up the sideline like she had on the previous goal. The snot went for the fake big time, taking one step that way to protect the sideline route, one step too many-and Gracie punched the ball between the snot’s open legs, spun around the snot, and recaptured the ball. The snot tried to stay with her, but she lost her balance and hit the ground hard, right on her big butt, and rolled out of bounds. Gracie glanced down at her and said, “I’m so sorry… Not! ”
Then she raced to the goal- a breakaway! — only the keeper standing between her and a last-second victory for the Tornadoes and glory for Gracie Ann Brice, the next Mia Hamm. The referee put his whistle in his mouth and checked the time; only seconds remained in the game. Gracie moved into position for her patented power kick-the keeper ran out to meet her this time, leaving the goal unprotected-aimed just inside the near post, planted her left foot, timed her kick perfectly, and — slotted a through ball to Brenda in the goal box behind the keeper instead. Brenda kicked the ball into the open goal just before the cute referee blew his whistle to end the game.
The Tornadoes’ stands erupted in cheers!
The Raiders’ keeper was now looking at Gracie with a stunned expression on her face, as if to say, You passed off the game-winning goal? Gracie shrugged. She figured Brenda needed the glory more than she did. Heck, Mia Hamm was a team player.
The other girls mobbed Brenda. Gracie was about to join in when she heard a manly voice: “Number nine-you’re a player!”
The studly referee was walking past and pointing to her-and winking at her. Oh, my God, I’m so sorry, Orlando, but I’m like, totally in love! She stopped dead in her tracks and stared open-mouthed at the referee as he walked off the field; he was dreamy and she was dreaming of him coming to the house after the game on a Friday night like tonight and picking her up to go to a movie-of course, it would have to be rated PG because she was only ten, which might prove a bit of a problem but… she was rudely bumped back to reality by Coach Wally barreling past. His big belly was bouncing, his arms were spread wide, and he was blubbering like a baby. He scooped up Brenda and bear-hugged her like he hadn’t seen her in years. Coach Wally was Brenda’s dad.
The other dads were running onto the field and bear-hugging their daughters. But not her dad. Sometimes, like this time, Gracie wanted him to be more like a dad and less like a big brother who played Nintendo with her and took her and Sam to Krispy Kreme every Saturday morning and giggled until it hurt when Mom caught them throwing water balloons from the balcony off her bedroom at Ronnie and the other boys rollerblading down the sidewalk, and whose worst threat of punishment was to eBay her. Just once, she wanted him to be a real father, to scoop her up and bear-hug her like he hadn’t seen her in years-to be her grownup manly DAD, for Pete’s sake! She looked for him.
“Stupid, stupid rat creatures! Lou, you tell those brain-damaged bagbiters I’ll take my IPO and go home!”
A shrill whistle interrupted John R. Brice’s rant. He glanced over to see the girls formatting themselves in a linear sequence in the middle of the field while the parents were forming parallel lines and joining hands overhead to configure an arch. Cripes, the victory arch, a post-game protocol that required social engineering, interpersonal contact with the other parents. John was thinking, Maybe I’ll give it a miss this week, when he spotted Gracie giving him the eye and gesturing for him to get out there! Beam me up, Scotty. He much preferred interfacing with AI systems over liveware, not that he was antisocial in the extreme; he was just uncomfortable (Elizabeth would say inept) when exchanging content in an offline mode, like most hackers who had spent the vast majority of their lives interacting with a cathode ray tube rather than with human beings. Part of the firmware.
He sighed and said to the phone, “Time out, Lou… the arch thing.”
John jogged over and joined camcorders and cell phones overhead with a GQ dude who was everything John was not: tall, handsome, Hollywood hair, athletic build, wearing a starched white shirt, a stylish tie knotted like he knew how, and a beeper clipped to his belt-a college jock upgraded to real estate, no doubt. Another football dad.
“Great game, huh?” the dude said through outstretched arms.
“Who’s your girl?”
John sighed again. He never missed Gracie’s games, and he couldn’t help but enjoy himself, his daughter the star player, particularly since he had never been much of an athlete himself. Fact is, he was so lame at sports that back in grade school the girls were picked for the recess teams before he was. Little Johnny Brice. He was ten years old before he realized Little wasn’t his first name. Fast forward twenty-seven years and now Little Johnny Brice was standing in the middle of a soccer field across a victory arch from one of those guys who was picked first for every recess team and the dude’s asking him who his daughter is and his daughter is the best athlete on the field but he doesn’t want to tell this room-temperature-IQ lamer that because he knew all too well what was coming next. John braced himself.
“Number nine,” he said.
“ Gracie? ”
The dude’s thick eyebrows shot up, and he looked John up and down with that familiar bemused smile.
“Gracie’s your daughter?”
It wasn’t the first time John had suffered that bemused smile at one of Gracie’s games. Point of fact, it had become an every game thing ever since the football dads started attending the girls’ soccer games. Five years ago when Gracie had first started playing soccer, John had been the only dad at the games, the football dads no doubt thinking, What’s the point if the girls can’t even hit each other? But now, Elizabeth had informed him, federal law required gender equality in college sports, so girls were getting scholarships to play soccer, softball, volleyball, and just about every sport but football. And that had brought the football dads to their girls’ soccer games like sleazeware to cyberspace: Suzie might not be able to play middle linebacker at the University of Texas, but if her soccer skills could save dear old daddy tuition and room and board for four years, he’d dang sure make her games.
Problem was, these high-testosterone dads brought their football instincts with them to the soccer field, yelling and screaming and getting into fistfights with other dads whose daughters were trying to steal Suzie’s scholarship. The quest for college scholarships had turned youth soccer into a ruthless competition among the parents. So John always stayed to himself down the sideline and never commingled with the other dads, except for the post-game victory arch and the inevitable bemused smile. After next week’s game, John R. Brice would throw his narrow shoulders back, look the dude straight in the eye, and say, Dang right, she’s my daughter! And I’m a freaking billionaire! — a response guaranteed to wipe that bemused smile off his smug face. But this week Little Johnny Brice just shrugged.
The dude shook his head as if pondering one of the great mysteries of the universe. “I played college ball at Penn State, but my girl’s not in the same league as Gracie. Guess you never know where it comes from.”
“I bought her on eBay.”
The girls filed past the other team, exchanging low fives like they were afraid of getting cooties, as Gracie would say, then raced through the arch as their parents cheered insanely.
“Great game, girls!”
“Way to go!”
The final girl ran through, the arch broke up, the mothers embraced each other, the dads swapped hard high fives like they had just won the freaking Super Bowl, and John R. Brice stood there in the middle of a dang soccer field holding a camcorder and cell phone and feeling like a lurker in a porn chat room, as he always felt when male bonding broke out. So he said, “I’m outta here,” hit the Esc key, and exited this app.
Gracie got her concession ticket from the team mom then waited for Brenda and Sally. When they arrived, Brenda leaned in close and whispered, “Thanks for giving me the goal.”
Gracie gave her a little hug. “I gotta tell my dad we’re going to the concession stand.”
They walked over to dadrnerd@we_be_geeks. com; he was yelling at the phone and filming his shoes now, God bless him.
“Harvey doesn’t have the brainwidth to understand the value of the technology! Lou, this is the next big thing, dude!”
He ran the phone and his hand through his curly black hair-it was now standing on end-and he stood out like a, well, like a geek among grownups. The other fathers wore suits and ties and starched white shirts and looked like the lawyers and doctors they were. Her dad looked like the college kid who lived next door. The other girls choked back giggles. Dad noticed her and smiled and aimed the camcorder directly at her face. Gracie reached up and switched the camcorder off then pointed to the concession stand and whispered, “Snow cones.”
“Hi, honey,” Dad said. Then, into the phone: “No, not you, Lou, my daughter. Hold on a minute.”
John R. Brice squatted, wrapped his arms around his daughter, and embraced her; he inhaled her sweaty scent. A thin glaze of moisture glistened on her flushed face, her short blonde hair was damp and stuck to the sides of her head, and her blue eyes sparkled like a multimedia LCD monitor. He placed the camcorder on the grass, flicked a drop of sweat from her cheek with his finger, and admired her. She was swell.
Dad was looking at her like she was a brand new eight-hundred-gigabyte hard drive just out of the box.
“Gracie version ten-point-oh,” he said. “Best of breed.”
Gracie said to the other girls, “I’m the applet of his eye.” With her index finger she pushed the glasses up on her father’s face. “And he’s my favorite propellerhead in the whole W-W-W.”
Dad grinned like he was embarrassed. “Your shoe’s untied,” he said. She held her foot out like Cinderella trying on the glass slipper. He reached down for the white laces but grabbed his blue shirtsleeve instead. It was stained. He looked from his sleeve to her arms.
“Hey, you’re bleeding!”
Gracie examined her hands and arms. She was bleeding, from both elbows, where she had hit the ground when the snot tripped her-which reminded her. She looked across the field to the Raiders’ sideline and spotted the snot standing next to her father, the big butthead. Their eyes met; the snot raised her hand. Gracie thought she was going to wave, ready to put their hard-fought athletic competition behind them; instead, the snot stuck her tongue out and gave Gracie the finger. Gracie’s face flashed hot, as if she had just stuck her head in the convection oven-she wanted the snot alone, like way bad. But it wasn’t going to happen here and now. She turned back to her dad.
“No big deal,” she said. She glanced over at the parking lot. “Guess Mom’s trial didn’t end. Oh, well, maybe she’ll make the playoffs. You want to get a snow cone with us?”
Dad held the phone up. “I gotta talk to Lou.”
“Hi, Lou!” Gracie shouted at the phone.
John R. Brice watched the girls skip off and merge into the stream of colorful bodies flowing toward the distant concession stand set back against the thick woods. He filled his shallow chest with the smell of popcorn riding out on the breeze and smiled. Ph. D.’s in the Algorithms Group at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Sciences aren’t given to emotion, as a general rule. Emotion had no place in the virtual world, where logical, ruthless intellect prevailed. In fact, the closest hackers came to emotion was emoticons, using ASCII characters to configure facial expressions in online communications. Virtual emotion. Real emotion belonged in that other world, that nonvirtual arena of pain and shame and smart-ass-ex-college-jocks-upgraded-to-real-estate that John Brice visited (like today) but did not inhabit.
But standing alone on a soccer field in an upscale suburb on a brilliant spring afternoon, he had to admit it: he was feeling pretty dang robust! And why shouldn’t he? For the first time in his life, he was on top of a world that was not accessible via a keyboard. In five days the IPO would hit the street and Little Johnny Brice would have his revenge- he would have it all! — everything he had dreamed of having all those lonely days and nights at Fort Bragg: two cool kids, a Range Rover, a big home, a drop-dead gorgeous wife who consented to sex twice a month (an unheard-of frequency during his premarital existence-computer geeks at MIT don’t get much sex, as another general rule), fame, fortune, respect, manhood, and maybe even love. After all those years, moving from Army base to Army base, never fitting in with the other Army brats, being bullied by brutish boys who dreamed only of following in their daddies’ bootsteps, a nerd in a soldier’s world-now, finally, the world belonged to the nerds.
Little Johnny Brice had found his place in this world.
But he had lost Gracie. Cripes. He pushed his glasses up and squinted. He spotted her golden head bobbing between the other girls when she suddenly stopped and turned back to him. The last rays of the setting sun spotlighted her perfect face, and father and daughter shared one of those rare moments in life you wouldn’t trade for the Windows source code. She smiled and waved to him. He loved her and he envied her. She was everything he had always wanted to be: confident and athletic, blonde and beautiful, social and popular, physically strong and mentally tough. She was entirely unlike him, and she was better. Often, like now, he would behold her and wonder exactly what part of her DNA he had contributed. But no matter: she was his daughter. John felt a catch in his throat and an inexplicable urge to run to her, snatch her up, and hug her again. Instead, he waved back with the phone and the moment evaporated-he had forgotten Lou.
“Shit.” He put the phone to his ear. “Sorry, dude, I had a brain fart. Look, Lou, while other kids were outside playing baseball, I was in my room hiding from bullies, hacking code, and dreaming of being a billionaire like big Bill. Thirty bucks a share makes me a billionaire-and that’s the ticket to happiness! A billion dollars buys me everything I ever wanted!.. Maybe even love… Yeah, Lou, geeks need love, too.”
One hundred yards away, ensconced in a silver Lexus sedan circling the packed parking lot in search of an empty space, Elizabeth Brice was jabbing a finger into the climate-controlled air: “Truth and justice demand you acquit the defendant, a good and decent man who is not guilty of looting his bank or hiding a million dollars in an offshore account but only of falling in love with a cheap tramp-Look at her! Those aren’t even real! She’s nothing but a gold digger willing to destroy his reputation, his family, and his bank-for his money! Blame her!”
She paused and smiled at the memory.
“Guilty as sin, and they bought it-lock, stock, and pantyhose. Twelve good citizens with the mental range of a windshield wiper.”
She spotted a family of four heading to their car on the third row from the front. She followed them, hit the turn signal to warn off all competitors for this particular piece of pavement, and waited for them to stow the kids and soccer gear.
“Jesus Christ, get in the goddamn car!”
Another family walked up and stopped to talk with the first family. That did it. She had neither the patience to wait for the Cleavers’ conversation to end nor the inclination to hike from the farthest reaches of the concrete parking lot in high heels. Nor the need to. She whipped the Lexus around to the front row and into a handicapped parking space, cut the engine, retrieved a blue handicapped permit from the console, and hooked it onto the rearview mirror.
She was not physically handicapped.
In fact, as every married man passing by couldn’t help but notice when she exited the sedan, Elizabeth Brice was physically fit and quite beautiful; her makeup and jet black hair remained perfect even after a long day in court; and her slim figure and shapely legs were showcased by her tailored suit with the short skirt. She always wore short skirts to trial.
Elizabeth Brice had graduated first in her class at Harvard Law, but she had learned the hard way that female lawyers do not win trials on brains and hard work alone. Women needed an edge, something extra to take into court with them, something to level the playing field, especially a female lawyer from New York trying to win in a Texas courtroom: the old joke that Texas had the best football players, politicians, and judges money could buy was no joke. Consequently, bench trials were more financial negotiation than courtroom drama-negotiations the good ol’ home boys inevitably won.
But jury trials were crap shoots. There was simply no way to predict what a jury of twelve bored and biased citizens being paid minimum wage would do. Thus, most lawyers hated jury trials; but Elizabeth A. Brice, Esq., loved them. Because she had an edge that no bald pudgy down-home Southern-fried good ol’ boy lawyer could possibly compete with in front of a jury: short skirts. Really short skirts that for the past two weeks had revealed her long, lean, StairMastered legs to the all-male all-moron jury that had spent more time examining her than the prosecution’s damning evidence.
Defendant Shay was forty-six, married with two children, and a respected banker from an old Dallas banking family; he was also indicted by a federal grand jury on fifty counts of bank and tax fraud, charges founded on the unfortunate fact that he had used federally insured bank funds to maintain his twenty-four-year-old mistress in a comfortable lifestyle and had funneled the money through a Cayman Island bank account to avoid paying taxes. “Keeping that little gal happy is damn expensive enough with pre-tax dollars,” Shay had advised Elizabeth during one of their attorney-client privileged conferences. The government had tape recordings, surveillance photographs, offshore bank account records, and the mistress as the star witness under a grant of immunity. Conviction was a foregone conclusion, or so the prosecutors from Washington had thought.
But they didn’t know Dallas. Keep your prick out of the payroll was a maxim seldom heeded in Big D. To the contrary, humping the help was not considered a crime but instead a perk, something to be praised and pursued, not prosecuted. If the government prosecuted every businessman in Dallas who had used bank money or company money or investor money or city or county or state money to pay for pussy, there wouldn’t be enough members left in the chamber of commerce to play gin.
So she had carefully selected a jury of white middle-aged men, men who might have once had a mistress or who hoped to one day have a mistress or who would spend most of the trial imagining her as their mistress. Then she made the bank examiner and IRS agent appear to be pathetically incompetent old men on the stand; she called experts who (for sizable fees) ripped to shreds every piece of evidence offered by the government; she brutalized the prosecution’s star witness on cross-examination (the poor thing cried so diligently her thick mascara ran down her face and into her surgically-created cleavage); and she shortened her skirts six inches.
Elizabeth A. Brice, Attorney-at-Law, had won another not-guilty verdict for another guilty client.
Just as she decided that first thing Monday morning she would raise her hourly billing rate to $500, the merry voices of the kids and parents at the concession stand brought her thoughts back to the moment. She looked that way as the cool evening breeze hit her. She wrapped her arms, but the cold she felt was inside her. A vague sense of unease invaded her mind, as if the wind had whispered in her ear.
She beeped the Lexus locked and hurried toward the vacant soccer fields and the solitary spectator sitting in the stands.
Where John was saying into the phone, “Oh, and what do you know about love, dude? Lou, are you aware that the boot sequence required to produce an orgasm in a full-grown American female is more complex than the ignition sequence of a neutron bomb?”
She saw him before he saw her. But he felt her presence, like one felt impending doom.
“Spousal unit alert,” John whispered into the phone.
He lowered the phone from his ear-he could still hear Lou yell, “Don’t mention my name!”-pushed his glasses up, and saw her eyes locked on him like proton blasters as she approached at a rapid pace from midfield in her Elizabeth Brice, Attorney-at-Large mode. Fear shot through his brain like a bullet- Cripes, what did I do wrong this time? His wife appeared very much as she had when they had first met in Washington ten years earlier; she was forty now but still insanely attractive (even when she was in a bad mood like now) and just as intimidating, looking totally perfect in her best closing argument outfit (black on black on black) and acting in complete control of herself and everything and everyone she touched. Elizabeth Brice was a perfectionist control freak, hardwired at the factory. Which made them a complete mismatch, like a Wintel program on a Mac. Which made John wonder, as he had often wondered: Why did she ask me to marry her?
Her fists punched holes in her hips when she arrived.
“Dangit, Elizabeth, you promised her you’d make at least one game this season.”
“I promised my client I’d win his case, and I did. Now where’s Grace?”
John opened his mouth to remind his spouse that she had made and broken the same promise to Gracie before every game this season, that Gracie was more important than some bogus criminal even if he did pay her $400 an hour, that… but she seemed more agitated than usual tonight, tapping her foot at a furious pace, a sure sign she was seriously fried about something. Elizabeth’s personality was a binary system-off and pissed off. He wanted to ask her now, as he had always wanted to ask her, What are you so mad about? But, as always, he quickly decided that discretion was the better part of not being blasted with a streaming audio of profanities that would make a complete system crash seem pleasurable. So he kept his mouth shut rather than chance a random explosion of his wife’s volatile temper; he thought of it as risk management. And besides, Elizabeth did not allow him sex during her trials; this weekend would present his first opportunity in more than two weeks. He couldn’t afford to blow it with ill-advised flamage. He pointed the cell phone at the concession stand.
“Snow cone,” he said.
Coach Wally bit the top off his cherry-flavored snow cone; some of the cool red juice trickled down his double chin. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his Tornadoes jersey.
Wally Fagan was walking away from the concession stand and toward the field to retrieve the game ball he had left behind in all the excitement of Brenda’s winning goal. He bit into the snow cone again, wiped the juice off his chin, and noticed a woman approaching fast like a distant thunderstorm-dark hair, dark clothes, and a dark expression.
Wally’s pulse ratcheted up a notch and not because of her short skirt. He had talked to Gracie’s mom only a couple of times in three seasons, but for some reason she had always made him nervous. Fact is, Wally Fagan stood just under six feet and weighed just over two hundred forty pounds, but he was wholly intimidated by the slim woman walking his way. She was maybe ten years older than him, but he always felt like he was talking to his mother- Oh, shit, her mother! Which made seeing her tonight seem odd, now that Wally thought about it.
She approached, and they made brief eye contact. Wally smiled politely, waiting for a hint of recognition to cross her face. None did. He was a complete stranger to her. Wally debated whether to speak to her, since she was about to walk right past him. Without consciously deciding, he did.
“Gee, Mrs. Brice, I didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”
She turned on him in a heartbeat: “I had a trial, okay!”
Jesus! Her response so startled Wally, he almost squeezed the snow right out of his cone. He immediately regretted not letting her walk on by.
Now that he had interrupted her journey, she took the time to look him over: the high-topped Reeboks, the blue coach’s shorts stretched tight around his considerable belly and the gold jersey that didn’t completely cover it, the Texas Rangers baseball cap on backward, the heart tattoo on his left arm, and the cherry snow cone juice dripping down his chin.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
That hurt. Wally wiped his sticky hand on his jersey before extending it to her. She had a very firm grip.
“Coach Wally… I coach Gracie’s team.”
No apology. She was staring at her hand; the sticky had rubbed off. She was apparently trying to decide whether to wipe her hand on her skirt; she said, “Well, Wally, I had an important case go to the jury today, so I was late for Grace’s game.”
“No, ma’am, I meant because of, uh… you know… your mother.”
She looked up from her hand and frowned. “My mother? What about my mother?”
“Oh, my gosh, don’t you know?”
“Know what? ”
Not even his executive experience as a night manager at the Taco House out on the interstate had prepared Wally Fagan to deliver this kind of news. But he had opened his big mouth too far to shut up now.
“Mrs. Brice, your mother had a stroke.”
She recoiled. “A stroke? When? ”
“Uh, today, I guess. She’s in the hospital.”
She appeared confused. She pointed back toward the field. Wally looked that way; a man was sitting alone in the bleachers.
“My husband didn’t say my mother had a stroke.”
“Gracie’s dad was at the game?”
She was now looking at Wally like he was a complete idiot.
“He’s sitting right over there in the goddamn stands!”
Now Wally was confused; he removed his cap and scratched his burr-cut head. He kept his hair cut short because that way he didn’t sweat as much under the hair net at work.
“You’re not looking for Gracie, are you?”
She exhaled loud enough for him to hear. “I didn’t come for the snow cones, Wally.”
“But… but she’s… she’s gone.”
“To the hospital, to see your mother.”
“My mother lives in New York!”
“But your brother said your mother had a stroke and he came to take Gracie to the hos-”
The woman lunged at Wally and grabbed his jersey, her eyes and face suddenly wild like an animal; she clawed so close he could feel her hot breath on his face when she screamed.
“I don’t have a brother!”
Wally was so scared he felt a drop of pee drip out. He dropped his snow cone. The wild woman released him and ran toward the concession stand screaming her daughter’s name.
Police Chief Paul Ryan’s voice mixed with the other voices coming from all around him in the dark, the voices of cops and civilians searching the woods bordering the park for the missing girl, and he thought, Kids don’t get abducted in Post Oak, Texas!
When he had gotten the call, Ryan figured a rich Briarwyck Farms soccer mom was throwing another conniption fit, as they often did over their very special children. His wife, a teacher over at the elementary school, called it the Baby Jesus Syndrome, every rich mom thinking her spoiled little brat’s the second coming. He had no doubt the mom would get a call on her cell phone and learn the girl had gone home with a friend, and the mom wouldn’t say “I’m sorry” or nothing, she’d just wave and climb into her SUV and drive off for the post-game pizza party over at Angelo’s, figuring the police department was her private security force to call out anytime she wanted. But when he had arrived on scene and talked to the girl’s coach, Paul Ryan knew immediately that this was a real abduction: a blond man in a black cap had asked for the girl by name.
All Ryan could see were the five feet of trees and ground cover in front of him illuminated by his Mag flashlight as he advanced deeper into the dark woods.
He hears the others around him, but all he sees now is a vague vision of trees and vines and undergrowth, dense and impenetrable-a jungle. He’s fighting his way through a jungle on a dark night. He hears a child’s distant cry. He picks up his pace, but it’s like trying to run through molasses. He’s got to hurry, something terrible is about to happen, is happening. He hears more cries. He’s drenched in sweat now as he struggles onward through the steamy jungle. Vines strangle him, branches slash his face and arms, undergrowth grabs his boots, the cries grow louder, his breath comes faster, his heart pounds harder against his chest wall — and he suddenly stumbles out of the darkness and into the light. Fires light a hamlet, straw huts burn, and flames spit out of rifle muzzles. He hears the BOOM BOOM BOOM of high-powered weapons, people screaming, pigs squealing, and water buffaloes grunting. He smells the stench of burning animal flesh. He sees women and children being dragged out of their hiding places and thrown into the dirt, the blaze of their burning homes illuminating their terrified faces, their Asian features so delicate and desperate. He watches them being herded up and driven forward down a dirt path, carrying babies wailing in the night and begging for mercy “NO! NO! NO! NO VC! NO VC!”
A young girl, a fragile china doll stripped of her clothes and innocence, stumbles along, desperate to escape the savagery suffocating her, pushed forward by big hands connected to big arms. Terror seizes her face because she’s heard stories about what these men do to pretty young girls like her. She searches for sympathy in the hard faces, and she finds it in his. She turns to him, silently pleading for help. He knows he must save her to save himself: her life and his soul hang in the balance as she falls face down in the dirt. A big hand grabs at her, but he shoves it away and gently lifts her delicate arm. He hears her sobbing voice in her native tongue: “Save me. Please save me.” The china doll turns her face up to him, in slow-motion she turns into the light, and he sees her face, the face of Gracie.
Ben Brice screamed himself awake and sprang to a sitting position in bed, gasping for air. His heart was beating rapidly, his chest and face and hair were matted with sweat, and his ears were ringing. The phone was ringing. He reached for the phone and knocked over the empty whiskey bottle. He put the phone to his ear and spoke.
“What happened to Gracie?”
Dawn was breaking when Ben parked the old Jeep, grabbed the duffel bag from the passenger’s seat, and double-timed into the Albuquerque airport terminal. His head throbbed with each jarring step. Skiers heading home after the season’s last runs already crowded the gates early on a Saturday morning. He located an arrival/departure monitor. The first flight to Dallas departed at 0600 from gate eight.
“I understand it’s an emergency, sir,” the female gate attendant said, “but the flight is overbooked, and we have twenty stand-bys. In fact, all our flights to Dallas today are overbooked.” She glanced at her computer. “Earliest available flight out is Monday.”
She gave him a sympathetic expression and a shrug and held her hand out to the next person in line. Ben picked up his duffel bag, stepped away from the counter, and studied the waiting passengers, bleary-eyed college kids returning to school from spring break; none seemed likely to surrender a seat to a stranger.
But he had to get to Dallas.
He spotted three men in uniforms marching down the main corridor toward the gate: the flight crew. The man in the middle appeared about his age and wore captain’s wings.
He stepped over and intercepted them.
Karen, the nineteen-year-old gate attendant, shook her head when the man stopped Captain Porter. Six months on the gate and the story was always the same: It’s an emergency! A crisis! She always wanted to say, Well, so is my social life! But it was against company policy to act rude to customers, so she just smiled and shrugged. The man seemed sincere, though, not the type to lie his way onto an overbooked flight. He had nice eyes. Still, she picked up the phone just in case she needed to call security.
Karen handed a boarding pass to the next customer in line and then glanced back at the man pleading with Captain Porter. She liked Captain Porter; all the girls did. The airline hired only military pilots; the younger ones thought they were such studs, always bragging on themselves and expecting every female employee to drop her skirt on command. The older ones, like Captain Porter, were different. They were respectful of the girls, probably because they had daughters the same age, and they never bragged on themselves or what they had done in the military. The younger pilots thought Captain Porter was some kind of god; they said he had been a real top gun in some war she barely remembered from history class in high school and had been held prisoner for like, three years. Karen shuddered at the thought: no MTV for three whole years!
The man was now pointing up at the CNN monitor. Karen leaned around the counter to see the monitor. On the screen was the face of a little blonde girl under CHILD ABDUCTED and above RANSOM SUSPECTED. She was cute. Karen looked back at Captain Porter, fully expecting him to send the man packing with a sympathetic expression and a routine shrug- What can I do, I just work here? — the universal response to any passenger complaint quickly mastered by all airline employees. But Karen stood slack-jawed and oblivious to the passengers waiting in line when Captain Porter dropped his flight bags and hugged the man like he was his long lost brother then released him, picked up his duffel bag, and carried it over to Karen.
“Karen, stow the colonel’s gear,” Captain Porter said. “And bump someone in first class.”
Karen could swear Captain Porter had tears in his eyes.
Over her mother’s objections, Gracie had come to visit him every few months and for a month each summer, for five years now. But for her visits, the morning Ben would not answer Buddy might have already arrived. He needed her and he knew why; she needed him but he did not know why. All he knew was that God had bonded them together in a way he neither understood nor questioned: his life was inextricably tied to hers, and somehow, hers to his.
Ben now sat in the back seat of a yellow cab doing seventy on the Dallas North Tollway, a turbaned driver behind the wheel, the city noises beyond the windows, a ferocious pounding behind his eyes. Outside, a concrete world raced past; inside, his stomach stewed over the thought of never seeing Gracie again. He felt as if he might puke the peanuts-and-coffee breakfast he had on the plane; and if he continued to focus on the four little Dallas Cowboy dolls standing on the cab’s dashboard, their oversized helmet heads bobbling around, he surely would. So he leaned his head back and closed his eyes; his thoughts returned to Gracie’s last visit. They had sat in their rocking chairs on the porch and watched the sunset; after a period of silence, she had said, “Mom says you’re a drunk.”
He had said, “She’s right.”
“But you don’t drink from those whiskey bottles when I’m here.”
“I don’t need to drink when you’re here.”
“I don’t know. I guess I only think good thoughts when you’re here.”
“Then that settles it: I need to be here all the time.”
He had smiled. “That’s real nice of you to offer-”
“No, Ben. I mean it. I want to live here with you.”
“Honey, this is no place for a girl.”
“Then you come live with us. It’s a really big house.”
“That’s no place for me. Once you’ve lived in a jungle, you can’t live in a subdivision.”
Gracie was quiet, then she said, “She still loves you.”
When Ben opened his wet eyes, the cab was pulling up to the entrance guardhouse at BRIARWYCK FARMS, AN EXCLUSIVE GATED COMMUNITY, or so read the sign embedded in the tall brick wall. Black iron gates with TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED across the bars blocked their way. Ben recalled the front doormat at his childhood home in West Texas that read Welcome, Y’all.
After Ben’s ID checked out, the guard gave the cabby directions and activated the automatic gates. They passed through the gates and entered an oasis in the concrete desert: tall oak trees shading the wide road, expansive stretches of green grass, sparkling blue man-made ponds encircled by walking paths, and magnificent mansions set deep into large lots, homes that would cause most visitors’ jaws to drop; but Ben barely noticed. His thoughts were of Gracie.
The cab driver turned up the radio: “At six-fifteen last night, Post Oak police issued an Amber Alert and provided descriptions of both the victim and the suspect. Gracie Ann Brice is white, ten years old, four feet six inches tall, weighs eighty pounds, and has short blonde hair and blue eyes. The suspect is white, twenty to thirty years old, six feet tall, two hundred pounds, has blond hair, and was last seen wearing a black cap and a plaid shirt. Police are asking anyone who videotaped any of the games at Briarwyck Farms Park yesterday to bring the tapes in.”
The cabby made eye contact with Ben in the rearview. “Little girl, she was taken. In my country, we find the man”-he slapped the edge of his open right hand down on the dash-“we cut off his dick. Then we cut off his head.”
The cabby’s eyes returned to the road-“ Aah! ”-and he slammed on the brakes; Ben was thrown forward. The cab had almost plowed into a police barricade across Magnolia Lane; two uniformed cops stood in front of the cab, their hands on their holsters and shaking their heads. The cabby turned in his seat, shrugged, and said, “Can go no more.”
Ben paid the $45 fare with a fifty and un-assed the vehicle. The morning sun punished his eyes; he patted around his clothes for his sunglasses then remembered he had left them in the Jeep. He rubbed his temples, but it did not relieve the pounding in his head. He needed his morning run with Buddy to exorcise last night’s demons, but that would not happen this morning; he was in Texas and Buddy was in New Mexico. Ben's buyer in Taos promised to check on Buddy each day; the dog could tolerate city life even less than Ben. He slung the duffel bag over his shoulder and walked past the barricade, down the sidewalk, and into a media circus.
Satellite uplinks mounted above TV vans lined both sides of the street and had lured the residents out of their homes before breakfast. Kids, parents, cameramen, reporters, and cops crowded the street and sidewalks; their voices competed with the incessant THUMP THUMP THUMP of a news chopper hovering low overhead.
His head ached.
Ben continued down the sidewalk, deep into the circus, and past a reporter talking to a camera: “Gracie was last seen at Briarwyck Farms Park wearing blue soccer shorts and a gold jersey, the team name, Tornadoes, across the front and a number nine on the back.”
Kids rode bikes and rollerbladed in the street, media technicians set up their equipment, and photographers snapped shots of the mansions. Another reporter addressed another camera: “She was abducted at a soccer game last night in this upscale suburb forty miles north of downtown Dallas.”
Parents huddled in small groups and held their children close, evident on their faces that fear peculiar to parents, the fear that their children might be taken in the night. Ben had seen that fear before.
Making themselves at home on the sidewalks and lawns were grungy (a word Gracie had taught him) cameramen wearing sunglasses and baseball caps on backward. They lounged in lawn chairs, drank coffee, complained about the early morning assignment, and offered expert opinions: “It’ll be someone in the family. Always is.”
This was their kidnapping now. Gracie Ann Brice was news.
And the world waited for news outside her home where a dozen TV cameras sat fixed on tripods and aimed at Six Magnolia Lane, a three-story French chateau-style mansion that looked more like a hotel than a home. Gracie hadn’t exaggerated: it was a really big house.
Ben started up the long walkway leading to the front door but paused to listen to a lone reporter speaking into a camera: “Gracie played in a soccer game here in Post Oak late yesterday, went to the concession stand, and hasn’t been seen since. Her parents are praying that Gracie was taken for ransom, that money can save their daughter. Only fourteen hours since her abduction and a massive effort is already underway to find Gracie and the man who took her. The FBI is setting up a command post, local police are organizing search parties, and at the park where Gracie was taken, bloodhounds will soon be combing the woods…”
Ben continued to the porch. Written in colored chalk on the gray slate steps, in a child’s hand, were the words WE LOVE YOU, GRACIE. The words had the same physical effect on Ben as his morning run: he stepped to the side of the porch and puked behind a low bush. He wiped his mouth with a red handkerchief, and then he rang the doorbell.
Inside the residence the doorbell could not be heard over the ringing phones and blaring TVs and cops hustling about and FBI agents shouting into cell phones and a little boy running around in a Boston Red Sox baseball uniform, pointing a finger-gun at everyone, and yelling “Stick ‘em up!”
Walking calmly amid the chaos down the wide gallery that stretched the width of the mansion was a tall black man. FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux was wearing black cowboy boots, blue jeans, a gold badge clipped to a wide black belt, a semi-automatic pistol in a belt holster, a blue nylon jacket with FBI stenciled in gold letters across the back, and an FBI cap. Devereaux was the lead FBI agent on the Gracie Ann Brice abduction. Searching for abducted children had been his life for the past ten years.
The heels of his 14EE boots resounded under his considerable weight with each step on the immaculate hardwood floor as he passed fine art on the wainscoted walls and furniture that looked like it would break if you even leaned on the damn stuff. Walking beside him was Special Agent Floyd, an index finger pointing up like he was gauging the wind.
“Is that the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen?”
Painted on the high-arched ceiling over the gallery was a mural depicting an old-time French street scene with shops, pedestrians, horses, and carriages; the street continued to the foyer where it merged into a village square. A similar street scene entered from the gallery ceiling over the east wing of the residence. It was in fact the damnedest thing Eugene Devereaux had ever seen.
“You ever work an abduction where the victim lived in a place like this?” Floyd asked.
Devereaux’s line of work did not bring him into homes like this. The typical abduction victim’s home was on wheels or in a run-down apartment complex or a cheap rent house; it was not a mansion with fine art on the walls and French murals on the ceiling.
“Nope. Rich girls don’t get abducted by strangers.”
Devereaux was an abduction specialist with the Bureau based out of the Houston field office; he investigated only abductions of children by strangers. Gracie Ann Brice was his eleventh this year and it was only early April.
He stopped. On the wall hung a formal family portrait illuminated from above by a spotlight; the parents and the boy were dressed in black, the victim in white. Her blonde hair was a stark contrast to the others’ black hair. She looked like a sweet kid. On a small table below sat a copy of Fortune magazine with the father’s face on the cover under The Next Bill Gates? Devereaux picked up the magazine and flipped it open to the feature article about the father. The same family portrait filled an entire page of the magazine-for all the world to see. All the world knew that John Brice was about to be very rich and had a wife named Elizabeth, a son named Sam, and a young daughter named Gracie.
Devereaux replaced the magazine and said, “Maybe this really is a ransom grab.”
He hoped it was. A ransom grab was the only real chance the girl was still alive: you don’t ransom a dead girl.
“The father,” Floyd said, “he’s a basket case. I don’t think he’s up to taking the call, if there is a call. We may need to go with the mother… defense lawyer, white-collar perps.”
From down the hall, Devereaux heard a voice, female and firm: “Hilda, your only job is Sam.”
The victim’s mother-forty, slim build, intense expression-appeared at the far end of the gallery, marching toward them with an entourage trying to keep pace: the family nanny, a young Hispanic female; an older white female of Eastern European descent in a maid’s uniform; and a local cop, young, flattop, muscular, wearing an expression that said he would rather be in a shootout with a Mexican drug cartel than taking orders from the mother. She was dressed for the office, looking impeccable in a tailored suit and heels. Her hair was done, and her makeup was in place. She was a woman you would notice on the street. Her finger was punching holes in the air.
“Find him, feed him, follow him. Don’t let him out of this house or your sight. Comprende? ”
“ Si, senora.” The Hispanic woman exited the entourage.
The mother, to the maid: “Sylvia, call the caterer. They can’t find my daughter on empty stomachs.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She was off before the words had died.
To the officer: “Get those people off my front lawn.”
“I’ll try, Mrs. Brice, but-”
“No buts. Do it. Shoot them if you have to.”
“Uh, yes, ma’am.” The young officer was no match for the mother; he surrendered, shaking his head.
As the mother came closer, Devereaux noticed her eyes, alert and focused, not the vacant, lost eyes he was accustomed to seeing on mothers of abducted children. Devereaux gave her a sincere nod-“ma’am”-as she passed him in the foyer. The morning after her daughter’s abduction and she was dressed for court and in control, barking out orders. Devereaux knew that this was her way of coping, acting as if she were still in control of her life. Of course, she wasn’t; her daughter’s life-and so her life-was now controlled by the abductor.
“She’s one tough broad,” Floyd said.
“She’ll need to be,” Devereaux said, “if the girl wasn’t taken for ransom.”
God, please let it be ransom.
Alone for the moment, Elizabeth Brice paused, leaned her head against the gallery wall, and closed her eyes. Her adrenaline was pumping at a verdict’s-about-to-be-read velocity, but she had no place to go this day, no guilty defendant’s case to plead, no prosecution witness to brutally cross-examine, no closing argument about truth and justice to make to a jury of good and gullible citizens. Nothing to do but pace the house and hope and pray. That morning, in the shower, she had said her first prayer in thirty years.
God, please let it be ransom.
She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. Her heart was beating like she had just put in an hour on the StairMaster. Her disciplined body had surrendered to fear, just as her equally disciplined mind had to anarchy, a mob of thoughts running wild through her head: Where was Grace? Was she dead? Was she alive? Who had her? What had he done to her? Did he want money? Why hadn’t a ransom call come yet? Did the FBI know what they were doing? Would she ever come home? Why me? Why my child? How could John have let someone take her? How?
She felt the rage rise within her, the rage that resided just below her surface, always ready to emerge and take control of any situation, the rage she fought to suppress every day of her life like a patient taking chemotherapy to force the cancer into remission. The battle was proving particularly difficult today because it was completely incomprehensible to Elizabeth Brice how her daughter could have been abducted right from under her husband’s goddamn nose at a goddamn public park!
She had cursed her husband last night at the park, after panic had given way to rage. But first she had panicked and lost complete control, screaming, yelling, grabbing kids and parents-“Have you seen Grace? Have you seen Grace?”-running around in circles and shouting Grace’s name until her voice was hoarse. Then rage had taken its turn in the driver’s seat, and she had lashed out, first at John and then at Grace’s coach: “You pointed Grace out to the abductor? What kind of fucking idiot are you?”
Parents and police had searched the park until late in the night. When the FBI had arrived and assessed the chaotic search efforts, they declared the park a crime scene and ordered everyone out. The search had to be organized, they said. Evidence could be trampled. The park and woods were too vast and dense to thoroughly search at night, and if Grace hadn’t been found after eight hours of searching, she was no longer at the park. So Elizabeth had returned home, prayed in the shower, and dressed; she had been awake now for twenty-seven straight hours, wired on caffeine and adrenaline. She had trained her mind and body to function without sleep; it would catch up with her around the thirty-sixth hour when her mind would give way to her body’s physical exhaustion, and she would sleep. But not now. Not yet. Her body was tiring but her mind remained alert and angry: Damnit, how could John have let someone take her! She clenched her fist and hit the wall.
“Uh, you okay, Mrs. Brice?”
The doorbell rang again, and Elizabeth opened her eyes to a young cop holding a cup of coffee and a donut; he had white powder on his mouth and an indolent expression on his face, as if this were the start of another routine day of donuts and traffic stops. He was a fine example of small-town law enforcement and the reason she had demanded the FBI be called in immediately.
“Yes. But my daughter’s not. Go find her!”
The cop choked on his donut then turned and hurried away. She took several deep breaths to compose herself and then marched down the gallery, resolved thereafter not to act in public like other mothers of abducted children, slobbering pitifully on television and begging for the safe return of her child. Elizabeth Brice, Attorney-at-Law, would go on TV, but not to beg.
She arrived at the formal dining room for the third time that morning. Leaning over the dining table and studying a large map illuminated by the chandelier above were the Post Oak police chief and four uniformed officers. They didn’t notice her.
“A line search,” Chief Ryan was saying. “Start at the south end, proceed due north. Instruct your searchers to walk at arm’s length, slow, this ain’t no goddamn race. They see something, tell ’em to hold up their hands, don’t touch a fuckin’ thing. FBI boys’ll tag it and bag it.” Chief Ryan was stocky but paunchy, like an aging athlete. When he finally noticed Elizabeth standing in the door, he grimaced. “Pardon my French, Mrs. Brice.”
She held up an open palm. “Just find her.”
“Yes, ma’am. Oh, Mrs. Brice, we need clothing Gracie wore recently, something that’s not been washed. For the bloodhounds.” Elizabeth nodded. The chief again addressed his men: “Be in position at nine-thirty sharp. Bobby Joe’ll run the dogs in the woods first, while we walk the playing fields. Then we’ll search the woods again-maybe we’ll have better luck in daylight.”
Elizabeth turned to resume her pacing and came face to face with an earnest young woman wearing a blue nylon FBI jacket and holding a pen to a notepad. They had been introduced earlier, but Elizabeth could not recall the agent’s name.
“Mrs. Brice, what color, size, and brand of underwear was Gracie wearing?”
The agent asked the question as if asking whether she wanted cream in her coffee. Elizabeth clenched back her emotions.
“I don’t know. I left yesterday before she got up. I had a trial. My husband might know, ask him. He let someone take her.”
FBI Special Agent (on probation) Jan Jorgenson watched the victim’s mother march off down the fancy hallway; they called it a gallery. They don’t have galleries in Minnesota farmhouses.
Jan ducked into the kitchen, made sure she was alone, and pulled a protein bar from her waist pack; she hadn’t eaten since last night when the call had come and she didn’t do donuts. She had survived this long without food only because she had carbo loaded the past week for the marathon she was supposed to be running at that very moment. She took a big bite then jumped-someone had jabbed her hard in the back.
“Reach for the sky! ”
A kid’s voice trying to sound older. Jan turned and looked down on the Brice boy, the spitting image of the father. He was holding his right hand like it was a gun and grinning.
“I got that from Woody, in Toy Story.”
He laughed and ran off. She shook her head. His big sister was abducted, and he’s playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers or whatever his game was. The kid didn’t have a clue.
Jan ate the protein bar in four quick bites while watching the small TV on the counter; a reporter standing on the front lawn was saying, “Ransom. John Brice is soon to be a very wealthy man…”
Old news. Jan exited the kitchen, but she could still hear the reporter on the kitchen TV or on the TV in the next room or on other unseen TVs in rooms she passed, as if someone were deathly afraid of missing breaking news: “His company, BriceWare-dot-com, is going public next week, which is expected to make John Brice worth well over-”
Jan entered the study.
“ A billion dollars? ”
Special Agent Eugene Devereaux, the agent in charge, was interviewing the victim’s father. The father nodded blankly. Sitting slumped on the couch, he looked as if he would fall over from exhaustion if not for Agents Floyd and Randall sitting on either side of him like book ends. His curly black hair was a mess, his khakis and blue denim shirt were wrinkled and dirty, the knot of his yellow Mickey Mouse tie was pulled halfway down, and his face was drooped like a balloon after most of the air had leaked out. He appeared even thinner than the last time she had seen him. But what struck her was the incredible sadness in his eyes, brown eyes visible over black glasses sitting low on his nose, the eyes of a man suddenly lost and adrift in a harsh world. His slender fingers were kneading the tie like a rosary.
“She gave this tie to me,” he said to no one in particular.
A telephone attached to Bureau hardware sat on the coffee table in front of the father. An agent wearing headphones was testing the equipment that would record, trap, and trace the ransom call. If the call came. If the motive was money.
“A billion dollars,” Agent Devereaux repeated.
The father looked up at Devereaux and said in a barely audible voice: “He can have it all if he’ll let Gracie go.”
Agent Devereaux dropped his eyes and gave a sideways glance at the other agents. “Mr. Brice, is there any reason someone would want to hurt your family?”
Almost a whisper: “No.”
“Have any threats been made against you?”
“Did you fire any employees recently?”
“Do you suspect anyone?”
“Did you notice any strangers in the neighborhood?”
“No. Those gates are supposed to keep bad people out.”
Agent Devereaux studied the father for a moment, obviously concluding that he was neither the abductor nor a source of information. Devereaux then turned to her.
“Yes, Agent Jorgenson?”
“Sir, I’m completing the detailed description of the victim’s clothing. The mother said Mr. Brice might have the information I need.”
Agent Devereaux nodded. “Proceed.”
This was Jan Jorgenson’s first child abduction. Engaged to the Bureau for eleven months now, she had always assumed that one day she would marry and have children; but now, seeing the father’s pain at the loss of his child, a pain that a billion dollars could not console, she wasn’t so sure. Her question now seemed an awful burden.
John stared at the female FBI agent and tried to understand her words. His brain felt fragmented. He couldn’t process what he thought he had heard her say. Why was she asking about Gracie’s “Underwear?”
John turned to the other FBI agents, the ones setting up the recording equipment for when the kidnapper called and demanded ransom-a million, five million, ten million-he didn’t freaking care how much. He would pay it and Gracie would come home. That’s the deal! His eyes darted from agent to agent to agent. They were staring down at their equipment.
“But you said… I thought… I thought it was about money.”
Until that very moment, it had never occurred to John R. Brice that his money might not be the motive for his daughter’s abduction. He suddenly felt sick. A searing heat spread over his face. He thought he might faint. His upper body fell forward until his hands caught his head. He pulled his glasses off his face; the world around him was a blur, but the image inside his head was 20/20 sharp: Gracie… and a man… and…
He started crying. He couldn’t stop himself. He didn’t even try. He gave up the fight.
The doorbell rang again just as Elizabeth entered the study. Five grim-faced FBI agents simultaneously looked at her then quickly averted their eyes. Her husband was sitting between two agents on the sofa. His face was in his hands; he was crying inconsolably. Her body clenched with her greatest fear.
“Is it Grace?” she asked.
The lead FBI agent shook his head. Fear released its grip on Elizabeth’s body. She breathed out a “Thank God.” She then turned to her husband. “John, what’s wrong?”
His sobbing did not abate. Elizabeth went to him and stood over his pitiful figure, debating whether to console him or to slap him senseless for allowing her daughter to be abducted. The agents sitting on the sofa relocated across the room. Over her husband’s slumped head, she asked Agent Devereaux, “What happened?”
Agent Devereaux sighed. “We had to ask, Mrs. Brice. We need a complete description of Gracie’s clothing, including her…”
Agent Devereaux nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Elizabeth’s mind was so chaotic with wild thoughts that she had forgotten she had sent the female FBI agent to John with that question. She put her left hand on her husband’s shoulder.
“John,” she said softly. He looked up at her with red eyes and tears rolling down his face and snot running out of his nose and a trembling chin. He wiped the snot on his shirtsleeve. Her little boy.
John Brice had married her when she needed a husband. And he had been a good husband: he had never embarrassed her in public or crossed her in private; he had always sent flowers to her office on her birthday and their anniversary, not that she had any inclination for romance; and he was a loving father to both children and a genius at math, the perfect skill in a wired world. John R. Brice was a gentle brilliant boy… and utterly useless in a fight. He had nothing but a Ph. D. to fall back on in times like this, no reserve of intestinal fortitude to draw upon when you had to be hard and mean and ruthless; he was not like her-she could easily stick a gun to the abductor’s head and blow his fucking brains out if necessary to save Grace. John Brice was not hard or mean or ruthless. He was just a thirty-seven-year-old little boy, looking up at her like he had just been beaten up by the neighborhood bully and needed mommy to hug him and make it all better. Instead, she slapped him across the face.
“John,” she said through clenched teeth, the rage making a move to escape the darkness, “it damn well better be ransom. Because if it’s not-”
She slapped him again.
“Goddamn you! You let him take her!”
“Mrs. Brice,” Agent Devereaux said, “this won’t help.”
It was helping her. Elizabeth raised her hand again, but a black hand grabbed her wrist. The rage turned on Agent Devereaux.
The phone rang. Agent Devereaux released her and sat next to John. The agent wearing headphones activated the recorder then nodded at Agent Devereaux. The phone rang again.
“Mr. Brice,” Agent Devereaux said.
John remained in the same position she had left him: his hands still cupping his face to block her blows and crying and saying softly, “I’m sorry.”
The phone rang again.
“Mr. Brice, can you take the call?”
Her husband didn’t move. Elizabeth thought, Utterly useless in a fight, then she thrust her hand out to Agent Devereaux.
“Give it to me.”
Agent Devereaux lifted the phone off the receiver and handed it to her. The tape was running. She put the phone to her ear.
A child’s voice came across. “Can Sam play?”
“ What? No, Sam can’t play today!”
The agents exhaled and rolled their eyes in unison. Elizabeth handed the phone to Agent Devereaux and sighed; the child’s voice had given her pause. Her anger spent, the rage retreated like a tornado into the dark sky and she now gazed down upon the destruction left behind-her husband still sobbing and his face red and welted-and the slightest twinge of remorse tried to ignite her conscience. But she stomped it out like a discarded cigarette.
It’s his damn fault! He let someone take her!
Her respiration spiked. One last glare at her utterly useless husband, then she marched out of the study and down the gallery and was crossing the foyer when the doorbell rang again. She stopped, yanked the front door open, and stared at the man standing on her porch. Anyone who knew his life would have expected a bigger man, a harder looking man. But there he stood, perhaps an artist who painted the West and dressed the part, wearing rugged Santa Fe-style attire that looked so phony on the models in the Neiman Marcus catalog but seemed born to his lean frame with his chiseled facial features and ruddy skin, the ragged blond hair framing his tanned face and setting off the most brilliant blue eyes imaginable. Remarkably handsome for a sixty-year-old man, he could be a middle-aged movie star. Instead, he was a drunk.
Elizabeth Brice turned and walked away from her father-in-law.
Ben Brice stepped inside his son’s home and into the middle of a busy intersection. He quickly retreated as uniformed police and FBI agents and a maid talking into a portable phone and his grandson in a baseball uniform pursued by a young Hispanic woman- “ Senor Sam, the oatmeal, it is ready!”-raced past him.
Beneath his feet was a polished hardwood floor; above his head was a lighted dome painted with a mural. A wide gallery extended off the entry into both wings of the residence. A sweeping staircase rose in front of him to a second-floor landing. Beyond the stairs was a living area with a two-story-tall bank of windows looking out onto a brilliant blue pool with a waterfall. Gracie had said her new home had cost $3 million. At the time, he thought she had to be mistaken; but now, looking around, Ben could believe this place cost every bit of $3 million, maybe more. Which was good: his son could afford the ransom.
Ben had not spoken to John in five years, when he had last come to Dallas for Sam’s birth. He almost didn’t recognize the slight young man who had wandered aimlessly into the foyer and who now found himself caught in the middle of a fast-moving stream of bodies like a bug in a whirlpool; he looked defeated and lost, like the senile World War Two vets at the VA hospital, a blank face in a world no longer recognizable. Ben dropped the duffel bag, stepped over to his son, and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“John.” A stiff shake. “John.”
His son regarded Ben as he would a complete stranger and said, “You think it’s ransom?”
“John, it’s me… Ben.”
John pushed his glasses up and blinked hard. “ Ben? What are you doing… How did you… Who called you?”
“You should have, son.”
A voice from above: “I did.”
She had left him right after Gracie was born, determined that her only granddaughter would not be raised by a nanny. Ben had figured it was just an excuse, not that he blamed her; if he could have, he would have left himself a long time ago. She had made regular visits back at first, but the time between visits grew longer and longer. Five years ago her visits had stopped altogether, when she had two grandchildren to raise.
Now, seeing her at the top of the stairs, her red hair and fair complexion glowing in the light of the dome-still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen-the love that Ben Brice had tried to drown in whiskey along with the pain returned with such force he thought his knees might buckle; instead, tears came to his eyes- she was still wearing her wedding ring. A devout Irish Catholic, she would never divorce her husband but could no longer live with a drunk; a devout drunk, he would never love another woman but could not live without a drink.
She descended the stairs, and Ben could tell that she had cried through the night. He knew because he had caused this woman to cry through many nights. Not that he had ever touched her in anger. Ben Brice was not a mean drunk. He was a silent one. The more he drank, the deeper inside himself he burrowed, battling the demons within and leaving his wife to cry herself to sleep. His soul was stained with her tears. Five years since he had seen her, touched her, held her, he ached to hold her now; but he stood paralyzed, like a buck private facing a four-star general.
She came to him and buried her face in his chest. Ben pulled her tight and breathed in her scent as if for the first time. And for a brief moment, it was thirty-eight years earlier when the world still made sense. She sighed deeply, almost a cry, and he felt her slim body sag slightly.
“Oh, Ben. What if he hurts her?”
“We’ll get her back, Kate. We’ll pay the ransom and get her back.”
They stood holding each other as strangers and thirty-eight years of their lives rushed past-the good times, the bad times, and more bad times. Ben had always held onto the good times to get through the bad times; she had lost her grip ten years ago. Standing there, they didn’t have to say what they both knew: no time would be as bad as this time.
Ben looked down at his grandson clutching his legs. The Hispanic woman arrived in a rush and out of breath.
“ Senor Sam, the oatmeal, you must eat.”
From below: “I don’t want no stinkin’ oatmeal!”
Ben Brice embraced his family. Except John. He was gone.
“What the hell’s he doing here?”
Elizabeth ambushed her husband as soon as he set foot in the kitchen; he flinched and his hands flew up to his face then fell once he realized she wasn’t going to slap him again.
“I don’t want that drunk in my house!”
John did not respond. Instead, he wandered into the butler’s pantry, as if hunting for a place to hide. She stared after her husband and shook her head: utterly useless in a fight.
Agent Devereaux was at the kitchen door.
Ben was standing at the staircase with his family and the young Hispanic woman when a middle-aged FBI agent appeared with Elizabeth. Ben looked at her and she looked away.
“Kate,” Elizabeth said, “would you get the photo of Grace from our room, for Agent Devereaux? And something she wore yesterday, something that hasn’t been washed. Maybe her school uniform. Chief Ryan needs it. He’s in the dining room.” She then said down to Sam, “Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
Sam, from below: “I claim the Fourth Amendment.”
“It’s the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate yourself.”
Elizabeth exhaled and turned to the Hispanic woman. “Hilda?”
Hilda threw her arms up. “ Senora, he runs like the wind.”
Sam, trying to hide between Ben’s legs: “Help.”
Ben diverted the conversation to save his grandson. He extended his hand to the FBI agent and said, “Ben Brice. I’m Gracie’s grandfather.”
“Eugene Devereaux, FBI.”
He was a big man with big hands and a firm grip. The two men regarded each other.
“Ben Brice,” Agent Devereaux said. “That name sounds familiar. Have we met?”
Ben shook his head and diverted the conversation again. “Have you gotten a ransom call?”
“No, sir.” Agent Devereaux turned to Elizabeth. “What about Gracie’s underwear?”
“Kate,” Elizabeth said, “what underwear was Grace wearing?”
“She wears Under Armour to her games.”
“Under what? ”
Agent Devereaux interrupted: “Under Armour. Sports underwear. All the kids wear them now ’cause the pros do. My daughter wears them under her basketball uniform.” To Kate: “Did Gracie wear compression shorts?”
“Yes. Blue ones. And a sleeveless tee shirt, blue.”
Agent Devereaux glanced down the gallery and called out: “Agent Jorgenson!” He motioned, and a female FBI agent walked up. He addressed her: “We have white Lotto soccer shoes, blue knee socks, shin guards, blue Under Armour shorts and sleeveless tee shirt, blue soccer shorts, a gold soccer jersey with ‘Tornadoes’ on the front and a number nine on the back.” Back to the others: “Anything else?”
“Her necklace,” Ben said, triggering a sharp look from Elizabeth.
“What necklace?” Agent Devereaux asked.
“Silver chain with a silver star.”
“Are you sure she was wearing it?”
Kate confirmed with a knowing nod.
To the female agent, who was writing on a notepad, Agent Devereaux said, “And the necklace. Get the updated description to the media.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, and then she departed.
Agent Devereaux gave Ben and Kate a polite nod and said, “Mr. Brice, Mrs. Brice,” then he and Elizabeth walked away down the gallery. Ben turned to Kate.
“Why are they asking about her”-a glance down at Sam-“clothes? I thought it was about ransom.”
She turned her hands up. “Until they get a call…”
Sam tugged at Ben’s legs. “Grandpa, what happened to Gracie? No one’ll tell me the truth.” He gestured up at Kate. “Not even Nanna.”
Ben squatted and came face-to-face with a miniature version of John-the same mop of curly black hair, the same dark eyes, the same black glasses, although his grandson’s glasses had no lenses; Gracie said Sam had taken to wearing the frames so he’d be like his father. Ben had sent his grandson birthday and Christmas gifts each year (hand-carved wooden coyotes and horses and a little rocking chair with SAM carved into the seat back) and had talked to him whenever Gracie had called; and Gracie had sent the photos of Sam that were stuck to the refrigerator in the cabin, so Ben felt as if he knew Sam, but he hadn’t seen the boy since his birth. Ben had never been welcome in his son’s home.
“She’s gone,” Ben said.
“Can I have her stuff?”
“You know, like when she goes to college, I’m gonna get her room and all her stuff.”
“No, it’s not like that, Sam. She didn’t want to go.”
“So why did she?”
“A man took her.”
An innocent face. “The mailman?”
“No, not a nice man.”
“A bad man.”
“Yes, Sam, a bad man.”
“Where did she sleep last night?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did the cretin feed her dinner?”
“I don’t know.”
“The cretin wants money to let Gracie go?”
Sam’s face brightened. “Well, that’s okay.”
“Because after the IPO, we’ll be a billionaire.”
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux had no doubt the furnishings in this one room cost more than his entire homestead. He had followed the victim’s mother into the elegant formal living room in the east wing of the residence; Devereaux didn’t know furnishings from fiddlesticks, but he knew this stuff didn’t come cheap. He instinctively pushed his hands into his pockets, like he did when visiting those antique shops the wife loved, so as not to inadvertently break something he couldn’t afford.
“Set up in here,” the mother said. She dismissed the entire room with a wave of her hand. “Use the furniture, move it to the garage, burn it for firewood. I don’t give a damn.”
“Mrs. Brice, we normally don’t establish the command post in the victim’s home, but-”
She pointed a finger his way. “I want it here! I want to know what’s being done to find my daughter at all times! I’ll call Larry McCoy himself if I have to! He owes me!”
Not that it would affect his decision, but Devereaux couldn’t help but wonder if the mother really knew the president personally or was merely a “Friend of Larry,” a status earned through a $100,000 contribution to his last campaign.
– “ but, your home is already wired for twenty phone and fax lines and broadband for computers and it would take us the entire morning to wire another location. So we will set up the command post here. We’ll be operational in one hour.”
Devereaux hoped he would not regret his decision. Because there was a good reason not to establish a command post in the victim’s home: if the victim was not recovered quickly, personnel couldn’t be maintained at a remote location indefinitely; the command post would have to be moved to the local FBI field office in downtown Dallas forty miles away. And when it was, the parents would worry that the FBI was quitting on their child. But Eugene Devereaux had never quit on an abducted child.
“Good. Now, what’s being done to find my daughter?”
A fair enough question. Devereaux removed his hands from his pockets and ticked the items off on his fingers.
“I’ve got twenty agents full time on the case, plus ten local police. Chief Ryan issued an Amber Alert immediately upon Gracie’s disappearance and broadcast an alert on NLETS, the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System. Every law enforcement agency in the country knows about Gracie now.
“We’ve input Gracie into the National Crime Information Center Missing Person File. As soon as we get her photo, we’ll input her into the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They’ll put her on their website, and she’ll go on the FBI website.
“We’ll print up fliers with Gracie’s photo and a composite sketch of the suspect for distribution throughout the area and to the media. Chief Ryan is coordinating the search at the park. An FBI Evidence Response Team is also at the crime scene. They’ll collect and preserve any evidence and conduct a forensic analysis of the abduction site.
“We’ve installed communications equipment to record and trap and trace all incoming calls. Our Rapid Start Team will set up the command post, the phone bank, computers, and faxes, and coordinate and track all leads on a computerized system- there’ll be thousands. We’re interviewing witnesses who were at the park last night, and we’re canvassing the neighborhood.”
Devereaux decided not to mention that they were compiling a list of known sex offenders residing in the locality.
“Mrs. Brice, we can get a psychologist in here.”
“For what purpose?”
“For you, your husband, your son. To help you through this.”
“I don’t want help. I want my daughter found.”
The mother turned away, paced off four steps, and whirled to face him; her arms were crossed, and her eyes were sizing him up.
“And what are your qualifications, Agent Devereaux, to find my daughter?”
Bluntness did not offend Eugene Devereaux.
“Well, ma’am, this ain’t my first rodeo.” He was met with a blank expression. “One hundred twenty-seven abductions, Mrs. Brice. Those are my qualifications.”
Her face deflated as she absorbed his words; her eyes fell.
“One hundred twenty-seven,” she whispered. “My God.” She lifted her eyes. “Children?”
“How many were ransom?”
He hesitated. “None.”
“Ben, what if this isn’t about money?” Kate asked.
She had taken Ben out to the pool house. She thought it would be better that way, Ben staying out here alone. Just in case he drank. And the nightmares returned. And he screamed, that tortured cry that had punctured her sleep so many nights.
“Take me to the park.”
Kate shook her head. “It’s a crime scene. No one can go out there until they search it.”
Bobby Joe Fannin spat a stream of brown tobacco juice.
“Settle down, boys.”
The dogs were straining at their leashes, ready to get it on, the girl’s scent fresh in their nostrils. Bobby Joe headed up the county’s canine search unit, a team of six bloodhounds he had raised from pups. Good job, good benefits, outside most of the time. Not as good as farming this land thirty years ago when his granddaddy still owned this land, but not bad. Except for finding dead people. Bobby Joe never liked that part of the job. Why did killers from the city always dump the bodies in the country?
On the radio: “Bobby Joe, come in.”
Bobby Joe pulled the radio off his belt and pushed the transmit button. “Yeah, Chief?”
He could barely make out Police Chief Ryan at the other end of the park; the search party was stretched out single file across the playing fields. Bobby Joe worked alone, just him and the dogs, which was another thing he liked about the job, not having to work with other people much. In his line of work, other people around just messed things up: the dogs could detect human scent, but they couldn’t distinguish between humans. Another human being around would throw them off the girl’s scent.
“Bobby Joe, we’re fixin’ to get going down here, ” the chief said. “Go ahead and start your dogs. You find something, you call me. Don’t touch nothing, you hear me?”
To his radio: “I done this before, Paulie.”
Bobby Joe had grown up with Paul Ryan. They had hunted this land together as boys-deer, wild hogs, quail-and these very woods for rabbit, back when these woods covered five hundred acres. His granddaddy said this was one of the last native post oak forests left on the high plains of Texas. But that was then and this was now and only a hundred acres were left. And Bobby Joe was hunting these woods for a little girl.
He spat again.
“Let’s go, boys,” he said, giving the dogs a little whistle. They set off into the woods, the dogs’ leashes in Bobby Joe’s right hand and the girl’s red-and-blue plaid school uniform in his left.
“Get off the goddamn grass!”
The chief said to make the mother happy, so Police Officer Eddie Yates was chasing the crowd of reporters and cameramen off the Brice’s landscaped front lawn. They took one look at him-the angular twenty-three-year-old face, the sharp flattop, the dark sunglasses, the bulging biceps that had the sleeves of his uniform ready to bust at the seams-and moved to the sidewalk, bitching as they did.
One riot, one Ranger.
Except Eddie wasn’t a Texas Ranger. He was a patrol cop in a small suburban police department that didn’t even have a SWAT team-not that it needed one, seeing as how the biggest crime the Town of Post Oak had to offer was kids passing around a beer under the bleachers at the little league field on Saturday nights. Eddie usually spent his shift working the town’s speed trap out on the freeway, nabbing speeders while dreaming of being on a big city SWAT team, wearing a black paramilitary uniform, packing military style assault weapons, busting down doors to drug houses, beating up gangsters, and fighting the war on drugs. He would take the Dallas Police Academy’s entrance exam for the fourth time this summer.
Fight back, Johnny-boy!
Be a man!
Go on, run home to mommy, Little Johnny Brice, you fuckin’ crybaby!
All the taunts from all the bullies at all the Army bases came rushing back now. Little Johnny Brice hadn’t been man enough to protect his own daughter at a public park. Just like he hadn’t been man enough back then to fight back against the bullies. When the colonel returned from deployment, Mom would beg him to stop the beatings and the colonel would order the bullies’ fathers to instill discipline in their ranks. But that had only made the beatings worse. He remembered the beatings and his face stung; but from Elizabeth’s hand today and the hurt would not go away.
Back then, he had gone inside himself, deep into his inner child while his outer child was getting the crap beat out of it. Afterward, he had run home to his room. Mom would always come in and hold him while he cried, and she would cry too; she would doctor his wounds and tell him it would never happen again. But it always happened again. Other kids had spent their childhood outside, learning to hit a curve ball; John had spent his in his room, hiding from bullies and teaching himself computer code.
Now, he had sought refuge in his home office, secluded on the backside of the house; he was hiding from his spouse and trying to escape the fear and loathing of the real world, as he often did. But there would be no escape this time. Fear and loathing had followed Little Johnny Brice home.
The phone rang. He let the machine take the call. It was Lou in New York, leaving another message: “John, did you get my earlier messages? Jesus Christ, it’s on the news up here. I’m stunned! I don’t know what to say, buddy. How could something like that happen in a public park? Man, I’m like… shit. Call me.” The machine beeped and went silent.
Because I wasn’t man enough to protect her, that’s how it happened!
A Cray supercomputer occupied the space inside John’s skull; his mind was capable of complex calculations and came with a near photographic memory-but he couldn’t remember yesterday.
Was the game just yesterday?
Elbows resting on the desk, hands gripping his head, eyes closed, John tried to reboot his memory: he’s sitting in the stands at the soccer field, talking to Lou about the IPO; Elizabeth has gone to the concession stand to find Gracie; then a piercing scream startles him so- Grace! He drops the phone and runs to the concession stand where parents are shouting for their children and panic is racing through the crowd like an e-mail virus until the panic and he reach Elizabeth simultaneously.
Grace is gone!
No, goddamnit! Someone kidnapped her!
He has never before seen Elizabeth panicked and out of control, and it scares him. Then the sound of sirens, the police, the search in the woods. And Gracie was gone. And he might never see her again. And Little Johnny Brice hurt in a place the bullies could never touch.
“You’ve worked a hundred twenty-seven abductions?” the mother asked.
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“But no ransoms?”
“I’ve worked one ransom in thirty years with the Bureau. Not a child.”
He knew where this conversation would end. These conversations always ended there.
“Your job is to find abducted children?”
“And do you?”
“Do I what?”
“ Find abducted children?”
He gave her the same answer he always gave the parents, hoping they would not ask the logical follow-up question; most parents didn’t because they couldn’t bear to know the answer.
From the mother’s expression, he could tell her mind was working through his answer. Her mouth opened slightly and her eyes bore into him. She was a tough broad, tough enough to ask the follow-up question.
“Were any of the children found… alive?”
Looking at the mother, Devereaux found himself hoping mightily that her child had been abducted for money, as unlikely as that was. But he had hoped just as mightily one hundred twenty-seven times before for a happy ending to an abduction, each time in vain. One hundred twenty-seven abductions of children by strangers- ninety-three had ended with a dead child; the other thirty-four had never been found and were presumed dead-had taught him that holding out false hope only victimized the family a second time.
The mother’s entire body slumped. The tough-broad lawyer facade faded from her face; for a brief moment, Elizabeth Brice was just another desperate, tortured mother, no different from those dirt-poor mothers of victims living in trailer parks, because they now shared something in common-the peculiar pain of knowing your child was in the arms of a stranger. After a silence, she spoke, slowly and softly.
“This isn’t going to end well, is it?”
“Mrs. Brice, Gracie was extremely low-risk for a stranger abduction-upper income, non-urban, intact family… kids like her just don’t get abducted by strangers. And ransom is a long shot. It just doesn’t happen in this country. But this wasn’t a random grab. He targeted Gracie. He asked for her by name. Why? Of all the little girls at the park, why did he want her?”
Bobby Joe Fannin was breathing hard, fast as he was having to run to keep the dogs in sight. They got something, way they were yelping. Deep into the woods, the dogs abruptly stopped. Bobby Joe caught up and looked down. He spat.
Last fall’s leaves and twigs crunched and snapped beneath their feet as they ran through the thick woods toward the sound of barking dogs, but Ben’s thoughts were of another time and place when he had run through woods to a bad ending.
She’s twelve or maybe thirteen. They dragged her into the nearby woods. He heard her muffled cries and came running. “Get off her!” he yells as he drives his boot into the soldier’s ribcage, knocking him off her. The other soldier grins and points down at the girl. “Go on, Lieutenant, get yourself some.” He glances down at the terrified girl then back at the grinning soldier. He raises his rifle and puts the muzzle against the soldier’s forehead; the grin drops off the soldier’s face. The urge to pull the trigger is overwhelming. Instead, he pivots and slams the butt of the rifle into the soldier’s brow, knocking him unconscious. The two soldiers would have been court-martialed had they not been killed that same afternoon, their legs blown off by VC land mines, their death cries rising above the Plain of Reeds as they bled to death on a hot day in the Mekong Delta.
Ahead, Elizabeth stumbled and fell again; a skirt and heels were not suited to the terrain. Ben stopped to help her up. The heel on one shoe had broken off; she tossed the other shoe aside, pushed his hands away, and ran on, her face distorted by fear.
The local police chief was now in the lead, followed by Agent Devereaux then John, Elizabeth, and Ben. Chief Ryan had started off walking, carefully pushing limbs aside for Elizabeth’s safe passage, but when she had taken off running into the woods, hands flailing at the sharp branches striking at her face and arms and legs, he had realized that walking was not an option. They had overtaken Elizabeth on her first fall.
They were now deep into the woods. From the intermittent sound of cars, a road ran nearby. Thirty meters ahead, uniformed cops and FBI agents stood silently in a circle, their heads down, as if joined in prayer. Chief Ryan and Agent Devereaux arrived first then turned and stopped John. Ben saw his son slump and fall to his knees; Ben ran faster and his heart beat harder. Agent Devereaux tried to block Elizabeth’s view “Mrs. Brice, you shouldn’t…”
— but she shoved him aside and pushed her way inside the circle; she cried out, and her hands snapped up to her mouth like a reflex. Her legs gave way, and she dropped to the ground. Her clothes were ripped and covered in dirt and dried leaves, one shoe was on and one shoe was gone, and her arms and legs and face were striped with fresh scratch marks. Ben stood over her, staring down and breathing hard. He took the pain and buried it deep inside him with all the other pain, clamping his jaws so tight his teeth hurt. The woods were eerily quiet, as if even the creatures understood the violation only they had witnessed.
Elizabeth crawled forward and reached out to the blue soccer shorts and white soccer shoe lying on the ground.
The ten-thousand-square-foot residence at Six Magnolia Lane stood silent as night fell. Upstairs, Kate sat in her room saying the rosary through quiet tears. Elizabeth was sleeping in her bed, having succumbed to exhaustion after thirty-seven hours awake; she had managed to remove one leg of her torn pantyhose before falling asleep. Sam was watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in his room with Hilda; Pirates was rated PG-13, so he wasn’t supposed to be watching it, but Hilda didn’t know that-heck, she couldn’t even read English.
In Gracie’s bedroom, Agent Chip Stevens, an FBI computer specialist with the Bureau’s Computer Analysis Response Team, aka the “geek squad,” was quietly examining the victim’s computer; he was reviewing her e-mail history, checking the browser cache to see the websites she had visited and webpages she had downloaded, and trying to determine if she had been contacted over the Internet by a computer-literate sexual predator. Perhaps she had wandered into the wrong chat room and had been lured into disclosing personal information that had led the perpetrator to her soccer game. The Internet had opened a whole new world to sex offenders.
God, he hated child abductions.
Stevens dwelled on the victim’s last e-mail. Dated yesterday, from kahuna@BriceWare. com to gracie@BriceHome. com. On the screen, Stevens saw:
ACK. Hm frm NYC. Nsnly dspr8 2 CU. Gd wk @ skl? RdE 4 mg gm? Gm tm? Wldnt ms 4 E9$. Rly. Pstgm, srs fdg n qlty fctm, grilf. CUL8R, alEG8R. X0XO, Kahuna.
He translated the message from Mr. Brice to the victim: Hi, I’m here. Home from New York City. Insanely desperate to see you. Good week at school? Ready for the big game? What is game time? Wouldn’t miss for a billion dollars. Really. Postgame, serious foodage and quality facetime, girlfriend. See you later, alligator. Love and kisses, Kahuna.
Stevens smiled. The victim and her father obviously had a running joke because no one abbreviated every word of their e-mail like that anymore. He found the victim’s reply e-mail:
E9$? ROTFL. PANS 2 tl U abt skl. Am I rdE 4 sccr gm? IMHO, I grok sccr! Gm @ 5. BthrRB. MB vprmom wl sho… Nt! UR my fv prpllrhd n ntr bg rm. Ctch U ofln, d00d. OnO. Gracie.:-)
Tears welled up in Stevens’ eyes as he read her reply: A billion dollars? I’m rolling on the floor laughing. Pretty amazing new stuff to tell you about school. Am I ready for the soccer game? In my humble opinion, I am soccer! Game at five. Be there or be square. Maybe vapormom will show… Not! You are my favorite propellerhead in the entire big room. Catch you offline, dude. Over and out. Gracie. Signed off with the online emoticon of a happy face.
The victim and her father must have had a great relationship. Stevens wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Problem was, he got way too emotional working child abductions. Sitting in the victim’s room among her personal effects, he couldn’t help but wonder about her life and the importance of each object in her life-like this, a framed portrait of a young soldier in full military dress, wearing a green beret, a chest full of medals, and what Stevens knew was the Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck. Who was this soldier and why did he rate a front-row spot on a ten-year-old girl’s desk, where she would look at him first thing each morning and last thing each night? Questions like that haunted him for weeks after the child’s body was found.
Other than being about five times as big with an adjoining bathroom that was like something out of a fancy hotel, the victim’s room looked remarkably similar to his nine-year-old daughter’s room: posters on the wall, the same Orlando Bloom one and a life-sized Mia Hamm, trophies, books, TV/DVD, telephone, boom box, electronic keyboard, soccer ball, and a closet stuffed with clothes. Gracie Ann Brice is a real live kid. Or was. She had sat where he sat, done her homework on this computer, watched TV in this room, talked to her friends on that phone, and slept in that bed, where her father now slept, curled up in the same dirty clothes and clutching the girl’s teddy bear. He did not appear at all like the genius Stevens had read about in that Fortune magazine article. Stevens had felt envious that day: he was a GS-11 geek making $51,115 a year and Brice was a geek about to become a billionaire. But now that Brice’s daughter had been abducted and murdered-he had never worked a stranger abduction where the child hadn’t been murdered-Stevens was not so envious. He wouldn’t trade his daughter for Bill Gates’s money.
FBI procedure was to secure the victim’s bedroom and seal it off from everyone, even the family. But he didn’t have the heart to wake the father, not after what he had been through the last twenty-four hours. So Agent Stevens was working quietly.
The entire house was quiet.
Downstairs, eleven somber FBI agents manned the hot-line phones in the command post, logging every lead, no matter how unimportant, and every reported sighting, no matter how inconceivable, into the computer. And waiting. Mostly waiting, as few calls were coming in.
Agent Jan Jorgenson sat at one computer, running database searches on the family per orders; she was still shaken from having witnessed the victim’s mother slapping the father, defenseless in his despair. If this was a typical child abduction case, Jan had no desire to become a specialist like Agent Devereaux. She glanced across the room at him.
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux felt tired, so godawful tired. He was holding his personal cell phone to his ear as the call rang through and thinking, What the hell’s wrong with people, a man could do that to a child? And leaving her soccer shorts behind like a perverted calling card: See what I did? Yeah, we see-die and go to hell, you sick bastard! When Devereaux’s seventeen-year-old daughter answered, he said, “Hey, baby, I just wanted to tell you I love you.” She laughed and said, “What, are you dying or something?” Somewhere deep inside him, he was.
Coach Wally Fagan sat at another computer; he was scrolling down mug shots of the forty-two thousand registered sex offenders on the state’s official sex offender website-pictures, names, addresses, and criminal histories-starting with those registered in the county, hoping to ID the blond man in the black cap and plaid shirt who had asked about Gracie after the game and wishing he had never pointed her out to him. The mother was right: he was a fucking idiot.
In the kitchen, Sylvia Milanevic, the Brice family maid, was preparing a fresh pot of coffee for the FBI agents. Sixty-three, an immigrant from Kosovo, she had lost two children in the war. She had concluded long ago that life was about enduring pain: you’re born, you suffer, and you die. The small TV on the counter was on: “A child abducted by a stranger has a life expectancy of three hours. Gracie Ann Brice has been missing for twenty-four hours now…” Sylvia looked out the window over the sink at the lonely figure by the pool.
Ben was sitting in a patio chair. His face was wet with tears and the pain was eating at his insides like a cancer. He closed his eyes and thought back to 1964 when he was eighteen and boarding the train to West Point. His father had shaken his hand and said, “Do your country proud, son.” His mother had hugged him tightly and whispered in his ear, “God has a plan for Ben Brice.” Ben opened his eyes now and turned them to the heavens above.
“Do you still have a plan, God?”
The morning sun filtered through the shutters of the spacious master suite on the second floor of Six Magnolia Lane. Elizabeth stirred under a thick down comforter in the tall king-sized four-poster bed that was accessible only by wooden steps. A faint smile crossed her lips.
Not guilty on all counts.
She rolled over and groaned. Her body was sore. Her head was groggy, like she had a hangover, but she didn’t remember having anything to drink last night. It was probably just the trial; a long trial always left her physically and mentally exhausted, especially after coming down from the adrenaline high of victory.
Twelve good citizens with the mental range of a windshield wiper.
Was today Saturday? Or Sunday? Must be Sunday. John and Kate probably had the children at church. She did not attend church; religion and the law were the opiates of the masses in the twenty-first century, holding the peasants at bay with their firm faith in God and justice. Elizabeth Brice knew better. Her faith in the justice of the law had ended five years out of law school, late for most lawyers, and she had not prayed to God since…
Did she pray yesterday?
Elizabeth tried to shake her head clear of the fog. She took a deep breath and realized she was hungry. Very hungry. When had she last eaten? She couldn’t remember. A big breakfast on Sunday morning while the others were at church would be nice, a quiet time to drink coffee, read the paper, and relive her courtroom victory-there might even be an article about the stunning Shay verdict! Thus inspired, she stretched, threw off the comforter, and rolled out of bed.
She hit the wood floor hard.
What the hell? Her legs were tangled in her pantyhose… The hose was ripped and shredded… She pulled dried brown leaves from one leg of the torn hose… Why was one leg off?… Why was she sleeping in her pantyhose?… Why were her legs dirty and streaked with fresh scratch marks?… And her arms… And her hands… Nails broken… Clothes dirty and torn… Why was she sleeping in her clothes?… She touched her face
… Why had she gone to bed without cleaning her face of makeup?… What the hell was going on?
A nauseous tide washed over her. She crawled on her hands and knees to the front windows, dragging one leg of her pantyhose behind her like a bridal veil, knelt up, and peeked through the shutters. Down below, out front of her house, were police cars, TV trucks, cameras, and people. The media circus. She slumped against the wall. She remembered now.
Grace was gone.
Downstairs, Ben entered the kitchen from outside. Kate and Sylvia were busy cooking enough breakfast for a battalion, and the smell of pancakes, sausage, eggs, and biscuits lured a steady stream of cops and FBI agents to the kitchen.
Ben had woken at dawn after only a few hours of fitful sleep. He had heard the back door, Kate leaving for early Mass to do what Irish-Catholic women have done for centuries in the face of famine, poverty, pestilence, war, and evil: pray. He had showered and dressed then gone outside and watched the sun rise over the trees, the start of another day without Gracie-and the first day knowing that money would not save her.
Now Ben was trying to pour a cup of coffee, but he was fighting the morning shakes. Kate took the coffee pot from him and poured then walked the cup and saucer over to the breakfast table without a word. Ben sat down, held the cup with both hands, and sipped the coffee. Five years since she had made his morning coffee, but Kate remembered the routine; there was enough caffeine in this coffee to defeat the mother of all hangovers. But Ben Brice had not surrendered to the bottle last night.
Sam sat across the table. He was still wearing the Boston Red Sox uniform, but he now had a blue scarf wrapped around his head. He was alternating between taking syrupy bites of his pancakes and reciting lines as if acting out roles in a play.
“Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren-”
Sam turned slightly as if facing another character; his voice changed.
“First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement. So I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirates’ code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.”
Ben looked at Kate by the stove. She said, “Movie dialogue. He’s got John’s memory. He can recite entire movies verbatim.”
Sam continued: “So that’s it then. That’s the secret grand adventure of the infamous Jack Sparrow. You spent three days lying on a beach drinking rum!”
Sam gestured as if his knife and fork were bottles.
“Welcome to the Caribbean, luv.”
Kate said, “Sam, is that from a PG-13 movie?”
Sam froze, his mouth full, his arms still outstretched, and his eyes suddenly wide as if he’d been caught red-handed. His eyes darted to Ben. He decided to save his grandson again.
“The Red Sox are your team?”
Kate shook her head and turned back to the stove; Sam turned back to his pancakes and said, “After the IPO.”
“Dad’s gonna buy the Red Sox for me, after he’s a billionaire.”
“Yep.” Sam took a huge bite of pancakes-his cheek was now bulging like a baseball player’s with a wad of chewing tobacco-and said, “So how much money does the cretin want?”
“The man that took Gracie.”
Ben glanced over at Kate. “Oh. He hasn’t said yet.”
Sam sighed. “Well, I wish he’d shit or get off the pot.”
“Sam!” Kate said.
Sam shrugged. “Yeah, then Dad can write a check and Gracie can come home.”
“Our town’s a damn safe place to call home!”
Across town, Police Chief Paul Ryan was standing in the mayor’s office, looking at the mayor’s broad back, and listening to the mayor’s whiny voice as His Honor pleaded with a Dallas newspaper reporter not to write a negative story about Post Oak, Texas. But as if his mind were repeatedly pressing the ALT CH button on the remote control, his thoughts kept switching back and forth between dark images of a little girl he didn’t know lying dead somewhere and the bald back of the mayor’s head, wondering how much hair spray it took to keep his comb-over in place. Paul Ryan never trusted men who combed over.
The mayor never came in on a Sunday and never early on any day of the week. But this Sunday, Ryan had arrived at seven and been immediately summoned to the mayor’s office. He knew the mayor would not be pleased, what with the town just getting over the heroin OD at the high school, and now this. Bad for business, heroin in the high school and kidnappings at the park. And the mayor was all about business.
Theirs was a tenuous relationship at best. Ryan was a holdover from the old days, back before the Dallas developers had discovered their sleepy little town forty miles north of the city and had bought up the open land he used to hunt as a kid and carved it up into exclusive gated communities promising peace and prosperity, bait to Boomers fleeing the ills of urban life. And the Boomers had come, arriving in their Beemers and Lexuses and Hummers like fire ants in the backyard-one day they’re not even here, the next day they’ve taken over the goddamned place. Ten years ago this had been a farming community with a land bank and a feed store; today it had a Victoria’s Secret and a Starbucks.
Paul Ryan hated the Boomers.
But the mayor had welcomed them with open arms. Because the mayor owned the land, or damn near most of it, inherited from his daddy or acquired at foreclosure for pennies on the dollar during the drought years when the farmers couldn’t keep up their payments to the bank, which the mayor and his daddy before him owned. Paul Ryan’s father had committed suicide less than a year after the mayor’s father foreclosed the farm.
Paul sighed. The mayor was a short, pudgy bastard who couldn’t even make the high school football team that Paul Ryan had starred on. But now, just like the mayor’s daddy had held the note on the Ryan family farm, the mayor held the note on Paul Ryan’s career, a career he could foreclose at any time: the town charter expressly stated that the police chief served at the pleasure of the mayor. And the mayor was not pleased. He hung up the phone and glared at Ryan.
“Paul, why the hell did you bring in the FBI?”
“To find the girl! The Feds got more experience and a helluva lot more resources than we got.”
“Yeah, but they don’t got jurisdiction!”
“FBI helps local police in all child abductions. They bring a lot to the table, Mayor.”
“They bring the media to my town!” The mayor pointed a fat finger at Ryan. “Paul, you either find that girl alive or you find her dead, but I want her found, I want someone arrested, I want this deal closed in forty-eight hours or you’ll be a goddamn security guard at the Wal-Mart!”
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux dodged the little Brice boy as he entered the kitchen for a cup of coffee. He knew the caffeine would only inflame his prostate, but a little girl was missing and he needed a shot of caffeine to get sharp. He had gone to the motel at midnight and just returned with an empty gut. He would normally lose ten pounds over the course of an abduction investigation. Hell of a way to diet.
Devereaux was about to walk out when the grandmother shoved a plate of food at him. The smell reminded him of his own grandmother’s breakfasts back on the farm in Louisiana. He figured it was better to eat her food than donuts all day. So he sat across the breakfast table from the grandfather; they acknowledged each other with grim nods. The grandfather’s hands exhibited the morning tremors of an alcoholic. After Devereaux had eaten half his stack of pancakes in silence, the grandfather said, “Why would he leave her shorts in the woods?”
Devereaux was trying to think of an appropriate answer other than because he’s a sick bastard when the father rushed through the kitchen looking like he had just rolled out of bed; his black glasses were riding low and lopsided on his face, one side of his curly hair was pressed flat, the other side was standing on end, and he was still wearing the same dirty clothes. He exited through the back door without a word. Minutes later, the father returned and walked directly over to Devereaux; he held out a camcorder like the one Devereaux had given the wife for Christmas.
“I forgot,” he said.
“Forgot what, Mr. Brice?”
“I taped Gracie’s game.”
She was Michael Jordan in soccer shorts.
The other girls seemed like typical ten-year-olds, awkward, plodding, stumbling at times, while Gracie seemed… well, graceful, elegant even, her gait smooth and rhythmic, gliding down the field in her white shoes, then a sudden burst of speed propelling her past the defenders, all the while making the white ball seem like a puppet on a string, dancing in front of her, now to her side, then abruptly racing ahead on her unspoken command. And she owned her opponents equally, moving them about like pawns on a chessboard, a slight shoulder fake sending the defender charging one way only to watch helplessly as Gracie spun off in the opposite direction, where the ball was somehow waiting. Natural athletes always made it look easy. Gracie Ann Brice was a natural athlete.
Watching the victim running up and down the field on the videotape-her smile, her spirit, her soccer skills-FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux wanted to find this girl alive so much it hurt. The victim was not that photograph distributed to the media; she was a real live little girl who only two days before had not a care in the world, smiling and laughing and playing soccer. And play she could. As his daughter would say, Gracie’s got game.
She had captivated her audience.
Four FBI agents, the father, and the grandparents stood facing the nine-foot-wide projector screen built into the wall of the media room, hypnotized by the victim’s image and all too aware that they were likely watching the last moments of her life. The tape was playing with remarkable clarity-Agent Stevens, who was manning the camcorder connected to the TV, had said something about it being recorded in “high def”-and had captured the sights and sounds of the game: the girls playing, a referee’s whistle, background noises, then suddenly a loud cheer and “Run, Gracie, run!” and the father’s voice: “Lou, I’m hard-core about thirty bucks a share!”
The camera abruptly swung from the field to the crowded parking lot in the distance and just as abruptly back to the field, creating a stream of blurred images. The victim appeared in frame again, up close, making a face at the camera as she ran past. Devereaux couldn’t help but smile. She then booted the ball across the field-“Go, Tornadoes!”-and the camera angle dropped precipitously, as if the operator had lost all strength in his arm; a pair of black penny loafers over white socks filled the screen. Devereaux glanced over at the father; he was still wearing the same shoes and socks. He had filmed his own feet. On the tape now, the father’s voice again: “Lou, if I had e-mail capacity at this soccer field, I’d beam Harvey a freaking shitogram!”
Back on the screen, another violent camera spasm and a close-up of a big white belly escaping from under a gold jersey and a booming voice that Devereaux recognized as the coach’s-“Gracie, stop her!” Abruptly back to the field: Gracie was running full speed then sliding, feet first, and kicking the ball away from an opponent trying to score, an incredible play… now the blue sky, then suddenly Gracie again, kicking the ball in front of her, racing down the field past her opponents-“Go, Gracie! Score, Gracie!”-to the goal, about to score, pulling her leg back, and… now the father’s shoes again. The room audibly deflated; Agent Jorgenson had damn near kicked Devereaux trying to score the goal for Gracie. On the tape, loud cheers erupted in the background… now the setting sun… and parents standing in the bleachers… and back on the soccer game… and the tape suddenly went silent.
“Did we lose audio?” Devereaux said to Agent Stevens.
“Don’t think so,” Stevens said, checking the connection.
“Increase the volume, run the tape back.”
Stevens did as Devereaux instructed. The tape replayed the same scene of the girls huddled in the middle of the field. There was a muffled sound in the background.
The same scene again. The same sound in the background.
“What was that? Pant deck? Again.”
The sound came through clearer this time, a male voice yelling, “Panty check.”
“The hell’s a panty check?” Devereaux said to the room.
“He was taunting her.”
All heads turned to the voice behind them: the mother stood in the doorway. She looked like hell. She hadn’t changed her clothes; her hair was wild and untouched; her blouse was hanging out; her skirt was twisted; she was barefooted. She said, “He was saying she’s really a boy, because she’s so good.” The mother turned her glare on the father. “You didn’t do anything, John? You didn’t go across the field and punch that son of a bitch in the mouth? That’s what I would’ve done.”
The father: “I… I didn’t hear him.”
“Because you were working the numbers with Lou,” the mother said.
On the video, Gracie stood motionless in the middle of the field; her head was down and the other girls were gathered around her.
“You let a man say that to Grace, you let another man take her from me, because you were making goddamn sure you get your billion dollars. Grace is gone because you were on the fucking phone.”
The father’s voice on the tape: “Lou, a billion dollars upgrades this geek to manly out there in the real world.”
The mother was looking at the father, but not like she was going to smack him again; instead, with a look of profound disdain.
“A billion dollars won’t make you a man, John Brice. And it won’t bring Grace back.”
And she was gone.
The room was filled with awkward silence until the father’s voice came over the tape: “Lou, only way a geek gets respect in this world is to be a rich geek. Doesn’t matter how smart you are, without money you’re still just a freaking geek.”
The father’s head was hanging so low Devereaux thought it might just disconnect from his neck and roll down his body to the floor. The mother’s words had hurt him more than her hand had yesterday. He sighed. It was not the first time Special Agent Eugene Devereaux had witnessed a marriage destroyed by an abduction; it would not be the last. But he never passed judgment on parents of abducted children, most of whom fit the legal definition of temporary insanity by this stage of an abduction. They often blamed each other. Working through the parents’ emotions was part of the job; the FBI abduction protocol called it “family management.” But few families managed.
The grandmother went to the father and stood next to him; she put an arm around him and patted his back.
Devereaux took a deep breath to regain focus. He could not concern himself with the parents’ marriage. His only concern was the girl on the videotape. He was again staring at the screen, at jerky images of the ground, the sky, the ground, the sky, the parking lot, the parents, the spectators- What the hell was the father doing with the goddamn camera? — when he spotted something.
“Stop! Run it back!”
Stevens reversed the tape.
The picture was frozen on the people in and around the bleachers. Devereaux stepped to the screen and pointed to the image of a white male with blond hair and wearing a black cap and a plaid shirt. The view was from the rear but Devereaux knew.
“That’s our man.”
The man was mostly blocked out by a bigger man standing next to him: white male, tall, stocky, flattop, with a large dark spot on his left arm partially visible under the sleeve of his black tee shirt. A tattoo.
To the father: “You know these people?”
The father shook his head. “No.”
To Stevens on the camcorder: “Blow this frame up.” Devereaux touched the screen at the big man’s arm. “And that tattoo.”
To Agent Floyd: “Get the coach in here.”
The tape ran again: a shot of the parking lot, more deal talk from the father, more game action, Gracie hitting the ground hard-“Hey, she tripped Gracie!” Agent Jorgenson blurted out-back on the tape, the victim jumping up and running all out again, loud cheers, the camera jumping around again, the father’s feet, other feet, now a shot of another camcorder-“Yeah, Tornadoes!”-more shots of the sky, the grass, the bleachers, a pair of white soccer shoes, one with the laces untied “I didn’t tie her shoe,” the father said as if he were confessing to a crime.
— and the victim appeared close up again. Her flushed face glistened with perspiration; her hand reached up to the camera.
“Is she bleeding?” Devereaux asked.
Stevens ran the tape back.
“She is bleeding, from her elbow.”
The father’s eyes dropped down to his arm; he grabbed his sleeve and pulled it around to reveal the underside. The light blue material was stained a dark brown in several spots. He looked up at Devereaux.
“This is Gracie’s blood,” he said.
Was Grace dead?
From that moment in the park Friday night when the coach said her brother had asked for Grace-when the thought Grace was kidnapped first took shape-Elizabeth had prayed that it was about ransom- You don’t ransom a dead girl, she had heard an FBI agent say-and she had waged war with her mind. Her mind wanted desperately to force her into a dark world, to reveal to her all the possibilities, the maybes, the what ifs, to torture her with vile, horrible, gruesome images of her daughter being subjected to the sick desires of a sexual predator; but she had fought it off, beaten it back, blocked it out, refused to watch… until now.
Grace wasn’t taken for money.
Sitting on the marble floor of the steam shower, she had unconditionally surrendered to her mind’s dark side and allowed it to torture her with those images, to display them as graphically as if she were an eyewitness. And Elizabeth Brice wondered, as she had wondered once before: If for all intents and purposes you are already dead, is suicide still a mortal sin?
Steam inundated the shower. Elizabeth’s legs were curled around the drain; her tears mixed with the hot water. She was alone in her despair and wondering if she could slit her wrists with the safety razor she was holding. Once before evil had entered her life and caused her to entertain suicide, to seriously debate the various ways by which to end her life as if she were reading a menu at a restaurant. Once before she had stood on the precipice of death and peered over into the abyss, only to be saved by a child. This child. Grace had saved her life. Now, ten years later, evil had come back for Grace.
“Why did you let evil take her, too?”
She had lived only because of Grace. Without Grace, why live? She imagined her blood flowing out of her veins and swirling down into the drain until all the life had emptied from her. She put the razor to her wrist and pressed the blade into her skin and was about to slide it across her veins and spill her blood when a sudden surge of rage swelled her muscles and brain cells like a narcotic, hate and anger once again energizing her mind and body and driving her up off the marble.
Elizabeth Brice wanted to kill someone, but not herself. She wanted to kill the abductor. And she had the money to do it.
Two hundred children a year die at the hands of sexual predators in the United States. Those few cases always capture the public’s undivided attention. FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux had investigated one hundred twenty-seven such cases. Consequently, he was accustomed to the media events child abductions inevitably became.
But this case was different. Maybe it was because Gracie was a rich white blonde girl who lived in a mansion with murals on the ceiling; maybe it was because her father’s face was on the cover of Fortune magazine; or maybe it was just a slow news cycle. But this case was fast moving beyond anything he had previously experienced. There was an energy in the air, building with each passing hour without Gracie’s recovery, along with the number of people on the front lawn of the Brice mansion, where Devereaux now stood on this sunny Sunday afternoon. He was flanked by the local mayor and police chief and facing microphones clumped together on a stand, TV cameras, reporters, and beyond them, in the street, the residents of Briarwyck Farms. They had posted missing child fliers with Gracie’s image on every car, printed Gracie tee shirts, tied pink ribbons to car antennae, mailboxes, and trees, and pinned a Gracie button on every shirt and lapel.
There was a time when media briefings made Devereaux feel important, a black agent born in the Louisiana backwoods directing a major FBI case; now these briefings just made him tired. He stepped forward.
“I’m FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux. The FBI is involved in this case at the request of Chief Ryan. Unless the victim is transported across state lines, jurisdiction is solely local. But we have offered our resources to assist Chief Ryan and his investigation.”
Devereaux always maintained the pretense that the locals were in charge of the case. They were legally, but not actually. Locals like Chief Ryan understood that they didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of finding an abducted child without the FBI-and they didn’t mind sharing the failure with the Feds when the child’s body was found.
“The status of our investigation of the abduction of Gracie Ann Brice is as follows: Gracie has been missing for forty-two hours. She was taken from Briarwyck Farms Park here in Post Oak at approximately six P.M. Friday by a white male, twenty to thirty years old, six foot, two hundred pounds, blond hair, wearing a black cap and a plaid shirt. An artist’s sketch of the suspect has been distributed to the media. We are pursuing two parallel investigative tracks: the first is to find Gracie, and that is our primary consideration; the second is to identify and locate possible suspects, starting with registered sex offenders. We urge any citizen who may have seen Gracie or the suspect or who has any information to please contact our hot-line number on the missing child fliers. We need your help. Questions?”
Devereaux pointed to the first reporter.
“Agent Devereaux, do you suspect family involvement?”
“Have they taken polygraphs?”
The next reporter: “Can you confirm that Gracie’s shorts were found at the park?”
“Blue soccer shorts and a single white soccer shoe were found. We believe them to be Gracie’s.”
And the next, not waiting to be acknowledged: “Do you have any leads?”
“We’re taking calls, reviewing videotapes of the soccer games Friday night, developing a profile of the abductor-”
From the crowd: “Forty-two hours and all you’ve got is a blond man in a black cap?”
Devereaux sighed and felt tired. “Yes.”
Shouted from the back: “Was Gracie sexually assaulted?”
That was the question they always asked. Why? Why did they want to know whether a little ten-year-old girl was raped? What the hell do they think a sexual predator did with her, take her to dinner and a goddamn movie? They know damn well what he did to her, but they wanted him to say it, to provide the fear factor sound bite for the evening news teaser-fear causes more viewers to tune in. But he never played their game. Even if he knew, which he didn’t, at least it wasn’t confirmed, FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux would never tell. Not until the body was located. Until he knew for sure the child was dead.
Gracie Ann Brice deserved that much.
A mile away, Ben Brice stood in the middle of soccer field no. 2, a solitary figure in the vast, vacant park. He had come out before the FBI reopened the park for that night’s candlelight vigil to retrace Gracie’s last known movements Friday afternoon; he had to be where she had been.
He had to know.
If not for ransom, why would someone take Gracie? For sex? Ben Brice had seen the evil in man, so that was a possibility. Perhaps even a probability. But not a certainty, as the FBI seemed to have concluded. Sexual predators work alone, Agent Devereaux had said. But the blond man in a black cap hadn’t been alone; two men had been here at her game.
Ben first had to learn how Gracie had been taken. He now walked toward the low bleachers. According to John, Gracie’s game had ended and she had come to him about here. Ben stopped. The other parents had been in the bleachers and the two men just behind. John had spoken with Gracie, then she and the other girls had gone to the concession stand. John had watched them all the way to the building.
Ben walked that way.
Children abducted by strangers have a life expectancy of three hours, that TV report had said. When Gracie had walked this way Friday night, not forty-eight hours ago, had she only three hours of life left? Something inside Ben said no. Maybe it was the strange way their lives were bonded together: he knew that if Gracie were dead, he surely would be as well. Maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to accept the idea that he would never see her again.
Or maybe, just maybe, she was still alive.
When he was almost to the concession stand, Ben stopped and turned back, just as Gracie had when she had waved to John: an innocent little girl waving to her father, unaware she was walking into an ambush. Ben checked the compass on his watch to get his bearings. He was now facing due south toward the distant soccer and softball fields and the homes that bordered the park beyond the tall brick wall. To the east were tennis courts and the wall bordering that side of the park. To the west was the parking lot a good hundred meters away, too far to drag an abducted child through a crowd of people. The brick walls bordered the south and east sides of the park and the parking lot the west; none were likely escape routes for the abductor. That left only the northern route.
Through the woods.
Ben walked around to the rear of the concession stand. The backside of the building was a solid brick facade with a single service door and no windows. A small clearing separated the building from the woods. Ben got down on his hands and knees and examined the ground. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers through the blades of grass like a blind man reading Braille. And he knew.
The abductor had grabbed her right here.
But how had he gotten her back here alone? And how had he kept her quiet?
Ben stood and walked into the woods. Yesterday, he had been running and his mind had been clouded with fear and thoughts from the past, so he had not focused on his surroundings. Now he stepped slowly; his eyes searched the ground, the underbrush, and the trees for any sign of Gracie. His skills came back to him without conscious recall.
Less than ten meters into the woods, a shiny object highlighted by the sunlight through the canopy caught Ben’s eye. He squatted, moved several leaves, and picked up the object between his thumb and forefinger. He placed it in the palm of his left hand: a silver star attached to a broken silver chain. He recalled the day he had taken Gracie to the silversmith shop in Taos to have this star put on this chain. The proprietor had examined the star and said, “This here’s the real thing.” Gracie had said she would wear it always.
Ben stood, slipped the star and chain into his shirt pocket, and snapped the flap button. He continued deeper into the woods. He soon arrived at the location where her shorts and shoe had been found; yellow crime-scene tape was wrapped around the trees guarding the little clearing.
The abductor had grabbed Gracie behind the concession stand and taken her through the woods to this position. He had stopped here to… Ben fought back his emotions and focused. The abductor had left her shorts and shoe here and had… what? Taken her to his vehicle?
Ben walked through the woods to the nearby road, climbed the low embankment, and stood on the rock shoulder. The road was old, and the asphalt surface was potholed; there were only two narrow lanes, barely wide enough for two cars to pass. It was not a major traffic route.
Did the abductor leave his vehicle here while he went to Gracie’s game? Or did the other man on the tape drive the vehicle to this position while the abductor grabbed Gracie and carried her through the woods? Were they working together?
Ben started to climb down, but he stopped; the shoulder was standing room only, too narrow to park a vehicle without blocking the road. He knelt and examined the shoulder where a car might have pulled over and waited for the abductor to arrive with Gracie. He noticed a rock that glistened. He touched his finger to the shiny rock; it was wet. He put his finger to his nose and sniffed.
Little Johnny Brice can taste his own blood that is flowing from his nose and mouth. He is curled up in a fetal position on the ground; his arms are wrapped around his head; he is crying. This is the worst beating yet, and it isn’t over. Luther Ray is sitting astride him, hitting and taunting, taunting and hitting; his fists feel like iron hammers each time they impact John’s body. Little Johnny Brice is praying to God to let him die so the pain will stop.
John opened his eyes. The carpet beneath his face was wet. He was curled up in a fetal position on the floor of his walk-in closet. He had given his shirt to the FBI then come upstairs to clean up. He had showered and come into his closet to dress. But the images of Gracie and the abductor had returned, and he had started crying again. He could not stop thinking of her pain.
Please, God, let her pain stop.
Kate found John sitting alone in his closet, just as she had found him sitting alone in his room so many times as a boy. Back then, he’d been hurt by the bullies; today, he’d been hurt by his wife. It had been bad back then; it was worse today.
She sat down on the floor next to him. She put her arm around him, and he laid his head in her lap, just as he had so many times. She stroked his hair as she had back then, and she said the same words.
“John, try to have faith. You’ve got to trust that there’s a reason for this, that there’s a reason for everything that happens to us in life, even the bad things. God has-”
John’s head lifted, and he sat up abruptly.
“No, Mom, you’re wrong! You were wrong back then and you’re wrong now! There was no reason for my getting beat up by those bullies, and there’s no reason for Gracie getting kidnapped by some sick pervert. There’s no reason, no plan, no purpose, no grand scheme to all this-it wasn’t meant to be! It’s just random acts of violence. Mean people doing bad things. You go to Mass and you believe all that shit Father Randy says-and that’s all it is, Mom. Shit!”
John stood and walked out. Kate Brice covered her face and cried because she could not help her son now, just as she could not help him back then.
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux was back in the command post examining the blow-ups of the two men from the videotape and the big man’s tattoo. The large room was quiet-which was exactly wrong. Forty-three hours after an abduction, the phones should be ringing off the hook with hot tips. But the phones were silent.
Where the hell were the calls?
Devereaux removed his reading glasses, closed his eyes, and rubbed his face. When he opened his eyes, Agent Jorgenson was walking his way. She had a muscular build and short brown hair. She was wearing a blue nylon FBI jacket, jeans, and sneakers and carrying brown folders under her arm. He liked Jorgenson. She reminded him of his daughter; she had the same athletic bounce in her step and the same intellectual curiosity. She wanted to learn. She was still in her one-year probationary appointment, but she had already grasped an understanding of the job; it wasn’t about the glory of solving a high-profile case or the ego of apprehending a Most Wanted or Washington’s public relations obsession. It was about the victim. The job was always and only about the victim.
“Why’s it so dead?” Agent Jorgenson said when she arrived; she plopped down in a chair. “Is this normal?”
“It’s like she just disappeared.”
“A ten-year-old girl doesn’t just disappear.”
“What are her chances-that she’s still alive?”
“Not good. Statistically, no chance at all.”
“Just do your job, Agent Jorgenson. Focus on the evidence.”
She nodded. “Yes, sir. You’re good in front of cameras.”
“Too much experience. So, Jorgenson, what do they grow up there in
… where in Minnesota are you from?”
“Owatonna. Corn mostly. For the ethanol.”
“My grandfather was a farmer. Cotton. Used to help him pick it when I was a kid. It was an uncomplicated life.”
“I wanted excitement.”
“Well, Agent, you’ve found it.” He pointed at her brown folders. “What do you have for me?”
“We took blood samples from the family to compare to the blood on the father’s shirt. DNA tests are underway.”
“Good. What else?”
“Background reports on the family.”
Devereaux did not expect the family backgrounds to reveal anything of importance, but he had learned the hard way to never overlook the routine aspects of the investigation.
“Alrighty,” she said, opening the first brown folder. “The father, he’s some kind of genius-Ph. D. from MIT in algorithms, whatever that is, one-ninety IQ… I didn’t know they went that high.”
“They don’t,” Devereaux said. “At least not in the Bureau.”
She gave him a little smile then continued. “He founded BriceWare, going public this week, you know all that. He and the mother married ten years ago. He was at MIT, she was at Justice in D.C., Assistant U.S. Attorney. Five years.”
“Yes, sir. Maiden name was Austin. Grew up in New York. Her father was murdered when she was only ten.”
“Same age as Gracie.”
“First in her class at Harvard Law, a rising star at Justice. Then she up and quit, married Brice, moved to Dallas.”
“No accounting for love.”
“They’re an odd couple, aren’t they? And the way she slapped him yesterday, and cut him down this morning…” Jorgenson shook her head. “And how she talks to the local cops, and to us, so angry and ordering everyone around like we all work for her.”
“Her child’s been abducted, Agent. Cut her some slack.”
“You were very, uh, diplomatic with her.”
He nodded. “Two rules, Agent Jorgenson, to keep in mind in abductions. Rule number one: this isn’t actually our case. We’ve got no jurisdiction, not legally anyway. The locals generally defer to us, but technically we’re invited guests. So act like a guest. Rule number two: odds are the child’s already dead by the time we arrive on scene, so if the mother wants to cuss you out, tell you you’re the dumbest cop on the face of the earth, you say, ‘Thank you, ma’am.’ You respect the fact that she’s lost her child… and that she’s probably halfway to nuts by the time you meet her. You give the parents free rein with their emotions. They need it more than you need to prove you’re a tough FBI agent in control of the case. Getting into a pissing contest with the parents won’t put you one step closer to finding the victim or apprehending the abductor. And that’s your job, Agent Jorgenson. Don’t let your ego get in the way of doing your job.”
“Yes, sir.” She frowned. “But you’re still going to make her take a polygraph?”
“Absolutely. If FBI resources are committed to a case, we do it by the book- and the book says to polygraph the parents. But I ask. I don’t order. Works just as well.” He gestured at Jorgenson’s file. “Find out who she worked for at Justice. I know some people over there.”
“I did. Her immediate supervisor was named James Kelly.”
“You knew him?”
“Yeah, we came up through the Academy together. He went to law school at night then moved over to Justice. He was out in L.A. last I heard… What do you mean, knew him?”
“He’s dead. Hit and run, three years ago.”
“Damn. He was a good guy.” Devereaux sighed. “The good die young. What else you got?”
Jorgenson opened another brown folder. “The grandfather, he’s a retired Army colonel-West Point, Vietnam. Apparently he was some kind of war hero.”
“No kidding?” Devereaux waited for her to continue. She didn’t. “And…?”
She shrugged. “And nothing, sir. He’s classified.”
Devereaux put on his reading glasses and motioned for the folder. She held it out to him; he took it and flipped open the brown folder labeled BRICE, BEN, and scanned the text.
“Full colonel. Green Beret. Seven tours in Vietnam. Six Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts, two Soldier’s Medals, Distinguished Service Cross, Legion of Merit, the Medal of Honor. Yeah, I’d say he was some kind of hero.”
“Why’s he classified?”
“Green Beret, he was probably in Cambodia and Laos when Johnson and Nixon were swearing on TV we weren’t there.”
“The presidents lied about the war?”
He chuckled. “How old are you, Jorgenson?”
He shook his head. “I can’t even remember twenty-six. Yeah, Jorgenson, presidents lied about the war, the generals, too. I was ROTC, signed up for the tuition plan. Got a hell of an education in Nam. I went over there just hoping to survive my tour. Guys like Brice, they went over there to free the oppressed, just like the Green Beret motto says. They believed it. All they got for their efforts was spit on when they came home.” Devereaux removed his reading glasses and scratched his chin with the earpiece. “Ben Brice… that name sticks in my head for some reason. Get what you can from the Army and run a database search on all public records on him.”
“You think there might be some connection with Gracie’s abduction?”
“You never know what’s connected.” Jorgenson stood to leave. “I want you at the vigil tonight. Our boy might show.”
“Yes, sir. Oh, the coach is here to look at the blow-ups.”
“Bring him in, don’t call me sir, and have someone find Colonel Brice.”
He carries Gracie through the woods to this location. He’s in a hurry, worried someone will discover she’s missing and come looking, or perhaps has and is. His accomplice is waiting twenty meters away in a vehicle leaking oil. But he stops, removes her clothes, and rapes her right here? With so many people in the park, possibly searchers already in the woods? With Gracie kicking and screaming and putting up one hell of a fight? She’s a strong girl and afraid of no one-the only way she wouldn’t have fought is if she were unconscious or dead. Did he rape an unconscious or dead victim? Did he kill her here?
Gracie Ann Brice did not die here. Ben Brice had been in the killing fields, knee deep in death; death would forever be a part of him-he had seen death, he had heard death, he could touch, taste, smell, and feel death. But not here.
Gracie had left here alive.
But why did the abductor leave her shorts behind? Ben closed his eyes and remembered working in the shop with her. She had been carving her name into her rocking chair when she paused and said, “Ben, why do you always know when I’m in trouble, when I need you?”
“I don’t know, doll. There’s something in our lives that binds us together. I don’t know what and I don’t know why, but there is a reason.”
God had bonded them together. Ben Brice knew that as well as he knew how to build a rocking chair or kill a man. And he knew that if she came to him, their bond was unbroken. And she was still alive.
Gracie, show me the way. I will come for you.
Ben opened his eyes. He was sitting cross-legged inside the crime-scene tape where Gracie’s shorts and shoe had been found. A young FBI agent was jogging through the woods toward him. He arrived out of breath and said, “Colonel Brice, Agent Devereaux needs you back at the command post!”
Jan Jorgenson had been born five years after the Vietnam War ended. Twenty-four years later, she had graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.S. in Education-the only degree her parents would pay for-and a Masters in Criminal Psychology. She had told her parents that school boards across the country considered crim psych the most relevant degree for a teaching career in America’s public schools. They had bought it. Immediately upon graduation, she had applied with the Bureau. Her parents wanted her to be a teacher; she wanted to be Clarice Starling.
So Jan Jorgenson had left the family farm outside Owatonna, Minnesota, driven to Quantico, Virginia, and entered the FBI Academy. She wanted to be a profiler, interviewing and compiling detailed psychological traits of imprisoned serial killers, psychopaths, and sexual predators, and constructing scientific profiles of suspects in pending investigations. But upon graduation from the Academy, she had been assigned to the Dallas field office, where for the last eleven months she had tracked down and interviewed young Arab men who fit the Islamic terrorist profile.
In fact, this was as close as she had ever come to anyone in the Behavioral Analysis Unit, sitting next to the parents and across the Brice kitchen table from two real live FBI profilers, Agents Baxter and Brumley. They looked like partners in an accounting firm.
“Strangers abduct children for sex.”
Agent Brumley had thus opened this meeting with the family. He could have worked up to that, Jan thought. The mother obviously thought the same; her eyes were now drilling holes in Brumley’s bald head. Oblivious, he forged ahead.
“This perpetrator has a long history of sex offenses, I guarantee it.”
The victim’s father looked like he was going to throw up; he abruptly stood and almost ran out of the kitchen just as Colonel Brice walked in and leaned against the wall.
“We’ve constructed a profile,” Agent Baxter said, “a personality print, if you will, like a fingerprint.” He passed out copies to everyone at the table and then read from his copy. “We believe that the timing of the abduction was relevant to a significant stressor in the perpetrator’s life, perhaps the loss of his job or some other personal rejection. And that the abductor is a loner, over thirty and single, immature for his age, has no friends, is unable to maintain a relationship with a female his own age, probably employed in a job involving children, lacks social skills, abuses alcohol or drugs, reacts violently when angered, handles stress poorly, is selfish, paranoid, and impulsive, possesses an inflated self-esteem that cannot handle rejection, and harbors antisocial tendencies.” He looked up. “We’ll release this profile to the media. Hopefully, a citizen can identify someone they know with these traits.”
The mother abruptly stood. “Oh, my God,” she said. “I can.” She held up her copy. “Immaturity, no social skills, selfishness, paranoia, inflated self-esteem, can’t handle rejection-I can identify every one of those traits to someone I know.”
Agent Baxter was almost out of his chair with excitement.
“Who’s that, Mrs. Brice?”
“Every partner in my law firm.”
Agent Baxter exhaled and sat back down, realizing he’d been had. The mother tossed her copy of the profile on the table.
“Look, Agent Baxter,” she said, “cut the psychobabble bullshit. The guy’s a pervert who likes to fuck little girls!”
The mother stormed out of the room. Agent Baxter was visibly taken aback. After an awkwardly long silent moment, Colonel Brice spoke in a quiet voice.
“He wasn’t alone. There were two men, probably the two men on the videotape.”
“Mr. Brice,” Agent Brumley said, “sexual predators work alone, that’s proven. They’re what we call ‘loner deviants.’ ”
“I was at the park,” the colonel said, “retracing Gracie’s steps. He grabbed her behind the concession stand and took her through the woods to an accomplice waiting for him in a vehicle leaking oil. He didn’t work alone.”
“Then why did he leave her shorts in the woods?” Agent Baxter asked.
“Because he wanted them found.”
Agent Baxter frowned. “ Why? ”
“So you’d do just what you’re doing-hunting for a sexual predator.”
“Are you okay, Mrs. Brice?”
Elizabeth was sitting in her formal living room-now the FBI’s command post-and staring across the table at Agent Devereaux.
“No, I’m not okay. My daughter’s been abducted.”
“Mrs. Brice, I can still get a psychologist in here.”
She had gained control of her emotions again. Her mind was alert and angry again. She had a plan. And it required a banker, not a psychologist.
“Let me know if you change your mind. Now, Mrs. Brice, what kind of kid is Gracie? See, with these guys, it’s all about control. They like to intimidate their victims, make the victim feel helpless and cornered so they feel powerful. What would Gracie do if she was cornered?”
“Good. That’s the key to her survival.”
“She will survive.”
Agent Devereaux nodded. “Yes, ma’am. So, Mrs. Brice, you used to work our side of the street?”
A little smile. “What made you go over to the dark side?”
She paused. “Life took me there.”
The agent frowned, then he said, “Well, then you understand why I need polygraphs.”
“You said it wasn’t random, that she was targeted. Now you think one of us did it?”
“No, ma’am. All I’m saying is, the Bureau is committing extensive resources to finding your daughter and the man who took her. But we’ve been burned before- you remember the Susan Smith case, said she was carjacked, her kids abducted? Turned out she drowned them herself. We must eliminate any family involvement.”
Elizabeth glared at Agent Devereaux, the rage making a move to escape the darkness. “I just left your two brilliant profilers in my kitchen. I listened to them telling me that a predator abducted my little girl for sex.” She slammed her fist down on the table. “Goddamnit! And now you’re telling me you want polygraphs of me and my husband?”
Agent Devereaux nodded. “Yes, ma’am. And Colonel Brice and his wife, and the household staff. Mrs. Brice, I know it’s an intrusion, but from our standpoint, it’s always a possibility. Fact is, only a couple hundred children each year are abducted by strangers. The rest are family related.”
He reached across the table and took her clenched fists in his hands. She refused to allow the tears to come.
“Look, Mrs. Brice, this isn’t a family abduction, I know that. But Washington doesn’t. And I just got off the phone with my superiors, requesting authorization for additional staffing-ten more agents to help find Gracie. So this ends well. Do this, Mrs. Brice, so the Bureau will give me more people to find your daughter. Do it for Gracie.”
“I’ll do it.”
The voice came from behind them. Elizabeth pulled her hands free of Agent Devereaux’s and turned. Her father-in-law was standing in the door. She started to object just because Ben Brice was a drunk and she hated him. But something in his eyes made her hold her tongue. She turned back to Agent Devereaux.
“I want it done here. I don’t want us on TV being marched into the police station.”
Agent Devereaux said, “We’re setting up in the library.”
Ben entered the library to a young FBI agent holding his hand out to him. “Mr. Brice, I'm Agent Randall.”
Randall was thirty, glasses, an accountant trying hard to be sociable. He was holding a rubber tube.
“If you’ll remove your shirt, Mr. Brice, I’ll strap the pneumograph tube around your chest.” Agent Randall moved around behind Ben, continuing his friendly chatter. “Nothing to be nervous about. A polygraph machine measures your breathing rate, your blood pressure-”
Ben unsnapped the cuffs of his shirt and then the front snaps.
– “your pulse rate, and your skin’s reflex to an electrical flow. See, the idea is, when someone’s lying they-”
Ben slipped the shirt off his back.
“ Jesus! ”
Ben felt Agent Randall’s eyes on his back; his chatter had been cut short. After a moment, Randall reached around Ben from behind to connect the tube; his hands were trembling.
“Is that, uh, is that too tight, Mr. Brice? It doesn’t hurt this… these… your back?”
Agent Randall returned to Ben’s view. “Okay, where was I? Oh, you can sit down, Mr. Brice.”
Ben sat in a leather chair next to the polygraph; it looked like a laptop computer. The leather was cool on his bare back. Agent Randall stepped in front of him.
“This is an electrode,” Agent Randall said.
He took Ben’s hand and slipped a small sleeve onto the tip of his right index finger.
“And this is just an ordinary blood-pressure cuff, like at the doctor’s.”
The agent wrapped the cuff around Ben’s upper right arm and stepped back.
“Okay, I, uh, I guess we’re ready.” Agent Randall sat in a chair behind the machine and to Ben’s right. “Mr. Brice, I’m going to ask you several basic questions, just to get you comfortable so I can establish a baseline. Please breathe steadily, remain calm, and don’t take deep breaths. And answer each question truthfully with a yes or no. Okay?”
Agent Randall’s first question: “Is your real name Ben Brice?”
“Are you Gracie Ann Brice’s grandfather?”
“Have you ever taken a polygraph exam, commonly known as a lie-detector test?”
That was a lie.
Ben closed his eyes and recalled his first lie-detector test: he is naked, his arms and ankles are strapped to a wood chair, and his eyes are tracking two wires taped to his testicles and running along the concrete floor to a battery-powered field telephone with a hand crank manned by a grinning sadist. The small room reeks with the smell of urine and feces.
The North Vietnamese Army officer administering the test is determined to discover whether Brice, Ben, colonel, 32475011, 5 April 46, is lying about American troop presence in North Vietnam; certainly an American officer of his rank was not operating alone this close to Hanoi. He thought the American colonel would have succumbed to the beatings with the fan belts. Big Ug, as the Yanks called Captain Lu, is an artist with a fan belt; he carved up the colonel’s broad back like a woodcarver cutting designs into a block of wood. But, to his great surprise, the colonel revealed only his name, rank, serial number, and date of birth.
However, this test has proved particularly effective at convincing the reluctant Americans to reveal their secrets; the prisoners call it the Bell Telephone Hour. They enjoy their gallows humor, these Yanks. Fortunately, prior to his untimely demise, Uncle Ho had advised his officers that the Geneva Convention did not apply to the American prisoners; since there is no declared war between the United States of America and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, there are no American prisoners of war, Ho Chi Minh had said. Only American war criminals. Who will never forget their stay at the San Bie prison camp, if Major Pham Hong Duc has anything to say about it.
He nods at Lieutenant Binh, who cackles as he turns the crank, sending an electrical charge racing through the wires and into the colonel’s genitals. The American’s body snaps taut as the charge surges through him. That’s odd, the major thought. Most of the Americans scream like banshees and lose control of their bladder and bowels when the charge hits them-hence the hole in the chair and the bucket beneath-but the colonel only grits his teeth and takes the pain, his arms and legs straining mightily against the leather bindings “Mr. Brice! Mr. Brice! Are you okay?”
Ben’s eyes snapped open. His teeth were clenched, he was sweating and breathing hard, and his fingers were digging into the leather arms of the chair. Agent Randall was standing over him.
“Your respiration’s off the chart!”
“They’re clean,” Agent Randall said.
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux was chewing on the earpiece of his reading glasses. He and Agent Randall were standing in the command post next to Devereaux’s desk.
“Didn’t figure this to be family related. But headquarters said to follow the protocol.”
“The grandfather,” Randall said, “his back looks like someone carved him up with a steak knife.”
“He was an Army colonel. Must’ve been a POW.”
“They tortured American prisoners?”
Devereaux chuckled. “They still teach history in college?”
Randall was looking at him like a kid who didn’t know what he had done wrong.
“Yeah, the NVA tortured our guys, and none of that Guantanamo Bay kind of torture, making them listen to Barry Manilow twenty-four/seven. NVA beat our guys, electrocuted them, broke their arms and legs…”
Randall was now looking past Devereaux to the door. “Here he is,” he said, and he walked off.
Devereaux turned. The lean blond man walking toward him was maybe six feet and one-eighty, but he now seemed bigger in Devereaux’s eyes.
A momentary pause. “You’ve done some homework.”
“Part of the job, sir.”
The colonel nodded. “No need to address me as colonel. Or sir.”
“You earned it, sir. I was a lieutenant, ROTC, Texas A amp;M. Course, drilling on a practice field didn’t exactly prepare me for Vietnam.”
“Neither did West Point.”
They both smiled, sharing a thought private to combat soldiers who had lived to try to forget it. Devereaux put on his reading glasses, reached across the desk, and picked up the blow-ups.
“The coach couldn’t ID the men from these blow-ups,” Devereaux said. “And this tattoo… I’ve never seen anything like it in the military, thought maybe you might’ve. Top half is covered by his shirtsleeve, but what’s showing looks like Airborne wings, except for the skull and crossbones.” He held the blow-up of the tattoo out to Colonel Brice. “I’m running it through the Bureau’s gang database. Could be a biker tattoo. Says ‘viper.’ ”
The colonel abruptly snatched the blow-up from Devereaux’s hand then stared at the image as if it were the face of Satan. The blood drained from his face. He dropped down hard in a chair. His hand released the blow-up; it floated to the floor. He leaned over and covered his face with his hands.
“Colonel, you okay?” Devereaux retrieved the blow-up. “You seen this tattoo before?”
Colonel Brice ran his fingers through his blond hair, then he slowly sat up. He inhaled and exhaled like a doctor was checking his heart. He spoke without looking at Devereaux.
“It’s not a biker tattoo.”
“How do you know?”
The colonel’s jaw muscles clenched and unclenched several times. He unsnapped the cuff of his left sleeve and began rolling it up his arm. He was wearing a black military style watch. His forearm was tanned with sun-bleached blond hair; his upper arm was pale where the sun had not done its damage. The distinctive feature of his upper arm, however, was the Airborne eagle wings etched in black ink in his white skin; but in the center of the wings where the open parachute was supposed to be, signifying a soldier’s survival of jump school, was a skull and crossbones instead. Arched above the wings were words in an Asian script, and below that, in English, SOG-CCN; and below the wings, in quotes, VIPER. Devereaux leaned down and held the blow-up against the colonel’s arm; the portion of the tattoo visible in the blow-up matched up precisely with the bottom portion of the colonel’s tattoo.
Devereaux rose, removed his reading glasses, and waited for the colonel to speak. He didn’t press him; he couldn’t. This man was a real goddamn American hero. When Colonel Brice finally spoke, his eyes remained on his boots.
“SOG team Viper conducted those covert operations presidents lied about. SOG was Studies and Observation Group, CCN was Command and Control North. We conducted cross-border operations in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. Our mission was to disrupt shipments on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, assassinate NVA officers, recon for air strikes… none of which officially happened. We operated off the books.”
Devereaux pointed to the Asian script on the colonel’s arm.
“These other words, they’re Vietnamese?”
The colonel nodded.
“What do they say?”
The colonel hesitated a moment, then he said, “ ‘We kill for peace.’ The unofficial Green Beret motto.” He now turned his eyes up to Devereaux. “Damn hard thing to get rid of, a tattoo.”
Devereaux handed the blow-up of the big man to the colonel.
“This is the man with that tattoo. Do you recognize him? Be kind of hard to forget that scar.”
The colonel stared at the photo of the big man; Devereaux thought he saw a hint of recognition cross the colonel’s face. But Colonel Brice finally shook his head slowly and said, “No.”
“How many men got this tattoo?” Devereaux asked.
“Viper was a twelve-man heavy recon team, operated for four years before I joined up. Casualties were high. Maybe twenty-five men got that tattoo, maybe more. I only knew the eleven men I served with.”
“So we’ll pull SOG records-”
“You’ll never get those records, if they even exist.” The colonel stood and rolled his sleeve down. “Agent Devereaux, my wife knows what I did over there, but my son doesn’t. I’d like to keep it that way.”
“I understand, sir.”
Devereaux thought, Only a Vietnam war hero would feel obliged to keep his heroism from his own son.
“He’s seen the tattoo,” the colonel said, “but he doesn’t know what it means. And he knows nothing about Viper team.”
“What about Mrs. Brice?”
“Elizabeth? No. She knows I served in Vietnam, nothing more. She wouldn’t understand. Anyone who wasn’t there, they just can’t understand.”
“Amen to that.”
The colonel snapped the buttons on the cuff of his sleeve and said, “Agent Devereaux, I’d consider it a personal favor if you didn’t mention that man’s tattoo in front of my family.”
Devereaux studied the colonel a moment and said, “All right, Colonel, we’ll keep it between us for now. Just as well, I don’t want to go public with the tattoo anyway, in case I can get the names of those Green Berets.”
The colonel stared at Devereaux but it was as if he were looking straight through him. Eugene Devereaux had been Army infantry in Vietnam. A grunt. Green Berets were the Army’s elite, trained in the art of killing. Ben Brice did not have the look of a trained killer. He was not a physically intimidating man, as were the Green Berets Devereaux had seen in the Army. Nor was he the macho commando stereotype. In fact, he seemed almost too gentle a man to have done what Green Berets did in Southeast Asia four decades ago. But there was something in his eyes that told Devereaux otherwise.
His blue eyes betrayed him like a cheating wife.
Gracie was in pain, scared and crying and praying to be saved. And her father wasn’t doing a damn thing to save her. He didn’t know how.
Instead, Little Johnny Brice was staring at a life-sized image of his daughter’s soccer photo attached to the side of the concession stand under a banner with WE LOVE YOU, GRACIE painted in big letters; stacked below were pink ribbons, cards, fancy balloons, and hundreds of flower arrangements and teddy bears. The concession stand was now a memorial to his daughter.
Gracie was gone because her father wasn’t much of a man.
John had not wanted to attend this vigil, but the FBI said it was important to appeal to the abductor’s sympathy-if he saw on television the pain he was causing her family, he might let her go. But John could think only of Gracie’s pain.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. John turned and looked into the eyes of his father, this man he had called colonel and now Ben but never father or dad, who once was a hero with a family but who now was a drunk with a dog. His mother had told him that his father was a good man destroyed by a bad war; that terrible things had happened to him in Vietnam; that the war had ended but Ben Brice had never found his peace.
John Brice had never allowed himself the slightest sympathy for his father.
“Come on, son,” Ben said, gently pulling John away from the makeshift memorial.
His son’s eyes remained locked on Gracie’s image. He said in a whisper, “I didn’t tie her shoe.”
Ben turned John away, and they walked past the local mayor giving a TV interview-“A safe place, a wonderful place to build your dream home and raise your children”-and around to the front of the building where a young priest was leading the crowd in prayer. Ben and John stood among hundreds of parents and children wearing Gracie buttons and tee shirts with Gracie’s picture on the back and holding candles flickering in the night. Mingling with them were FBI agents; several were inconspicuously videotaping the candlelight vigil with palm-sized camcorders. Agent Devereaux said it was not out of the question that the abductor might show.
“Mr. Brice.” A young blond man and a pregnant woman had come up to John, who turned and looked at them but did not seem to see them. “Mr. Brice,” the young man began again, “I just want to say how sorry I am. We’re having a baby and… I mean…” He glanced at Ben; he was at a loss for words.
“Thanks for your thoughts,” Ben said to the young man.
The couple left. Up front, a young girl stood and sang:
“A-ma-zing Grace, how sweet the sound…”
And the crowd joined in:
“That saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I’m found, I was blind, but now I see…”
The overhead park lights dimmed slowly until the only light came from the flickering flames of hundreds of candles held high as the people sang.
The stars in the dark Vietnam night seem to flicker in fright, as if flinching at the sound of high-powered weapons firing on full auto and bringing death to this village. But not to this girl. He is determined to save her.
Lieutenant Ben Brice is now carrying the china doll like a football, dodging livestock and running through the burning hamlet toward the jungle where he can hide her. He glances back and trips over a dead pig, sending himself and the china doll sprawling into the dirt. The china doll scrambles up first. Before he can get to his feet, her head explodes like a ripe watermelon; her brains and blood splatter the twenty-two-year-old second lieutenant’s face and fatigues. He looks up to see the major standing there, smoke from the barrel of his. 45-caliber sidearm hanging in the humid air, clouding the Viper tattoo on his bare left arm.
“She was just a girl!” he screams at his SOG team leader.
“She was just a gook,” the major responds calmly, wiping the girl’s blood from his weapon. “They’re all just gooks, Lieutenant. And your job is to kill gooks.”
SOG rules are few but absolute: never leave a live team member behind; never let yourself be captured by the enemy; and never question the team leader in the field. The major turns his back on the naive and idealistic young lieutenant, who violates a SOG rule on his first mission.
“You violated the law of war! And the rules of engagement!”
The major stops, pivots, and two steps later he is towering over the lieutenant, glaring down at him, his blue eyes burning with anger.
“Out here in the bush, I’m the law! I make the rules! And I say we kill VC! We kill livestock that feeds VC! We burn huts that shelter VC! We kill civilians that aid VC! Those are my rules of engagement, Lieutenant!”
The major blows out a breath and calms. He squats in front of his newest disciple, the anger subsided now, and for a moment Ben thinks the major is going to console him, perhaps offer a personal word of encouragement to a young Army soldier unversed in fighting a war in a moral vacuum; instead the major puts the barrel of his. 45 to Ben’s head and says in a steady voice: “Soldier, you ever question what I do out here again, I’ll put a bullet through your head and let the VC make soup out of you, too. I guarangoddamntee it.”
The major stands and walks away through smoke and fire and blowing ashes. Ben raises his hand to wipe the blood from his face and sees that his hand is trembling.
Ben felt proud when he had learned the major had selected him to fill a vacancy on SOG team Viper. The major was thirty-seven and a living legend in the Special Forces. Ben Brice was twenty-two and naive. “You’re a goddamn warrior now, Brice,” the major said after Ben got his Viper tattoo in Saigon. “One of us.” And he was proud when they ambushed that NVA convoy heading south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, bearing supplies that would aid the enemy and arms that would kill Americans.
Today, he is not proud.
Lieutenant Ben Brice slowly stands and looks down upon the china doll, her arms and legs splayed grotesquely, her vacant eyes staring back at him, the final moment of her life frozen on her face-a face that will haunt him the rest of his nights. He turns and walks away, leaving the china doll and his soul to rot in the rich black soil of the Quang Tri province of South Vietnam.
God has a plan for Ben Brice, or so his mother had always said and so he had always believed, right up until that dark night in Vietnam. Each evening now, thirty-eight years after the fact, Ben would sit in his rocking chair on the porch of the small cabin he had built with his own hands, watch the sun set over Taos, and wonder what God’s plan had been and why it had gone so wrong. Now, staring at the stars above his son’s mansion outside Dallas, the vague outline of an answer was taking shape in his mind.
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux gave a little salute to the uniformed guard wearing a Gracie button as the gates parted in front of his sedan. Briarwyck Farms was the American Dream, an upscale community entered through black iron gates, surrounded by a ten-foot-tall brick wall, and guarded 24/7 by a private security force, a place where all the homes cost at least $1 million, all the parents were successful, and all the children were safe.
But these walls and gates hadn’t kept Gracie safe.
It was Monday morning-sixty hours post-abduction-and Devereaux was stumped. He had a command post equipped with phones, faxes, and computers running RapidStart, the FBI’s sophisticated information management system capable of filing, indexing, comparing, and tracking thousands of leads simultaneously-he just didn’t have any leads.
The girl had vanished.
Devereaux stopped at an intersection in front of the elementary school. A crossing guard holding up a stop sign escorted several children across the street; over her long-sleeve shirt the guard was wearing a white tee shirt with Gracie’s image on the back under HAVE YOU SEEN ME? Below her image was CALL 1-800-THE LOST.
The guard waved him on. He drove down the next block and turned right. The uniformed officers stationed at the end of Magnolia Lane recognized Devereaux’s car and were already removing the wooden barricades blocking the street as he turned. When he did, he saw that the media circus had gone national. The networks had arrived.
“Shit. She’s gonna do it.”
“Mrs. Brice, please don’t do this. It’ll bring out every kook in the country. It won’t help. It’s a waiting game.”
“I’m through waiting.”
Elizabeth left Agent Devereaux standing in the kitchen, obviously frustrated with a victim’s mother who refused to play her designated role. Well, too damn bad. The victim had been missing for sixty-one hours now and this mother was through waiting-for a ransom call to come, for the abductor to be arrested, for a dog to track down her daughter’s dead body, for God to save her. This mother wanted her daughter alive or the abductor dead. Or both. So this mother was taking matters into her own hands.
She was dressed for court; her hair was done and her makeup concealed the bags under her eyes. She would not be the pitiful grieving mother today, looking like hell, voice quivering, tears running down her face and makeup giving chase, begging a pervert on national TV to spare her child’s life. Today she would be a tough-broad lawyer negotiating a deal, just like any other day and any other deal: you have something I want; I have something you want. Let’s make a deal, asshole.
She proceeded down the gallery; the familiar adrenaline rush energized her to the coming performance, the same as when she stepped into the courtroom for the start of a trial. All heads turned her way when she entered the library, which now resembled a television studio. The three networks were represented with cameras and behind-the-scenes personnel; the national morning show hosts in New York would conduct the interviews; and the interviews would run live. Those were Elizabeth’s terms.
“Five minutes, Mrs. Brice!” a little twerp wearing a headset shouted while holding up five fingers just in case she was deaf.
She sat next to John in a straight chair positioned in front of the bookshelves, a backdrop that gave the impression more of a law office than a home. Elizabeth had planned this event down to the last detail, the same as if she were about to bargain with a prosecutor for her client’s freedom; instead, she was about to bargain with a pervert for her daughter’s life. And only she would do the bargaining. She had given her husband the same explicit instructions she gave her guilty clients before a plea-bargain negotiation: Keep your fucking mouth shut!
John was dressed in black penny loafers, white socks, jeans, a yellow shirt, and a goofy blue tie with cartoon characters, his most solemn tie; at least he had tried to do something with his hair. He was staring off into space. She leaned into him and said, “Lose the tie.” While he obediently removed the tie, she plucked the tiny wads of toilet paper stuck to his face where he had cut himself shaving-and she saw the evidence of her attack two days ago. Remorse again tried to sneak into her thoughts; it got a foot in the door this time.
Elizabeth sighed. She always hated herself afterward-after the rage had romped. After she had lashed out at John. He didn’t deserve it. But then, he never deserved it. She had cursed him too many times, but she had never hit him. This time the rage had crossed the line… and it scared her. She stared at her husband and wondered if he hated her half as much as she hated herself.
Playing on the color monitor in John’s mind was his image of the abductor-coarse, thick, hairy, dirty, mean, and ugly-a man who, coincidentally, looked just like the Army bullies who had terrorized him as a boy.
He thought of the bullies again, Luther Ray in particular, wondering where his redneck life had led to-no doubt a double-wide mobile home in rural Alabama. John had always pictured Luther Ray sitting in his recliner under a Confederate flag on the wall and looking forward to a big day during which he would drive his piece-of-shit pickup into town to collect unemployment (having been laid off from the local chicken processing plant) and on the way back home he would engage in some curb shopping (checking out rich people’s trash for stuff that might fit the double-wide’s decor). Luther Ray would be hung over from the previous night’s meeting of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter when he opened his morning paper and read that John Brice was a billionaire.
“Got-damn, is that our Little Johnny Brice?” Luther Ray would say to the wife over at the stove fixing grits for breakfast. “That wimp’s a fuckin’ billionaire?” Then he’d laugh and say, “Shit, we used to kick his scrawny little ass just for fun.”
And then his wife (fat and missing a front tooth) would fart and say something like, “Well, Luther Ray, maybe you should’ve been nicer to Little Johnny and he’d’ve give you a good job and me and the kids wouldn’t be livin’ in this goddamn trailer park.” And from then on, every time they fought about money or his drinking (which is to say, every day), his wife would spew forth that flamage like green vomit from the Exorcist girl, reminding Luther Ray for the rest of his cretinous life that Little Johnny Brice had a billion dollars and he had a double-wide.
John had played out varying versions of that scenario at least once a day for the last nineteen years, conjuring it up on his first drive to MIT, when he had set a goal of being a billionaire by age forty, and improving on it each time. He had added the wife a few years back.
And that was why he had been so brain-damaged about becoming a billionaire. With the stock market and real-estate boom, everyone and their mother was a millionaire. But becoming a billionaire in one day like the Google guys-that would still make every newspaper in the country, even in rural Alabama.
But now Luther Ray would be watching him on TV, hearing how his daughter had been kidnapped in a public park with him right there, and he’d say, “No pervert would’ve snatched our Ellie May with me around and live to tell about it, that’s for goddamn sure. Little Johnny Brice got money, but he ain’t much of a man. Never was.” And the wife would nod in agreement.
And they’d be right.
Elizabeth jerked her eyes off John and focused on the task at hand-and the twerp standing directly in front of her; he was bent over, his hands were on his knees, and his round face was not two feet from hers.
“There’ll be a setup piece, three minutes”-he held up three fingers, then pointed to a TV monitor off to the side-“you can watch it there. Then DeAnn will go live with you.” Four fingers. “Four minutes, then commercial break. When I signal break, shut up. Don’t go on or we’ll cut you off.”
When the twerp vacated his position in front of Elizabeth, she found herself looking directly at Agent Devereaux standing back behind the cameras; he was leaning into the doorjamb and staring at her. Hey, fuck the FBI! You haven’t found my daughter!
“Quiet!” the twerp yelled. He pointed to the TV monitor.
The morning show first up was coming back on the air. The host introduced the reporter on the story, live from Texas, standing on the front lawn, a Gracie button on his lapel, the house looming large behind him.
“DeAnn, Gracie Ann Brice is ten years old”-Grace’s soccer picture flashed on the screen-“and she is missing this Monday morning. She was abducted by a blond man wearing a black cap and a plaid shirt after her soccer game Friday night here in Post Oak, Texas, a wealthy enclave forty miles north of downtown Dallas. I am standing outside her family’s three-million-dollar mansion in this community of mansions.”
Playing on the monitor was a video of Briarwyck Farms, the media circus outside, and their home. The reporter’s voice-over continued: “The park where she was abducted now serves as a makeshift memorial to Gracie.” Now the monitor showed shots of the park and the concession building, the banner, and the flowers. “Children have brought flowers and notes of prayer for their friend. A candlelight vigil was held there last night. Hundreds of people turned out to pray for Gracie’s safe return. Her abduction has frightened the residents of this community.”
The distraught face of a neighbor: “This isn’t supposed to happen in a place like this. We’re supposed to be safe out here.”
The reporter’s voice over video of the search efforts: “Searchers have hunted for Gracie for two days without success. Other than her soccer shorts and shoe, which were found by bloodhounds Saturday, there’s been no sign of her. The Heidi Search Center has organized a massive volunteer effort to search fields and farmland on the outskirts of town.”
The monitor played video of people hugging each other and wiping tears from their faces. “We’re here because our child could be next,” one searcher said.
“At Gracie’s school”-a live shot of kids arriving at Briarwyck Farms Elementary School-“parents clutch their children closer today.”
The face of a young woman above the byline, NORA UNDERWOOD, GRACIE’S FOURTH-GRADE TEACHER: “We’re not supposed to pray in school, but we’re praying today.”
And AMY APPLEWHITE, PRINCIPAL: “We’ve brought in crisis counselors for the children to talk to, to talk out their fears.”
Back live to the reporter out front, holding up the flier with Grace’s picture: “DeAnn, friends and neighbors have distributed thousands of these missing-child fliers throughout the area and as many pink ribbons to show their support. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has posted Gracie’s picture on its website at www-dot-missingkids-dot-org, as has the FBI at www-dot-fbi-dot-gov. Her face will be seen around the world. This is a confirmed stranger abduction-the FBI eliminated any family involvement with polygraph exams. The parents are hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. Most children abducted by strangers are dead within a few hours. Gracie’s been missing for over sixty hours. Back to you, DeAnn.”
Elizabeth turned from the monitor and spotted Sam sitting on the sofa in the back of the room and staring stone-faced at a TV monitor. She could see the fear in his eyes. Damnit, where ’ s Hilda? Elizabeth tried to get Sam’s attention to send him out, but the twerp was again gesturing at her and pointing to the monitor. Elizabeth turned away from Sam and looked at the monitor.
Now on the screen was the concerned face of DeAnn, the host in New York, an index finger pressed to her tight lips, a slow sad shake of her well-coifed head. What empathy so early in the morning, Elizabeth thought, and right before she hosts a segment on liposuction. Now she would interview the distressed and tearful parents, who would dutifully slobber and plead for their daughter’s return on national TV, a sure ratings hit. That was the script. That was the way things were supposed to go. Well, DeAnn, hold onto your skirt, girlfriend, because today’s show is going to be a little bit different.
DeAnn, from New York: “We have with us this morning, from their home outside Dallas, Texas, Gracie’s parents, John and Elizabeth Brice.”
The twerp pointed at them; the cameras went live.
“John Brice is the founder of BriceWare-dot-com, which is going public in two days, when he will become another overnight high-tech billionaire. Elizabeth Brice is a prominent Dallas criminal defense attorney. Mr. Brice, your daughter’s kidnapping is a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal today. You were just days from your dream coming true, now your daughter’s been abducted. This must be devastating for you. How do you feel?”
Oh, shit, Elizabeth thought, bracing herself for a blast of John’s goofy geek-speak on national TV, something like, DeAnn, my freaking wetware is fried! I’m talking toast! Some brain-damaged meatbot uninstalled my daughter from my network and that is evil and rude in the extreme!
Instead, John looked into the camera and said softly, “I feel empty.”
Elizabeth stared again at her husband and saw a stranger.
DeAnn, from New York: “Why do you think the abductor left Gracie’s soccer shorts in the woods? And her shoe?”
She was pulling out all the stops to get the tears flowing. But John’s answer momentarily set her back: “I forgot to tie her laces after the game.”
“Well, yes, but this is clearly not a ransom abduction. A sexual predator took your daughter-but Gracie had none of the risk factors associated with children abducted by sexual predators. Why do you think he took your daughter?”
John shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Were there problems at home? Could she have run away?”
“No. She knows we love her.”
DeAnn appeared visibly frustrated now. “Do you think she’s still alive?”
Still no tears.
“Mr. Brice, were there problems in your marriage?”
“My marriage? ”
The rage stirred and stretched and required all of Elizabeth’s strength to hold it back; if this nationally televised therapy session continued much longer, the rage would escape her grasp. She interrupted.
“DeAnn,” Elizabeth said, and the camera zoomed in on her. “We’re not here for marriage counseling. We’re here because a stranger abducted my daughter. He took her, and we want her back. And we will pay to get her back. For information leading to the safe return of my daughter, we will pay twenty-five million dollars, cash.”
Elizabeth imagined viewers across America spitting out their morning coffee; she had just seized control of her audience.
“If you’ve seen Grace, call us and you’re rich.”
A slight pause for effect, but not long enough for DeAnn to break in.
“Another offer, this one to the abductor: release my daughter, alive and well, and we will pay you the twenty-five million instead. We will deposit the funds in a Cayman Island bank account under a pin number-it’s completely anonymous. The IRS cannot trace the money, the FBI cannot trace you. You can wire the money anywhere in the world. You can get on a plane and fly to Costa Rica, Thailand, the Philippines, where you can have all the little girls you want. You’re rich and you’re free to pursue your perverted desires-what more could you want? All I want is my daughter back. My offer remains open until midnight Friday, Dallas time. Twenty-five million dollars for my daughter. It’s a good deal. You’d better take it.”
Now a slight lean forward and her best intimidate-the-witness glare into the camera: “Because if you don’t take this deal, if you don’t release my daughter by the deadline, if you can’t release my daughter because you’ve already killed her, know this and know it well: you’re a dead man. I’m putting a bounty on your head same as the government put on Osama bin Laden’s head: commencing one minute after midnight Friday, we will pay the twenty-five million to anyone who hunts you down and kills you like the disgusting perverted animal you are. And know this: you’re not going back to prison to serve a few years then get released only to violate another little girl-that is not going to happen! You’re either going to release my daughter or you’re going to die. It’s your choice.”
DeAnn, in New York: “Mrs. Brice, this is national TV! You can’t-”
Now, the closer: “Take the deal. Take the money. Give us Grace.”
Elizabeth would repeat the same offer on the other network morning shows.
“Well, ain’t that neat, our own goddamn Powerball lotto!”
The mayor hurled a paperweight against the far wall of his office in the town hall. He had a pretty fair arm for a fat boy. Chief of Police Paul Ryan stood out of harm’s way, watching the mother on TV and enduring another mayoral venting.
“Twenty-five million dollars! That much money, she made goddamn sure her kid stays on national news every goddamn day!”
His Honor let loose with a stapler this time.
“And we’re gonna stay on national TV until you find her body or her killer!”
“You mean kidnapper.”
“I mean killer. She’s dead just like that reporter said and you know it. Goddamnit, Paul, find this pervert!”
“Mayor, we’re rounding up every sex offender in the county but-”
A stiff fat finger in Ryan’s face: “No buts, Paul! Find him, arrest him, and get us off national TV! Or else!”
Paul Ryan exited the mayor’s office, imagining himself driving a golf cart with a flashing yellow light around a parking lot twelve hours a day and wondering what kind of retirement plan Wal-Mart offered its security guards.
“Do you have twenty-five million dollars in cash?” FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux asked the mother.
Without looking at him, she said, “My husband arranged a line of credit. He put up his stock. It’ll be worth a billion dollars in two days. We’ve got it.”
Before the mother’s image had faded from the TV screen, every fax machine in the command post was spitting out paper, every light on every phone was blinking, and a dozen federal agents were logging leads into the computer as fast as they could type:
“You saw her, in Houston?”
“You’re sure it was her? Where in Oklahoma?”
“Mexico? New Mexico the state or Mexico the country?”
Devereaux would personally review the computer’s analysis of the leads and determine which leads to follow, hoping in his heart they were legit but knowing in his head they were worthless calls from people after a piece of the reward, calling in to report every blonde girl they saw, hoping theirs might hit, like buying a lottery ticket.
He heard Agent Floyd’s voice: “Uh, no, ma’am, you can’t get any of the reward for being close. This isn’t horseshoes.”
And Agent Jorgenson’s: “And who is she with?… A man and woman?… And you’re in a grocery store in Abilene with them right now?… I hear someone saying ‘mommy.’ Is that the girl?… Well, ma’am, if the girl is calling the woman ‘mommy,’ maybe that’s her mother.”
Devereaux turned to the mother. “Well, Mrs. Brice, we’ve had almost five hundred sightings in the two hours since you offered the reward.” He was standing in the middle of the command post with the mother.
“No, ma’am, not really. At this rate, I won’t have the manpower to clear that many leads.”
The mother looked at Devereaux like she had told a joke and he was too dumb to get it.
“I don’t expect you to. Grace isn’t walking around some shopping mall somewhere-you think he bought her new shorts? If she’s alive, she’s with him. I offered the reward to pressure him to give her up. That’s the only chance we have to get her back alive, and you know it.”
Devereaux had to remind himself of his own rule: getting into a pissing contest with the mother wouldn’t put him one step closer to finding the girl or apprehending the abductor. And odds are, the child’s dead anyway.
“Her body, it is cold.”
Angelina Rojas stood five feet tall and weighed two hundred pounds. She was wearing a pink sweat suit. She had teased her hair into a nice tall mound atop her round face to which she had applied extra makeup. She wanted to look her best today.
Angelina lived and worked in the Little Mexico area of Dallas. Normally at this time on a Monday morning, she would be contacting the spirits of dead relatives of poor Mexicans or reading their futures in their palms or tarot cards. Angelina Rojas, el medium. She was a psychic. At least that’s what it said on her business card.
But yesterday she had opened the Sunday paper and seen the kidnapped girl’s picture on the front page; she had been drawn to the image. She had stared at the picture, then she had touched it. She had felt something and heard something. Something real this time. Something that scared her. “ La madre de Dios,” she had said. Mother of God.
So she had woken this morning, gotten dressed, and made Carlos put on a shirt and drive her out here. When they had arrived at the big gates, she explained the purpose of her visit to the guard, but he refused to let them in. She begged him to call Senora Brice. When he refused that also, Carlos said he was going to get out of the Chevy and kick his fat Anglo ass. The guard decided that making a phone call was a smarter move than having some Hispanic hombre in a low-rider pounding on him with his muscular left arm, the one with the tattoo of the Virgin Mary. So he called, but he got Senor Brice instead. He let them in.
Carlos had stayed in the car at the end of the street outside the police barricade; he was nervous due to the fact that he had immigrated to America via the Rio Grande just outside Laredo. She had then walked down the street and up to the front door of the house-it was as big as the office building she used to clean each night, before she had become a full-time psychic. Normally she insisted her clients pay her in cash up front; Angelina did not accept personal checks or credit cards, not that her clients had bank accounts or credit cards. But today she did not care about money. In fact, she did not want money. She just wanted to give them the girl’s message and get back home.
Angelina Rojas was afraid that she might really be psychic.
Now she was sitting in the kitchen across a table from Senor Brice and several other Anglos; her eyes were closed and she was clutching the girl’s white school blouse tightly to her face, trying to feel the child. Another cold chill ran through her considerable body, more intense than the first one. But it was not Angelina who was cold.
“Her body, it is very cold.”
“My daughter is not dead!”
Angelina opened her eyes to a woman she recognized from TV. The mother. She was very beautiful, even when angry, as now.
“No, Senora, she is not dead. She is cold. She is shivering.”
The mother rolled her eyes. “Oh, for God’s sake. We’d do better with a goddamn Ouija board. You’re just here for the reward.”
“No, Senora, I do not want your money. I am here because the girl is cold and because she calls out.”
The mother put her hands on her hips like Angelina’s Anglo landlord did when she was late with the rent money. “Really? And what does she call out for?”
“She calls out for someone named Ben.”
Kate Brice is straining to see down the jetway at San Francisco International Airport; six-year-old John is standing next to her. It’s 1975 and Ben Brice is coming home. That damn war is finally over.
Passengers begin appearing in the jetway. Her eyes search the crowd for a green beret, but her mind is dreading a repeat of five years earlier in this same airport. They were walking down the concourse; Ben was wearing his uniform, pushing John in a stroller, and ignoring the whispered “baby killer” comments. A young man with long hair suddenly stepped in front of Ben and said, “My brother died in Vietnam because of officers like you!” Then he spat in Ben’s face. Ben grabbed the young man by the throat and pinned him to the wall, terrifying the young man but Kate more. She had never seen that Ben Brice before; his blue eyes were so dark. He could have easily killed the young man, and for a moment, she thought he would. Instead, the darkness dissipated; he wiped the spit from his face, released the frightened young man, and said, “I’m sorry about your brother.”
They had married three days after he graduated from the Academy. It was a fairy tale wedding in the West Point chapel; afterward, still wearing her white wedding dress, she was escorted by Lieutenant Ben Brice in his dress white uniform through the saber arch, an Army tradition. Her fairy tale marriage lasted exactly three weeks. Twenty-one days a married woman, her husband left her for Fort Bragg and Special Forces school. Ben Brice was going to war. He deployed the day after Thanksgiving 1968. She saw him off at the airport; she never saw that man again.
That damn war destroyed the fairy tale marriage she had dreamed of as a girl. She is praying for a fresh start today.
There! She sees a green beret above a sea of heads… and now his face, tanned and angular, and so handsome. He sees her and smiles.
Ben turned back to her now: the same face, still tanned and angular, and still so handsome. But the smile was gone. He had been walking out to the pool house when she called to him. He came back to her, and they sat on the back porch.
“When will you leave?” she asked.
“When I know where she is.”
Kate studied her husband’s face. “Gracie?”
“You believe that psychic?”
He nodded again.
“Ben, that was odd that she knew your name, but-”
“She’s alive, Kate.”
She calls out for someone named Ben, the psychic said. Why not me? Why not her mother?
But with Grace, it had always been Ben. And Elizabeth had always hated Ben Brice because he shared a bond with Grace that she did not. Now, sitting alone in her bedroom, her thoughts were not angry; her thoughts were of her father and the bond they had shared.
Her memories were of their time together.
Arthur Austin had been a lawyer, but he did not sell his life by the billable hour, so he had time for his daughter. During their last year together, when she was ten, he had taken her to at least one Mets’ game a week, often leaving the office early to make a weekday game. Mother wasn’t good in the heat, so it was just the two of them. She had been so proud to sit next to her handsome father in his suit and tie, his sharp features and head of thick black hair attracting the eyes of other women. But he belonged to her. Those were glorious days she thought would never end.
How could a thirty-five-year-old man be murdered?
She could still close her eyes and see him lying in the hospital bed at St. Mary’s Catholic Hospital, his eyes shut, the white sheets pulled up to his chin (to conceal his wounds, she realized years later), his skin pale and cold, and Mother saying it was time to say goodbye. But Elizabeth Austin, the good Catholic girl, had said, “No, God will save him.” She had knelt next to his bed and held his cold hand; she had prayed to God to save her father. But God had refused. He had ignored her prayers. He had forsaken her. “I will never forgive you,” she had said to God that day. And she never had.
She had missed her father terribly. But somehow she had gone on with her life, always thinking of everything they would never do together. That was before evil had come into her life. Afterward, she had been relieved her father hadn’t been there; it would have broken his heart to see what his happy ten-year-old daughter had become: a forty-year-old rage-filled lunatic forever haunted by her encounter with evil. Just as it was breaking her heart to imagine what her happy ten-year-old daughter would become-if she survived her encounter with evil.
What if she didn’t?
How could this child’s life story end this way? After the way her story had begun? She had given this child life, and this child had saved her life. How was she now supposed to go on with her life without this child? Without Grace? How was Elizabeth Brice supposed to get up one day- when, next week or the week after? — drive to the office, and again care about guilty clients? How was getting a rich white-collar criminal off supposed to fill the empty space inside her?
Her private phone line rang. It was her mother, offering to help in any way she could-which was in no way. It took only a few minutes of pleading to get her to stay in New York.
Mother had been only twenty-nine when Father had died. She had married him right out of high school, while he was in law school. He was her life. After his death, Mother had retreated into her own world, seldom leaving the house, helpless in a harsh world. For all intents and purposes, her mother had died with her father.
And Elizabeth Austin had grown up alone.
“I don’t want to be an only child.”
John squeezed Sam’s shoulder and fought back tears. He had come into Sam’s room to comfort his five-year-old son. Sam had finally begun to grasp the reality that he might never see Gracie again. As had his father.
“I don’t want her room or her stuff,” Sam said. “I just want her to come back. I miss her.” He wiped his nose on his shirtsleeve. “That guy on TV, he said she’s probably dead.”
“She’s not dead,” John said, trying to sound convincing. “She’ll be back soon, buddy.”
“But you don’t know that for a fact, do you?”
“Huh? Well, no, Sam, I don’t know that for a fact.”
“So you’re just saying that to make me feel better ’cause I’m just a stupid kid.”
John beheld his kindergartner son, indisputable evidence that cloning works.
“Sam, A, you’ve got a one-sixty IQ, so you’re not stupid, and B, I’m saying that because I believe Gracie will come home.”
“Why do you believe she’ll come home?”
Cripes, Sam was like Microsoft after a competitor!
“Uh, well, because I have faith.”
“Uh, yeah, that’s it.”
“So you believe in God?”
John hesitated. Fact is, he wasn’t sure he did believe in God. As a kid, Little Johnny Brice had often begged God to save him from the bullies’ beatings, but God never did. And John R. Brice hadn’t spent much adult time thinking about God, what with getting the Ph. D., hacking code for a killer app, and now working the IPO. And he went to church with the kids only because Mom would be disappointed in him if he didn’t. A week ago, if Sam had asked such a question, he would have automatically clicked into avoidance mode and responded to Sam like a big brother: “Hey, buddy, God is one of those deep philosophical choices that each humanoid must make for himself or herself, kind of like whether to go Windows or Mac. But look, man, don’t worry about that serious stuff now, wait till you’re older, you know, after your own IPO. Hey, let’s go to the kitchen and get down on some Rocky Road ice cream, dude.”
And that was the role he had played all these years for the kids, which was, in fact, the role he preferred: big brother, pal, buddy. Nothing more had been required of him. And besides, with Elizabeth around, the man-of-the-house role had already been taken.
But now, looking into Sam’s eyes, he could see that Sam needed something more from him. At the office, John was the Big Kahuna because he always had the answers to the toughest technical queries posed by his employees. But their questions paled next to Sam’s: Is there a God? The answer couldn’t be found in the online Help menu. John wanted to say, Shit, dude, I don’t have a freaking clue! But his five-year-old son didn’t need the big brother mode; he needed the mature adult fatherly mode. So John lied.
“Of course I believe in God.”
“But you don’t know if there really is a God, do you? I mean, like, you don’t have any evidence that proves He exists beyond a reasonable doubt, right?”
“But you believe God is real?”
“Yes.” The second lie required less consideration.
“So you believe Gracie’s coming home because you believe in God and God takes care of kids, right?”
“That’s right.” No consideration at all.
“See, that’s why I decided God is bogus.”
“Sam, don’t say that. God’s not bogus.”
“Well, if God is spending so dang much time taking care of Gracie now, why’d he let that cretin take her in the first place?”
John gave up. “I don’t know, Sam.”
Sam frowned and said, “You think that cretin wants more than twenty-five million bucks to let her go?”
“I… I don’t know.”
Sam stared up at John for a moment, then said, “Your face looks better. From when Mom smacked you.”
“Please take the money.”
Elizabeth touched the image on the computer screen and gently traced the outline of her daughter’s face. She had logged onto the FBI’s website, the Kidnapped and Missing Persons Investigations page at www.fbi.gov/mostwant/kidnap/kidmiss.htm. Two columns of pictures and names of children abducted in Saginaw, Texas; Deltona, Florida; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Oregon City, Oregon; Jackson, Tennessee; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Chicago, Illinois; San Luis Obispo, California; Las Vegas, Nevada.
Where in America are children safe?
She clicked on the image of her daughter. She saw the same photo of Grace enlarged on a page that read: http://www.fbi.gov/mostwant/kidnap/brice.htm
Post Oak, Texas
GRACIE ANN BRICE DESCRIPTION
Place of Birth: Dallas, Texas
Weight: 80 pounds
Hair: Short Blonde
Gracie Ann Brice was kidnapped after her soccer game at approximately 6:00 P.M. on Friday, April 7, at Briarwyck Farms Park in Post Oak, Texas. She was last seen wearing a soccer uniform, gold jersey with “Tornadoes” on the front and a number 9 on the back, and blue shorts, blue socks, and white Lotto soccer shoes, and a silver necklace with a silver star. Gracie may be in the company of a white male, 20 to 30 years, 200 pounds, blond hair, blue eyes, wearing a black baseball cap and a plaid shirt. He asked for Gracie by name at the park.
Gracie Ann Brice has a muscular build, light complexion, and short hair. Her elbows may have recent abrasions.
The parents of Gracie Ann Brice are offering a reward of $25 million for information leading to her recovery. Individuals with information concerning this case should take no action themselves, but instead immediately contact the nearest FBI Office or local law enforcement agency. For any possible sighting outside the United States, contact the nearest United States Embassy or Consulate.
Elizabeth grabbed both sides of the monitor and put her face against her daughter’s image.
“Take the money! Let her go! Please!”
A child abducted by a stranger warrants a featured slot on the network morning shows and a mention on the evening news. But when the victim’s mother puts a $25 million bounty on the abductor’s head, dead or alive, that’s lead story news.
Under orders from headquarters, FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux had given live interviews on the network evening news, back to back to back. He had protested that he was too busy trying to find the girl, but he had been informed that his orders came straight from Director White himself. The Bureau brass liked its agents-particularly articulate agents like himself-on national TV. Good for PR. And next year’s budget requests.
Devereaux sighed; his investigation had become a goddamned $25 million sideshow.
He was now in the command post, slouched in his chair and alternating between his left and right buttock so as not to put additional pressure on his inflamed prostate while reviewing the latest leads. He had yet to read one that rang true.
Devereaux looked up to see Colonel Brice standing there.
“Recognize the butt position,” the colonel said.
The colonel nodded. “Try saw palmetto.”
“Saw palmetto. Berry from the palmetto tree. Relieves the pain. You can buy it in any health food store.”
“I heard about those places.”
The colonel gestured at the stack of leads. “Anything?”
“Yeah, over two thousand sightings,” he said. “Couple more days, we’ll know where every blonde, blue-eyed girl in the Southwest lives.”
“You think they’re after the money?”
“I’m afraid so, Colonel.” The colonel sat in an adjacent chair; Devereaux adjusted his butt position. “Rewards of a few thousand dollars can be productive, but $25 million-that’s a whole ’nother ball game. Two thousand sightings, we’re wasting too much time chasing too many false leads.” He put his hand on the stack. “What if there is one good lead in all this?”
“Sure. Here, I’ve been through these.” Devereaux pushed a stack of papers toward Colonel Brice and yawned.
“You need some sleep. Give your prostate a rest.”
“I’ll sleep after we find Gracie.”
The colonel gave him a firm look. “You’re a good man.”
“And you were a great soldier.” The colonel did not respond. The silence was awkward, so Devereaux broke it by confessing to an American hero. “I wasn’t. I just wanted to come home. Nineteen days left in my tour and I’m walking point on patrol again and all I’m thinking is, My luck, I’m gonna be the last American soldier to die in Vietnam, when this VC steps out from behind a tree not ten feet in front of me, his weapon on me. I’m a dead man. Except his rifle misfires-it was an old bolt-action piece of shit. I raise my M-16 and shoot him dead. I step over to him, see he’s just a kid, maybe fourteen. I threw up.” Devereaux was too embarrassed to look directly at the colonel. “I’ve carried a weapon most of my adult life, but that’s the only time I’ve ever killed another human being.” He paused and shook his head. “Looks like we’ve both done some confessing now. I’ve never told anyone that story, not even my wife.”
The colonel’s voice was almost a whisper when he said, “Killing isn’t an easy thing to talk about… or live with.”
The two men were silent with their own thoughts of war and killing until Devereaux said, “How long were you a POW?” The colonel appeared puzzled, so Devereaux answered his unasked question. “Agent Randall, he saw the scars on your back, during your polygraph.”
The colonel nodded. “Six months, barely enough time to get settled in.”
He shook his head. “Outlying camp, San Bie. After we escaped, NVA closed all the camps, moved all the Americans to Hanoi.”
And then it dawned on Devereaux, why the name Ben Brice sounded familiar.
“You’re the one. You’re the guy that rescued those pilots.” He paused and stared at this man. “You saved a lot of soldiers that day.”
Colonel Brice showed no emotion. He broke eye contact and squinted as if trying to see something in the distance. Or in the past. When he spoke, his voice was soft.
“Commander Ron Porter.”
His eyes returned to Devereaux. “One of those pilots, he flies out of Albuquerque.”
“Colonel, they gave you the Medal of Honor.”
The colonel picked up the papers, stood, and said, “So they did.” Then he walked away.
Six months before the day he had walked into the San Bie POW camp in North Vietnam, Colonel Ben Brice had been living in the jungles of Vietnam with the Montagnards, the indigenous inhabitants of the country known to GIs as the “Yards,” a people much like the American Indian. The men wore loincloths; their bronze-skinned bodies were lean and muscular and their facial features were hard and sharply etched, but they were not without humor or intelligence. The tribal elders spoke French fluently, learned when the owners of that language took their ill-fated turn at colonizing Vietnam. Eighteen million people called Vietnam home; the Montagnards numbered one million, scattered among numerous tribes. Ben’s tribe was the Sedang.
When first deployed to Vietnam, the Green Berets’ primary mission was to organize the Montagnard tribes into Civilian Irregular Defense Groups to stem Communist infiltration into South Vietnam along the western borders with Laos and Cambodia. Ben was supposed to teach the Sedang guerrilla warfare tactics; but it was the Sedang who taught him: how to live off the land, how to hunt wild game and Viet Cong on the mountains that rose eight thousand feet and in the thick jungles that covered the valleys below, and how to move through the night like a shadow. The Sedang were natural hunter-killers. He became one of them. They even presented him with a hand-fashioned brass bracelet, which represented membership in the tribe; it was a great honor for a white man. Ben Brice had “gone native.”
They were operating in North Vietnam just inside the Seventeenth Parallel-the DMZ that divided North from South, Communist from free-when they spotted a USAF F-4 Phantom flying low overhead and trailing smoke, hit on a Rolling Thunder raid over Hanoi. The two-man crew ejected just before the jet crashed and exploded in a fireball; both parachutes opened, so Ben and the Montagnards made for the Americans. But they arrived too late; the NVA had captured them.
The NVA marched the pilots north to the San Bie prison camp. On still nights, camped a thousand meters out, Ben heard the blood-curdling screams of the Americans being tortured. The next morning he heard them sing “God Bless America.” Ben and the Montagnards planned a rescue, which required he be captured. The NVA had standing orders to kill their American prisoners in the event of a rescue attempt. The only successful rescue would come from inside, with help on the outside.
Now, six months a prisoner of war, he will escape and take one hundred American pilots with him, with the help of the Montagnards. Ben Brice had taught them a few things too, including the proper use of C-4 explosive. Together they destroyed enemy arms depots, disrupted supply convoys on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, ambushed VC, assassinated NVA officers, radioed in grid coordinates for B-52 Arc Light bombing raids, and snatched that Marine slick driver back from the NVA in Laos. Today they will rescue American POWs.
He remains sprawled in the same position on the concrete floor in which he had been deposited five hours earlier, awaiting the morning guard. He soon hears the familiar sound of keys rattling, so familiar that he knows the guard’s exact location in the hallway outside as he comes closer and closer to Ben’s cell. The guard arrives and bangs on the cell door, then looks in through the small barred opening and sees the American colonel still lying on the floor, the blood on his raw back dried and caked and the rats nibbling at his feet. Ben hears metal grating against metal as the guard slips the key into the rusty lock. The key turns, and the lock releases. The door creaks open. Footsteps, a bit wary, come close; the guard wonders if the highest-ranking American officer in the prison survived the fierce beating inflicted by Big Ug and his fan belt last night. Ben braces himself not to react to the kick that is sure to come and does; he stifles a groan as the guard’s boot drives into his side. The prisoner did not respond, so the guard circles around and squats to check his pulse.
It is his last living act.
Ben grabs the guard by the throat with hands made strong in the oil fields of West Texas and the jungles of Vietnam and chokes off all sound and jerks him to the floor. Ben Brice does not kill him out of vengeance; he kills him because he must. The guard’s neck sounds like a brittle chicken bone snapping when Ben rotates his head past the breaking point.
Ben stands and surveys his cell for the last time. The thick odor customary to the cell is joined by that of fresh urine and feces as the guard’s body accepts its death and surrenders its dignity. More death will follow. He must kill to save these pilots. He takes no satisfaction in the killing, but he is skilled in the art of killing. It is what he knows.
This is his moment in the great human tragedy known as the Vietnam War.
John ducked under the yellow crime-scene tape and walked into Gracie’s room. He hit the overhead light switch.
“Hiya, pal,” she would always say when he knocked on her bedroom door each day when he got home. He would usually find her on the floor, reading the sports pages or doing her homework or singing a new song. But her room was empty tonight. Her stuff was still there, but without her there was no life in this room. Or in this house. Gracie Ann Brice had been the life of the house.
He turned on the nightlight and turned off the overhead. He crawled into her bed. He pulled the comforter up and buried his head in her pillow. He cradled her big cushy teddy bear. He closed his eyes, breathed in his daughter, and remembered.
“One day you’ll be singing on the radio,” he had said to her once, sitting right here on this bed.
She had frowned and said, “You know how hard it is to get radio stations to play a new artist’s songs?”
“No. How hard?”
“Then I’ll buy a bunch of radio stations and play only yours.”
“You can’t do that.”
“After the IPO I can. I’m gonna buy the Red Sox for Sam.”
“No, I mean it doesn’t work that way. I’ve got to struggle a long time trying to break in so I’ll have material for my songs.”
“Oh, so that’s how it works.”
“Yeah, see, the Dixie Chicks struggled for like, well, a really long time, and they had to move to Nashville. I guess I’ll have to, too.”
“And leave me? No way, girlfriend. I’ll buy a jet, you can fly to Nashville to record. Or I’ll build you a recording studio here, and they can come to you. And they will.”
“Yeah, right. You know how many great singers are out there totally begging to break into country music?”
“No. How many?”
“Well… a bunch.”
He shook his head. “Odds don’t apply to statistically unique occurrences.”
“There’s only one Gracie Ann Brice.”
She had looked at him with a strange expression, one he had never before seen on her sweet face; he immediately thought, Cripes, I said something wrong! You bogoid, you never could talk to girls! But she abruptly hugged him and said, “You’re the best father a girl could ever want.” When she pulled back, her big blue eyes were wet. “Thanks for not making fun of my dreams.”
He had cupped her perfect face and said, “Gracie, ill-behaved cretins can thrash your user interface, frag your hardware, unplug your peripherals, uninstall your components-but dreams are proprietary technology.”
“No one can take your dreams away.”
But he had been wrong. Someone had taken his dream away.
Ben was now sitting at the kitchen table and flipping through the stack of FBI lead sheets. By this time of night, he was usually drunk enough to sleep. He wanted a drink now, just one shot of whiskey. Or two. He could feel its warmth inside him.
But there would not be another drink for him. On the drive from Taos to the Albuquerque airport, alone in the pre-dawn hours, he had made a vow to Gracie, a vow that now required he reach back almost four decades to find the strength to overcome: when they had beaten him at San Bie, he thought of Kate and John and found strength; now, when the cravings came, he thought of Gracie and found the same strength.
He went over to the refrigerator, a commercial-sized one concealed behind wood paneling that matched the cabinetry. Inside he found orange juice. Maybe a glass of juice would relieve his craving. He opened several overhead cabinets searching for the glasses; he found a liquor cabinet instead. He stared at the bottles. He reached in and removed a fifth of Jim Beam. Only his third sober night, but looking at the familiar label brought the cravings back. He was still staring at the bottle when he heard, “Ben.”
He turned and saw his wife standing in the door-and the disappointment in her eyes. He replaced the bottle in the cabinet and shut the door.
“I won’t let her down, Kate.”
Nothing is more disappointing to a lawyer than a client’s deal falling apart-all right, next to not getting paid, nothing is more disappointing to a lawyer than a client’s deal falling apart. How many times had a lawyer arrived at the bargaining table ready to close a deal only to have the other party shrug lamely and turn his palms up, empty-handed? No money. Nothing to put on the bargaining table. Can’t close the deal. Lying in bed, alone, as she had felt most of her life, Elizabeth Brice now wondered: What if the abductor can’t close the deal? What if the abductor had nothing to put on the bargaining table? Three-fourths of all children abducted by strangers are killed within three hours. Grace had been abducted seventy-eight hours ago.
What if her daughter was dead?
Patrol Officer Eddie Yates hated working double shifts, especially evenings and deep nights, 3:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M., mostly because he couldn’t spend four hours pumping iron at the gym. But on the chief’s orders, every cop on the force was working double shifts, rousing out sex offenders around the clock-there were a hell of a lot of perverts out there, Eddie had discovered. He was hoping the girl’s killer was on his list; arresting a child killer would look awful good on the resume he would give the Dallas PD.
He checked the in-unit computer screen for the next pervert on his list: Jennings, Gary M., white, twenty-eight, blond, blue eyes, five-ten, one-fifty-five (heck, Eddie could take this guy with one hand), charged with stat rape eight years ago, pleaded out to indecency with a child, received probation, not even a speeding ticket since. Risk level 3: no basis for concern for re-offense. That’s all the entry said, but Eddie could read between the lines. This boy had been nineteen at the time of the offense, probably in college; he and a girl were partying, ended up in bed, turned out she’s jail bait. But she had to be damn close to legal or they wouldn’t have let him plead out. And now he’s branded a sex offender for life.
Eddie sighed. Gary Jennings wasn’t a sex offender; he just screwed the wrong girl at the wrong time. What was it Eddie’s mom used to say? There but for the grace of God? Well, this’ll be a monumental waste of time. But still, why didn’t Jennings register with the police department when he moved to town like he’s supposed to?
Apartment 121, that was Jennings’s place. DMV records showed Jennings owned a black ’99 Ford F-150 pickup. Eddie drove slowly through the apartment complex parking lot until he spotted a black Ford pickup. The plates checked out.
Eddie parked behind the pickup and exited the cruiser; he slid his nightstick into his holster, not that he expected any trouble from Jennings-but he could dream, couldn’t he? He grabbed the big heavy flashlight-actually a sledgehammer with a light on the end, a more effective tool for subduing a reluctant perp, not that he had ever had to. He shone the light inside the cab then tried the door, gently, so as not to set off the alarm. No need-it was unlocked, like half the cars in town tonight. There hadn’t been a car stolen in Post Oak, Texas, since Eddie had been on the force. The place was a regular fucking Mayberry-and he felt like Barney Fife. How can you fight crime when there ain’t no crime? Which was why Eddie Yates yearned for a job with the Dallas PD: they had some real crime down there, the most dangerous city in America.
Eddie opened the door and shone the light around the cab. It was clean as a whistle. He looked in the console and found a cell phone. Jennings wasn’t even worried someone might steal it.
Aunt Bee, you seen Opie?
Eddie checked under the seat. Nothing. He lifted the rubber floor mat on the passenger side. Nothing. He lifted the mat on the driver’s side and-what’s this? A photograph? He picked it up and shone the light on it. It was a photograph all right, like the copy you got when you printed a mug shot off the computer. Except this wasn’t a mug shot of a criminal. This was a picture of a naked girl. A young naked girl. Kiddie porn. Eddie shook his head. Damn, he’d been wrong about this Jennings. He really was a pervert.
Of course, having a picture of a naked girl in his truck didn’t make Jennings guilty of abducting the Brice girl. And how would he explain to the duty sergeant what he was doing inside Jennings’s truck? Eddie thought for a second, then he rubbed the edge of the picture where he had touched it and replaced the picture under the floor mat.
Eddie shut the door quietly then stepped to the bed of the truck. Jennings had a matching fiberglass bed cover, the kind with the little hatch so you could get stuff out without taking the whole damn thing off. Eddie tried the hatch; as he expected, it was unlocked.
Opie’s gone fishin’ with his pa, Sheriff Andy!
Eddie opened the hatch and stuck the flashlight and his head in. He started at the nearest corner of the bed and moved the light around the bed and was about to pull his head out when- What the hell is that? In the far corner of the bed, it looked like a shirt, gold with a number… a jersey.
Eddie’s adrenaline kicked in big time.
He pulled his head out and tried to stay calm and figure out what to do. If he called this in and it turned out to be Jennings’s bowling shirt, the guys would be on his ass for a month. On the other hand, if it was the dead girl’s jersey, he might screw up the evidence, conducting a search without a warrant. He vaguely remembered the training class on search and seizure, something about a plain view doctrine, that if the evidence was in plain sight, that was okay. Eddie wondered, If he had to open the hatch and stick his head in with a flashlight, would that be in plain sight?
Well, shit, no sense in getting ribbed for a month. He would pull the shirt out; if it was a bowling shirt, no harm done. If it was the girl’s jersey, he’d throw it back in and deny ever touching it.
Eddie walked to the patrol unit, opened the trunk, and retrieved a tire tool. He returned to the pickup, stuck his upper body back under the bed cover, and reached for the shirt with the tool. He dragged the shirt along the bed until it was at the hatch opening. He spread the shirt out, holding the light on it, until he could read the blue letters.
He flipped the jersey over. A number nine on the back.
Eddie now wondered, Could an on-duty patrol officer claim the $25 million reward?
Inside Apartment 121, Gary Jennings couldn’t sleep. He rolled over close to his wife, his chest to her back-she had taken to sleeping on her side with a pillow between her legs-and slid his hand around her round belly. She was seven months’ pregnant and bigger than he was now, but he didn’t care.
He was going to be a daddy.
Gary wished his own dad could be here to see his grandchild; he had died eight years ago of a heart attack right after that incident in college. His father had died of embarrassment. He had been embarrassed by his son. And Gary couldn’t blame him. Jesus, he had been a real fuckup in college, a frat rat, drinking, partying, playing golf, earning eighteen hours of fucking-off credit per semester, and screwing girls- What the hell was a sixteen-year-old girl doing at a goddamned frat party?
And he’d still be a fuckup today if he hadn’t found Debbie.
Debbie had changed his life. She had said he would forever be a fuckup if he didn’t give up his sinful ways-well, she didn’t say fuckup, she said lost child, which he translated into fuckup. And, man, he was tired of being a fuckup. And she said he’d never have any money. And, man, he was really tired of being broke. So he had figured, what the hell, it was worth a shot. All he had to do, she had said, was go to church, quit drinking beer and smoking dope, and cancel his subscription to Playboy.
And she was right.
Only two years since he had given up sinning, he was married, soon to be a father, and working at a great job. He had hired on six months ago; right now, he was just a code monkey, grinding out computer code twelve hours a day, wired on Snickers and Red Bull.
But the long hours were about to pay off: his stock options vested in six months and they’d be worth a million bucks after the IPO. One million dollars. As soon as the lockout period expired, he would cash out. He would tithe 10 percent to the church, Debbie would insist on that (although he might be able negotiate her down to 7.5 percent), pay 15 percent in taxes, and net about $750,000. He’d put a hundred thousand in an education trust for the baby so she wouldn’t be a fuckup, then he’d buy Debbie a real nice house and use the rest to start his own Internet company.
Lying next to Debbie and looking forward to the future, a slight smile crossed his face. He had finally found his place in this world. Gary Jennings counted his blessings as he drifted off to sleep.
Gary jumped up in bed at the sound of his apartment door being battered off its hinges. Debbie woke and screamed. Men were suddenly inside their bedroom, shouting and shining bright lights and pointing guns, men wearing black uniforms with POLICE in white letters.
Lieutenant Ben Brice carries a black XM21 sniper rifle fitted with a Starlight Scope and a Sionics suppressor. Twenty ammo magazines, six high-explosive and two white-phosphorous grenades, a. 45-caliber handgun, C-4 explosive, a claymore mine, and morphine are packed in his web gear. An Uzi, his backup weapon, is secured to his rucksack. An eleven-inch Bowie knife is strapped to his right calf. He carries the tools of killing because he is a professional killer, an Army Green Beret special operations soldier. We Kill for Peace reads the tattoo on his left arm. Seventeen days in-country and Ben Brice has already seen enough killing for a lifetime. But he knows the killing has only just begun.
And after this night, he will never know peace.
He is walking through smoke and ashes thick like gray confetti and out of the smoldering hamlet in the Quang Tri province of South Vietnam, leaving the china doll and his soul behind.
He is standing above an irrigation ditch; down below is a tangled mass of pale bodies. The stench of death hangs in the humid air like a thick fog. The sounds of death rise from below, the last gasps and groans of the dying.
He drops his rifle and jumps down into the ditch. He checks each body for life, frantic now, trying to find life, any sign of life. But there is no life to be found. There is only death. He counts forty-one-old men, women, and children.
His boots are soaked in blood. His hands are dripping with blood. The china doll’s blood and brains cling to his fatigues like souvenirs of death.
He is drenched in death.
He extends his bloody hands to the heavens and screams into the still night: “Why, God?”
He feels faint and his body sways. He closes his eyes. He falls forward, down onto that white blanket of death.
But he is not falling.
He is floating.
He opens his eyes. Below him, the pale bodies are now bright white-a blinding white world as far as he can see. Above him, his parachute is deployed, but he doesn’t remember the violent jerk when the chute caught air.
He’s sailing now, skimming the surface, almost able to reach out and touch the white, as pure as the driven… snow. Pure white snow. A white world of deep heavenly snow. Sailing faster and faster, higher and higher above the snow.
Dark objects down below come into view. Trees. Tall thick trees of timber country. And among the trees, curled up and shivering and wrapped in a blanket of snow like a present under a Christmas tree, is God’s little creature.
He floats down to the creature and lands on both feet. He unbuckles the parachute harness and lets it drop and disappear into the deep snow that he walks through without effort to the cold and shivering creature. He’s now wearing his dress uniform and the green beret and all the medals pinned to the jacket and the Medal of Honor around his neck. He removes his jacket, squats, and wraps the coat around the creature; he gently lifts it from the snow, takes it into his arms, and holds it close, warming God’s little creature. He brushes the snow from the creature’s face and through his tears he sees her, his saving Grace.
“Ben, wake up! They got him!”
And then she is gone. Ben opened his eyes to Kate leaning over him.
“The man who took Gracie.”
“Might be him. I’m just not sure.”
Coach Wally Fagan was staring through the two-way mirror at the sad young man in the white jail uniform sitting at a metal table in the bare interrogation room; his cuffed hands were spread flat on the table, and he appeared dazed and confused. He had blond hair and blue eyes, but he didn’t seem nearly as big as the man who had asked for Gracie after the game. He seemed different.
“Look, Coach,” the police chief said, “the guy’s a convicted sex offender and we found child pornography and Gracie’s jersey in his truck-where do you think he got that from?”
“Well, yeah, then I guess it’s him.”
Still, there was something about him that didn’t fit. Wally just couldn’t put his finger on it.
Ben sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his bare arms and chest, trying to suppress the shakes.
“Gracie wasn’t with him, was she?” he said to Kate.
“How’d you know?”
“Angelina was right. Gracie’s cold. They’ve taken her up north.”
“They who? ”
Ben rubbed his face. “The abductors.”
Kate punched the power button on the small television. The screen flashed on to a video of a police team using a two-man battering ram to knock down an apartment door early that Tuesday morning. They shouted “Police!” and stormed the place with weapons drawn; minutes later, they led a sleepy young man out of the apartment and into the bright lights of the media. He appeared anything but dangerous in red plaid pajamas with his hands cuffed behind his back and escorted by cops who towered over him. He looked like a skinny kid. Trailing behind him was a distraught young pregnant woman wearing a robe. The early morning arrest had been a made-for-TV event. Kate pointed at the screen.
“But he’s the abductor!”
He doesn’t look like a pervert, John thought as he stared at the suspect through the interrogation room window. He didn’t look anything like the Army bullies; he wasn’t coarse, thick, hairy, dirty, or ugly. But then, what’s a pervert supposed to look like? The mug shots of sex offenders in the paper were always of unshaven miscreants with greasy hair and acne scars and missing teeth. This guy was clean and clean-cut. In fact, his face seemed vaguely familiar, like the kids just out of college who worked at BriceWare. com; but then, his was a face John saw every day in the high-tech world-young, white, male, and pale.
John knew now that he would never see Gracie again. Never hold her again or talk to her again or admire her swell face again. This guy had taken her away. Forever. John wanted to get mad, but he couldn’t muster any anger. He could barely muster the strength in his wobbly legs to remain standing. So he leaned forward and rested his weight against the window. Tears came into his eyes. At least her pain had stopped. And he found himself envying her again: his pain would never stop.
The abductor had nothing to put on the bargaining table.
He couldn’t close the deal.
Her deal was dead.
Elizabeth was also standing at the window staring in at the abductor, so close to him she could reach out and strangle the son of a bitch if they were not separated by the glass, and wondering if she could make it inside the interrogation room and choke the life out of him before Chief Ryan and Agent Devereaux could react. She turned to John; he was leaning into the glass, his forehead plastered against the pane, his arms hanging at his side, staring at the abductor like a kid looking in at the gorilla exhibit at the zoo.
Elizabeth turned back to the abductor, imagining him on top of her daughter while she lie motionless, silent tears streaming down her face, wondering why God had forsaken her. Heat spread across Elizabeth’s body; her fists clenched. Her entire body ached to strangle the bastard.
She glanced over at Ryan and Devereaux, standing a few steps behind her, engrossed in conversation, paying no attention to the victim’s distraught mother over by the interrogation room. She inched toward the door. Her pulse raced with anticipation.
“We got an anonymous tip,” Chief Ryan said to FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux.
“You should’ve got a warrant,” Devereaux said. “Paul, your man conducted an illegal search-under a floor mat and a bed cover ain’t in plain view. That picture and the jersey, they won’t ever see the inside of a courtroom. What else you got?”
“The coach ID’d him.”
Devereaux raised an eyebrow. “Pretty much ain’t much in a courtroom. Any other tangible evidence?”
“Well, nothing at this time.”
“Nothing in his apartment?”
“Nothing else in his truck?”
“No… but your people are on it, checking for DNA.”
“Well, they damn sure better find some, Paul, ’cause we can’t take what we got to a grand jury.”
Ryan almost laughed. “The hell we can’t. Our county grand jury will indict a goddamned Greyhound bus if we tell ’em to!”
A police officer came running up the corridor toward them.
“Chief,” the officer said when he arrived, “we got his cell phone records. Nine calls last week to the Brice residence.”
Elizabeth had worked her way almost to the interrogation room door when the police officer’s words jolted her. She turned to him but pointed sharply at the abductor behind the glass.
“He called my house?”
“Not any of your numbers, ma’am,” the officer said. “He called Gracie’s phone number. It’s listed in the book.”
“ He stalked my daughter? ”
That did it. A sudden surge of rage propelled Elizabeth to the door and inside the interrogation room before the others could react. The abductor recoiled as she lunged across the table at him and landed in his lap. They toppled over backwards in his chair onto the cement floor. He couldn’t break the fall with his hands and feet shackled. Elizabeth fell on his chest, knees first, knocking the air out of him. His mouth gaped and he sucked for air as she punched him in the face, again and again, trying to drive her fist through his face, the adrenaline and rage giving her strength she had never known, spit spewing out of her mouth along with her words.
“Where’s my daughter, goddamnit?”
She tried her absolute best to break his nose with the knuckles of her fist. He groaned.
“You killed her, didn’t you?”
She extended her right leg, as if she were doing her tight buns exercise, then drove her knee into his groin, hoping to drive his balls into his brain. His eyes rolled back and he screamed in pain.
“You’re not on top now, you sorry fuck!”
She grabbed his neck and commenced choking the bastard that took her daughter.
“You fucking pervert!”
Thick black arms suddenly wrapped around her midsection from behind, and she was lifted off the abductor until she was dangling in midair-but her strong hands remained locked around the pervert’s scrawny neck. She held on for as long as she could, but her grip finally gave way. She got in one last good kick, a Nike cross-trainer right in his ribs, which produced a low groan from the bastard.
“Mrs. Brice, control yourself!”
Devereaux’s arms were wrapped around the mother’s torso, and he was trying to back out of the interrogation room with her kicking and screaming and spitting at the suspect. She was no longer just halfway to nuts-she was all the way there! He got her to the door, but she grabbed hold of both sides of the doorjamb and held on for dear life, still screaming profanities at the suspect, her eyes blazing with feral rage.
“You’re gonna die, you sick bastard! You’re gonna die and go to hell!”
Christ, she was incredibly strong for her size! Devereaux was trying to pry the mother’s fingers loose while holding her with one arm. He could feel her rock-hard midsection expanding and contracting rapidly; her adrenaline was pumping big time.
“I’ll inject the poison myself, you fucking pervert! You killed my baby! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
Devereaux outweighed the mother by at least a hundred pounds, but he’d be damned if he could get this woman out of the room. And choke-holding a victim’s mother was entirely out of the question. He decided to lean backwards slightly to see if she could hang on with his big self pulling against her. She hung on. Damn. It must be the adrenaline, giving her this kind of strength. He looked to Chief Ryan for help.
But the chief was trying to get the suspect, who was bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth, bound by leg and wrist irons, and cupping his genitals with both hands, up off the floor and back into his chair. The suspect struggled to his knees; Ryan stood behind him and yanked up on the iron belt shackled to his waist, practically lifting him off his feet. The suspect stood. Then he puked.
The mother screamed: “Choke on it, you sonofabitch!”
Once Ryan had the suspect in place, he hurried over and pried the mother’s fingers loose one by one, first her right hand-the mother craned her head around Ryan and got in one final “Fuck you!” at the suspect-and then her left hand. Devereaux almost fell backwards into the corridor with her in his arms. Chief Ryan shut the door to the interrogation room behind them.
“Put me down, goddamnit!” the mother demanded.
Devereaux released her. She pushed his arms away and straightened her clothes. She was wearing a black-and-white nylon sweat suit over a black tee shirt; her face was red and shiny with sweat; her chest was heaving with each gasped breath. She cleared her face of tears, saliva, and snot with one swipe of her sleeve.
“I want to know what he did with her!”
“So do we, Mrs. Brice, but he’s in police custody and you can’t beat it out of him!”
“Then you beat it out of him!”
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux had never before yelled at a mother of an abducted child. But then, he had never met a mother like Elizabeth Brice. Most mothers fell apart: some started smoking again, some drinking, some didn’t get out of bed, some ended up in the psych ward with nervous breakdowns. Elizabeth Brice beat the hell out of the prime suspect. Devereaux was glad she wasn’t his wife, but she was an impressive woman nonetheless.
She was now pacing around like a caged animal, allowing her adrenaline to ease and examining the traces of blood on her raw knuckles; she stuck her knuckles in her mouth and sucked the blood clean.
“Now everyone just calm down!” Chief Ryan said. To several uniforms who had come running to see what the commotion was about, he said, “Get someone in there to clean that mess up… and a paramedic for the suspect.” Then, satisfied that the mother was under control, he turned to the young officer who brought the news of the phone records. “That it? The phone calls?”
“No, sir. He works for Mr. Brice.”
“ What? ”
“Yeah, Chief, the guy works at BriceWare.”
The chief turned to the father: “You don’t know him?”
Most victims’ fathers begged Devereaux for five minutes alone with the abductor. But this victim’s father had maintained his position at the window throughout the mother’s attack on the suspect. Mr. Brice shook his head.
“Chief,” the officer said, “the phone company can identify the cell tower nearest the call’s origination. There’s a tower next to the BriceWare building.”
Chief Ryan gave Devereaux an I-told-you-so shrug. As the new information slowly sank in, all eyes turned and fixed on the young man bleeding and sobbing at the table in the interrogation room. The mother turned to Devereaux and pointed a finger at him.
“Find out what he did with my daughter.”
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney prior to questioning and to have an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, you have the right to have one appointed for you prior to any questioning.”
Chief of Police Paul Ryan looked up from his Miranda card at the prime suspect. “Gary, do you understand your rights as I have explained them to you?”
The interrogation room reeked of the cleaning solvent used to disinfect the floor and table where Jennings had vomited. Ryan was sitting with his back to the two-way mirror; Agent Devereaux sat at one end of the rectangular metal table, and Jennings sat across the table. His nose was swollen and his lips were fat; the area under his left eye was already turning purple. It looked to be one hell of a shiner. He nodded at Ryan.
“Son, you gotta state your answer for the tape recorder.”
A recorder sat in the middle of the table. They had decided to audiotape rather than videotape; Jennings’s battered face would give his lawyer ammunition to claim any confession was coerced. A judge was not likely to believe that while in police custody the victim’s mother beat up the prime suspect.
“Yes,” Jennings said.
“Yes, you understand your constitutional rights?”
“And you’re waiving your right to have an attorney present during questioning?”
Once a lawyer enters the room, any hope of a confession exits. Obtaining a quick confession was particularly urgent in this case because the evidence collected from Jennings’s truck would likely be inadmissible in court-but mostly because a confession got the story off the evening news and the mayor off Ryan’s back. So Paul Ryan put the Miranda card in his shirt pocket, folded his hands on the table, and said in a soft voice, one of disappointment in a teenage son who had taken the family car without permission, “Gary, why’d you take Gracie?”
“I didn’t take her!”
“Mr. Brice said she went to the BriceWare office over the Christmas holidays, nearly every day. Is that when you first became acquainted with Gracie?”
“Yes… I mean, no! We weren’t acquainted.”
“What were you?”
“We were… nothing! I work for Mr. Brice, that’s all!”
“But you saw her in the office?”
“Yeah. She delivered mail, on rollerblades.”
“And you knew she was Mr. Brice’s daughter?”
“Sure, we all did.”
“Has Mr. Brice been a good employer to you?”
“Yeah, it’s a great place to work.”
“Good pay, good benefits?”
Ryan threw a thumb at the two-way mirror behind him. “Gary, Mr. Brice is standing on the other side of that mirror, looking at you, listening to everything you’re saying.” Jennings looked up at the mirror. “For God’s sake, son, at least tell him where his daughter’s body is, so he can bury her properly. Don’t just leave her out there in some field, buzzards picking over her.”
“I don’t know where she’s at!” Jennings tried to stand but the leg irons restrained him. To the mirror, he said, “Mr. Brice, I swear to God, I didn’t take her!”
He looked like he might start crying again.
“But you’ve done this sort of thing before.”
Jennings fell back into the chair. “No, no, no, that was in college, a frat party, we were drunk… How was I supposed to know she was only sixteen?”
Agent Devereaux gestured to Ryan for Jennings’s file. Ryan slid it down the length of the table to Devereaux, who thumbed through it while Ryan continued his questioning.
“The law doesn’t require that you know, only that the victim be under the age of seventeen when you had sex with her.”
“The victim? She was putting out for a bunch of guys at a frat party the next weekend-I saw her!”
Ryan shrugged. “You’re required to register with the police department when you move into town. You didn’t do that, Gary.”
“Yeah, and have my photo plastered across the newspaper again with ‘sex offender’ in big print. I’m branded a sex offender for life and she’s married to a doctor.”
“Why didn’t you register?”
“Because I didn’t want my wife to find out. I wanted a clean start.” Tears welled up in Jennings’s eyes. “I just got drunk at a frat party. I was five days too old for her.”
An exception to the Texas statutory rape statute states that if the defendant is less than three years older than the victim, there is no crime. Jennings was nineteen years, ten months, and twenty-seven days old at the time of the sexual act; the girl was sixteen years, ten months, and twenty-two days old. Five days difference made him a sex offender for life.
“You’re not a child molester?”
Ryan reached over to the file and removed the plastic-wrapped picture of the naked adolescent female found in Jennings’s truck. He pushed it in front of Jennings.
“Well, son, why do you look at pictures like this?”
Jennings glanced at the picture and recoiled.
“I’ve never seen that picture before!”
“It was in your truck, under the floor mat.”
“In my truck?”
“Yes, son, in your truck. Possession of child pornography is a federal crime, Gary-that picture alone can put you in prison for most of your adult life.”
“I don’t know how it got in my truck.”
“Well, what about her jersey? How’d that get in your truck?”
“Gracie’s soccer jersey. It was in the back of your truck, under the bed cover.”
“Her jersey was in my truck?”
“This has gotta be a joke, a big mistake!”
“What about the nine phone calls you made to Gracie last week, are those a big mistake?”
“I never called her!”
“We traced the calls to your cell phone.”
“ My cell phone? I don’t know… I leave the phone in my truck. I never lock it.”
“Because there’s no crime out here, just like the mayor says! Do you lock your car? Maybe someone used my cell phone while I was at work.”
“Oh, okay, someone’s framing you?”
Ryan leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and studied Gary Jennings. Twenty-eight years old with a boyish face and frame, he didn’t look like your typical sexual predator; in fact, he looked like Ryan’s son-in-law, a proctologist in Dallas. And most predators weren’t nearly so convincing in their claims of innocence-the boy was good. But he had made a prior trip through the system, so he knew to deny, deny, deny; juries liked that when they listened to the interrogation tape. Ryan decided to ratchet up the pressure, give the boy something to think about.
“Okay, Gary, let’s summarize your defense for the jury: a sexual predator premeditates his abduction of Gracie weeks in advance. He searches the state’s sex offender database and finds you, a convicted sex offender who just happens to fit his description to a T, who just happens to live three miles from the park, and who just happens to work for Gracie’s father. Then, during the week prior to the abduction, he goes to your place of employment, finds your truck unlocked, plants child pornography in it and uses your cell phone to place nine calls to Gracie. Then, after he abducts Gracie and rapes her and kills her in the woods behind the park, he dumps her body and drives over to your apartment and tosses her jersey in your truck to frame you.” Ryan turned his hands up. “Gary, you’re a smart fella. Do you really expect a jury of adults to believe that?”
Jennings was shaking his head slowly, as if in disbelief. “No… I mean, yes! I guess he could’ve done that, I don’t know. But I didn’t do it!”
“Gary, who’s the jury gonna believe when Gracie’s coach takes the stand and points his finger at you”-which Ryan was now doing-“and says, ‘He’s the man that took Gracie’?”
“I didn’t take her!”
“Okay, Gary. One last question: what else are we gonna find in your truck? FBI’s best people are examining every square inch of that vehicle-are they gonna find Gracie’s fingerprints, her hair, her blood?”
“No! She’s never been in my truck!”
Ryan stood and walked to the door, then turned back to deliver the clincher that would surely have this boy making a tearful confession later today.
“I hope you’re right, son, ’cause if they find her DNA in your truck, that puts her in your vehicle and you on death row.”
Ben had arrived while Agent Devereaux and Chief Ryan were interrogating the suspect. The boy’s face seemed familiar. After a moment, Ben placed him: he was the young man with the pregnant wife who had come up to John at the candlelight vigil Sunday night and offered his sympathy. Ben was standing at the window to the interrogation room when Devereaux and Ryan emerged.
“Drunken sex?” Agent Devereaux said to the chief. “That’s his only prior offense? He and a girl get drunk at a frat party, have sex, she regrets it the next morning and files charges? Jennings pleads out because he’s nineteen and she’s one month from legal and gets probation? That makes him a sexual predator?”
Chief Ryan shrugged. “No defense to stat rape. Besides, he pleaded guilty.”
“To indecency with a child, Paul, so he didn’t spend the next twenty years in prison! This boy hasn’t had a speeding ticket in eight years, all of a sudden he decides to abduct and kill a child?”
Ben stepped forward. “He doesn’t fit the profile. He’s not a loner deviant. He’s married, his wife’s pregnant, he’s about to make a lot of money. No bad news in this boy’s life to trigger the abduction, like your profiler said.” Ben held up the flier with the composite sketch of the suspect that had been distributed to the media immediately after the abduction. “He doesn’t look anything like this guy. And the coach put the abductor at six foot, two hundred pounds. What’s this boy, five-ten, one-fifty?”
“He probably looked taller in the black cap,” Chief Ryan said. “Look, Colonel, we got the bad guy, okay? The coach identified him, he had child porn and Gracie’s jersey in his truck, and he called Gracie nine times last week.” He threw his hands up. “What more do you want?”
“Sorry. The law only gives you a conviction.”
“We’ve got to follow the book or a federal judge will overturn a death penalty.”
Not an hour after the Jennings interrogation, the local mayor and police chief had stood on the front steps of the town hall and proclaimed Gary Jennings guilty of the abduction and murder of Gracie Ann Brice. The locals were always desperate to close a child abduction case-bad for property values; but FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux had refused to participate. He was troubled by Jennings’s demeanor; it wasn’t the demeanor of a sexual predator. Was Jennings that good of a liar? Maybe. But Devereaux decided to wait for the Evidence Response Team’s report before making any judgments about Gary Jennings; he would wait to see if Gracie’s DNA was found in Jennings’s truck. DNA never lied.
But the mayor’s proclamation had brought the family into the command post; Devereaux was now standing on the other side of his desk from Gracie’s parents and grandparents.
“The court’s got to appoint a lawyer to represent Jennings, one with experience in death cases, because the appeals courts will order a retrial if the trial lawyer didn’t know what he was doing. So then we go through another trial all over again, three years down the road.”
“But we’ve got to find Grace!” the mother said.
This was the part that Devereaux always hated. “Mrs. Brice, if Jennings is the abductor, Gracie wasn’t with him. Which means-”
“She’s dead,” the mother said.
“Yes, ma’am. If Jennings is the guy.”
“At least he can tell us where she’s at.”
“Yes, ma’am. If he knows.”
“You’re not sure he’s the abductor, are you?” Colonel Brice asked. “Things don’t fit.”
“No, sir, things don’t fit.”
“Make him take a polygraph,” the colonel said.
“If we administer a polygraph before his lawyer is appointed and he fails, we know he’s guilty but anything we learn from the polygraph may not be admissible.”
“And if he passes?”
“We cut him loose. Polygraphs aren’t admissible in court, but they’re 95 percent reliable, which is a helluva lot better than a jury.”
“What about the other man from the game tape?”
“Colonel, I don’t know. Maybe they weren’t together. Maybe Jennings didn’t know the other man like he says.”
“So what’s the time frame,” the mother asked.
“Several days. The court will appoint a lawyer today, he’ll be arraigned tomorrow. It takes longer to do it right, but if we screw this up, his conviction will be overturned and we’ll never execute Gary Jennings for the murder of your daughter.”
“Well, Eddie, you fucked up the jersey,” the chief said. “Plain sight? In the back of a truck under a bed cover? What, you got X-ray vision?”
Patrol Officer Eddie Yates was sweating. Chief Ryan had called him at home and asked him to come in early before shift change and see him in his office. That had never happened before. Eddie had figured the chief wanted to congratulate him on a job well done. He had figured wrong.
“And the porn picture, now that’s kind of interesting, Eddie, ’cause the only fingerprints they could find on the damn thing were yours. How you figure that?”
The pores on Eddie’s forehead were popping sweat beads like popcorn.
“You entered his truck, searched it, looked under the mat, picked the picture up, and put it back under? How stupid is that?”
“Shit, Chief, I thought I rubbed off my prints.”
“Eddie, you ain’t supposed to tell your chief that, goddamnit!” The chief shook his head. “Damnit, Eddie, that son of a bitch could walk ’cause of you! You’d better pray the FBI boys find her DNA in his truck.”
Barney Fife done screwed up and Sheriff Andy was pissed.
“I’m real sorry, Chief.”
“Did you jimmy the hatch?”
“Oh, no, Chief, I swear I didn’t! It was unlocked, the door, too.”
“Where was the cell phone?”
“In the console. Is that stupid or what? I mean, no one locks their cars in this place, but leaving a cell phone in there? I could’ve taken it, sat in the parking lot, and run out his air time without him knowing it till he got the bill.”
Eddie laughed; the chief didn’t. Instead, he waved Eddie out of his office. Eddie walked to the door then thought of something. He wasn’t sure this was the best time to ask, but he couldn’t wait.
The chief looked up.
“Any way I get some of that reward money?”
The chief blinked hard and said, “You’re shittin’ me?”
Eddie took that for a no. He walked out just as the chief’s secretary stuck her head in and said, “Jennings’s wife is here.”
She was just a kid, really.
Ryan had left the door to his office open so his secretary could see and hear them, him and Jennings’s wife. Debbie Jennings had come in to plead her husband’s innocence. He had reminded her that she could not be compelled to testify against her husband; she said they had nothing to hide. She was twenty-five and seven months’ pregnant. They had married two years ago. She knew nothing of his college conviction.
“That doesn’t mean he’s a child molester,” she said. “Gary would never do anything like that.”
She looked like she hadn’t slept since the arrest. She took deep breaths.
“You okay?” She nodded, but Ryan wasn’t so sure. “Mrs. Jennings, where was Gary Friday night?”
“With me. He got home a little after five, we took our walk-the doctor wants me to walk every day-we ate dinner, watched TV. And we picked out names for the baby. It’s a girl.”
“Did you decide?”
“Nice name.” Paul Ryan wanted a grandchild, but his son-in-law the proctologist wanted a Porsche. “Gary never left the apartment that night?”
“And you never left the apartment?”
“Are there any other witnesses?”
“We usually don’t have sleepovers, Chief. Can anyone other than your wife confirm where you were last night?”
She had a point.
“And your cops found nothing when they ransacked our apartment-they went through my underwear drawer, for God’s sake!”
“Mrs. Jennings, do you know anything about Gracie’s jersey, how it might have gotten into Gary’s truck?”
“No. I’ve told him a hundred times to lock his truck, but he always says that’s why we moved out of the city, because there’s no crime out here. Anyone could have put it in his truck.”
“Not anyone, Mrs. Jennings. Only the abductor. Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about the phone calls?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did Gary ever talk about Gracie?”
“No. The only time he’s ever spoken to Mr. Brice was at the vigil.”
“What about when he hired on?”
She shook her head. “Gary’s only been there six months. Mr. Brice has been in New York most of the time, on the IPO.”
“Why’d Gary go to the vigil?”
“She was his boss’s daughter. The whole town went.”
“Has Gary’s behavior changed in any way since Friday night?”
“Yes, at two this morning when the police kicked our door down and pointed guns at us. He freaked.”
“Did he dispose of any clothing recently?”
“Did he clean his truck over the weekend?”
“Has Gary ever displayed an unusual interest in children?”
“No. Kids drive him nuts.”
“Has he ever referred to children as ‘pure’ or ‘innocent’?”
“No. He thinks my sister’s kids were sent by Satan. Chief, where are you getting these questions, out of a child molester manual?”
He was, in fact.
“Does he have any friends you would describe as deviants or weird?”
“Have you been to his workplace? People there have rings in their ears, noses, tongues, navels, nipples, and genitals. That’s weird.”
He had to agree with her.
“Mrs. Jennings, do you and Gary have a, uh, normal marital relationship?”
“Do we have sex?”
“Yes, Chief, we have sex. Gary likes sex with his wife, not little girls.”
Ryan hesitated. He wasn’t getting very far with her. Of course, he hadn’t told her about the child pornography. He debated whether he should, but he decided that it would come out at trial anyway, probably sooner. So it wasn’t as if he would be intentionally upsetting her. And maybe she would then realize that her husband was guilty and she could pressure him into confessing. Paul Ryan needed a confession to keep his job. So he retrieved the picture from the desk drawer and held it in his lap.
“Mrs. Jennings, does your husband practice pornography?”
“Oh, no, he’s never asked me to do anything like that… well, one time he asked me to put it in my mouth, but I told him that was sinful. He’s never asked again.”
“No, uh, I mean, does he have pornography around the apartment, you know, magazines or movies?”
“No, he doesn’t even get Playboy since he accepted God into his life.”
“Has he ever possessed child pornography?”
“Mrs. Jennings, we found this in Gary’s truck.”
Ryan placed the picture on the desk and slowly pushed it toward her. Her eyes locked on the image, her mouth came open, as if she was about to speak, but no words came out. She looked up at Ryan then back at the picture. Finally, she spoke.
“This was in Gary’s truck?”
“Yes, ma’am, it was.”
Her face went pale. She put her palms on the desk and pushed herself up out of the chair. Halfway up, she suddenly groaned and grabbed at her round belly, down low. She bent over and cried out in pain. She collapsed.
Ryan vaulted to her side of the desk. Blood was on her bare legs.
“Call the paramedics!” he yelled to his secretary.
A risk level 3 offender is defined as an offender for whom there is no basis for concern that the person poses a serious danger to the community or will continue to engage in criminal sexual conduct.
Gary Jennings was a risk level 3 offender.
Elizabeth had logged onto the Texas Department of Public Safety’s online Sex Offender Database. She entered Jennings, Gary in the search box and clicked. Jennings’s photo came up along with his record.
JENNINGS, GARY MICHAEL
DPS NO.: 156870021
RISK LEVEL: 3
EYE COLOR: blu
HAIR COLOR: bln
SHOE SIZE: 085
ALIAS NAMES: Jennings, Gary
1100 Interstate 45
Post Oak, Texas 78901
OFFENSE: Indecency w/child sexual contact
VICTIM’S SEX: Female
VICTIM’S AGE: 16.11
DISPOSITION DATE: 07/08/1998
TIME: 1Y PROBATED
Forty-two thousand registered sex offenders resided in the State of Texas. And one of them had abducted and murdered her daughter.
BriceWare. com Incorporated occupied an abandoned grocery store in a nondescript strip shopping center across the interstate from the affluence of Briarwyck Farms. FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux followed the father through the automatic sliding-glass doors and into the store along with Agents Stevens and Jorgenson. They had come to check Gary Jennings’s workspace and personnel records.
Inside, the cavernous space was, in fact, an empty grocery store. Big neon signs-DAIRY… MEATS… BAKERY… PHARMACY… VIDEOS… PRODUCE-still lit up the walls. Hanging from the ceiling were grocery store fluorescent lights and grocery store aisle markers with product listings. But where the aisles of groceries used to stand were now aisles of low cubicles; heads bobbed up and down. Young men and women, boys and girls really, glided by on rollerblades or personal scooters, headphones wrapped around their skulls, their ears and noses adorned with rings, their arms and ankles with tattoos, their hair representing all the colors of the rainbow; some pushed grocery carts filled with mail or boxes; they were dressed like they were at a rock concert instead of a business. If there was anyone over the age of twenty-five, Devereaux had yet to see him or her. The workplace of this high-tech company looked more like the cafeteria during lunch at his daughter’s high school. And the father looked more like a skinny teenager than the chief executive officer of a company worth billions.
At the CUSTOMER SERVICE desk a young receptionist with purple hair and narrow black-framed glasses stood abruptly when she saw the father; her neon-red shirt did not cover her navel, which was pierced with a silver ring. She stepped to the father and put her head in his chest, then she wrapped her arms around him. The father patted her stiffly.
“Oh, Kahuna,” she said softly. She released the father and wiped her eyes. “How could he hurt her? He seemed like a righteous dude. I mean, he was here yesterday, like he hadn’t done anything.” She shook her head. “The real world is too random.” She bit her pierced lower lip. “I’ll really miss her.”
The father nodded and said in almost a whisper, “Terri, tell everyone the IPO will go forward tomorrow. They deserve it.”
Terri nodded. “Okay, Boss. But just so you know-the IPO’s cool and all, but we’re here because of you. You’re the man.”
The father sighed and stared off into space for a moment. Then he said, “Yeah… I’m the man. Where’s Jennings’s cube?”
The young woman checked her computer screen. “Cookies and Crackers, cube twenty-three.”
Devereaux and his agents followed the father toward the PHARMACY sign and past the VIDEO section where a collection of foosball, air hockey tables, and road racing simulators stood, an exercise room, a coffee stand, an open area with a regulation basketball hoop, and a dozen soda and snack machines standing along the wall like suspects in a lineup. A young Hispanic male with platinum-blond hair was banging on the side of a Red Bull vending machine. The father stopped so they stopped.
“The dang thing stole my money again!” He glanced up at the father. “Oh, sorry, Boss. I mean, not about this, but, uh, you know, about…”
The father eyed the young man, then he stared down the machine like Devereaux’s daughter stared down the goal before attempting a free throw. Then he suddenly swung his right foot up in some kind of karate kick and drove the heel of his shoe into the side of the machine: BAMM! The machine rocked back and forth, settled, and spat out two cans of Red Bull.
The Hispanic man grinned broadly, grabbed the two cans, and said, “Cool. A freebie.” Then to the father: “You da man.”
He held his fist out to the father. They bumped fists like the pro athletes do, then the Hispanic man walked off in one direction and they walked off in the opposite direction. They turned up an aisle marked Cookies and Crackers. Chairs in the cubicles swiveled away from computer screens as they walked past; behind them, heads poked out from the cubicles.
They arrived at cubicle twenty-three, a small crowded space, maybe six feet by six feet; two adults could not occupy the cubicle simultaneously because most of the space was taken up by a computer perched on a slim table, a few drawers, and boxes stacked on the floor. The walls of the cubicle were covered with yellow stickums, company memos, and pictures of Jennings and his wife smiling, kissing, and hugging-and one of Jennings patting her swollen belly. He did not appear to be a psychological time bomb. He was wearing a black baseball cap in one photo.
“Stevens,” Devereaux said, “you take the cubicle. Find out if Jennings contacted Gracie through his computer or accessed child porn sites from here, then box up his personal belongings.” To the father: “Personnel files.”
The father silently led Devereaux and Jorgenson toward the DAIRY section of the company.
Elizabeth pointed the remote at the TV and increased the volume. The reporter was saying, “A convicted sex offender sits in jail this Tuesday night, arrested in the early morning hours for the abduction of Gracie Ann Brice last Friday. Gary Jennings worked for the victim’s father, where he apparently became acquainted with Gracie. He made nine calls to Gracie in the week preceding her abduction. Gracie’s jersey was found in his truck, along with child pornography. Although not confirmed, sources tell us that traces of blood were also found in his truck. DNA tests are underway to determine if it is in fact Gracie’s. Jennings will be charged with kidnapping, murder, and possession of child pornography. While this community holds out hope, authorities concede privately that Gracie Ann Brice is presumed dead.”
Their bond was unbroken.
She had come to him. She was showing him the way. She’s up north, where it’s cold. Where there’s snow on the ground. Where the trees stand tall.
But where up north?
Ben had found the weather channel on the pool house TV. The entire northern part of the country was under a blanket of snow from a late spring snowstorm. Was Gracie in Washington or Montana or Minnesota or Michigan or Maine? He didn’t have time to cover three thousand miles. He needed to be pointed in the right direction.
Ben was hoping the FBI’s computer printout of leads would do just that. After returning from the police station, he had spent the rest of the day reading 3,316 lead sheets for sightings of blonde girls. None sounded promising. All were in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New and Old Mexico, where there was no snow on the ground in early April and nowhere near timber country. Ben turned the page to sighting number 3,317: Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Clayton Lee Tucker had just about gotten the wheel bearings back in when the phone rang. Well, it was just going to have to ring. It did. Ten, fifteen, twenty times-whoever it was, they weren’t going away.
He was working late, as usual. Since the wife had died, he didn’t have much else to do. The phone kept ringing. Hell, some old lady might be broken down somewhere. Clayton Lee Tucker had never failed to help a little old lady broken down in his part of Idaho.
Clayton slowly pushed his seventy-five-year-old body up off the cold concrete floor, looked around for a rag, gave up, and wiped his greasy hands on the legs of his insulated overalls. He limped the twenty feet from the repair bay to the desk inside the shop; his arthritis was inflamed by the cold. He picked up the phone.
“Is Clayton Lee Tucker available?”
“You got him.”
“Mr. Tucker, I’m calling about the girl.”
“Hold on a minute, let me wipe some of this grease off.”
Clayton set the phone down on the desk and stepped over to the wash bin. He squirted the industrial-strength cleaner on his cracked hands and washed them under the running water. After fifty years of fixing cars, his hands looked like road maps; the black grease filled every wrinkle line. They would never come clean. He wiped his hands dry and picked up the phone again.
“Sorry about that. You with the FBI?”
“No, sir. I’m the girl’s grandfather. Ben Brice.”
“Got three grandkids of my own, that’s why I called the FBI number.”
“You saw the girl Sunday, with two men?”
“Yep, they come dragging in here, maybe eight, eight-thirty, leaking oil like a busted pipeline. I’m the only fool open on Sunday night. Got nothing better to do, I guess.”
“Can you describe her?”
“Yellow hair, ratty, short-thought she was a boy at first, but she was too pretty to be a boy. And she was wearing pink.”
“Why do you think it was her?”
“Seen her picture, online.”
“Did you call because of the reward?”
“I don’t want your money, Ben. I called ’cause the girl looked like the picture and ’cause she looked scared and cold.”
“What’s your weather like?”
“Colder’n a well-digger’s ass. Up in the panhandle, they got upwards of three foot of snow.”
“What kind of vehicle were they driving?”
“Blazer, ’90 model, four-wheel drive, 350 V-8, white, dirty. They were on the road a while, said they was heading north. They were in a big hurry, wanted me to work through the night. I told ’em, you can’t hurry a ring job. Finished up last night, Monday, about nine, got it running pretty good. I ain’t got no help, so that’s the best I could do. Big man, he picked it up first thing this morning. Paid cash. After they left, I was checking my Schwab account and I saw an Amber Alert on my homepage, with her picture. That’s when I called.”
“Can you describe the two men?”
“Didn’t get a good look at the driver. He stayed in the car with the girl.”
“The other man, what about him?”
“Looked like that California governor, Arnold Schwarzenberger, real muscled-up fella. Crew cut, fatigues, Army boots, short gray hair. We see them types every now and then, militia boys wanna play GI Joe.”
“Did you get a license number?”
“No. But they was Idaho plates.”
“Well, I ain’t much at reading lips, but I’d swear she said help me.”
“Mr. Tucker, do they grow Christmas trees in northern Idaho?”
“Biggest industry up there.”
“Mr. Tucker, I appreciate your time… How did you know the second man was muscled-up?”
Clayton chuckled. “Hell, it’s about fifteen degrees outside, and he ain’t wearing nothin’ but a black tee shirt.”
“His arms were bare?”
“Yep… had the damnedest tattoo I’ve ever seen.”
John was eating dinner with a spoon: a dozen Oreo cookies crushed in milk. It was his favorite meal, but he didn’t taste anything.
Because he was no longer living. He was just going through the motions of life, like one of those creations in the MIT Humanoid Robotics Laboratory. All day, he had engaged in what appeared to be human activities-eating, walking, taking the FBI to the office-but they weren’t. There was no conscious human thought behind his actions.
His only thoughts were of Gracie.
He spat a mouthful of the mushy Oreos into the kitchen sink, a black blob of nothing. Like his life.
“You want refried beans with that?”
Coach Wally was working the late Tuesday shift in the drive-through window at the Taco House out on the interstate. He stood in the small booth, taking orders from motorists hungry for a quick burrito, chalupa, or taco, bagging the orders, making change, and asking each customer the same question: You want refried beans with that?
Over the intercom: “No!”
Into the intercom: “That’ll be seven-twenty-three. Please drive up to the window.”
Wally Fagan clicked off the intercom’s transmit button, grabbed a bag, and went back to the kitchen.
“Hey, Wally, you da mon, mon!” Juaquin Jaramillo, the night cook, said. “Puttin’ that kid fucker in jail, that’s real good, mon.”
Juaquin gestured at Wally with a large spoon dripping refried beans on the cement floor.
“Mon, some mu’fucka wanna try an’ stick his dick in one a my girls …”
Juaquin continued his nonstop rant, which came out in a kind of rap rhythm, as he scooped refried beans onto two flour tortillas, dropped a handful of grated cheddar cheese on top of each, folded the bottoms, rolled them into neat burritos, then wrapped them in the Taco House trademark serving paper.
“… make a fuckin’ burrito outta it, pour some chili over it, feed it to my dog, mon.”
Juaquin thought that was real funny.
“Ya understan’ what I’m sayin’, mon?”
Wally nodded at Juaquin, then he filled the bag with the two bean-and-cheese burritos, chips and salsa, and two Dr Peppers. He returned to the drive-through booth and reached out the window for the customer’s money; he handed the change back to the customers, a man at the wheel and a woman passenger leaning over and looking up at him.
“You’re Gracie’s coach, right?”
Wally nodded. “Yeah.”
“Good job, getting that pervert off our streets,” she said.
The man gave him a thumbs up.
Wally held out their bag of food. They took it, waved, and drove off; they had taped Gracie’s missing-child flier to the rear window. Wally gave them a weak wave. He felt slightly nauseous and not because he had eaten three of Juaquin’s burritos for dinner-because his gut was stewing with doubt. Something wasn’t right about Gary Jennings. He just couldn’t put his finger on it.
Wally had played and replayed Friday night in his head, trying to figure out why his ID of Jennings didn’t feel right: He’s standing with the team at the concession stand after the game, getting down on his cherry snow cone… Gracie comes running past, heading around back
… The man, blond hair, blue eyes, black cap, plaid shirt, walks up and says, “I’m Gracie’s uncle. Her mother, my sister, sent me to get her. Her grandma had a stroke. Where’s she at?” Wally answers, “Around back.” “That way?” the man says, and he points with his right hand, his fingers…
The intercom buzzed with another drive-through customer. Wally extended his right arm and with his right index finger he flicked on the transmit button and said, “You want refried beans with that?”
And he froze.
Vic Neal, a sixth-year associate recently relocated to the Dallas office of Crane McWhorter, a prestigious 1,900-lawyer Wall Street firm, gazed upon his newest client curled up in a fetal position on the cot in the jail cell and facing the concrete wall.
“Jennings,” the guard said. “Your lawyer’s here.”
Jennings didn’t move. The guard shrugged, opened the cell door, allowed Vic entry, and then closed and locked the door behind him. Vic pulled the metal chair over near the cot, sat down, placed his briefcase in his lap, opened it, and removed a yellow pad and a pen. He closed the briefcase and wrote at the top of the pad: Gary Jennings/State of Texas v. Gary Jennings/99999.9909. The client’s name, the client matter, and the client billing number, in this case the firm’s marketing number. It was a habit ingrained from his first day at the firm; a Crane McWhorter lawyer didn’t take a crap without writing down a client billing number first.
Of course, this client would never get a bill. The firm had taken this case pro bono: for the good. For the good of Crane McWhorter’s marketing program, that is. A high-profile death penalty case guaranteed invaluable publicity for the firm and the lawyer handling the case. As Old Man McWhorter had said on more than one occasion, “Clients can’t hire you unless they know you.” And as the number of lawyers trolling for clients from D.C. to L.A. had reached three-million-plus, the need to get known had reached epidemic proportions among the learned members of the bar.
So now you can’t turn around and not bump into a lawyer trying to get known. In the name of marketing, lawyers insinuate themselves into and onto every city council, county commission, civic committee, charity, church, club, conflict, crisis, controversy, commotion, corridor of power, or cause celebre. Vic Neal had chosen causes celebres, in particular, death penalty cases; he had recently transferred to the Dallas office because Texas was executing prisoners faster than Saddam Hussein in his heyday. When the call had come tonight, he had jumped at the opportunity to represent a sexual predator facing death by lethal injection.
Crane McWhorter, on the advice of its marketing consultant, had begun accepting death penalty cases a year after Vic had joined the firm. At first, the firm took only appeals, the sanitized version of the crime. Reading the transcript of a gruesome murder trial was considerably less painful than reading a legal thriller, and the firm’s Ivy League-educated lawyers didn’t have to personally meet face-to-face with a stone-cold killer. Appeals courts address only legal technicalities, not whether the defendants were actually guilty, which of course they always were. But, to the firm’s dismay, appeals cases generated minimal publicity, not all that surprising since the cases were argued a year or two after the verdict, long after the victim had faded from the public’s short attention span. The time to reap the full publicity value of a vicious murder was at trial, when emotions and media interest ran the highest. So the firm began taking cases at the trial stage.
Vic had tried his first death penalty case four years ago and his sixth last summer, a black man accused of raping and murdering a white woman in Marfa, Texas-in godforsaken West Texas. The trial had lasted ten days: ten days of hundred-degree heat, ten days of popping Tums after Tex-Mex and chicken-fried lunches, ten days of media briefings on the Presidio County Courthouse steps after each day’s testimony, dozens of reporters and TV cameras-even the BBC-all focused on Vic Neal, defender of the oppressed.
He had especially enjoyed the BBC reports, whose correspondent had always said something like: “Ian Smythe reporting from Marfa, Texas, a desolate spot in a vast desert frontier known as West Texas, a dusty locale whose only claim to fame is that Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson filmed the American movie Giant here in 1955. Now, fifty years later, another American drama is being played out here in a Presidio County courtroom, starring a dashing young American lawyer from New York, Vic Neal, fighting to prevent the State of Texas from executing yet another impoverished black man…” That case had made Vic Neal a “prominent” trial lawyer. The defendant- what was his name? — had been convicted and executed last year. Which was surely the fate of this defendant.
“Gary.” No response. “Gary, I’m Vic Neal, your lawyer. The court appointed me.”
Jennings slowly rolled over and sat up.
“Shit, what happened to your face? The cops beat you up?”
Jennings shook his head.
“The FBI? That’s even better.”
Another shake of his head. “The mother,” he said.
“The mother? Elizabeth Brice kicked your… did that to you?”
A nod of the head. “She kneed me in the balls, too.”
Vic knew of Elizabeth Brice-white-collar defense, tough as nails, foul-mouthed, great body. Criminal defense was man’s work and she fit right in.
“Well, guess we can’t make anything of that.” Vic thumbed through his notes. “Did you really have stock options worth a million bucks?”
“And you threw that away to have sex with your boss’s ten-year-old daughter? Well, I suppose we could plead insanity.”
A little gallows humor to break the ice. Vic chuckled; Jennings didn’t.
“Our goal, Gary, is to keep you off death row. To do that you must show remorse. Juries like that. And you can start showing some remorse by telling the police what you did with the girl’s body.”
“I didn’t take the girl!”
Vic leaned back in the chair and sighed. How many times had he heard that? Every death penalty defendant he had represented was utterly and completely innocent- I was framed! — right up to the moment they strapped him to the gurney and inserted the needle, then he’s begging God to forgive him for brutally killing a family of four because he wanted a new stereo.
“You know, Gary, if you lie to your lawyer, I can’t help you. Understand, this case isn’t a question of acquittal or conviction, it’s a question of life or death. Your life or your death. Life without parole would be a great victory, given the overwhelming evidence against you.”
“I want a lie-detector test!”
“Well, yeah, Gary, you could do that. And when you fail and the D.A. tells the world you failed, you will absolutely get the death penalty because every juror will know you’re guilty before the trial even starts. We won’t have a chance for any sympathy from even one juror to get you a life sentence.”
“But I didn’t do it! I was framed! Why don’t you find who put that picture in my truck, and her jersey, and made those calls? I’m innocent!”
“Her blood in your truck, but you’re innocent?”
Vic nodded. “FBI confirmed it’s hers with DNA tests. Media’s already got hold of it, but it’ll be officially announced tomorrow morning, right before your arraignment. So don’t even think about bail. This is home sweet home, pal.”
“But how did Gracie’s blood get in my truck?”
What an innocent face this guy could put on! Vic couldn’t help but laugh.
“Save the O.J. imitation for trial, Gary. Nobody planted blood in the white Bronco and nobody planted blood in your black truck.”
Vic checked his watch and stood.
“Look, I gotta go, I’ll see you at the arraignment. I’m gonna be on Nightline, railing against the death penalty. Time I’m through, I’ll have that McFadden broad crying like a baby wanting a bottle.”
Network television that night was like election night, all focused on one subject: Grace Ann Brice. Strangers abduct children for sex. A child abducted by a stranger has a life expectancy of three hours. Grace’s blood in Jennings’s truck. Presumed dead. Every channel, the same words, over and over again. Elizabeth was in bed crying when John walked into the master suite. She muted the TV and quickly wiped her face.
John disappeared into his bathroom without saying a word. She hit the volume and switched channels. She stopped again on Nightline. Jennings’s court-appointed lawyer wasn’t claiming his client was innocent, only that the death penalty was barbaric. How can he represent a guilty pedophile? Her guilty clients had only stolen money, not a child’s life.
Fifteen minutes later, John reappeared in plaid pajamas; his hair was wet and combed back. With the black glasses, he looked like a skinny Clark Kent. She again muted the TV. He walked to the bed and paused as if he wanted to say something, then decided against it and continued to the door.
He had slept in Grace’s room the first two nights; Elizabeth had thrown him out of their bedroom last night and the remote control at him. The rage. Now she was scared and alone and her child was presumed dead- God, her blood in his truck — and she needed someone to hold her, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask her husband, not after what she had done to him. What the rage had done to him.
If she asked, he would come and hold her. He would say he loved her. He would forgive her. He always forgave her. If she could ever let go of the past- Let go? If she could ever escape the past — perhaps she could love John as he loved her. He wanted her love, and she often found herself wanting to love him. There was something inside John R. Brice, something beneath the brainy geek facade. Something worth loving. But she could not love him as long as she hated herself. Her past wouldn’t allow it.
John stopped at the door, turned back, and said. “She was my daughter, too. I loved her just as much as you did.” He walked out and shut the door behind him.
Ben stood at the door to the command post. Agent Devereaux was gone, as were most of the agents. The young female FBI agent he had met-Jorgenson, he thought-sat at one computer station, telephone headset on, talking and typing. But the intensity level of the command post had noticeably decreased, as if the battle were over.
Ben laid the lead sheet on Devereaux’s desk, sighting number 3,317, Idaho Falls, Idaho, and wrote in the margin: Spoke to this Clayton Lee Tucker. Said he saw a blonde girl with two men, one with a tattoo, muscular, wearing a black tee shirt, at his gas station Sunday evening. If that was Gracie, you’ve got the wrong man in jail.
The wrong man was in jail and Gracie was in Idaho, where it was cold and where the trees stood tall and where snow covered the ground-a white blanket of snow. Not that the FBI would release Jennings on the basis of Ben’s dream. But once Clayton Tucker positively identified the men or the tattoo or Gracie from the FBI’s photos, they would. And if not then, surely after Jennings got a lawyer and passed a polygraph.
Ben Brice had spent six months in a POW camp; he figured one night in the town jail wouldn’t kill the boy.
“Jesus, boy, she sure kicked your ass!”
Jim Bob Basham, the night-shift jail guard, looked in through the steel bars at the sicko pervert. He was slumped on his cot in his cell, his head was buried in his hands, and he was crying. The mother’s attack on Jennings had made the rounds at town hall.
“How’s your nuts? Don’t that make you wanna just puke your guts up, getting kneed in the nuts? Shit, makes me wanna puke just thinking about it.”
No response from the pervert. Jim Bob figured, fuck being nice to him.
“Jennings, if I was you, I’d be praying they give me the death penalty, that’s a fact.”
The pervert raised his head.
“Yeah, see, that way they put you on death row, segregate you from the general population. You get life, you’re in with the rest of the inmates-the gangbangers, the Aryans, the Latinos, the brothers. Nothing they’d like more than to wear your ass out, and I don’t mean what the mother did to you.”
A confused expression from Jennings; the dumb ass didn’t understand what Jim Bob was saying. Jim Bob figured he’d put it in plain English, maybe the pervert could understand that.
“Those dudes gonna butt-fuck you five times a day, girlfriend. Time they get through with you, your asshole’s gonna be the size of a water main.”
Jim Bob cackled as he walked down the empty cell corridor. Water main, that was a good one.
“Yep,” he shouted back to the pervert, “they just love child molesters.”
Minutes later, Gary Jennings was alone, standing in the jail cell, in near darkness, only a dim red glow from the emergency exit lights.
It had taken him eight years, his father’s death, moving to another city, marrying Debbie, and getting a job to get over that college incident. Or so he had thought. He now knew he would never get over it. And he would never get over this.
In the morning he would be marched into the courthouse through a gauntlet of cameras to be formally charged with abducting, raping, and killing Gracie Ann Brice. His face would be on national TV again: Gary Jennings, child molester, sexual predator, murderer. And Debbie-poor, sweet Debbie, she didn’t deserve this. But they’d stick the cameras in her face just the same and identify her as the wife of the child molester, sexual predator, and murderer, pregnant with their child who would forever be identified as the daughter of the child molester, sexual predator, and murderer. She’d be like Lee Harvey Oswald’s daughter.
He had never told Debbie about his college conviction-what was she thinking of her wonderful husband now? And what would his daughter think of her father when she learned all this? There would be no education trust for her. No vested stock options worth a million dollars. No house for Debbie. No company of his own. No future. He would be forever shamed. As Debbie would be. More like devastated. They would have to move to yet another city- if Debbie believed him. If he was acquitted.
But how would he be? Gracie’s blood in his truck. Child pornography and her jersey. Calls from his cell phone. The coach pointing at him in court. Overwhelming evidence, the lawyer had said. Who would believe Gary Jennings, Fuckup?
Gary’s only prior experience with the law eight years ago had taught him that the American criminal justice system was about everything but truth and justice. Which was why he had agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and receive probation, on his lawyer’s recommendation.
“Gary,” his lawyer had told him, “if you’re willing to put your life in the hands of twelve citizens who ain’t even smart enough to get out of jury duty in the first place and who’d rather be catching the Early Bird specials at the Wal-Mart instead of sitting in that jury box deciding your fate in the second place, then we need to change your plea to not guilty by reason of insanity because you’re fucking nuts!”
Gary Jennings would surely be convicted. Then what? Death row, waiting a decade to die by lethal injection? Or life without parole, waiting for the next inmate to enter his cell and rape him, eventually contracting AIDS and dying a long, slow, painful death? Debbie would divorce him and his daughter would never know him or want to. His parents were dead, he had no siblings, he soon would have no one. He was destined to die a lonely fuckup.
Darkness enveloped his mind as hot tears ran down his face. He felt so alone, so empty, so without faith, hope, or a future. His life was over. That he was still breathing was just a technicality. He looked up. There was only one thing to do.
Gary Jennings unzipped his white jail pants.
Lying awake last night, Chief of Police Paul Ryan had begun having doubts about the prime suspect. Had Gary Jennings really abducted and murdered Gracie Ann Brice? All the evidence said yes: the jersey, the porn, the phone calls, the prior offense, the coach’s ID, and now her blood, but still… it just didn’t seem to fit. It was too pat. All the evidence pointed at Jennings when it shouldn’t. An educated employee at a computer company stalking the boss’s daughter? Calling from his own cell phone at work, no attempt to cover his tracks? Leaving her jersey in his truck? Child porn under the floor mat? Was Jennings really that stupid? And if that dumb-ass Eddie had found Jennings’s truck unlocked, who else might have?
A thorough search of his truck by the FBI’s finest turned up nothing but a thin blood smear, not another piece of evidence that put Gracie in his truck, not her hair or fingerprints or fibers from her clothes or grass from the soccer field or leaves from the woods. And the coach’s ID wasn’t all that positive, even though Jennings fit the suspect’s general description.
Of course, Jennings’s photo and residence address were on the state’s sex offender website; anyone who wanted to find a blond, blue-eyed convicted sex offender living in the county could easily do so. But one who worked for the victim’s father? What were the odds of that? And why would anyone want to? To frame a sex offender? It made no sense. He weighed in his mind the upside and downside of looking deeper and quickly decided there was no upside, at least not for Paul Ryan.
Fifty-two years old, there were no other police jobs out there for him. This was the end of the line. Seventy-five thousand a year plus benefits. Eight more years, he would earn his pension. Enough to retire to a little house in Sun City, him and the wife. A good life, or at least good enough. Was he willing to throw it all away for Jennings? For that little frat-boy fuckup? Hell, maybe his big-time lawyer can prove the boy is innocent. Not likely in an emotionally charged high-profile child abduction case-death by lethal injection, that was this boy’s future. But that wasn’t Ryan’s fault; that was the law! Why should Paul Ryan risk his financial security for this boy? On the off chance that Jennings might not be the abductor? Even a step in that direction would cost Ryan his job-the mayor would not be pleased-and where would that leave him? Unemployed and unemployable. No health care. No pension. Working at the Wal-Mart. He could not think of one good reason to look deeper.
Except that it was the right thing to do.
And there was the baby. The baby named Sarah was lying in the neonatal unit in critical condition, born almost two months’ premature. Was the baby on Paul Ryan’s tab? Damnit, he didn’t put the victim’s blood and jersey in Jennings’s truck! He didn’t make nine phone calls to the victim! He didn’t haul Jennings’s pregnant wife into the station!
But he did show her the porn.
Because he needed a confession to keep his job, a baby might die. So Paul Ryan felt guilty-a guilt that kept him awake through the night and pacing the house until a sense of shame had overwhelmed him: Baby Sarah.
By 4:00 A.M., whether born of a need for personal redemption or simply sleep deprivation, Paul Ryan had made a life-altering decision: he would do the right thing.
By 6:00 A.M., Jennings had done it for him.
Ryan was standing outside Gary Jennings’s cell, looking in at his lifeless form hanging there, one leg of his white jail pants tied around his neck, the other tied around the pipes of the new sprinkler system the town had installed last month to meet code.
Innocent suspects don’t commit suicide.
It was Wednesday morning and Coach Wally was whistling as he walked up to the entrance to the Post Oak Town Hall. Unlike most visitors who would arrive today to pay traffic tickets, Wally Fagan was a happy man. Happy and a bit proud of himself-heck, he felt so downright patriotic he wanted to salute his reflection in the glass doors.
He was here to free an innocent man.
At the entrance, Wally paused and checked himself over and adjusted the clip-on tie he had added to his short-sleeve shirt just in case cameras were present. Shoot, he might even make the national news, maybe even get interviewed by Katie Couric. They might even call him a hero.
He pulled open the door and entered the building. Just inside the door was a security checkpoint with metal detectors, like at the airport, manned by a uniformed cop. Wally began emptying his pockets into a small plastic container but looked up when another cop hurried over; he was grinning like he had just won a lifetime supply of donuts.
“Sonofabitch offed himself!”
The other cop’s mouth fell open. “No shit?”
“Yep.” The grinning cop grabbed his neck, stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth, and made a gagging sound. “Hung himself in his cell last night. Course, he might’ve been playing some kind of perverted sex game with himself.”
The two cops laughed merrily, but a sick feeling crept over Wally. He didn’t want to ask, but he had to know.
The grinning cop turned his way and said, “Jennings. Guy that abducted Gracie.”
“He’s… dead? ”
“As a doornail. Did the world a favor. No trial, no appeals, no execution. Case is closed.”
At that moment, the double doors behind Wally flew open and excited reporters and cameramen rushed inside and pushed past Wally.
“Is it true?” they shouted. “Jennings committed suicide?”
“Yep,” the first cop said, waving them through the checkpoint without checking. “Give himself the death penalty.”
In a split-second, Wally Fagan’s mind played out two alternate paths in life for him to choose from, as clearly as if he were watching a movie of his life, a choice he knew would determine the future course of his life. The first path was to continue inside, straight to the chief’s office, which would be crowded with the media, stand in front of the microphones and bright lights and cameras and tell the world what he knew, what he had remembered last night at work: the blond man in the black cap and plaid shirt who had asked about Gracie after the game was missing his right index finger. Gary Jennings was not. He had all of his fingers. Jennings was not the abductor. He was innocent. But now he was dead. And it was Wally’s fault. That’s what they would say-the chief, the press, the FBI, Jennings’s pregnant wife, the world. Wally Fagan would make the national news all right, but they wouldn’t call him a hero. They would blame him for the death of an innocent man.
Someone is always blamed.
Wally chose the second path. He retrieved his personal items from the small plastic container, stuffed them into his pockets, and exited the building, vowing to take his secret to the grave.
At seven in the morning Texas time, being eight on the floor of the NASDAQ exchange in New York City, only ninety minutes prior to the opening trade in the BriceWare. com IPO-that is, on the day all of his dreams were supposed to come true-the company founder, president and CEO, chairman of the board, and creative genius, John R. Brice, who boasted a Ph. D. in algorithms from MIT and a 190 IQ, lay crashed on the couch in his home office. He was curled up under a Boston Red Sox souvenir blanket. His boyish face was buried in the thick folds of soft leather where the couch back met the seat. He was wondering why his wife did not love him.
And he was sure she did not love him.
They had had sex exactly two hundred forty-nine times-twice a month for the ten years and four months they had been married plus once before marriage. Which sounded like a lot of sex when you said it out loud, way more than he had ever hoped for at MIT, once every fifteen days. But then, major league pitchers take the mound every fifth day. FYA (For Your Amusement), during the same period, Roger Clemens had pitched three hundred two games!
He didn’t think Elizabeth enjoyed sex with him, much less had orgasms. But he was too afraid to ask. Little Johnny Brice had asked his only other sex partner, a sixteen-year-old Army brat who had done every soldier’s son before him at Fort Bragg, if she had had an orgasm; she had laughed in his face and said, “It takes me longer than five seconds, stud.”
Sex was not plug and play.
For him, sex was plug and pray, female orgasms being so highly nontrivial and all, what with hardware that had to be booted and software that had to be tweaked for optimal performance. No point-and-click on the female architecture. No Help button. No Progasm Wizard to guide him through the procedure. So he had searched for technical solutions, even buying a user’s manual- The Female Orgasmand learned to his dismay that writing twenty-five thousand lines of code was cake compared to bringing a full-grown female to orgasm. But John R. Brice, Ph. D., was nothing if not determined; he had devoted his considerable intelligence to learning the deep magic of orgasms, because he knew, as well as he knew the back of his computer, that if he could take Elizabeth Brice to orgasm just once- just freaking once! — her indifferent attitude toward him would instantly morph into extreme love.
Geeks need love, too.
He had studied the manual’s recommended troubleshooting techniques as if studying for a final exam at MIT, applying a new one every two weeks until he had tried them all; he even did algorithms in his head during sex to prevent premature cache burst. In the hacker world, that was known as the brute-force method, trying every conceivable solution to a problem until you found one that worked. He had employed that method on numerous occasions at work and with great success. But not with Elizabeth. He had no doubt that pilot error was to blame, that he simply wasn’t up to the manly task of driving a beautiful and complex woman like Elizabeth to brain-banging orgasms-as they say in the tech support department when the customer doesn’t have a clue, PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair). John R. Brice didn’t have a clue.
And the few times he had thought the techniques might be enabling her, when he had felt her body responding to his hardware, just at the moment when he thought she might experience a power surge, she seemed to freeze up, as if he had performed an illegal operation and her control panel shut down her program. He had downloaded his content and uninserted his floppy; she had gotten out of bed, gone into the bathroom, and left him alone to wallow in unexplained failure. Why didn’t women come with a freaking Error Message box?
He had never forgotten her birthday, their anniversary, Valentine’s Day, or Mother’s Day, always sending flowers and gifts to her office. He had even signed up with the company’s personal trainer and worked out daily. But his efforts had had no discernible romantic effect. He should have taken Gracie’s advice, upgraded his graphics, dressed in cool clothes, gotten a stylish haircut, and ditched the glasses for laser eye surgery. She had said he’d be totally studly then. Which had sounded like a good thing.
If only being totally studly would have brought him Elizabeth’s love.
But he had lived for ten years without her love and without regret, from the moment he had first laid eyes on Gracie in the hospital nursery. It didn’t matter if he loved Elizabeth more than she loved him because Gracie’s love more than made up the difference. Now Gracie’s love was gone. And for the first time in ten years, he felt the difference, an emptiness inside him that no IPO could fill.
Someone sat down on the couch next to him and put a hand on him, over the blanket. He prayed it was Elizabeth, that she had come down to tell him that together they would survive without Gracie, to ask if she could lie next to him and hold him, to whisper that she loved him with all her heart.
Ben sat next to John on the couch, quietly so as not to wake him, and rested his hand on his only son. He recalled the day in 1969 they had brought John home, wrapped in an Army blanket and in desperate need of a father. But all he had gotten was a mother. A month later, Lieutenant Ben Brice had returned to Vietnam to free the oppressed.
He had failed.
By the time Ben had left Vietnam for good, John had already departed on his lifelong journey leading away from Ben Brice, two wounded souls fighting their own demons. Army life had been tough on John; he hadn’t fit in with the other Army brats on the bases where they had been stationed over the next decade as the Army tried to hide the most decorated soldier of the Vietnam War-tried to find a way to forget a war and its warriors. Ben would have left the Army, but he couldn’t; he needed twenty years of service to qualify for a pension to take care of his family. It wasn’t as if Colonel Ben Brice’s peculiar skills were in great demand in the private sector.
At least John’s life had become his own when he left Fort Bragg and North Carolina for Boston and MIT, a perfect score on the entrance exams and a full scholarship in his pocket, the same year that Ben had quietly retired. But Ben Brice’s life would never be his own; a warrior’s life is forever a chattel of war.
John turned over. His eyes expressed undeniable disappointment, as if Ben Brice were the last person on earth he wanted to see at that moment. Father and son regarded each other silently. Then John spoke.
“Why’d you come, Ben? I grew up without you. Only time you came home was to move us to another base, another school, another set of bullies to beat up the geek. And you didn’t save those people-you lost your great war. You were an American hero and what’d it get you? You live with a dog.” He sat up. “You weren’t there when I needed you. I don’t need you now.”
His son’s words hit Ben like a two-by-four across the face. He gritted his teeth to hold back his emotions.
“I know you don’t need me, son. I failed you, and for that I am sorry. Maybe one day you’ll find a way to forgive me.” He stood. “But this isn’t about us, John. This is about Gracie. She does need me, and I’m not going to fail her, too. I’m leaving for Idaho in the morning.”
“ Idaho? What’s in Idaho?”
Kate was standing at the door.
The tires on the Lexus sedan screeched to an abrupt stop in the handicapped parking zone directly in front of the town hall. If any of the police officers standing on the sidewalk and watching in amazement had detained the woman wearing a nylon warm-up suit and sneakers and no makeup, her black hair pushed back behind her ears but otherwise untouched this morning, and asked her if she knew she was parked illegally, she could have said no and passed a polygraph.
The woman ran up the sidewalk and into the building and directly through the metal detectors without slowing, setting off loud alarms. The cop manning the security desk intercepted the woman, but once he recognized her, he retreated and followed at a respectful distance. She proceeded through the lobby and into the police chief’s office; the chief sat alone behind his desk.
“I want to see him,” the woman demanded.
The chief looked the woman up and down-she looked like hell-then he sighed and nodded slowly. He waved off the cop from the security desk. He stood and led the woman down halls and through secure doors and into the small jail; neither spoke a word as town personnel along the way recognized her but quickly averted their eyes from her. From the entrance to the jail corridor, the woman could see several police officers and FBI agents standing outside an open cell door; a photographer was snapping pictures from various angles. As the woman came closer, the photographer’s subject gradually came into view until it fully confronted her: Gary Jennings’s body, hanging limp from the sprinkler pipes.
The officers looked at the woman then at the chief for instructions. He gestured with his head; the officers parted and allowed the woman entry into the cell.
She stepped close to Jennings hanging there in his white underwear. His eyes were bulging, his face pale, and his bare legs bloated with blood. Staring up at the man who had abducted, raped, and killed her only daughter, the woman felt jealous. His demons were gone now. But hers had just set up shop. Because now she would never know. Elizabeth Brice punched the corpse, setting it to swinging gently.
“Damn you! You took her to the grave with you!”
“The cretin is dead?” Sam asked Kate through a mouthful of Cheerios.
“Did the cops shoot him?”
“No. He… he just died.”
“So how’s he gonna let Gracie go if he’s dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did he hide her somewhere?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did he tie her up?”
“I don’t know.”
“When is she coming home?”
Kate went over to Sam at the table. She sat next to him and cupped his little face with her hands. How could she tell him that Gracie would never come home?
“Nanna, why are you crying?”
“Because I just don’t know about Gracie.”
Now Sam started crying.
“But you know she’s not dead or nothing, right? Right, Nanna?”
“I want to bury my daughter,” the mother said quietly.
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux was sitting behind his desk in the command post; he was facing the victim’s family. The final family meeting was always difficult, particularly when the victim’s body hadn’t been found and probably never would be. Families needed the closure that burying their child brought. As a father, he respected their anguish, not having had a chance to say goodbye to their child; but as an FBI agent, he had to move on to the next case. Otherwise, the dead children would drive him mad.
“We searched the fields next to Jennings’s apartment. Nothing. I’m sorry.”
“So that’s it?
“Mrs. Brice, Chief Ryan closed the case-and it’s his case. I don’t have independent jurisdiction to continue the investigation. And FBI resources are not unlimited.” Her face fell. “Mrs. Brice, we’ve conducted the most extensive search in all my years with the Bureau. And your reward, the national publicity-if she was out there, someone would’ve seen her. We usually locate the body with the abductor’s help. With Jennings dead, it’s not likely we’ll ever find her. I’m sorry.”
He did not tell Mrs. Brice that her daughter’s body might be found one day, maybe a year from now, maybe two, by a hiker or a hunter or a farmer or a road crew; by that time, her body would be decomposed and unrecognizable as Gracie Ann Brice.
“What about all the sightings?” the mother asked.
“Mrs. Brice, before your reward offer, we had zero sightings. In the two days since, we’ve had over five thousand. We’ve cleared a thousand. The others just weren’t credible.”
Colonel Brice said, “What about Clayton Lee Tucker in Idaho? He seemed credible. You’re not even going to check him out?”
Devereaux was stung, the colonel thinking he hadn’t done everything possible to find Gracie.
“Colonel, I would never fail to clear a lead like that. We e-mailed Gracie’s photo and the blow-ups from the game to our office in Boise. I got an agent out of bed at five his time to fly over to Idaho Falls to interview Mr. Tucker this morning.” He put his reading glasses on and flipped open a file on the desk. “Agent Dan Curry just faxed in his 302… his report. Mr. Tucker could not ID Gracie or the men or the-” He was about to say “tattoo,” but he remembered his promise to the colonel. And the tattoo meant nothing now anyway. “Or anything about them.”
A puzzled look came over the colonel’s face.
“Colonel, Agent Curry’s report also states that Mr. Tucker wanted to discuss the government’s monitoring of UFOs in Idaho, said he sees them all the time. And the report states that Mr. Tucker admitted he drinks heavily since his wife’s death.” He shook his head. “That’s the problem with big rewards, they bring out the nutcases.”
“Why’d he say something different to me on the phone?”
“Happens all the time. An agent shows up, flashes the badge, all of a sudden they decide to tell the truth instead of some story to get a piece of the reward.”
The colonel seemed unconvinced, so Devereaux held Agent Curry’s report out to him. He took it; his eyes ran down the page. He shook his head slowly.
“Colonel, sexual predators don’t travel halfway across the country to abduct a child. And they don’t abduct a child then take her halfway across the country. Child abductions are local crimes by local predators against local children. Gracie’s body is within a few miles of the park, I guarantee it.”
The colonel tossed Curry’s report on the desk.
“I’m sorry, Colonel, but there’s no mystery-Jennings did it. That’s the only plausible answer for the jersey, the photo, the phone calls, his description, the coach’s ID, and most of all, the blood-that DNA puts Gracie in his truck.”
“Maybe it’s someone else’s blood.”
“Colonel, the odds that that blood is not Gracie’s is-and I’ve checked this-is one in twenty-five quadrillion, and I don’t even know what a quadrillion is.”
The father: “A million billion.”
“Look, sir, I know this is tough to accept, but sexual predators don’t plot out their crimes and they don’t frame someone else to avoid apprehension… and innocent people arrested for a crime they didn’t commit don’t hang themselves. They hire a lawyer.”
“He didn’t fit your profile.”
“No, sir, he didn’t. Not even close.” He shrugged. “An aberration. Or those guys in Behavioral don’t have a clue. Either way, it doesn’t matter.”
The mother gestured around the room. The agents were packing up the equipment.
“So you’re giving up?”
“Mrs. Brice, we never quit until the body is found. We will always respond immediately to any new evidence or information, I promise you. But we can’t operate out of your house indefinitely, I told you that when I agreed to establish the command post here. We’re moving the command to the Dallas field office. Agent Jorgenson will be able to reach me in Des Moines-”
“ Des Moines? ”
“A five-year-old boy was abducted-”
“You’re leaving? ”
“Yes, ma’am. We have a known sex offender at large up there, and a child is missing. That’s where I’m needed now.” God, this was hard. “Look, I know this isn’t the ending you were praying for. I know every piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit together, it never does. Some things just can’t be explained. We never get every question answered. That’s just the way it is.” He stood. “I’m sorry for your loss. Gracie must have been a wonderful child. But it’s over.”
Devereaux’s eyes went from family member to family member, all of whose eyes dropped when they met his, until he came to Colonel Brice. His eyes did not drop.
“No, Agent Devereaux-it’s just begun.”
After the family had departed the command post, FBI Special Agent Jan Jorgenson got up from her station and went over to her superior. Agent Devereaux’s eyes were sad and tired. He slumped down in his chair. He exhaled audibly.
“If I ever get a child back alive,” he said, “I’m through. I’m giving up the chase.”
She nodded. “I made some contacts, about the mother, at Justice.”
“Proceed.” Then he added, “Not that it matters anymore.”
Jan checked her notes. “Her unit chief was an Assistant Attorney General named Raul Garcia-”
Agent Devereaux was rubbing his face.
“And what did Mr. Garcia have to say about Mrs. Brice?”
“Nothing. He’s dead, too.”
Devereaux stopped rubbing his face.
“ Both of Mrs. Brice’s superiors at Justice are dead?”
“Yes, sir. Garcia died two years ago, in Denver, shot in a carjacking.”
“Jesus.” Devereaux stood. “High mortality rate over at the Justice Department these days.”
“And I called the Army about getting the names of those SOG soldiers. All SOG records were destroyed in ’72.”
“Figures.” Agent Devereaux picked up his briefcase. “Jorgenson, it’s your case now. I’m catching a flight to Des Moines.”
Devereaux thought about Gracie Ann Brice all the way to the airport. Another life ended before it had begun. Another family destroyed by a sexual predator. Another failure for FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux. What good had he done here?
He was fifty-six years old. He had handled abduction cases exclusively for ten years now. It was getting to him. His wife had begged him to transfer to the public corruption unit: “What could be more fun than investigating crooked politicians?” she had said. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was time to give up the chase, one hundred twenty-eight dead children. Good God, one hundred twenty-eight dead children! And he wouldn’t have to travel as much; there were plenty of crooked politicians in Texas. He’d have more time with the family. And maybe in time he wouldn’t see the faces of dead children when he lay down in bed each night and closed his eyes.
Jorgenson pulled the sedan over in front of the American terminal and turned to him. “Agent Devereaux…”
“You can call me Eugene now.”
“Eugene… You taught me a lot. Thanks.”
He nodded. “You did good, Jan.”
“You know, most of the agents I work with in the Dallas office, they’re pretty cocky, like carrying the federal badge makes them special. You’re not like them. You’re different.”
“Difference is, Jan, I’ve seen dead children, up close. That’ll take the cocky right out of you.”
Devereaux exited the vehicle, shut the front door, retrieved his bag and briefcase from the back seat, then leaned in the front window and said to Jan, “Collect the outstanding evidence, write up a final report. I’ll review it when I’m through in Des Moines. You’ve got my cell phone number, call me if you need me.”
He was about to turn away when Jan said, “You really think Jennings took Gracie?”
“I don’t know… but I know she’s dead.”
“If we had jurisdiction, would you have closed the case?”
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux stood straight, stared into the blue sky a minute, and then leaned back down to the window.
Life is not a fairy tale.
But Katherine McCullough had not known that in 1968. She had married the man of her dreams only to lose him to the nightmare of war. Ben Brice had given his heart and soul to the Army and that damned war, only to have his heart broken, his soul blackened, and the war lost. When he had returned from Vietnam, he tried to find peace in a bottle. And he had never stopped looking.
The Army tried to put the war and its warriors in the past and move on to a peacetime military. The Army brass couldn’t very well demote the most decorated soldier of the war, but it didn’t have to give him a command. Ben said you don’t get a parade when you lose a football game or a war.
After his retirement, Kate had gone with Ben to the cabin he had built. She had hoped retirement would set Ben free; but he took the war with him to Taos. After a few years, she had woken one morning and accepted the truth: the war would never be over for Ben Brice. He would never find his peace, not until the day he died. And the way he was drinking, that day was not far off.
Kate Brice had refused to stay around for that day. She couldn’t save her husband from himself. So she had left him. Now, pacing her room, she felt like a teenage girl getting ready for her first date; she was working up the courage to go to him. She needed to lie next to him and to feel his arms around her, once more before he left her. He had left her many times, but she knew this time was different.
She knew that Ben Brice would not come back this time.
“When are you coming back?”
Sam was looking up at him, his face full of innocence. Ben Brice wasn’t about to say something that would change that.
Sam shook his head. “Typical grownup answer-vague.”
Ben smiled. It was like talking to John at the same age. He sat on Sam’s bed.
“I’m not being vague. I just can’t say for sure.”
“But you will come back?”
Ben pondered for a moment. Vague was hard to come by now. He said what the boy needed to hear.
Little Johnny Brice was small, weak, timid, and brilliant. He was teased and taunted, bullied and beaten. He was introverted and lonely, with no friends except his mother and an Apple computer. He was a mama’s boy because his father was off at war. He hated his life right up until the day he had arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where everyone was a Little Johnny Brice. He possessed a 190 intelligence quotient, he earned a Ph. D. in algorithms at the Laboratory for Computer Sciences, and upon graduation, he founded his own company and set about to write a killer app. Ten years later, today, he became a billionaire: at 9:30 A.M. Eastern time, BriceWare. com went public at $30 per share; by close of trading at 4:00 P.M., the price had bounced to $60.
John R. Brice was worth $2 billion.
This was the day he had dreamed about for as long as he could remember, like a teenage boy looking forward to the day he would lose his virginity, the day he would become a man. This was to be that day for John R. Brice. But now, standing in the master bathroom of his $3 million mansion and staring at himself in the mirror, he still saw Little Johnny Brice.
He had not found his manhood on Wall Street; perhaps he would find it in Idaho.
He had tried to imagine life without Gracie. He couldn’t. It was not the life he had lived or the life he wanted to live. And it would be a life without Elizabeth. Gracie’s birth had brought them together; her death would drive them apart. Elizabeth would leave him, and Sam with her. His family, his tenuous connection to the real world, would be gone; and he would give every dollar of his new fortune to save his family.
But he knew his money could not save his family. He knew his only hope lay with a drunk. Ben Brice offered hope. Hope that somehow, somewhere, Gracie was alive. Hope that one day she might come home. Hope that her father might again cup her perfect face and think how swell she was. He knew it made no sense. He knew there was no logic to it. No reason. No odds. There was just emotion. And hope. John had read about people with terminal cancer going to Mexico for enemas and other quack therapies, hoping for a miracle. He had wondered how desperate a person must be to do such a thing, to travel thousands of miles hoping for a miracle. Now he knew.
So John R. Brice would unplug from his virtual world of cyberspace and computers and code that defined and protected him and venture forth into the real world, untethered to his technology like an astronaut untethered to the mother ship, chasing Ben’s dream and his daughter. And hoping.
For the first time in his life, John Brice would follow his father.
The mansion sat dark and silent, as if in mourning. The FBI had packed up and moved out. Everyone had retired to their respective rooms to consider life without Grace. Everyone except Elizabeth.
She was in the media room watching the late news. A child abductor was dead. He would be buried tomorrow. Life would go on as before. But not Grace’s life. Or her mother’s life.
Her daughter was dead.
Evil had won again.
Ben was lying in bed; the only light was coming from outside. His hands were clasped behind his head and his mind was filled with questions: Why couldn’t Clayton Lee Tucker identify Gracie or the men or the tattoo? Was he really a nutcase? And why was his phone line busy all day and night? Why had the two men taken Gracie to Idaho? And the most troubling question of all for Ben Brice: Had his past come back to haunt Gracie?
The door to the pool house opened, and Kate’s head appeared.
Kate came over and sat on the edge of the bed; she stared at her hands and fiddled with the belt to her bathrobe. He gave her time to work up to what she wanted to say.
“Ben, has there been another woman?”
“No, Kate, just another drink.”
Kate stood, untied her robe, and let it fall to the floor. She pulled back the blanket and lay beside him, resting her head on his chest. Where she would be when he woke the next morning.
Ben Brice opened his eyes not to a dog needing to pee but to his wife sleeping next to him for the first time in five years. The warmth of her skin against his brought a sense of regret to his mind: all the years he had lost with her.
Dawn was near and he needed to leave, but he lay still; he was not yet ready to let go of the moment. When he was young and life hadn’t yet had its way with him, he had let go of such moments freely, assured there would be many more to come; now he held onto each moment for as long as possible. He wrapped his arms around his wife one last time.
Ben recalled the first time Katherine McCullough had lain with him, on 6 June 1968, their wedding night. He was twenty-two and a second lieutenant; she was twenty and a virgin. When she came to him that night and let her gown slip off her shoulders and fall to the floor and stood before him, he knew he would never want another woman.
But life soon had its way with Ben Brice.
She had left him and now he must leave her. He released her and rolled out of bed slowly so as not to wake her. He was dressed and packed when she stirred. He went to her, sat on the edge of the bed, and brushed stray strands of red hair from her face. She opened her eyes and stared into his as if trying to read his mind. Finally, she said, “She really is alive.”
“Why? Why’d they take her?”
Ben broke eye contact. “I don’t know.”
Kate got out of bed, slipped into her robe, and pulled the belt snug around her waist.
“Does this have something to do with that tattoo?”
“You mean with the war?”
“Yes, with that damn war.”
Ben stood and grabbed his duffel bag. “Kate, everything has something to do with that war.”
Elizabeth spat the last of the bile into the toilet and flushed again. The taste burned her throat; the lining was raw from her morning vomits. Still kneeling, she grabbed the bottle of green mouthwash that she now kept by the toilet, took a mouthful, swished it around, and spat it into the toilet. She sank to the floor; the marble was cool on her bare legs. She rested her head on the toilet seat.
When she had woken, her mind had immediately taken advantage of the early morning, when she was most vulnerable, and tortured her again with more gruesome images of her daughter: Grace’s body, dead and decomposing and dumped in a ditch, maggots crawling out of her silent open mouth and over her pale lips, vultures pecking at her blue eyes and rats gnawing on her beautiful face, fighting over her flesh…
She felt her body’s regurgitation process gearing up again.
Seven mornings ago, Elizabeth had gotten dressed in this bathroom in her best closing argument outfit; that day had begun like any other day but had ended with Grace gone from her life. How can that be? How can life turn on us in a split second? How can life be so unfair? Harsh? Cruel? Evil? She had asked herself those same questions ten years ago. She had no answers then; she had no answers now. But back then, she had Grace. Now Grace was gone.
John was standing in the doorway. She knew he wanted her to go to him and embrace him and say “I love you” to him. He needed her to, and she wanted to. She tried to push herself up from the floor, but she hadn’t the strength. He started to walk away.
He turned back. She had never been able to give voice to those words. And she could not now. Evil had taken that kind of love from her life. John walked out of sight.
She leaned over the toilet and vomited again.
Ben and Kate walked out of the pool house to find John standing next to a shiny red Range Rover. He was wearing sneakers, jeans, and an MIT sweatshirt. He appeared not a day older than the day he had left for college.
“I’m going with you, Ben.”
Ben reached out and squeezed his son’s shoulder. “I understand your wanting to, son, but this isn’t your kind of work.”
Ben turned away, but John grabbed his arm. “I know that, Ben. This is man’s work, and I’m not much of a man. But Gracie’s my daughter. And if she is alive, I want her back.”
Ben started to order John to stay home, but he saw in John’s eyes the same truth he felt in his heart: finding Gracie was life or death, for her and for him.
“All right, son. We’ll do this together.”
Ben walked around to the passenger side of the vehicle. Kate went to John and embraced him. “Be careful,” she said. Then, in a lower voice she must have thought Ben couldn’t hear, she said, “Do exactly what Ben tells you to do, and we might get Gracie back. This is what he knows.”
The landscape below was bleak and endless. It was Thursday and they were somewhere over West Texas. The plan was to fly to Albuquerque, drive to Ben’s cabin outside Taos, pick up his gear-the kind you can’t take on a plane, he had said-and drive nonstop to Idaho Falls to talk to Clayton Lee Tucker, the last person who had seen Gracie alive.
Ben’s hands were folded in his lap, his eyes were closed, and his breathing was steady and slow. The flight attendant raised her eyebrows at John when Ben failed to respond to her offer of coffee, tea, or juice.
“Coffee, black, for both of us,” John said to her.
He lowered Ben’s tray then his. The flight attendant placed cups of coffee on their trays. John drank his coffee, assuming they would fly in silence; but Ben opened his eyes and spoke.
“Thanks for letting Gracie visit me. She told me Elizabeth was against it but you stood up to her.”
It was, in fact, the only time John R. Brice had ever stood up to his wife.
“Last time I saw her,” Ben said, “we drove down to Santa Fe to deliver a table. When we got there, I took the table into the gallery. She stayed outside to check out the Indians selling their products on the Plaza. When I came back out, she was on the other side standing next to this old Navajo like they’re best friends.” A slight smile. “She was wearing a tribal headdress. She smiled and waved at me. I’ll never forget her face that day.” Ben turned to John; his eyes were wet. “Do you remember the last time you saw her face?”
John leaned back in his seat. He did remember.
Gracie yanks Brenda and Sally to an abrupt halt. It’s suddenly very important that she turn and look back for Dad. That same bad feeling has come over her again, like a nightmare while she’s still awake. The feeling that something really awful is about to happen to her. The same feeling she has experienced for more than a week now, always when she is outside on the playground during recess or at soccer practice or on the way home from school. Like someone is watching her. Waiting for her.
Her entire body is covered with goose bumps.
The sun is in her eyes; she squints. She spots her dad, looking back at her from soccer field no. 2. Usually, when the bad feeling overcame her, she would get close to a grownup and the feeling would leave. But not today. Not now. She wants desperately to run back to her dad.
“Come on, Gracie,” Brenda says, tugging at her arm. “There won’t be any banana snow cones left if we don’t hurry.”
She decides she’s just being a silly girl, something Mom always said was not allowed in her house. She’s in the middle of a big crowd at the park after a soccer game. The bad feeling can’t get her here. She is safe. She smiles and waves at Dad. He waves back with the cell phone. The goose bumps are gone.
They arrive at the concession stand. Holding hands, they weave their way through the crowd of kids and grownups. Sally gets her snow cone first then Brenda orders hers.
Gracie whirls around to the snot standing five feet away and taunting her with no adult supervision. Way stupid. The snot realizes her mistake. Her eyes drop to Gracie’s hands, now Ms. Fist and her twin sister. The sneer leaves her face and is replaced by fear. The snot starts to back away, then she runs, but Gracie has her by the hair before they’re behind the concession stand, alone, no big-mouthed butthead jerk football dad to save her now. Ms. Fist, meet the snot’s nose. The snot collapses to the ground like a bunch of pixie sticks.
What a wimp! And she’s eleven!
The snot cups her nose and starts crying like a baby. She looks up at Gracie; her eyes are wide with fear. But her eyes aren’t on Gracie, her fear not of Gracie, but of The goose bumps are back. The bad feeling is back. It’s all over Gracie now, smothering her like a thick blanket on a hot day. It’s behind her. It’s breathing on her. She turns to face it.
Something wet covers her face. She tries to fight it off, but she smells something funny. Every nerve in her body starts tingling and now she’s dizzy; her arms lose all strength, her legs go limp, her eyes want to close. She’s floating now, a gentle bounce. No, she’s not floating; she’s being carried. She hears crunching below her, like someone stepping on dried leaves.
The bad feeling is taking her through the woods.
Gracie’s mind is fading to black; she fights hard to think of something to save herself. She thinks of Ben. She calls out to him, but no words come out of her mouth.
With her last ounce of strength and willpower, Gracie reaches up, grabs her necklace, and yanks hard. Her arm drops. Her hand releases the necklace. Ben’s Silver Star.
Save me, Ben…
… A hard bounce startles her awake, but she can barely force her eyes open, just enough to see that wherever she is, it is dark. She hears the drone of a car engine and feels the rumbling of tires against the road beneath her.
The bad feeling is taking her far, far away.
Her eyelids outweigh her will. She can no longer hold them open. She drifts off into that murky world again…
… And coming alive now. But she is groggy, like she can’t wake up all the way. She hears voices. She smells cigarette smoke and fast food and body odor. Her stomach feels really queasy, like she might barf. Her mouth is dry, but she does not lick her lips. She does not move any part of her body. Instead, she opens her eyes to slits.
It’s morning. She’s in a car, wrapped in a scratchy green blanket and lying across the back seat. Up front are two men. The driver has blond hair under a black cap; he’s wearing a plaid shirt. The other man is bigger with a flattop, like Ms. Blake, the P.E. instructor, except his hair is gray. His left arm is slung over the seat back. It’s a very big arm. With something on it she has seen before.
The big man’s big head swivels toward the blond man, and he says, “That geek’s gonna be a billionaire.” A cigarette hangs on his lip. “Maybe we oughta ransom this little cherry. Bet he’d pay a million bucks to get her back.”
“I wouldn’t take no amount of money for her,” the blond man says. “We was meant to be together.”
The big man shakes his head and exhales a cloud of smoke. “Just ’cause you wanna be with her don’t mean she wants to be with you. You think about that?”
“Yeah, I thought about that,” the blond man says. “She’ll learn to love me.”
“And what gal wouldn’t? Funny thing about women, though, sometimes they’re real stubborn about learning to love a man what kidnaps ’em.”
The blond man gives the big man a look. “It happened before.”
The big man nods. “So it has. All I’m saying is you ain’t had no experience with women-whores at Rusty’s don’t count. And I’m telling you, boy, an unhappy woman… damn. Only two things you can do with an unhappy woman: make her happy or kill her. Take it from me, it’s a helluva lot easier to kill her.”
That tickles him.
The engine is making strange noises. And it smells awful. She sees the tops of other cars and eighteen-wheelers passing them. They’re on the highway. The sun is shining in the right side of the car. Which means they’re heading north. Which must be why she now catches a slight chill, particularly when Without moving her head, Gracie checks herself over. Her white soccer shoe is on her left foot, but her right shoe is missing; she’s still wearing the blue knee socks and shin guards. She feels around inside the blanket and-her uniform is gone! Her jersey, her shorts-all she’s wearing is her Under Armour! Why did they take her uniform? And the answer comes to her: Oh my God, they raped me! She bites her tongue to silence her feelings and squeezes her eyes tightly to hold back the tears. But one tear escapes and rolls down her cheek, lands on the seat, and disappears into a crease in the cracked vinyl.
Gracie wasn’t entirely sure of everything that being raped included, but she knew it meant some male person sticking his penis into a girl down between her legs without permission (although she could not imagine ever giving a boy permission to do that). Mother never talked to her about sex or any of that stuff yet; she learned what she knew from Ms. Boyd in health class. Ms. Boyd told the girls that when a boy makes unwelcome physical advances, they should point their finger at him and firmly say, “No! And no means no!” The girls and boys attended separate sex ed classes; the girls giggled at the drawings of penises in the book. The only real live penises she had seen were Sam’s, which was really little and couldn’t hurt a girl her age, and Dad’s, one time when she walked in on him in his bathroom. He got totally embarrassed and covered up real fast, but she got a good look at it. Dad’s penis was big enough to hurt a girl her age.
But she doesn’t hurt down there. She doesn’t feel different at all. Maybe the two men have little penises like Sam’s and that’s why she doesn’t hurt. Or maybe they didn’t rape her.
Or maybe… she closes her eyes and sleeps again…
… Until she is awakened by a door slamming.
She cracks her eyelids. The blond man is gone. The big man turns toward her; she quickly shuts her eyes tight. She feels his gross hand over the blanket, shaking her leg not so gently.
“Wake up,” he says.
She pretends to be asleep, but she hears his heavy breath as he exhales, and she knows cigarette smoke is coming her way. She holds her breath, but the toxic fumes find their way into her nose. She coughs. She can’t pretend to be asleep now. She opens her eyes. The big man is looking at her and not like he wants to be friends.
He is way past ugly.
His nose is broad and flat, like he had run face first into a brick wall. A long scar zigzags down the left side of his face. One eye doesn’t look right. His whiskers look like Coach Wally’s hair when his burr cut starts to grow back in. The skin on his face is blotchy and leathery and filled with little pockmarks like that guy at BriceWare. (Dad said the guy had bad acne as a child.) A cigarette is clamped between his teeth and smoke comes out with each breath. He’s the biggest human being she has ever seen, and he looks really mean. Gracie realizes she is trembling, she is so afraid. But her mother’s advice plays in her ears like a song on her iPod: Men are like dogs. They can smell fear on a woman. Never let them smell your fear. Never let them see you cry. Always act tough even when you don’t feel tough. So Gracie acts tough.
“You wanna put that thing out?” she says. “Passive smoke is dangerous to a child’s health.”
The big man snorts like a bull and a stream of smoke comes out both nostrils. “Not as dangerous as me, pissed off as I get when I don’t smoke.”
He has a point, Gracie figures.
He flips a Twinkie back to her; it lands on the green blanket. Yuk, it isn’t even individually wrapped! It’s probably covered with cooties.
Still, she is hungry.
She pushes herself up, careful to keep the blanket wrapped around her, even though the Under Armour shorts and tee shirt cover her up. Her head feels heavy. She’s in a sports utility vehicle, a real POS: no plush leather seats or cherrywood trim, no Harmon Kardon stereo system or color-coordinated carpet, no TV built into the dash like Dad’s new Range Rover, and no CD player. This SUV is old and has bench seats instead of buckets, and crushed beer cans and cigarette butts and wadded-up fast food bags on the bare metal floorboards, the head liner is drooping in several places, and it sure as heck doesn’t have a heater that works.
She looks outside. They’re in a Wal-Mart parking lot, a long way from home. She recognizes the yellow license plates on the other cars, just like the ones on Ben’s Jeep.
They’re in New Mexico.
Gracie picks up the Twinkie and realizes she is not tied up. Her arms and legs are free. She scarfs down the Twinkie in three big bites.
“Um, you got another one of those?” she asks the big man before she’s swallowed the last bite.
He turns back in his seat and leans over. Gracie jumps to the door and yanks frantically on the handle. Nothing. To the other door. Nothing. The big man turns back and flips another Twinkie at her.
“Don’t bother, honey. Doors don’t open from inside. We ain’t stupid.”
Gracie considers debating that point with him, but she decides against it. She checks out the nearby cars. Maybe she can get someone’s attention, bang on the window and scream for help. But there is no one… except the blond man carrying a brown bag and walking toward his POS SUV with the kidnapped girl in it.
He doesn’t look much older than the boys on the high school football team. Dad took her and Sam to the big homecoming game last season; the blond man is cute enough to be the homecoming king, except he’s wearing a plaid shirt that looks like Dad’s pajamas. Homecoming kings don’t wear plaid.
He walks to the front of the SUV and lifts the hood. Smoke billows out. He steps back and waves his hand at the smoke like Dad when he tries to barbecue, then he ducks back under. After a minute, he slams the hood down and flings a yellow container aside. Wow, he doesn’t even recycle.
The blond man wipes his hands on his shirt, gets in the car with the bag, and says, “Ten goddamn quarts and we ain’t even halfway home.” He tosses a carton of cigarettes to the big man, who immediately tears into them like Dad into a new bag of Oreos. He then hands the bag back to Gracie. One of his fingers is just a nub. She empties the bag: pink sweats.
She sighs. “Well, kidnapping me is bad enough, but now my mom’s really going to be PO’d at you.”
“Why’s that?” the blond man asks.
“Making me wear clothes from Wal-Mart.”
The blond man chuckles as he puts the car into gear and drives out of the parking lot and back onto Highway 666 North, the sign says.
“Which reminds me-did you like, rape me or something?”
The vehicle suddenly swerves off the road without slowing down, sending the big man’s cigarettes flying-“Jesus Christ!” he says-and Gracie to the seat. The blond man slams on the brakes, stops the car, and practically climbs over the back of his seat. His face is red. He points the three fingers of his right hand at her.
“You think I would do that to you? You think I would let anyone do that to you? You’re pure and you’re gonna stay pure! Anyone tries to dirty you, I’ll kill him!”
She sat up. “You took my uniform.”
“I didn’t look! And you’re wearing them funny underwear, can’t see nothing anyhow. I put you in that blanket real fast.”
“To throw the Feds off our trail. They ain’t never gonna take you back, Patty.”
“ Patty? My name is Gracie. Don’t tell me you two morons kidnapped the wrong girl?”
“No, we got the right girl,” the blond man says, turning back in his seat. “That’s your name now.”
And Gracie wonders why…
… The old man at the gas station is looking at their SUV kind of funny. He has a nice face. He’s standing on the other side of the gas pumps, shaking his head, gesturing at their SUV, and saying something to the big man, who’s smoking even though the sign says no smoking. The SUV’s hood is up. The engine must really be on fire now because an even bigger cloud of black smoke hangs in the air under the bright tube lights above. Gracie is wearing the pink sweats now. She inches her head higher. She wants to scream, Help me!
“Stay down,” the blond man says.
Gracie lies back down. But the old man saw her. And she saw him.
They’re in Idaho…
… And her head is heavy again, murky images and noises all around her, and the thick cigarette smoke suffocates her. A bed in a room but not her bed and not her room. She remembers being carried in the blanket and the same funny wet smell and the same dizziness and unable to resist when they tied her hands and feet again. And sleeping and dreaming and drifting in and out of dark and light for what seems like days, the TV blaring nonstop and mixing with men’s voices and the smell of- tacos? — and wondering if they will ever go to sleep.
“Me, I wouldn’t never win a million bucks, them questions is real hard.”
“That’s ’cause you ain’t never watched TV, boy.”
“That big guy right there, they call him Hoss-”
“Why they got so many Mexican channels in Idaho?”
“Go to sleep.”
“That Elmo, he’s a funny sumbitch!”
“Gilligan’s always messing up and-”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“That guy there, he’s a doctor and he’s married to her, but he’s screwing the blonde, and-”
“Soaps? Boy, you like a kid with a new toy.”
“Hey, Patty’s on the news!”
“This here show, they put them people on a deserted island, see, then they vote one off each week. Last one left wins a buncha money. Was me, I’d tell them motherfuckers they vote me off I kill ’em.”
“I always liked that about you.”
“Paper says they arrested Jennings last night.”
“Good. The truck’s fixed, let’s hit the road.”
Now they’re back in the POS SUV and Gracie’s lying across the back seat and her eyes droop until…
… She opens her eyes to a greasy face pressed against the window and grinning in at her with several teeth missing.
“She’s a cutie,” he says.
“Get the shit loaded, Dirt,” the blond man says.
When the man called Dirt moves away, his face leaves a big smudge mark on the window glass. The rear hatch and tailgate open and the men push in green metal boxes with long shiny metal containers inside and letters on the side-USAF-and a word she had never seen before-NAPALM-then cover them with a heavy tarp.
“And the brass wonders why their inventory never comes out right,” the man with the missing teeth says.
They all laugh like he’s Jay Leno or something…
… And now she’s lying on a small bed in a small room in a small house. The sheets stink of foul body odor. She’ll have to bathe for a week to get this smell off. They think she’s asleep. She tiptoes to the door and peeks out. The two men are in the big room with another man with red hair who’s holding a long black rifle with a telescope on it and caressing it like a girlfriend. They’re drinking beer and smoking and laughing.
The big man says, “That red hair, ain’t no one gonna believe you’re some Muslim raghead.”
“Don’t matter none,” the man with red hair says. “FBI ain’t never gonna find me. Hell, they can’t find their butts with both hands.”
The big man points a thumb at her room and says, “What does the girl say, Junior? ‘Like, duh.’ ”
They all laugh again; then they get real quiet and the big man says, “Easter Sunday, Red. Don’t fuck it up.”
Gracie goes back to the bed and lies down and thinks, Isn’t Easter Sunday this Sunday?…
… She sees a sign that says Cheyenne, Wyoming.
She’s lying on the back seat of the car again; the two men up front seem happy.
The big man says, “You believe that sumbitch give himself a necktie? Goddamn, we are home free, podna.”
“So can we go through Yellowstone?” the blond man asks. “That’d be real neat for Patty to see.”
“Why sure, Junior. And after that we’ll take her down to Disneyland.” The big man looks at the blond man he calls Junior like he’s nuts; he exhales smoke and says, “This ain’t no fucking family vacation!”
Family? Did this Junior guy take her to be his…
… Gracie is cold. Her body is shivering uncontrollably. She is all alone. And so terribly afraid. She starts crying. She can’t hold it back any longer. But just when she’s about to lose it big time, she sees him, high up in the sky, floating under a white parachute. And he sees her. Coming closer now, the green beret, the uniform, the medals glistening in the bright sunlight, just like the picture on her desk.
Save me, Ben.
He is coming.
And for the first time since she was taken, she is no longer afraid…
When Gracie woke, she was shivering. She had kicked the scratchy green blanket off. She sat up, reached down, and pulled the blanket up to her neck. They were on the highway again, but the car wasn’t making funny noises anymore. The blond man was driving; the big man was smoking and reading a newspaper. Outside, the ground was covered with snow. Distant mountains taller than those in Taos rose high into the sky. Her head finally felt clear.
“Where are we?” she asked. “What day is it?”
“Well, good morning to you, sleepyhead,” the blond man named Junior said. “We’re in Montana, Patty. It’s Thursday.”
“Okay, just so you know? That Patty thing is really starting to annoy me.”
In the rearview mirror, she saw a thin smile cross Junior’s lips. She coughed. The car was filled with cigarette smoke. (Does the big man ever stop smoking?) She tried to lower her window, but it was stuck. She waved her hand to clear the air around her so she could breathe. She said to the big man, “Those things are cancer sticks. They can kill you.”
Without looking back, the big man said, “So can a nagging woman. Shut up!”
She stared at the back of his big head. “Nice attitude.” She noticed another smile from Junior in the rearview. They rode in silence until she said, “He’s coming.”
The big man tossed his newspaper back to her. “Ain’t no one coming for you, girlie. Your case is closed.”
Gracie picked up the paper and spread it out on her lap like at home when she read the sports pages after school. Her picture was on the front page; next to her was the picture of a blond man. He looked sad.
“I know him. He works for my dad.”
“Not no more he don’t.”
She read about her abduction, the search for her, and Mom’s reward offer. “You two Einsteins are passing up twenty-five million dollars to keep me? That seems way dumb.”
“Way dumb is right,” the big man said, and Junior gave him a quick look.
Gracie continued reading about her case, the investigation- hey, Dad’s IPO went through! — the arrest of the abductor, the abductor’s suicide, and her soccer shorts.
“You left my shorts in the woods? So everyone thinks I’m running around in my Under Armour? That is like, so totally disgusting.”
“Everyone thinks you’re dead,” the big man said.
Gracie read more. “They found my jersey in this guy’s truck? And my blood?”
“From your elbows,” Junior said. “Pretty smart, huh? I thought of that myself.”
“Oh, yeah, real smart. This guy killed himself.”
“That was just lucky. We set him up pretty good, but we was only hoping for a couple days’ head start. Didn’t figure on him hanging hisself. Now we’re home free.”
The story said this Jennings guy had hung himself in his jail cell, and the police had closed her case. Gracie Ann Brice was presumed dead. Her body would probably never be found now that the abductor had killed himself. Gracie didn’t understand: Why didn’t Jennings just tell the police that he didn’t take her? Why would he kill himself? It didn’t make much sense to her, but it didn’t change what she knew.
“No, you’re not. He’s still coming.”
Junior was shaking his head. “That wimp ain’t coming to save you just like he didn’t save you from that fucking asshole yelling ‘panty check’ at the game. Was me, I’d’ve shot the son of a bitch. I about did.”
Ms. Fist made an appearance. Gracie wanted to pummel Junior just like she had the snot. “First of all, numb-nut”-she wasn’t sure what that word meant, but she had heard a boy call another boy that at school and he didn’t like it-“don’t call my dad a wimp. He may be a doofus, God bless him, but he’s a genius, smarter than you two meatbots put together.”
Junior: “The hell’s a meatbot?”
“And second of all, he didn’t even hear the big creep. He was multitasking. And third of all, do you really think that’s appropriate language to use in front of a child?”
“Aw shit, I’m sorry, honey,” Junior said like he really meant it. “I won’t say them words no more.”
The big man turned in his seat to face Gracie. He wasn’t smiling. “I will. Listen up, sweet cheeks. If that boy calls himself your daddy’s smart enough to figure out Jennings didn’t take you and stupid enough to come looking for you, I’m gonna take my Bowie”-he held up what looked like an oversized steak knife-“and gut his scrawny ass from his dick to his neck and use his innards for bear bait, you understand? So sit back, enjoy the trip, and shut the fuck up!”
He was big and ugly and scary and he smelled bad. Gracie’s chin began quivering and her eyes watered. Just as she was on the verge of blubbering uncontrollably, she thought of her mother, the toughest, strongest, meanest person she knew. Gracie wasn’t like her mother, but it was in her genes-she could be if she needed to be. She recalled more of her mother’s advice: curse. Unexpected profanity from a woman, she had advised, intimidates men. Gracie remembered that word her mother often used when she thought Gracie wasn’t around and sometimes even when she was. She jutted her jaw out, leaned forward toward the big ugly scary stinking man, and enunciated each letter deliberately, which would have made Ms. Bradley, her English teacher, very proud.
The big man gave her a hard look like he wanted to backhand her into next week, but Gracie’s chin held its ground; he abruptly broke into loud laughter.
“Where’d you learn to talk like that, girl?”
“My mother. She’s a lawyer.”
The two men looked at each other and shrugged. “Oh.”
“And FYI, A-hole-”
The big man just shook his big head. “You’re a piece a work, girlie. Makes me glad I didn’t have no brats-except maybe with some whores in Saigon.”
He thought that was funny.
“Anyway, FYI, I’m not talking about my dad. I’m talking about Ben.”
“And who the hell’s Ben?”
The big man laughed again, even louder, and slapped Junior on the arm. “Her gramps.” He sucked on his cigarette like Sam sucking on a Slurpee, then he started coughing smoke like he was choking and his face got all red. “Damn angina.” He bent over and dug around and came back up with a pill bottle. He put a little pill in his mouth.
Junior said, “No one’s coming for you, Patty. You’re dead.”
“Ben knows I’m alive.”
“He just does.”
After a few minutes the red left the big man’s face. He threw his left arm over the seat back again and said, “Well, shit, Junior, gramps is coming to kill us all and save her sweet little ass. We might as well give her up right now.”
A stern voice, her best imitation of Elizabeth A. Brice, Attorney-At-Large: “Yes, you should. Because he’s on his way right now. And if you two idiots had the sense God gave dirt, you’d let me out of this car so he never catches up with you.”
“Well, sweet cheeks,” the big man said, “I ain’t gonna lose no sleep over your gramps coming after me.”
“You should. He’s got one of those, too.”
“One a what?”
He was looking right at her now. His eyes followed her hand as she extended it and pointed her finger at the big man’s tattoo, almost touching his gross arm.
“One of those.”
The big man’s eyebrows crunched down. “Your grandpa’s got a tattoo says ‘viper’?”
“Yep, he sure does.” She gestured behind her with her thumb. “And he’s somewhere back there right now, catching up fast.”
The big man’s eyes shot up; he stared out the back of the car, as if Ben were tailgating them. His face was different now.
Because Ben was coming.
“We’re never gonna get to Idaho in this piece of shit!”
“Try it again!” Ben yelled from under the raised hood of the Jeep. John turned the ignition and pumped the gas pedal, filling the engine well with the smell of gasoline; the image of a Vietnamese child drenched in napalm flashed through Ben’s mind.
The jet had arrived in Albuquerque at 0900 local time. They had retrieved their bags and located the old Jeep in the parking lot. But the damn thing wouldn’t start again. Ben was under the hood and tweaking the carburetor, which usually worked. John was sitting in the Jeep, impatient and annoyed and becoming more of both by the minute.
Ben slammed the hood shut and came around to the driver’s side. John climbed over to the passenger’s seat. Ben got in, determined that the Jeep would start this time. He turned the ignition and pushed the accelerator to the floorboard.
“Come on, you son of a-”
The engine coughed and wheezed like a two-pack-a-day smoker then turned over. Ben quickly shifted into reverse; the Jeep jerked itself back out of the parking space. Then it died.
“Cripes!” from the passenger’s seat.
Ben jammed his boot down on the accelerator again; the Jeep fired up again. He rammed the stick shift into first before the Jeep could change its mind. The vehicle lurched out of the airport, belching a cloud of black smoke.
Once they were on the access road leading to the interstate, Ben glanced over at his passenger. John was his mother’s son-the same sharply etched facial features, the same curly black hair, the same slender frame, the same brilliant mind. He was so unlike his father. Ben’s thoughts turned back again to that night when “Stop!” John shouted.
Ben slammed on the brakes. “What?”
John pointed. “Pull in there!” Then he started punching the buttons on his cell phone like he was calling 911 to report an emergency.
“Hi, this is Gracie. I can’t answer the phone right now ’cause I’m on a date with Orlando Bloom- I wish! Actually, I’m like, at school or soccer practice or Tae Kwon Do class or chasing E.T. around the house. Anyway, I’m not here to answer my phone, duh, so leave a message or whatever. Bye.” The machine beeped.
Elizabeth was now sitting in Grace’s chair at Grace’s desk in Grace’s room listening to Grace’s voice. It was all she had left of her daughter. She reached over and hit the play button and listened again to her dead daughter’s voice.
Gracie said, “Ben Brice was a hero.”
The big man was shaking his head slowly like Mom did when Sam acted like a little butthead. “Ben Brice,” he said in a soft voice, almost like he was talking about someone who had died. “What are the odds, Junior? We drive halfway across the country to snatch this girl, turns out she’s Ben Brice’s grandkid. Same wave of His hand, God gives you her and me Ben Brice.”
Junior was now looking at the big man like he was from another planet. “The hell you babbling about, Jacko?”
The big man named Jacko said, “The major always said it ain’t no coincidence that the world’s oil is in the Middle East, same place the world’s three religions got started. He said, ‘God put that oil there, Jacko, ’cause one day it’s gonna bring the Jews, Muslims, and Christians back to the Middle East for the final conflict. Armageddon in the desert. God’s master plan.’ ”
“What’s all that got to do with her?”
“She’s my oil, Junior.” Jacko turned to Junior but pointed a gnarly thumb at Gracie. “She’s gonna bring Ben Brice back to me for the final conflict.”
“Who the hell’s Ben Brice?”
Gracie said again, “He was a hero.”
Jacko snorted smoke. “He was a traitor. The traitor got us court-martialed.”
Junior looked at him and frowned. “You mean-”
“Yeah, I mean. He’s the one betrayed the major.”
Junior’s eyes got wide, like Nanna’s that time she hit four numbers at the lottery and won six hundred dollars. He said, “He’s a dead man.”
“Not yet he ain’t,” Jacko said. “But he will be soon enough.”
“But how’re we gonna find him?”
“We ain’t. He’s gonna find us.”
“He ain’t never gonna find us on that mountain.”
“Yeah, Junior, he will. I don’t know how, but he will. ’Cause we took something belongs to him.”
“Now this is my kind of work,” John said as he and Ben entered the Range Rover showroom. A smiling salesman wearing a short-sleeve shirt and a clip-on tie appeared before the glass doors shut behind them.
“Morning, gentlemen. I’m Bob.”
A Range Rover dealership was like a second home to John R. Brice. When he had spotted it from the Jeep, his spirits had soared like a kid on Christmas morning: a new Rover would dang sure get them to Idaho! John walked over to a Land Rover on the showroom floor-Java black exterior-and opened the door-Alpaca beige leather interior. He had seen all he needed to see. He turned back to Bob.
“Fifty-seven,” Bob said. “That’s a steal for this baby.”
Certainly Bob didn’t think he was going to hose John R. Brice on the price of a Land Rover. Like most techno-nerds, John did not possess real world expertise requiring physical dexterity or social skills; he did not know how to lay tile or change the oil or fix a running toilet (don’t even think about a major appliance) or interface effectively with his kids’ teachers or his spousal unit. But he knew all the important things in life as defined by his generation: he knew how to write computer code; he knew how to buy stuff on the Internet; he knew how to make a billion dollars from intellectual property; he knew how to compare cell phone calling plans; and he knew the specs for a Land Rover.
“Land Rover LR3 series, HSE package. Four-point-four liter V-8 power plant with Bosch Motronic Engine Management System. Four-wheel-drive with electronic traction control, electronic air suspension, and antilock brakes. Terrain Response, Active Roll Mitigation, and Dynamic Stability Control systems. Five-hundred-fifty-watt Harmon Kardon Logic 7 surround sound stereo system with thirteen speakers and amplified subwoofer. Nineteen-inch alloy wheels. Cold climate package, leather seats, sunroof, Bi-Xenon headlights, rack-and-pinion steering, and the Urban Jungle accessory kit, although I’m partial to the Safari kit. Total MSRP, fifty-six-five. Plus transportation and dealer prep fees and add-ons, fifty-seven-five. I can shop this vehicle on the Net and pay forty-nine-five max. Because I’m in a hurry, I’ll pay fifty-one, cash and carry.”
John’s brain dump had Bob’s mouth agape. “But at that price I’m giving it away. Look, I’ll come down to fifty-six.”
“No way, dude. Fifty-two or we’re history.”
“Fifty-three, and that’s my final offer.”
“Fifty-four.” John turned away. Before he took two steps: “Okay, okay, fifty-three.”
“Done.” John put the phone to his ear. “Carol, you still there? Wire fifty-three thousand to-”
“Plus tax, title and license,” Bob said.
Bob started tapping on a little calculator. “Title is two-fifty, license is one-fifty, sales tax is six-point-seven-five percent times fifty-three thousand…”
To Carol on the phone: “Plus three thousand nine hundred seventy-seven dollars and fifty cents to-”
John held the phone out to Bob, who was still tapping away.
“… that’s three thousand nine hundred seventy-seven…”
“Yes, we know,” John said. “Tell her your bank account number. I need this vehicle in real time.” He pointed outside. “And you gotta take that POS Jeep off our hands.”
Bob hurried off with the cell phone. John turned to Ben.
“And that is how you upgrade to a new luxury SUV.”
Ben was shaking his head in obvious amazement. “What does ‘POS’ mean?”
“Piece of shit,” Jan Jorgenson said. She flung the dried-out marker across her office and into the trash can.
She had come into the office that morning for the first time since the abduction and tried to focus on the long list of young Arab men residing in Texas, but her mind wouldn’t let go of the girl on that soccer game tape. The image haunted her. She felt as if she were quitting on Gracie Ann Brice. But she was not a quitter. Marathon running had taught her to never quit. Twenty miles, you’re in a brain fog, your body is on autopilot, your feet are numb, you’ve lost control of your bowels, and you’re hitting the wall-but you don’t quit; you never quit. If you quit, you never learn the truth about yourself.
FBI Special Agent (on probation) Jan Jorgenson was determined to learn the truth about Gracie Ann Brice.
So rather than running six miles as she normally did during her lunch hour, she was outlining the Brice case on the large grease board in her small office in downtown Dallas. She had written GRACIE ANN BRICE at the top of the
board above five subheadings: GARY JENNINGS… JOHN BRICE… ELIZABETH BRICE… COL. BEN BRICE… DNA.
Under GARY JENNINGS, she had written BriceWare and blood in truck and jersey in truck and 9 phone calls and coach’s ID and child porn. Damning evidence. But still, the FBI’s Evidence Response Team couldn’t find a single hair from Gracie’s head in Jennings’s truck or apartment or on his clothes; or her fingerprints in his truck or his fingerprints on the porn picture; or child porn in his apartment or on his computers. He didn’t come close to the sexual predator profile. Nothing like a child abduction in his background, and a wife and baby and a million dollars in his future, but he chucks it all to rape and murder his boss’s ten-year-old daughter?
As the kids say, I don’t think so.
She had next completed the entries under JOHN BRICE: Ph. D., MIT… marries Elizabeth Austin… moves to Dallas… BriceWare… IPO. Other than his billion-dollar wealth after yesterday’s IPO, a possible motive for ransom, nothing else in the father’s background sparked her interest. Why would someone take John Brice’s child?
She had then written under ELIZABETH BRICE: Born NYC… Smith College… Harvard Law… Justice Department… quits Justice, marries John Brice, moves to Dallas… white-collar criminal defense. Why would someone take Elizabeth Brice’s child?
She was now filling in the life of COL. BEN BRICE: West Point… Vietnam… Green Beret… Colonel… Medal of Honor… classified duty… Viper tattoo. Why would someone take Colonel Brice’s grandchild?
Why would someone commit this crime?
What were possible motives?
She sat back down at her desk, which was covered with information Research had gathered about Colonel Brice from public sources, copies of newspaper and magazine articles, arranged in reverse chronological order. Research had highlighted in yellow each place the colonel’s name was mentioned in the articles. She thumbed through several. One was dated 30 April 1975, about the fall of Saigon, with a photograph of a U.S. helicopter rising from the roof of the American Embassy; a soldier was standing on the skid like a fireman on a fire truck and cradling a small object in his arm.
Another article was dated 7 August 1972, with a photo of President Nixon placing the Medal of Honor around Colonel Brice’s neck in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, awarded because Brice had single-handedly rescued one hundred American pilots from a POW camp; the colonel’s wife stood beside him.
Jan scanned several articles from Stars amp; Stripes, the military newspaper, then came to a front-page article from the Washington Herald dated 12 November 1969. The accompanying photograph showed reporters crowding a grim Colonel Brice outside an Army building, only he wasn’t a colonel back then, but a young lieutenant. Her eyes ran over the article: something about a court-martial over a massacre in Vietnam. Jan Jorgenson was not born until 1980; consequently, the Vietnam War meant no more to her than the Civil War. She was about to move on to the next article when her eyes caught a word in the fifth paragraph of the story: viper.
A shot of adrenaline ricocheted through Jan’s veins: Colonel Brice has a Viper tattoo. The unidentified male at the park had a Viper tattoo. The court-martialed soldiers had been in a special operations unit code-named Viper. She read on.
SOG team Viper, led by Major Charles Woodrow Walker, massacred forty-two Vietnamese civilians on 17 December 1968 in a small hamlet in the Quang Tri province of South Vietnam. Lieutenant Ben Brice reported the massacre. Once the media got wind, Quang Tri became a political cause. Members of Congress opposed to the war demanded that Major Walker be court-martialed. The Army resisted: Charles Woodrow Walker was a living legend. But when a group of senators threatened to hold up military funding, the Army surrendered and charged Walker and his soldiers under Article 118 of the Code of Military Justice: murder.
Lieutenant Ben Brice was the sole witness for the prosecution at the court-martial; he testified that Walker incited the massacre and murdered a young girl in cold blood. Major Walker had only to take the stand and deny the massacre. Case closed. A living legend trumps a lieutenant every time.
The crowded courtroom was silent with anticipation when the thirty-eight-year-old Army major, a strikingly handsome figure from the photo Jan was looking at, stepped to the witness stand in his uniform, his chest covered with medals, and stood erect as he addressed the members of the military tribunal.
“Dying, gentlemen, is a big part of war. People die in war. Men, women, and children. Soldiers and civilians. Enemies and allies. And Americans. Communist forces have killed forty thousand U.S. soldiers in Vietnam- forty thousand, gentlemen! And the Army is court-martialing me over forty-two dead gooks?”
The major sniffs the air like a bloodhound getting a scent.
“I smell the corrupt stench of politics in this courtroom.”
His accuser gazes upon the major, the very image of a Green Beret commando: six foot four, two-hundred-twenty-pound body hard as a side of beef, blond flattop, bronze face, and a voice that sounds like thunder. And he has those eyes, eyes like blue crystal that can see straight into your soul; when he locks those eyes on you, it’s as if you’re looking at Jesus Christ himself, his men say. They call themselves his disciples.
The major locks his eyes on the court-martial panel.
“When we bombed Germany into rubble in World War Two, we killed thirty-five thousand German civilians in Dresden alone. When we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we killed three hundred thousand Japanese civilians. But we did not cry over their deaths. We did not court-martial the pilots who dropped the bombs or the generals who ordered the bombing. We honored them as heroes. We gave them medals and parades. We put a general in the White House.
“But this war, I am told, is different. This war is unpopular with the people. To which I say, so fucking what! Since when did this man’s Army give a good goddamn what civilians think? Do you care what that lawless mob of malcontents protesting outside the gates to this Army base, burning the American flag you and I swore to defend, thinks? The soldiers fighting and dying at this very moment in Vietnam are not defending those civilians. They are defending this country! And I’m not about to let a buncha draft-dodging dopers tell me when and where and who I can kill to defend this country!
“And, I’m also told, this war is immoral, ugly, brutal, and evil. To which I say, yes, it is. Just like every other war this country has ever fought. War, gentlemen, is not pretty or neat or nice or humane fare fit for the evening news. War is ugly. Brutal. Inhumane. Evil. And necessary for the survival of the Free World!”
He points at the window.
“That mob wants America to lose in Vietnam. That mob wants to bring down the American military. We-you and I and this Army-cannot let that happen! We must not let that happen! For if we do, if we let that mob destroy this Army, the world will no longer fear America. Now, we can live in a world that does not love America. We can even live in a world that hates America. But, gentlemen, we cannot live in a world that does not fear America. We cannot live in a world that thinks it can fuck with America. Because once every piss-ant dictator, rebel, warlord, and terrorist thinks he can fuck with America, he will! Gentlemen, I am on trial, but it is not the future of Major Charles Woodrow Walker that is at stake today. It is the future of the United States Army. It is the future of America.
“I stand accused of murder by an Army that cowers before politicians, politicians who have never fought a war but who enjoy the freedom war brings- the freedom we give them! — politicians trying to win an election by appeasing that mob. I, gentlemen, am trying to win a war! To defeat Communism and preserve peace and prosperity for the United States of America!”
The major removes his coat. He unbuttons his left sleeve. He rolls the sleeve up. He shows the panel the Viper tattoo imprinted on his bicep. And he translates the Vietnamese words for them: “ ‘We kill for peace.’ By God, if this country is going to enjoy peace and prosperity, we damn well better be ready to kill for it!”
The major now points at his accuser.
“Since Truman betrayed MacArthur, every soldier at West Point knows that politicians will always betray the military. We expect that. But we don’t expect betrayal by one of our own, by a fellow member of the Corps. Just as Jesus Christ had Judas Iscariot, so too do I have Lieutenant Ben Brice. He betrayed me. He betrayed you. He betrayed his Army. He betrayed his country.
“Did we kill those gooks? You goddamn right we did! And I will kill every gook in Vietnam if that’s what it takes to win that war! To defeat Communism! As God is my witness, I don’t regret killing those forty-two gooks! My only regret is that I didn’t put a bullet in Lieutenant Brice’s head, too!”
Ben’s thoughts were jolted back to the present when the Land Rover bounced hard.
“Now there’s a motive-revenge.”
Agent Jan Jorgenson turned to the last page of the article. Major Walker and the nine other Green Berets were acquitted of murder but found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer, stripped of their rank, and dishonorably discharged from the Army.
Did Walker abduct Gracie Ann Brice for revenge against Colonel Brice? And who is Major Charles Woodrow Walker? And where is he now?
The big man named Jacko was saying, “I remember one time, me and the major, we got these two VC up in the chopper, five hundred feet off the deck. The major’s interrogating them-where’s your base camp, how many men, and so on. The one gook, he keeps saying, ‘Doo Mommie,’ which means ‘fuck your mama’ in Viet. Well, the major finally got his fill, so he grabs the dink and throws his ass right out the door. We hear him screaming all the way down. Then the major grabs the other dink-that sumbitch pisses hisself. And he talks, gives us the coordinates of their base camp. We called in the B-52s the next morning. They wiped that camp and about five hundred gooks off the face of the earth.”
Jacko smiled like he was remembering his last birthday party.
“You lived for those days.”
Junior said, “What’d you do with the other gook?”
“Oh, we threw him out, too. Five-hundred-foot dive into a rice paddy.”
Jacko now had a faraway look on his face, like Sylvia when she talked of her old country.
“Best years of my life. Hell, killing, drinking, and fucking-to an Okie from Henryetta, Vietnam wasn’t no war, it was a goddamned vacation.” He shook his head. “Politicians fucked up a pretty good war.”
They were sitting in a McDonald’s drive-through waiting for their order. Gracie was listening. Junior was wide-eyed.
“Gosh, I love to hear them stories,” he said.
Jacko said, “Course, when McNamara and Johnson sent in the draftees and the war became a goddamn TV show back home, I knew my Oriental vacation was coming to an end. But I didn’t know my Army career was coming to an end when Viper team humped into the Quang Tri province that day in ’68 or when we humped out that night. I just followed the major in and followed the major out and in between we wasted some gooks. Just another day in paradise. But the Army sacrificed Viper team to the mob.” He sucked on his cigarette, blew out smoke, and said, “Because Lieutenant Ben Brice couldn’t keep his fuckin’ mouth shut.”
“Why didn’t the major kill Brice after he ratted you out?”
“After the court-martial, CIA hired us to greenback in Cambodia-CIA, they don’t give a shit about politics.” He chuckled. “With SOG, the major reported to the president. With the CIA, he reported to no one. Anyway, Brice, he was a native by then, living in the zoo with the Yards. After the war, he just disappeared.”
Junior handed a white bag back to Gracie. She had ordered a Big Mac, fries, and milk. Mother never let her eat fast food.
Jacko said back to her: “Where’s your grandpa been living?”
Gracie thought that if she told the truth, maybe they’d turn around and drive to Taos, which would be better than wherever they were going now. And she knew Ben wasn’t at the cabin anyway.
“The hell’s he doing in Taos?”
“He makes furniture-rocking chairs, tables, desks. They’re awesome. Movie stars buy his stuff.”
Jacko thought that was funny. “Green Beret making rocking chairs for movie stars.”
“Like who?” Junior asked.
Gracie didn’t answer him. Instead, she said, “Let’s go to Taos. I’ll take you to his cabin.”
Jacko snorted. “I think I’ll wait for him to come to me.”
“Scared, huh? You know, you guys ought to pull over and let me out before he catches up with you.”
“Shut up, you little whore!”
Gracie wasn’t sure what that word meant, but she was pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment. Before she could defend herself, Junior did.
“Don’t call her that! She ain’t no whore!”
Junior was giving Jacko a real mean face, like Ronnie down the street that day she had beaten him up.
“She started it! Tell her to shut up! You want a woman in your life, that’s what you get-a fuckin’ mouth won’t stop!”
Gracie removed her lunch from the bag and began singing: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be morons…”
Jacko pointed a French fry back at her and said, “See? See what I mean?”
Gracie pulled the milk out of the bag and saw her picture on the carton under MISSING CHILD.
The off-road tires gripped the dirt-and-rock trail and the V-8 engine muscled the Land Rover up the steep incline while the plush leather seats cushioned the occupants as they bounced about, albeit less than one would expect due to the electronic air suspension system. For your off-roading needs, no other SUV measured up to a Range Rover product. John’s Range Rover back home was a sporty red job with four-wheel-drive, a neat feature even though the thought of actually taking a $75,000 vehicle off road had never entered John Brice’s mind. So when they crested the hill, John exhaled with great relief and his white-knuckled hands released their death grip on the steering wheel as he braked the Land Rover to a stop in front of a small cabin.
It was almost noon on the seventh day Gracie was gone.
A dog was on Ben before he had de-Rovered. Ben knelt and petted the dog; the beast licked his face like an ice cream cone. “How ya doin’, Buddy?” If a dog can cry, Buddy was. Ben stood and walked inside the cabin. Man’s best friend then greeted John, slobbering all over his jeans and Nike cross-trainers.
“Get away from me, you freaking mutt!”
John was not comfortable around dogs; he had had a dog for a while as a boy, but the dang beast had bit him every chance it could. Fido finally abandoned his attack on John when it spotted some kind of rat creature and gave chase into the brush bordering the cabin. John dehosed his jeans and checked out Ben’s cabin; it was smaller than the four-car garage at Six Magnolia Lane, but it was a neat log home just the same.
On both sides of the steps leading up to the porch were gardens; little sprigs stuck up out of uniform rows of black dirt. The porch floor was built of wood planks. Cacti in colorful pots, odd-shaped rocks, and painted wood carvings of coyotes and horses lined the porch rail. John followed the porch around the cabin and gazed out on the brown terrain that stretched to the distant mountains whose white tops were a stark contrast against the deep blue sky. As far as he could see, there was not another human being, not another house, not another anything. This was not an exclusive gated community constructed to keep the masses out. This was not a master-planned subdivision with an active homeowners’ association. This was not a place you came to for social engineering. This was where you came to leave the rest of the world behind.
On the west side of the porch were two wooden rocking chairs; one was half-sized with GRACIE carved in the seat back. John sat in her chair and imagined Ben and Gracie sitting there and talking, and he wondered what she had said about her father. He sighed. He should have come with her, as she had always begged him to, and sat in a rocker with JOHN carved into the seat back and talked to his father. But he had always been so brain-damaged about the past-a father not there to protect Little Johnny Brice from the bullies-and so focused on the future-an IPO that would make John R. Brice’s life perfect-that he had never found the reason or the time to forgive or forget.
He hoped Gracie had forgiven her father.
He stood and walked around back. Behind the cabin were a vegetable garden and a smaller structure accessible via a stone path. The door creaked as John entered Ben’s workshop; unfinished furniture and tools occupied the floor and walls. A rocking chair caught John’s eye. He ran his hands along the graceful wood armrests and down the curved back. He sat in the chair and leaned his head back. John had assumed the least about his father, that his woodwork would be crude creations, not works of art like this chair. Just as he had assumed a drunk would live like a drunk, sloppy and dirty. But the cabin and grounds and this workshop were meticulously maintained, as if Ben had a Sylvia Milanevic on the payroll.
John Brice didn’t know his own father.
“That’s for some movie star in Santa Fe.”
Ben was standing in the door.
“I’m going into town to pick up supplies,” he said. “There’s food inside if you get hungry. We’ll load up and hit the road as soon as I get back.” He held out an open hand. “Since you traded in my POS Jeep, I need to borrow your vehicle.”
John tossed the keys to Ben. “It’s yours.”
After the Land Rover had disappeared down the hill, John went inside the cabin. He was starving; all he had eaten that day was his normal breakfast of a dozen Oreos crushed in a glass of milk and the black coffee on the flight.
He walked over to the kitchen at one end of the main room and got a potent whiff of whiskey. Five empty whiskey bottles were sitting upside down in the sink. Looking at the bottles, John felt sure he was following a drunk on a wild goose chase; but there was no running home to Elizabeth now. He took the bottles outside to the recycling bin.
When he returned, he searched the cabinets for something decent to eat, but all he found were organic granola bars, organic oatmeal, organic pasta, organic peanut butter, vitamins, and health supplements. A drunk who takes care of himself? He opened the refrigerator: grapefruit juice, orange juice, yogurt, fruit, cheese, and a bag of bean tamales. Nothing worth eating. Which was just as well, because when he shut the door and saw Gracie’s photos stuck there with magnets, he lost his appetite.
He wandered around the main room and found a stack of newspaper and magazine clippings about BriceWare. com and its genius founder on a desk in the corner. On a table next to an old leather recliner by the fireplace was the Fortune magazine with John’s picture on the cover, opened to the Brice family photo and Gracie’s bright smile. Ben had kept up with his son all this time. But his son had never returned his calls or come to visit, convinced that at his age he no longer needed a father.
He was wrong.
The cabin had two small bedrooms, each with a tiny bathroom. One was Gracie’s bedroom: her clothes in the closet, her stuff around the room, an Indian headdress on the bed, a colorful totem pole in the corner, and a wooden headboard with Gracie carved in a neat script. He walked around the room and touched her things.
The other bedroom was Spartan, only a bed, a wooden chest in the corner, and a nightstand. The bed was neatly made; the ends of the blanket were tucked in tightly. It was an Army bed just like the bed John had slept in until the day he had left for MIT. He had never made his bed again.
Hanging in the small closet were jeans, corduroy and flannel shirts, a winter coat, and in a clear bag, the dress uniform of a full colonel in the United States Army. On the floor were jogging shoes and boots. On the shelf above were several hats and caps and a green beret wrapped in plastic.
On the nightstand were an old rotary dial telephone, a gooseneck lamp, a small framed photo of Mom, and a stack of letters from Gracie. An old phone, snail-mail letters, no computer in the cabin: his father was living in the past in every way possible. John picked up the top envelope; Gracie had drawn little happy faces around the edges. John sat on the bed and stared at the happy faces; he saw Gracie’s happy face. Could she really be alive?
So everyone back home thought she was dead.
Gracie wondered if they would have a funeral Mass for her like the one for the little boy two blocks over who had died a year ago from some disease he had been born with. The altar would be decorated with pretty flowers, Father Randy would be wearing his fancy vestments, and the choir would be singing “Amazing Grace.” Mom would look beautiful in a black dress and Dad would look… Did he even own a black suit?
Picturing the two of them together at her funeral, the beauty and the geek, Gracie found herself wondering again how they had ever gotten together… and if they loved each other. Dad loved Mom, that was like, obvious. He was a puppy dog around her, always licking her shoes. But did she love him? Gracie didn’t think so. She had asked Nanna one time, but Nanna said, “Of course she does, but sometimes grownups have issues that keep them apart.” She asked Nanna what issues were keeping her and Ben apart, but Nanna started crying so she never asked again.
But back to the funeral. Everyone would file into the church, old ladies would be crying, kids would be messing with each other, and their parents would be telling them to hush; Mass would start and Father Randy and the altar girls would walk up the center aisle to where her empty white casket-yeah, she wanted a white casket-would be sitting just in front of the altar and on top would be a picture of her in her soccer uniform because everyone wanted to remember her that way.
Gosh, it would be a great funeral. Everyone in town would be there, Mom and Dad, Nanna and Sam, Sylvia and Hilda, her teammates, Coach Wally, kids from school-they’d probably let school out that day-her teachers, and the principal; everyone would be crying and praying for the little dead girl. It sounded so neat, she almost wished she could be there. But she wouldn’t be there, and neither would Ben.
Because she wasn’t dead, and he was coming to save her.
Colonel, you saved my life. Lying in that cell at San Bie, I knew I would never see my wife or children again, but you gave my wife her husband back and my children their father. I owe you my life. God bless you.
John had found the boxes in the wooden chest; in the first box he had found dozens more letters, but these letters weren’t from Gracie. These letters were from military pilots pledging their lives to John’s father.
He did not know his own father.
He returned the letters to the first box. Then he opened the second box. He removed Ben’s framed West Point diploma, Army certificates, and a display case containing a hero’s medals: eight Purple Hearts; five Silver Stars with an empty spot for a sixth one; four Bronze Stars; two Soldier’s Medals; a Distinguished Service Cross; the Legion of Merit; and in a special case, the Medal of Honor, a round gold medal with an eagle over the word valor and a gold star with a Roman Centurion engraved in the center. John touched the medal with a reverence he had never before felt. He had never looked upon Ben as a hero. John R. Brice’s heroes were Tim Paterson, who invented DOS, Ray Tomlinson, who invented e-mail, and Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the HTML, HTTP, and URL conventions that powered the World Wide Web, brilliant men who made Internet shopping possible, not men who fought a war forty years ago that nobody cared about.
What was Ben like back then, when he was young and robust? What were his dreams? What life had he and Mom hoped for? Were they ever happy? What made him a drunk?
John found the answers in the third box. Inside were photos: Ben’s formal West Point graduation portrait in his high-necked dress uniform above the Academy motto- Duty, Honor, Country; Ben and Kate, him in a white uniform and Mom in a wedding dress, outside a church, ducking under an arch of sabers held out by other soldiers in white uniforms; and other wedding photos with a best man and maid of honor whose images struck John. The woman, with her curly black hair and a certain frailty about her, seemed oddly familiar to John. In another photo, the same man was standing next to the same woman in a hospital bed holding a baby; Kate and Ben were leaning in from behind. Everyone was smiling like their IPO had just hit the street.
John dug deeper and found more photos: Ben and the other man just arrived in Vietnam, looking young and eager in crisp uniforms; a team photo, both of them with other soldiers and handwritten along the bottom the words SOG team Viper, 2 Dec 68; Ben sitting in a stirrup and dangling from a rope under a helicopter flying above a dense jungle; Ben lying on the ground, his pants ripped open and an Army medic wrapping his bloody leg; Ben in a hospital bed, a pretty nurse in a white uniform on one side, and on the other side, a general pinning a Purple Heart to Ben’s pillow; Ben, in the jungle, holding a long black rifle with a scope, his boot on a dead Asian soldier wearing black pajamas, 1000 meters written along the bottom; Ben, his smile gone now, replaced by a hardness John had never seen on his father’s face, camouflage greasepaint, his uniform no longer crisp but instead dirty and worn with the sleeves cut off, revealing his muscular arms and that tattoo. He was standing among Indians.
He was not the same man.
John realized he knew next to nothing about his father. Ben Brice had been a hero, he knew that, but Ben had never talked about the war and John had never asked. His father was a loser. A drunk. That was all he had ever really known about Ben Brice.
John returned the photos to the box, one by one, but his eyes lingered on the hospital photo of the man and woman with the baby. This same man was in the early photos with Ben but in none of the later ones. Looking at this man and this woman, something strange stirred inside John, like one of those deja vu moments. He touched the image of the woman gently. John didn’t know how long he had been staring at the photo when he looked up to see Ben standing over him. John held up the photo.
“Who are these people?” he asked.
Ben was quiet for a time. He ran his hands over his face and through his hair. Then he said, “Your mother and father.”
“My dad says life is random,” Gracie said.
“What?” Jacko said without turning his head back.
“Random. You know, things happen for no particular reason. He says life doesn’t make sense and isn’t supposed to. My mom says life is fucked up, but she has some issues.”
“The hell you talking about?”
His words and smoke came out of his mouth at the same time. She sighed. “What I’m talking about is, you two lamebrains kidnap me not even knowing Ben is my grandpa, and a long time ago during Ben’s war you did something bad and Ben told on you and you got in trouble.”
“How do you know we did something bad?”
“Because I know Ben didn’t. And now Ben’s coming after me and he’s going to find out you took me, the same guy he told on. I mean, what are the odds of that? Now my dad-he’s a math genius-he’d say that’s just random, what normal people call coincidence or luck. But I don’t think so. I think it’s meant to be.”
“God’s plan. See, Nanna-she’s my grandmother-she goes to Mass like, almost every day. She’s always saying, ‘God has a plan for you, Gracie Ann Brice. God has a plan for all of us.’ She says there’s no such thing as coincidence or luck, that everything that happens in our lives is supposed to happen because it’s all part of God’s plan. So you kidnapping me and Ben coming to get me, that’s not a coincidence. That’s part of God’s plan.”
Jacko exhaled smoke through both nostrils.
“Well, sweet cheeks, I don’t know about God’s plan, but my plan is to gut your grandpa.”
“Roger Dalton was the brother I never had,” Ben said. “We went through West Point together, then to Vietnam together.” He paused. “Academy instructors, they told us it would be our great adventure. It wasn’t.”
John’s eyes remained on the photo of his mother and father; his mother was holding him and his father looked so strong and manly. There was manly somewhere in John Brice’s genes.
“You were born a week before we deployed. On our flight to Saigon, Roger said, ‘Anything happens to me, you be my son’s father.’ He was killed two weeks later.”
“How’d he die?”
“A soldier’s death.”
Ben’s voice cracked. John wanted to know more, but he decided that now wasn’t the time.
“What happened to my mother?”
“Mary, she was smart just like you. But when Roger died, it’s like her mind couldn’t handle it. She was just too fragile to fit in this world.”
“She died when you were six months old. We adopted you.”
“John Roger Brice.” Ben nodded. “Where are they buried?”
“Iowa. Where they were from.”
“When this is over, I think I’ll go to Iowa. Is his name on the Wall in Washington?”
“I suppose. I’ve never been able to go.”
“Maybe I’ll go to Iowa and then to the Wall. Maybe you’ll come with me.”
John looked at the photo again. “I always thought Gracie got her eyes and hair from you.”
Would she look for her daughter in every blonde blue-eyed girl she saw on the street, in the mall, and at restaurants? Would she wonder what her daughter looked like with each passing year, like those age-progression images she had seen of children missing for five or ten or fifteen years on the missingkids. com website? Would she always hold out hope that her daughter was still alive, somewhere? Would she become one of those pitiful mothers of lost children she had seen on TV, keeping Grace’s room exactly as it was now, always believing that one day she would return to this room?
The doorbell rang.
Elizabeth was still in her bathrobe and in her daughter’s room, so many thoughts running through her mind, trying to imagine life without Grace.
The doorbell rang again.
Her heart froze. Then it began to beat rapidly; her breathing came faster. She stood. She knew.
It’s her! It’s Grace! She’s come home!
Elizabeth bolted out of the bedroom and ran down the long hall and to the stairs and down to the first floor and through the foyer and to the front door and pulled the door open, ready to embrace her daughter and to hold her and to cry with her and to never let her go.
But you’re not Grace.
Standing on the porch was a young woman in a black dress; her anguished face seemed vaguely familiar. It took Elizabeth a moment to place it. Gary Jennings’s wife.
Elizabeth slumped against the doorjamb. She had been so sure it was Grace. Now, for the first time since the abduction, she thought she might be drifting toward insanity, floating on a raft down a slow-moving river, steadily and inexorably toward rapids where she would crack up on the rocks, finally to be thrown over the edge of a steep fall, driven down deep into the darkness below, never to resurface. The thought was inviting.
“Mrs. Brice, I’m so sorry about Gracie. But my husband didn’t take her. Gary would never do something like that.”
She started to leave, but she stopped when Elizabeth said, “Your baby.”
She turned back and said, “The doctors say she’ll be okay.”
She walked down to a waiting car, got in, and drove off. The street was silent and vacant; a few pink ribbons tied to mailboxes fluttered in the breeze and several scattered missing-child fliers skipped along the ground like children playing hopscotch. The TV trucks and police cars and cameras and reporters and gawkers were gone, back to their lives as if the world had not been irrevocably altered seven days ago; fathers and career mothers had gone back to their offices, stay-at-home moms to exercise classes and shopping malls, children to school, reporters to new stories, and the networks to New York. The circus had moved on.
Elizabeth turned and shut the door on her life.
John watched as Ben opened a door to a vault under the floor of the workshop and then knelt down and shone a flashlight into the dark space below.
“I hate rats,” he said.
Satisfied, he hopped down into the hole. His head was below floor level. He handed up three long metal containers. Then he hoisted himself out.
Ben dusted off one container with a cloth. He unlatched the locks and lifted the top. Inside, set into a molded form, were a black rifle, boxes of ammunition, two telescopes, one normal size, the other oversized, a black tube, what John knew was a silencer, a leather shoulder sling, two ammunition magazines, and a crude brass bracelet.
Ben slipped the bracelet onto his left wrist, then he removed the rifle and mounted the smaller scope and the silencer. He loaded a magazine and snapped it into the underside of the rifle and attached the sling at both ends. He stood and walked outside. John followed.
Facing the vast open space, Ben knelt, raised the rifle to his shoulder, gripped the underside of the stock with his left hand, extended his right elbow from his body, and sighted in with his right eye. The sound of the rifle’s discharge was muffled. Ben grunted, adjusted the scope, sighted, and fired again. Another adjustment and another shot.
“What are you shooting at?”
“Cholla cactus, five hundred meters out.”
John slanted his glasses to obtain sharper vision but without success. “Dang, I can’t even see it.”
“Inside, in one of the other boxes-a spotting scope.”
John returned to the workshop and opened the other containers. Inside one were a knife with Viper etched into the shiny blade, two sets of dog tags, one for Brice, Ben, and the other for Dalton, Roger, a small machine gun with a shoulder strap, and the spotting telescope. John took his father’s dog tags and put them around his neck. He then removed the scope and ran back out.
Ben said, “Straight down the barrel, rock formation.”
John looked into the scope, adjusted the focus, and spotted the rock formation.
“Beyond that, a cactus.”
“With the yellow flower?”
Standing behind Ben, John figured the theoretical probability of hitting that flower from five hundred meters-1,640 feet-had to be one in a million, even in the perfectly still conditions, and particularly by a sixty-year-old… the thought crept into John’s mind… drunk. The rifle discharged; the yellow flower split off whole from the cactus.
“Dang, Ben, that’s awesome! You must’ve been a dead shot!”
From Ben’s expression, John knew he had said exactly the wrong thing. Ben stood and walked over to a big rock and sat; he stared at the dirt for a time. Finally he spoke.
“NVA officers didn’t wear insignia. You couldn’t tell a grunt from a general, so you’d sit outside their camp, maybe a thousand meters out, watching them through the binoculars until you picked out the ranking officer, sometimes just because he had more cigarettes in his pocket. Then you’d wait until he was sitting down, eating, and you’d put the scope on him. And when you did, you played God. You decided he’d never see his wife or kids again, or even the next day, that because he was born in Hanoi instead of Houston he deserved a bullet in his head. You observed the last moments of his life, the last smile on his face, the last drag on his cigarette, and you squeezed the trigger. And his life was over.”
He looked up at John.
“I didn’t kill for God or country, or for those medals, or even to defeat Communism. Well, at first I did, but at the end, when I knew the war was lost, I killed so fewer American boys would come home in a body bag. Like your father did. That’s why I stayed over there, John. That’s why I wasn’t here for you.”
John looked out on New Mexico and felt his eyes water. “I should’ve been there for Gracie. I should’ve hung up on Lou and gone to the concession stand with her. I should have protected her.” He shook his head slowly. “Ben, I just let her go.”
“No, son, you didn’t let her go. They took her.” Ben stood and was the colonel in the photos again. “And we’re fixing to take her back.”
After graduating from high school, boys in Henryetta, Oklahoma, either go to college on football scholarships, take up farming like their fathers before them, or join the Army. Jack Odell Smith was big and strong and played football for Henryetta High, but he got ejected from most games for unsportsmanlike conduct. And he never took to the plow. So, barely a month after graduating at the bottom of his class, Jack O. Smith had joined the United States Army.
Jacko was not your leader of men. But he was a loyal follower and kept his mouth shut, character traits much admired in this man’s Army. Those traits, along with his physical strength, temper, and ability to kill without remorse, earned him a spot in the Special Forces Training Group at Fort Bragg. There he had met Major Charles Woodrow Walker.
Jack Odell Smith had found his place in life.
Major Charles Woodrow Walker had always thought his place in life would be the White House. “Jacko,” the major had said, “the American people are sheep. In times of peace, they just want to graze off the land and feel fat and happy. But when the wolves are in the pasture, they want to feel safe. ‘Make love not war’ sounds good when the war is ten thousand miles away. But when war comes home to America, and it will, the American people will turn to a military hero to make them feel safe. They will turn to me.”
But then the verdict was read: guilty. War criminals don’t get to be president.
Jack Odell Smith would not call himself a thinking man. He had always left his thinking to the major. But now, driving back to their mountain compound with Ben Brice’s granddaughter in the back seat, he found himself thinking about how one event could change the course of history: What if Lieutenant Ben Brice had honored the soldiers’ code?
Viper team would have continued covert operations in Laos and Cambodia and North Vietnam. The war would have been won by professional warriors. Soldiers would have come home to a hero’s welcome. No one would know about Quang Tri because no one walked away from Quang Tri. And Major Charles Woodrow Walker would be in the White House because on 9/11 the war had come home to America.
Now Lieutenant Ben Brice was coming home to Viper team.
Gracie had seen Ben’s tattoo many times, and he had even let her touch it, but he would never tell her why he got it or what the strange words meant. He only told her they were Vietnamese. Looking now at the same words on Jacko’s tattoo, she saw her chance.
“What do those Vietnamese words mean, on your tattoo?”
Jacko blew out smoke and said, “ ‘We kill for peace.’ ”
Gracie had often asked Ben about his war-she wanted to know why he was a drunk-but he refused to talk about it. “Honey,” he’d always say, “you’ll learn about the bad things in life soon enough. No need for me to hurry that day up.”
She sighed. That day had come.
“Did Ben kill people in his war?”
“Damn sure did. He was a sniper.” Jacko sucked on his cigarette, exhaled smoke, and said, “Your grandpa was a traitor, but I’ll say this for him: he was one helluva shot. He could put a bullet between a gook’s eyes from a thousand meters.”
Gracie fell quiet. Because now she knew something she wished she didn’t know, like when she’d read ahead in a book and find out the ending. She knew what Ben would have to do, and it made her sad to know it. She had figured out that he drank his whiskey to forget his war; now she knew he drank to forget killing people in his war. She didn’t want him to drink more of his whiskey because of her.
Jacko said, “Yep, damn shame he betrayed his team and now I gotta kill him.”
Gracie’s voice sounded odd, even to her own ears, when she said, “No, you’re not going to kill Ben. He’s going to kill you. And Junior, too.”
The two men didn’t say anything for a long while.
“I was still in ROTC at A amp;M when the Quang Tri shit hit the fan.”
FBI Special Agent Jan Jorgenson had just reported to her superior her latest findings on the Gracie Ann Brice abduction. Agent Devereaux was still in Des Moines. The boy abducted there had been found dead. A manhunt was on for his abductor, a convicted child molester out on parole. For the third time.
“I’m running searches on Major Walker,” Jan said.
“Because Colonel Brice served under Walker in Viper unit. Because he has a Viper tattoo and the man in the park had a Viper tattoo. Because those soldiers committed a massacre, Brice testified against them, and Walker said he should’ve killed Brice. Because you said you wouldn’t have closed the case.”
“I know, Jan, but you think Walker’s been waiting almost forty years to get revenge on Colonel Brice? And somehow finds his granddaughter living in a gated community in Post Oak, Texas, kidnaps her, frames Jennings, and takes her to God knows where?”
Now that she actually heard her theory aloud, it did sound pretty ridiculous.
“And even if Walker wanted revenge on Colonel Brice, how would he connect him to Gracie and how would he find her? And if he wanted revenge, wouldn’t he just kill Colonel Brice? Why would he abduct his granddaughter?”
“He wouldn’t. I guess you’re right, Eugene, but this Viper connection, that’s an awfully big coincidence.”
John hadn’t invited Ben to his MIT graduation because of that damned Viper tattoo. He was worried that someone important to his future business career might see it and learn his father had been in the Army and had fought in Vietnam: the prevailing thought back then among professors at elite Northeastern schools was that only Southern crackers, minorities, and losers had gone to Vietnam. He had feared that because his father was a loser, someone might think John Brice was a loser, too. He had never talked about Ben to anyone, not even Elizabeth. He had never told her about that damned tattoo. But she knew Ben Brice was a loser; and that her husband was a loser, too.
Now, looking over at Ben sleeping in the passenger seat as John R. Brice, billionaire, drove a new $53,000 Land Rover loaded with weapons like the freaking U.S. cavalry through the Navajo Indian Reservation in northwest New Mexico, red cliffs looming large in the moonlight, John realized that those professors had been full of shit. As he had been. As his wife was.
Ben Brice was no loser.
Thirteen hundred miles due north, Junior stopped the Blazer in front of a cabin on a mountain in Idaho called Red Ridge. He would give anything for the major to walk out that door and see Patty. She was sleeping in the back seat.
“I got her,” Junior said.
Jacko grunted and disappeared into the dark, heading to his cabin. Junior opened the rear door and leaned inside. He slid his arms under Patty and lifted her. He stepped out of the vehicle.
“I’ll walk,” Patty said in a groggy voice, rubbing her eyes.
Junior gently leaned over until her feet touched the ground. He held onto her lightly to make sure she was stable.
“You awake enough?”
“I think so,” she said. Then she punched him in the nose and took off running into the darkness. Damn, she was fast for a girl. And hit hard, too.
Junior didn’t give chase because she was running straight for Jacko’s cabin. Sure enough, Junior shortly heard a scream. After a moment, Patty appeared again, carried by Jacko like a bag of fertilizer. He dropped her at Junior’s feet.
Junior sighed. “Patty, you’d’ve froze to death before morning. Now, if you run again, I’m gonna have to teach you a lesson you ain’t gonna like. I don’t want to do that, but I will for your own good. This is your home now, Patty, you got to accept that. We’re always gonna be together.”
Patty looked up at Junior.
“In your dreams, mountain boy,” she said.
Kate stirred in bed. She felt someone rustling around beside her. Sam.
“Nanna, I got the creeps again.”
“Another bad dream?”
“Unh-hunh. About Gracie.”
“You got Barney?”
He wedged the stuffed Barney doll in between them and snuggled in tightly. After a moment, she thought he had fallen asleep, but his little voice broke the silence.
“Nanna, some man’s not gonna take me away too, is he?”
She propped herself up on her elbow and touched his smooth face. “No, Sam. That won’t happen. I promise.”
He closed his little eyes.
Gracie opened her eyes.
She was lying in a warm bed with a blanket pulled up to her chin, and not the scratchy green blanket from the SUV, but a thick soft blanket that felt brand new. The sheets were flannel and smelled clean and fresh. The pillow under her head was firm. The ceiling above her was low, and there was no fan with fancy little lights or sky blue paint with clouds in white faux finish or fancy crown molding like in her bedroom at home. The walls and ceiling were wood, flat wood planks with white mortar in the cracks like between the logs in Ben’s cabin.
The bed was pushed against one wall of the small room. A little window was in the wall above the bed; the sun was shooting a beam of light into the room. A gas heater was glowing blue in the corner. There was no closet, only a hanging rack with some winter clothes. At the foot of the bed was a metal table with a kerosene lamp on it, like the one Dad had bought last summer for the first annual Brice family camping trip. But Mom had gotten a trial and Dad the IPO, so the lamp and the tent and the rest of the camping gear sat piled in the back corner of the garage. Propped up on the table was a new Barbie doll still in the box.
This was really starting to creep her out.
There were two doors; one led into a bathroom. She could see a toilet, but it wasn’t like the marble toilet with matching bidet in her bathroom at home. This one sat low to the ground and had a compartment underneath-a camping toilet.
The other door was closed.
Her closet at home was bigger than this bedroom. But it was a cozy little room, like her room at Ben’s cabin, where she wished she were now, safe and secure with Ben and looking forward to a day in the workshop or hiking the hills or driving into town for dinner. She wished she were safe with Ben. She wanted to cry, but she refused to let the tears come.
Instead, she pushed the blanket back and almost screamed out loud: she was wearing pink flannel pajamas. Like, way pink! What’s with this guy and pink? She vaguely remembered changing into the pajamas but not putting on the thick green wool socks. She knelt up, wiped the moisture off the window, and put her face to the glass; it was cold. Outside, white snow covered the ground and icicles hung on the limbs of the tall trees, but they were not at all like the trees back home. They were Christmas trees. In the distance, among the trees, she noticed a movement… and then a head… and a-wow, a deer tiptoeing through the snow! Bambi! Oh, golly, it’s so cute, maybe later she could feed it and Bambi suddenly shuddered, then its legs gave way and it collapsed. Oh my gosh! Gracie heard an echo, like a loud bang. Bambi just lay there. Then the snow around Bambi turned red; the red spread out and formed a little river cutting through the snow and running downhill. Her eyes followed the red river until a big boot stepped right into it and splashed the red like Sam jumping into a mud puddle. Two men holding long guns walked up to Bambi; a big fat man lifted the deer’s head then dropped it. He was grinning. Gracie fell back onto the bed and dove under the blanket. I’ve got to escape before they shoot me too!
“Patty?” There was a knock on the door. “You awake?”
She stuck her head out from under the blanket. “No, but Gracie’s awake.”
“Got hot water for your bath. You decent?”
“As decent as a girl can be in pink PJs.”
The door opened, and Junior entered; he was carrying two big buckets of steaming water and wearing another plaid shirt.
“Did you hit like, a going-out-of-business sale on plaid shirts?” she asked.
“We don’t got no running water or electricity up here,” he said, disappearing into the bathroom, “but I can still fix you a hot bath every week.”
She heard the water being poured into a bathtub.
“Every week? I take a bath every day.”
Junior appeared in the doorway with a big smile. “Just like my mama. I used to fetch hot water for her every morning. Bathtub, that was hers. And all that girl stuff in there.” He paused a moment like he was remembering a good time. Then he abruptly snapped out of it. “It’s yours now. Breakfast be cooked time you’re done. And I got a big surprise for you.”
“Bigger than being kidnapped?”
“Now, Patty, you gotta let that go. What’s done is done.” He gestured around the room. “You like your room? Got it done right before we come for you. Everything’s new-sheets, blankets-hey, you like that Barbie doll? Ordered that special.”
“I don’t do dolls.”
He motioned to the clothes rack. “Got you some winter clothes, too.”
“How’d you know my size?”
“I know everything about you, Patty.”
“Except my name. It’s Gracie Ann Brice.”
His first stern look of the day. “No. It’s Patty… Patty Walker. Same as my mama.” Then, abruptly, he was smiling again. “Make a list of any other stuff you need. I’ll get it next week when I go into town.”
“I’ve got a surprise for you, too-I started my period. I need tampons.”
Junior blushed like Dad that time she had walked in on him naked. “Uh, okay, I’ll, uh, I’ll get some. How… uh… how many do you need-one, two?”
“Hel- lo! A whole box. And I need them today, like real soon or I’m going to bleed all over the place!”
“Oh, shit, don’t do that! Okay, I’ll, uh, I’ll go into town and get ’em today. Uh, write it down, so I know what to ask for.” He walked out, shaking his head and muttering to himself. “Jesus, why didn’t I think of that?”
Boy, talk about diminished capacity. Of course, she had not started her period. They had learned about periods and tampons and all that stuff in health class, but according to Ms. Boyd, she was probably two years away from her first period. But how would mountain boy know that? With no electricity, he couldn’t watch the Discovery Channel. And she wanted him in town today.
Because Ben might be in town today.
Five hundred sixty miles due south, the black Land Rover was doing seventy on I-15 North.
Ben’s hands were shaking. He squeezed the leather-wrapped steering wheel and summoned the inner strength that had seen him through Big Ug’s fan belt beatings at San Bie. He could not fail Gracie.
It was Friday morning; he had taken over the wheel at 0400. John had crawled into the back seat and fallen asleep. That was over three hours ago, enough time to relive a life that had taken Ben Brice from West Texas to West Point, from Duty, Honor, Country to Quang Tri and the china doll. An hour from now they would arrive in Idaho Falls to talk to Clayton Lee Tucker at his gas station. He was the last person who had seen Gracie alive.
John’s cell phone rang. After three rings, John woke, dug the phone out of his pocket, and answered. “Yeah… Who’s this?… Lou?… Cripes, what time is it?… Oh, yeah, it’s later in New York… What?… Utah, I guess…”
“Idaho,” Ben said.
“Oh, Idaho,” John said, pushing himself up and rubbing his face. “I don’t know, Lou, however long it takes… What?… Price is up how much?… Dude, you’re breaking up, we’re in a freaking black hole out here, man… What?… Three billion?… Lou, I can’t hear you… Lou?… Lou?…” John frowned at the phone, then he disconnected. “Thing gronked out.”
He shoved the phone back into his pocket and put his glasses on. He climbed into the front passenger seat, leaned over, and dug into the bag of snacks he had bought on their last gas stop.
“Lou, my investment banker on the IPO. He says the stock is trading at ninety. I’m a billionaire three times over.” He reappeared with an Oreo cookie stuffed halfway in his mouth. “So why don’t I feel like a real man?”
The bathtub had feet like the one at Ben’s cabin. Gracie stepped in, sat down, and slid down until the water touched her chin. The hot water felt wonderful; her skin tingled. She couldn’t remember her last bath. She closed her eyes and went all the way under. When she surfaced, she smoothed her hair back with her fingers. She needed a shampoo.
Next to the tub was a small wood table with fresh towels and washcloths and a silver bucket like the one in Sam’s sandbox except this bucket was filled with little soaps and shampoos with Best Western Inn and Motel 6 on the labels. Gracie closed her eyes and tried to remember, but all she could recall were vague scenes from strange rooms.
She emptied one of the shampoos into her hand. The scent reminded her of Mom’s bathroom; they had had their only mother-daughter talk while Mom soaked in the big Jacuzzi tub one night after a verdict. Mom had poured a whole bottle of stress relief pellets into the water and soon the entire bathroom smelled of eucalyptus. Gracie sat on the floor while Mom lay back against a head cushion, closed her eyes, and offered motherly advice: “Grace, men are like dogs. They can smell fear on a woman. Never let them smell your fear. Never let them see you cry. Act tough even when you don’t feel tough. Curse. Don’t get mad, get even. If a boy doesn’t take no for an answer, kick him in the balls.” But she didn’t give her any advice for when she was kidnapped and taken to a cabin in Idaho by a crazy mountain boy.
Gracie stayed in the bathtub until the water lost its heat. She stepped out and dried off with one of the towels. Laid out neatly on the vanity were a silver comb and brush with a matching hair clip, a toothbrush and paste, and a small baby powder.
Baby powder never felt so good.
She opened the bathroom door and caught a chill. She wrapped her arms and hurried over to the clothes rack and quickly dressed. This was so strange. All the clothes were her size: long underwear, heavy corduroy pants, plaid flannel shirts, wool socks, and hiking boots. She probably looked like a total dork-“Pretty in plaid? I don’t think so.” The boots were kind of neat, though.
She tied the laces and stood. Mountain girl. She stepped to the door, put her fingers around the knob, and turned slowly. It opened. There was no lock on the door. She opened the door slightly and smelled breakfast cooking. She wished she were back at home and Sylvia was cooking in the kitchen. When she stepped out of the bedroom and into a long rectangular room, she knew she wasn’t.
Tables and chairs were scattered about the big space, maps and charts hung on the walls, big metal containers with U.S. ARMY stamped on the side were stacked high against one wall, and a ratty old couch sat in the middle of the room. A door at the far end opened and Junior appeared. He shut the door quietly behind him then turned and saw her.
“Why, don’t you look pretty?”
“What’s in those Army boxes?”
“Ordnance. Why’d you cut your hair so short? You do look like a boy.”
“Soccer season. What’s that?”
Junior walked over to the kitchen area. “What’s what?”
“Oh-grenade launchers, explosives, ammo, detonators, napalm, that sort of stuff. Breakfast is ready.”
Junior had set two places with paper plates, plastic forks, knives, and cups, and napkins on a small folding table. He was cooking on a little gas stove; there was a brand new one just like it in the back corner of the garage at home. He picked up a black skillet with a rag and slapped scrambled eggs and a slab of meat on her plate. She was really hungry.
“Mama taught me to cook,” he said.
She sat down and tried the eggs. He cooked pretty good eggs for a boy. Junior joined her at the table. She had a mouthful of scrambled eggs when Junior bowed his head and folded his hands.
“Dear Lord, thank you for this here food. And thank you for bringing Patty here.” His head raised up. “Let’s eat.”
She swallowed. “God didn’t bring me here.”
“Sure He did.”
“Hel- lo, earth to mountain boy-God doesn’t kidnap children.”
“No, He don’t. He just showed us the way.” He chewed with his mouth open. “God wants us to be together.”
He smiled and reached over and put his hand on hers; she felt something she didn’t want to feel. She jerked her hand away.
“Yep, I think.”
Gracie cut into the meat and put a piece in her mouth.
“So you followed me all last week?”
He grinned. “Yep.”
“Watching me at school and recess and practice?”
“And you called me, didn’t you?”
“And hung up every time?”
“So you were just waiting for a chance to grab me?”
“Why after the game?”
“ ’Cause your mama wasn’t there.” He pointed at the meat with his fork. “Eats good, don’t it?”
She assumed “eats good” was mountain-speak for “tastes good.” She nodded. “Sausage?”
Gracie spat out the ball of meat.
Clayton Lee Tucker spat a stream of brown juice into a brass spittoon. His cheek bulged with a big wad of chewing tobacco and his face was wrinkled like used aluminum foil. His skin was darkened a shade from the grease; his black glasses sat lopsided on his bulbous nose; his hands were gnarly. Ben knew what a drunk looked like in the morning; Tucker didn’t fit the description. And he didn’t look like a man given to seeing UFOs in the Idaho sky. He was examining the blow-ups and Gracie’s photo.
The Tucker Service Station, located just off Interstate 15 in Idaho Falls, was a beaten-down place that smelled of gasoline and grease, a throwback to the days when you could get your car repaired at a gas station and it didn’t cost four bits to air up the tires. A telephone company truck was parked outside.
Tucker looked up and spat again. “Ain’t no doubt about it,” he said. “That’s the girl.”
John collapsed into a chair. Ben said, “What about the men?”
“Can’t say for sure, not from them pictures,” Tucker said. “But that’s the tattoo, I’m sure of that.”
Ben removed his jacket and rolled the left sleeve of his shirt up to expose his Viper tattoo.
Tucker spat then angled his head to sight in the tattoo through his bifocals. “How come you got the same one?”
“Mr. Tucker, why didn’t you tell this to the FBI?”
“They never called.”
“No, sir, I mean the FBI agent who came here Wednesday morning and showed you these pictures.”
“Ain’t no FBI been here. First time I seen them pictures.”
“An FBI agent didn’t ask you about these men and the girl? You didn’t talk to him about UFOs? Tell him you drank?”
Tucker was clearly taken aback. He spat. “Only time I talked to anyone about the girl was when you called me. Hell, my phone’s been out of order ever since.” He picked up the phone and held it out to Ben. There was no dial tone. He gestured outside. “Phone company’s fixing it now, said the line was cut clean through. Figured kids.”
“Did the men say where they were headed?”
“The north country. Vehicle was burning oil like a refinery, asked me could it make another five hundred miles. No way, I says, rings is burned up, lucky it made it this far. Oil gets in the combustion chamber, bad news. Sent ’em down yonder to the motel.” He gestured down the access road. “They drove down there, big fella come back, left the truck. I got in about six the next morning-that’d been Monday-started tearing that engine apart, finished late that night. Big fella picked it up the next morning-that’d been Tuesday. Paid cash.”
“Five hundred miles north of here, but still in Idaho?”
“That’d put ’em right near the border, up in the panhandle.”
“Where they grow Christmas trees?”
“Where it’s snowing?”
“I’ve got a map,” Ben said.
Ben spread the Idaho map out on the counter. Tucker said, “You know, I seen something on TV about them militias and Ku Klux Klan and Nazis, how they got camps in the mountains up north.”
“Any particular place?”
Tucker leaned over and put a finger on Idaho Falls and ran it north, tracking I-15 then 90, all the way to Coeur d’Alene; his finger left a slight trail of fresh grease on the map. Then his finger turned north, on state highway 95, all the way to “Bonners Ferry,” he said, tapping the map.
“She’s alive, Ben.”
Back on the highway, images of his daughter were racing through John’s mind like a DVD on fast forward; his heart was trying to punch through the wall of his chest cavity.
“I gotta call Elizabeth.”
He dug the cell phone out of his pocket.
“Son, we don’t need to be pulled over by the highway patrol, not with what we’ve got in this vehicle.”
“What?” John’s eyes dropped down to the speedometer. “Shit.” He had the Rover doing ninety. He pulled his foot off the accelerator. When the Rover and his heartbeat were both down to seventy-five, John glanced over at Ben. “You were right.”
Ben just nodded and held his hand out. “Here.”
John handed the phone to Ben. “Home number’s on the speed dial, push-”
Ben rolled down his window and defenestrated the phone. John watched in the rearview as the phone bounced on the highway and splattered into pieces.
“Cripes, Ben! Why’d you do that?”
“Because from now on, we don’t call home, we don’t call the FBI, we don’t call anyone.”
“Why not? We need to tell them she’s alive!”
“They already know it.”
“How? We just talked to Tucker.”
“John, I didn’t need Tucker to tell me she’s alive. I knew that. But he told me something I didn’t know.” He turned to John. “The FBI lied about coming to see him.”
“Which means what?”
“Which means they know she’s up here.”
“Why would the FBI lie about Gracie being alive in Idaho?”
“Because they don’t want us up here, getting in their way. That’s why they cut Tucker’s phone line. They’re after the men that took Gracie, but for some other reason. And they’re willing to sacrifice her to get them.”
“ Sacrifice her? You mean… Jesus… What could those men be doing that’s so bad the FBI would sacrifice Gracie to get them?”
Four hundred miles due north, Junior said, “Lemme clean up this mess, then I’ll show you your big surprise. After that I’ll show you around my mountain, before I go to town to pick up your, uh, girl stuff.” He smiled real big. “I mean, our mountain.”
Gracie gave him a weak smile then wandered around the room; she was trying to sort things out.
This was way strange. Mountain boy kidnapped her, but he treated her totally nice. Cozy bedroom, hot bath, new clothes, good breakfast-well, except for eating Bambi.
Gracie pointed at the door that Junior had come out of earlier. “What’s in there?”
He smiled. “Your big surprise.”
Uh-oh, Gracie thought. The bridal suite. She quickly continued her tour. On the short wall by the kitchen were photographs, pictures of a woman, a girl really, with an older man who looked like Junior and a small boy who was Junior.
“That’s my mama,” Junior said from the kitchen.
“Wow, she was beautiful.”
“Yep. She died real sudden when I was just a kid. She’s buried out back.”
“You buried your mother in the backyard?”
“ No… the major did.”
She turned the corner and started down the long wall: more photographs, one of the man who looked like Junior with medals on his uniform and a green beret on his head, like the picture of Ben on her desk. His nametag said WALKER. And photos of soldiers in a jungle and in a city with pretty women who looked like Ms. Wang, the math teacher; they were smiling, but their eyes were sad.
And Junior was real considerate for a boy. He actually knocked on her bedroom door before entering! That never happened at home. Mom just barged in whenever she felt like it.
Next on the wall were big knives and a fancy sword and a leather cord strung with shriveled up… ears? That is so totally gross! She pulled her eyes off the ears and looked at the map of the United States that was next on the wall. Various places were marked in black, with dates and names: Kelly, Epstein, Goldburg, Garcia, Young, Ellis, McCoy.
And Junior swore he didn’t touch her or look at her and said he’d kill anyone who tried to. Which seemed strange for a kidnapper. Like, if he didn’t take her for that and he didn’t take her for money, what did he take her for?
Next to the U.S. map was an aerial photograph like the one Dad had shown her of their neighborhood-Catoctin Mountain Park, the label read-with everything marked: the entrance, a big lodge named Aspen, smaller cabins, stables, swimming pool, skeet range, bowling alley, gym and sauna, horseshoe pit, chapel, heliport, trails, security checkpoints. That would be a really cool place to go camping. Maybe they could take their postponed first annual Brice family camping trip there. Black lines were drawn from each security checkpoint to a smaller photograph tacked on the wall, photos of little buildings and soldiers with rifles and dogs on leashes. Wow, they’re way serious about making sure everyone paid their camping fee! Another black line was drawn from the entrance location to a photograph of the entrance with a big metal gate and the name of the place in white letters on a board hanging between two posts: CAMP DAVID.
This was all like, really weird, but she couldn’t help thinking that maybe Junior wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Our mountain, he had said.
She realized he was standing next to her. When he smiled, he was kind of cute, except he needed some major dental work. He put his arm around her shoulders and she didn’t move it. She pointed to the leather cord on the wall.
“Ears. The major, he cut ’em off dead gooks. Give them to me for Christmas, back when I was about your age.”
“And I was hoping for new soccer shoes.” She gestured at the maps on the wall. “What’s all this?”
Junior pointed at a red flag with a half-moon sword and a hammer and the face of a man with a wispy little beard and said, “Commie flag from North Vietnam. That’s Ho Chi Minh hisself. And that’s an NVA helmet, and those black pajamas, that’s what the VC wore. That’s the major’s Bowie knife and his Colt. 45s.”
“What are all these photographs, the Camp David map?” She pointed. “I know that name, McCoy. What’s all this for?”
“Oh… we’re gonna kill the president.”
Three hundred miles to the south, John smacked the steering wheel hard enough to hurt.
“How are we gonna save her, Ben? How are we gonna find her without the FBI’s help?”
“They’re holed up in the mountains,” Ben said.
“How do you know?”
“That’s where a good soldier would be.”
“A soldier? ”
Ben nodded. “John, I don’t know why the FBI wants those men-maybe they’re racists or Nazis or just nuts-but I know why those men want Gracie. I wasn’t sure until Tucker ID’d the tattoo.” He paused. “It’s about the war.”
“The war? ” John almost laughed. “Ben, you gotta let the war go.”
“I’ve tried. It won’t let go of me.”
John decided to humor Ben: “Okay, so what’s Gracie got to do with your war?”
Ben stared blankly for a time. Then he said, “There was a massacre, in sixty-eight, in the Quang Tri province of South Vietnam. American soldiers murdered forty-two civilians.”
“So I was there.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“But our unit did. Viper team. The big man at the park, he had a Viper tattoo-he was there. He killed those people.”
“ You knew that guy? ”
“Yeah, I knew him.”
“Why didn’t you tell the FBI?”
“Because I knew that if he had Gracie, the FBI couldn’t stop him. No one can stop a Green Beret… except a Green Beret.”
“But you didn’t tell the FBI, so they closed her case.”
“That’s a good thing, John.”
“ Why? ”
“Because the men who took Gracie won’t be expecting me.”
John thought that through, not sure whether it was a plan or the delusions of a drunk.
“Okay, so that guy killed a bunch of people in Vietnam a long time ago-what’s that got to do with Gracie?”
“I reported it… the massacre.”
“The Army court-martialed those soldiers on my testimony.”
“They’re taking their revenge.”
John laughed now. “ What? Forty years later, they’re coming back for revenge? That’s a long time to hold onto a grudge, Ben.”
“How long have you held onto the bullies?”
They drove in silence for several miles, then John said, “Did my father die there?”
“Yes, he did.”
“John, some things are best left in the past.”
“But it’s not in the past, is it? Not if it got my daughter kidnapped eight days ago.” He waited for Ben’s response, but none came. He looked over at Ben. “I’m entitled to know, Ben.”
As night falls over Indochina on 17 Dec 68, SOG team Viper, twelve Green Berets fresh off a successful covert incursion into Laos, descends the limestone facade that is the Co Roc Mountain and crosses the Xe Kong River back into South Vietnam; they are five klicks south of the DMZ in the Quang Tri province. Intelligence reports indicate that Communist forces are now entering South Vietnam directly through the fourteen-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone. SOG team Viper’s orders are to interdict the enemy at the Seventeenth Parallel. It is Indian territory, a Vietnamese Communist stronghold, where no regular Army forces dare tread. Of course, there is nothing regular about SOG team Viper; so they venture forth into the night. But, as they say in Vietnam, the night belongs to Charlie.
The major is walking point, leading his team silently through the jungle single file when his voice suddenly breaks the silence.
The soldiers hit the deck a split second before all hell breaks loose, enemy fire incoming from every direction. They walked right into an ambush by a far superior force. They’re pinned down in a crossfire with no avenue of escape. If not for the major’s keen instincts and sense of smell-his nose picked up the pungent scent of a Cambodian cigarette favored by the VC-the VC would have twelve more Americans to add to their daily body count report to Hanoi.
Flat on their backs, AK-47 rounds cracking overhead and ripping through the jungle foliage and leaves falling like confetti, the Green Berets take turns emptying their clips at the enemy, just to let the VC know they’re still alive and to give the major time to come up with a “go to hell” plan-a new plan when the original plan goes to hell, like now.
Which he does.
“On my lead,” the major says to his men, making a sharp hand signal toward the west. “Jacko, Ace-claymore our back trail.”
Captain Jack O. Smith, who is never far from the major’s side, and Captain Tony “Ace” Gregory crawl off to the northeast and southeast. The major moves closer to his newest disciples, only seventeen days in-country, and says, “Brice, Dalton, when I move out, you boys act like hemorrhoids and stick to my ass.” And he smiles. Under fierce and likely fatal attack by the VC in a dark jungle in Southeast Asia, Major Charles Woodrow Walker smiles. His young disciples think, That’s why he’s a living legend.
And they know what it was like to have followed into battle the great generals they studied at West Point-Lee or Grant or Patton or MacArthur or Eisenhower. The major is the first to hit the ground when inserted and the last to leave the ground when extracted; he walks point, the most dangerous position; he would die for his men, and they for him. He has survived over one hundred covert missions into Laos and Cambodia and North Vietnam; most SOG team leaders don’t last a dozen. He is a warrior-god.
To Ben he says, “Let this be a lesson, Lieutenant. We should’ve taken out the old woman before she had a chance to rat us out to the local VC.”
Back at the river they spotted a lone figure down on the bank and the figure them. “Take him out,” the major said to Lieutenant Brice, the team’s sniper. Ben put his scope on the figure and saw that it was just an old woman filling water jugs. He informed the major. “Then take her out,” the major said. “But, Major, she’s a noncombatant. She’s so old, she probably can’t even see we’re Americans.” The major looked at him, shook his head, and said, “Move out.” Thirty minutes ago, Ben Brice had felt good about saving the old woman’s life.
The two captains return. “Charlie’s gonna eat some lead,” Captain Smith says with a grin. The captains emplaced claymore mines behind their escape route; when the VC give chase, the claymores will stop them in their tracks. A small rectangular plastic box, its business side embossed with FRONT TOWARD ENEMY so some doped-up draftee doesn’t take out his entire platoon, the M18A1 claymore antipersonnel mine is a particularly effective killing device; upon detonation by remote control or tripwire, the claymore sprays seven hundred steel balls in a sixty degree pattern, killing anyone within fifty meters. The balls can literally cut the typical hundred-pound Vietnamese Communist in two.
The major loads new clips into his twin. 45s. The veterans of the team pull two hand grenades each. As tracer rounds zip through the darkness overhead like a fireworks show, Brice and Dalton look at each other and nod nervously.
“Let’s kill some gooks,” the major says. From his backside, he hurls two grenades. The others follow his lead. The noise of the grenades exploding is deafening; the surrounding jungle is suddenly shrouded in white smoke. Every other grenade was a Willie Pete, a white phosphorus grenade. They were warned in training against throwing phosphorus grenades where the burning smoke could envelope them, but apparently there is an exception when surrounded by the enemy.
The Green Berets are suddenly up and running all-out to the west, directly at the VC, who can’t see them coming; Major Charles Woodrow Walker is leading the charge with a. 45 in each hand and Brice and Dalton tight on his ass. As they hit the enemy line, they unload on the startled VC; the major fires both. 45s simultaneously. Ben fires his backup weapon, the Uzi. They hear the claymores detonate behind them and the death cries of the Viet Cong.
No one looks back. The Americans run through the dark night, barely able to see the man in front of them, following only the sound of hard breathing and boots pounding the turf. For fifteen minutes they run.
The major’s voice penetrates the dark. His hands grab Ben and yank him out of the path of the incoming. The others arrive and take cover. No one laughs; no one talks. Ben silently thanks God for the major, then his heart skips a beat: Where’s Roger?
The major’s thoughts aren’t far behind. “Where’s Dalton?” he whispers to Ben.
“He was right behind me.”
“Jacko,” the major says, “check it out.”
Captain Smith nods and disappears into the night. Thirty minutes later, he returns.
“They got him, Major. Heading north.”
“Goddamnit!” The major stands. “Saddle up.”
They head back to the ambush point, their minds playing out the consequence of violating one of the three absolute rules drilled into every SOG team member from day one: never let yourself be captured by the VC.
They track the VC through the jungle and into a hamlet. Entering the hamlet, it is apparent the VC were here; the fear shows on the peasants’ faces. The Americans sweep the hamlet, searching every hut and hiding place for signs of Dalton or the VC. The peasants huddle together; mothers clutch their children. They are cooperative but tense, as one would expect when confronted by eleven big and heavily armed American soldiers in the middle of VC territory.
“No VC! No Yank!”
In the center of the hamlet, an old man stands next to a big pot cooking over an open fire; it is the community pot of nuoc mam, a pungent fish sauce the Vietnamese pour over rice. He stirs the sauce with a long wood utensil. He seems scared to death and is barely moving his utensil. The Americans find neither Dalton nor VC.
Captain Smith’s voice rings out. He’s picked up the VC’s tracks leading out of the hamlet and into the adjacent jungle. The Green Berets give chase, aware they’re probably running directly into another ambush or booby traps or “Holy shit!”
Ben Brice brings up the rear and comes upon his teammates standing shoulder to shoulder, their backs to him. One thought captures his mind: it must be Roger. He prepares himself to face death again, then he pushes his way through to the front. And in that moment, his life is forever changed. His romantic West Point notions of war and warriors are forever dispelled. His childlike vision of good and evil is forever altered. His innocence is lost. And so it is, when one confronts the evil in man.
Lieutenant Roger Dalton, U.S. Army Green Beret, hangs from a tree by his ankles, naked and disemboweled, his intestines hanging down into the small fire the VC built so the Americans could better see their handiwork. His genitals are missing. As is his head. The only sound is that of the fire sizzling with each drop of his bodily fluids. They know it’s Dalton by the fresh Viper tattoo on his left arm and the dog tags intertwined in the laces of the boots sitting below the body, a typical precaution in case you stepped on a land mine and had a leg blown off; the dog tags allowed the medics to rejoin man and leg, if not literally at least for the body bag. But it was not a precaution against decapitation by the VC. The major’s face is grim.
“This is why we kill gooks.”
After a long moment, Warrant Officer Nunn asks in his Southern drawl, “But where’s his head, Major?”
The major’s expression changes as if he had a revelation.
He pivots and runs back toward the hamlet. His men exchange confused glances, then they chase after their leader. Ben Brice looks at what remains of his best friend and throws up.
The major and nine angry, armed, adrenaline-charged Green Berets arrive back at the hamlet and run directly to the old man at the community pot of nuoc mam. He heard them coming; he is crying, for he knows his fate. The major shoves the old man aside and grabs the wooden utensil. He stirs in the pot then uses the utensil and his razor-sharp eleven-inch Bowie knife to fish an object out: Roger Dalton’s head, his eyes wide open, his mouth wider and stuffed with his genitals.
The major’s face contorts in rage and he lets out a feral scream that echoes against the jungle walls surrounding the hamlet. Then he turns to the old man and yells, “No VC? No VC?” His hand flashes past the old man’s face, as if he were going to strike him but missed. The old man’s face registers surprise, then blood appears along a thin line across his throat. He falls. The major slit the old man’s throat with the Bowie knife.
Lieutenant Ben Brice is using his Bowie knife to cut his best friend’s body down and blaming himself-if he had obeyed the major’s orders and taken the old woman out, Roger would still be alive-when he hears gunfire from the hamlet. It’s as if God whispered in his ear: he knows instantly what is happening.
He leaves his friend and runs backs to the hamlet, fighting his way through the hot steamy jungle, until he comes upon a massacre he cannot stop and a china doll he cannot save.
John’s tears stained the smooth Alpaca beige leather.
He had pulled the Land Rover off the highway shortly after Ben had begun retelling the massacre at Quang Tri. Now his forehead rested on the steering wheel.
“The major was the greatest man I’ve ever known,” Ben said. “Brilliant, natural born leader, completely without personal fear, an absolute belief that America was destined to defeat Communism in the world. He could have been one of the greatest soldiers in history.”
A deep sigh.
“Maybe when a man fights evil every day for so many years, he becomes evil. Maybe a man can’t be around that much hate without hating. I fought the hate. The major… the hate consumed him. He became the evil he was fighting.”
“Where is he now, the major?”
“We were ordered to war but not allowed to win the war. We were ordered to kill but court-martialed for killing. We were ordered to defeat Communism in Southeast Asia only to see Communism win at home.
“Thirty years of Communist rule over America and what has our once great nation become? An immoral society that is unworthy of its military. Civilians who demand freedom for free. Politicians who promise peace and prosperity at no cost, an all-expense-paid life devoted to the pursuit of happiness. Politicians who refused to do their duty but now call on the military to fight foreign wars when their political ambitions are thereby served. That is America today.
“Each of us-soldiers in the United States Army-took a solemn oath to defend this nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And defend it we did-the Cold War is over, the Evil Empire is no more, Communism is defeated. But now the threat to America comes from within. From domestic enemies. From those among us who want an America subordinate to the United Nations, subject to international laws and courts, who want to dismantle the American military-because we are the last defense of America. We cannot allow that to happen. I will not allow that to happen. Not while I can still pull the trigger.”
Seven Days in May starring Major Charles Woodrow Walker.
FBI Special Agent Jan Jorgenson was viewing an old grainy videotape of the court-martialed war criminal Major Charles Woodrow Walker. He was handsome, a charismatic speaker, and the leader of a plot to overthrow the United States government. He commanded a personal army of former soldiers. He was operating under the radar, back before 9/11, back when the Bureau’s domestic radar screen was filled not with Islamic extremists but with homegrown hate groups-Aryan Nation, National Alliance, the Order, the Klan, skinheads, the right-wing militia movement: a bunch of dumb-ass white boys who so hated blacks and Jews that they had retired to the mountains of Idaho and Montana to live without electricity or running water or blacks or Jews. But while the Bureau concerned itself with weekend warriors who couldn’t overthrow their own town councils if their lives depended on it, completely undetected were Walker and his soldiers, real warriors trained by the U.S. government to overthrow other countries’ governments. Walker was a clear and present danger to America: a pissed-off Green Beret can be a nation’s worst nightmare.
And the Bureau might never have learned of Walker’s plot until the military coup began if this videotape had not been sent to the FBI twelve years ago with an anonymous handwritten note that read: Patty Walker said if I don’t see her for three months, the major done killed her, and I better mail this. So I am. The package was postmarked Bonners Ferry, Idaho. The Bureau put a team in Bonners Ferry. They alerted local law enforcement and hospitals. They searched for Walker’s secret mountain compound but without success. So they waited to get lucky.
Two years later, they did.
Walker strode into the hospital in Bonners Ferry with his dying son in his arms. The hospital treated the boy and called the Feds; the FBI arrested Walker without incident and airlifted him to the maximum-security prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, to await trial for treason.
A trial that never took place.
Walker’s men took a high-ranking government employee hostage and threatened to send the hostage back in pieces unless Walker was released. FBI Director Laurence McCoy refused-until he received the first installment. McCoy released Walker, who then disappeared into Mexico. And there his life ended. Three weeks later, Major Charles Woodrow Walker died of a heart attack.
Washington had overnighted the entire file on Major Walker-the videotape, photographs, and background reports of Walker and his followers. Their military careers were classified just like Colonel Brice’s. There was no mention of Viper team or a Viper tattoo. The last item in the file was a copy of his New York Times obituary. Jan sat back. Her revenge theory didn’t wash.
Major Charles Woodrow Walker had been dead for ten years.
Bonners Ferry, Idaho, population 2,600, sits along the south bank of the Kootenai River twenty-four miles from the Canadian border, 1,800 feet above sea level, and nestled among three mountain ranges with peaks reaching 8,000 feet into the big sky. The original inhabitants of the “Nile of the North,” as this fertile river valley became known, were members of the Kootenai Nation, whose local residency dated back to prehistoric times. The white man came to this part of Idaho on his way to Canada during the gold rush of 1863; he stayed to harvest the tall timber that covered 90 percent of the land. A century and a half later, the Kootenai tribe owns the town’s only casino, the descendants of the gold rushers grow Christmas trees, and northern Idaho has become a haven for racists, neo-Nazis, and right-wing antigovernment zealots.
Only the latter fact did Ben know when he parked the Land Rover in front of the Boundary County Courthouse. He and John stepped through the icy slush and walked into the three-story white stone structure. They located the sheriff’s office; inside, a plump middle-aged woman sat at a desk behind a waist-high wood partition. Behind her desk was a door marked SHERIFF J. D. JOHNSON. On the wall next to the door were framed photographs in each of which appeared a tall rugged man with progressively less and grayer hair-and one photograph when the man had a full head of black hair, in a place Ben knew all too well.
“Here to pay a fine?” the woman asked.
“No, ma’am,” Ben said, “we’re-”
“File a complaint?”
“Service of process?”
John planted his hands on the partition and leaned over. “Cripes, lady, we’re looking for the freaking Nazis that kidnapped my daughter!”
The woman stared at him over her glasses. “O-kay.”
The door behind her opened, and the man in the photographs appeared, wearing a uniform like he had worn one all his life.
“Louann,” the man said, “I’m occupado tonight. Tell Cody he’s in charge.”
He noticed Ben and John; he glanced back at the woman.
“Sheriff, these gentlemen are here about some Nazis,” she said as if it were a routine request.
The sheriff gave Ben and John a law enforcement once-over-they probably appeared ragged, almost twenty-four hours on the road-then came around the partition. He walked with a slight limp. Ben stuck out his hand.
“Sheriff, Ben Brice. And my son, John.”
The sheriff’s hair was combed neatly and he smelled of cologne, as if he had just freshened up in his office. He shook their hands.
“J. D. Johnson. What’s this about some Nazis?”
Ben held out Gracie’s photo. “My granddaughter’s been kidnapped.”
The sheriff studied the photo. “The girl down in Texas.” Then he answered Ben’s unasked question. “NLETS, law enforcement Teletype.”
“We think she’s up here,” Ben said.
“Thought the abductor hung himself?”
“He was the wrong man.”
“FBI seems to think he was the right man.”
The sheriff scratched his square jaw; his fingernails sounded like number-six sandpaper on his day-old beard.
“And you figure some Nazi-type brought her up here?”
“We were told a lot of them live in this area.”
The sheriff sighed. “That is a fact.”
“She was in Idaho Falls on Sunday evening, positive ID, with two men wearing camouflage fatigues, heading north five hundred miles in a white SUV with Idaho plates.”
“Well, that’d put them right about here, wouldn’t it?”
“Look, Sheriff, if you could give us a few minutes of your time, look at a few photos…”
The sheriff shrugged. “All right, Mr. Brice. First thing in the morning.”
“Could we do it now, Sheriff? It’s an emergency.”
“It’s also my anniversary. Taking the wife to dinner, and I gotta pick up this little bracelet I got for her…” He turned for the door. “Oh-six-hundred, Mr. Brice.”
He had his hand on the doorknob when Ben said, “You were a slick driver at Da Krong?”
The sheriff stopped dead in his tracks. His leathery face rotated around; he had a quizzical expression.
“On the wall,” Ben said.
The sheriff walked over and lifted a framed photo off its wall hook. “Me and my warrant officer. He came home in a body bag.” He paused, his eyes still on the photo; his rough fingers gently brushed dust from the glass. He cleared his throat and turned to Ben. “J. D. Johnson, captain, Marine Corps.”
“Ben Brice, colonel, Army Green Berets.”
12 Feb 71. Captain J. D. Johnson is piloting the UH-1D chopper transporting seven Marines to a battle zone near the Laos border in the Da Krong Valley. He’s flying lead slick in a V formation with four other birds. His. 45-caliber sidearm hangs between his legs to protect his privates from ground fire. He’s running sixty knots at twelve hundred feet. He has done this hundreds of times and come home every time.
He spots the green smoke marking the landing zone. He brings the Huey down in a steep descent and hears the accompanying gunships firing rockets into the surrounding trees; they’re prepping the landing zone, running a racetrack loop over the LZ so that cover fire is continuous during troop deployment.
Another hot LZ.
He sees tracer rounds coming at his ship. His door gunner opens fire with the M-60. Thirty seconds to drop the troops and get the hell out. He comes in fast, flares the nose to slow his air speed, and hovers three feet off the ground as the troops un-ass the bird from both sides; there are no doors on these slicks. The all clear and he dips the nose to gain speed to pull out. Just as he clears the trees, the chopper explodes. When he wakes, he hears voices speaking Vietnamese.
Captain J. D. Johnson is a POW.
Night has descended over South Vietnam and he’s wondering if his warrant officer made it out alive. He’s bound and sitting in the corner of an earthen bunker carved out of the hillside; he took a bullet in his left leg. From his limited knowledge of Vietnamese, he gathers that a platoon will take the captured American to an NVA base camp in Laos tomorrow.
By the next night, he is in Laos; it’s the first night of a three-day march to the NVA base camp. He’s sitting up against a tree; his hands are bound behind him. His leg is broken and the wound is infected. He’s sweating profusely from the fever and his mind is getting clouded. Except for the guard sitting a few feet away, his captors are sleeping in gray hooches and hammocks strung between the trees, completely unconcerned that their American prisoner might attempt an escape.
J. D. Johnson, from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, never figured on dying in some damn jungle in Laos.
The guard suddenly slumps over without a sound; blood streams from his throat. J.D.’s hands fall; his bindings are cut. A face appears before him- Jesus! A goddamned Indian! He is lifted like he weighs fifty pounds instead of one-ninety and slung over a bare shoulder. They walk silently between two NVA soldiers snoring in hammocks.
All night they walk, his head bobbing at a smooth rhythm, his eyes seeing only the trail beneath the Indian’s bare feet as they travel through the jungle; his mind comes in and out of consciousness, wrapped in a blanket of fever.
When he wakes, dawn is breaking. As is the sky. A patch of blue up above. And an American voice beside him, calling for a Medevac: “I say again, Johnson, J. D., Marine…”
His vision is blurred; he shakes his head, but the fever grips him like a vice. Who are these people? He tries to focus on the American. He’s a soldier. He passes out again.
He comes to, the THUMP THUMP THUMP of a chopper coming out of the hole in the clouds, a red cross on a white square on the chopper’s nose: a U.S. Army Medevac. Tears come into his eyes. J. D. Johnson was not going to die in some damn jungle in Laos, at least not today.
He is lifted from the ground and the sound of the chopper grows louder. His face is not against the bare brown chest of the Indian but against the American’s fatigues. He sees the blades rotating above him and he hears more American voices “Goddamn, you’re the one they talk about! Green Beret colonel living in the jungle with the Indians! You’re a fucking legend!”
— and he’s being lifted into the chopper. He grabs the American’s fatigues, and with all the strength left in his body, he pulls his face next to the soldier’s chest, to his nametag, and he makes out a name he will never forget: BRICE.
“If you’re white and pissed off at the world, chances are you call Idaho home.”
The sheriff was leaning back in a squeaky swivel chair behind his metal desk; he had changed his mind and decided to talk with them now. Ben and John sat in metal chairs on the visitors’ side of the desk.
“State’s become a damn mecca for those people-white supremacists, skinheads, militias, neo-Nazis-every goddamn kook in the country’s moving to Idaho, living on a mountain and hating everyone don’t look like them.” He shook his head. “People used to come here to fish.”
He handed the photos back to Ben.
“We got a bunch of them living around here, Colonel, but I’ve never seen no one looks like these two. The ones left stay up in the mountains for the most part. They don’t bother us, we don’t bother them.”
Ben gestured at the Boundary County map on the wall behind the sheriff.
“Any idea where their camps are?”
The sheriff stood and stepped to the map.
“Thirteen, fourteen years ago, before they had real terrorists to deal with, FBI was waging war on these guys. They set up a command post here, flew surveillance over the mountains looking for their camps. Thirteen hundred square miles in Boundary Country, lots of room to hide. The Feds identified four camps east of town, seven west, all off unpaved roads. This time of year, you need a four-wheel-drive to get up the muddy roads ’cause of the snow melt. And even if you get up there, you won’t see much from the road. The camps are up in the mountains, blocked out by the trees. If your girl’s in one of those camps, finding her ain’t gonna be easy. And getting her down damn near impossible.”
The sheriff put a finger on the map.
“FBI tried to bring one of those guys off Ruby Ridge in ninety-two, got a marshal killed. Brought in the Hostage Rescue Team even though there weren’t no hostages, put eleven snipers on that mountain, told them to shoot on sight. They did. Killed the guy’s wife. Shot her in the head while she was holding her baby. Government ended up paying him three million bucks.”
“Any place they hang out when they come to town?”
“Place just south of town, Rusty’s Tavern and Grill, but don’t eat the food. Beer joint. Some gals. Rough place, but we leave ’em alone long as they don’t shoot each other.”
Ben stood. “Sheriff, I appreciate your time. My apologies to your wife.”
“Thirty-four years, she’s used to me being late.”
The two middle-aged men, soldiers of a forgotten war, shook hands; they considered embracing but resisted. Ben and John were at the door when the sheriff spoke again.
“Colonel, if you don’t mind me asking, what would a couple Nazi-wannabes living in Idaho want with your granddaughter?”
Ben paused a moment, then he said, “To settle an old score.”
The sheriff studied Ben; he nodded. “One more thing, Colonel. Most of those fellas are just dumb-ass white boys couldn’t spell cat if you spotted them c and t, lucky just to find their way home at night. But there’s a few who ain’t just playing soldier. You go looking for your girl, you be ready.”
A slight smile from the sheriff. “I expect you are. And Colonel… thanks. For back then.”
Ben nodded. And a thought occurred to him. “Sheriff, there wouldn’t be a chopper for hire around here, would there?”
“Matter a fact, boy down by Naples got one. Dicky, we use him for search-and-rescues when a tourist gets lost hiking in the woods. I’ll give him a call.” He turned to his phone but stopped. “Tell you what. Meet me here at oh-six-hundred, we’ll drive down there together. Little air recon might do me good.”
“Oh-six-hundred,” Ben said. “We’ll be here.”
“Check your time, Colonel. We’re on Pacific time up here.”
The sheriff stood, walked over, and opened the door.
“You know, Colonel, one good thing about you hunting your girl without the Feds.”
“You don’t gotta worry about them getting her killed.”
“You just missed him,” the store owner said, “not half an hour. Boy didn’t know a tampon from a Tootsie Roll.”
He laughed at his own words. The General Store on Main Street had been in his family for over fifty years. It was a place where you could buy food, fertilizer, clothes, and tampons.
“Like a boy asking for rubbers. Hands me a little piece of paper with the name on it”-the owner leaned down under the counter; Ben could hear him rustling in a trash can-“yep, here it is.”
He bumped his head on the underside of the counter, then he reappeared, rubbing his bare scalp with one hand and holding out a scrap of white paper with the other. Two words had been written on the paper- Tampax tampons — and under the words a happy face had been drawn.
“That’s her handwriting,” Ben said.
“And her happy face,” John said.
The owner ducked his head slightly and said, “Am I bleeding?”
Ben shook his head. “Can you describe him?”
“Blond hair, blue eyes, about your height but stockier, maybe twenty-five. I see him a half-dozen times a year. Strange bird.”
“What he buys-girls’ clothes, pink pajamas, Barbie doll…”
“Gracie doesn’t do dolls,” Ben said.
John gritted his teeth: “Bagbiter.”
“No, he didn’t want a bag. Stuck the box under his coat like it was a girlie magazine and left… say, that reminds me. Few months back, he bought a Fortune magazine. I remember ’cause he didn’t look like an investor. May still have the one.” He bent over again and rummaged around below the counter. “Yeah, here it is.” He came back up with the Fortune magazine. He looked at the cover picture of John and then at John. “Say, that looks just like you.” He glanced back at the cover. “That is you.” He opened the magazine to the story with the Brice family portrait. “I was standing right here reading your story when he just snatched it out of my hands.”
“Notice which way he drove out of town?”
“North. He was parked right there where you are. Pulled out and headed north, sure did.”
Ben thanked the owner for his time, and he and John turned to leave.
“Oh, one more thing,” the owner said. They turned back. “He’s missing a finger. This one.”
The owner was pointing at the ceiling with the index finger of his right hand.
Ben and John stepped outside. They were canvassing the town, showing the photos to every business owner on Main Street. The general store was their fourth stop.
Ben said, “He didn’t buy tampons for a dead girl.”
“Tampons,” John said. “I didn’t think she was there yet.”
“She’s not. She just wanted him in town.”
“Because she knew I’d… we’d come for her. She’s a smart girl, John.” Ben faced north; the glow of the sunset was dimming now. “And she’s out there somewhere.”
Gracie hadn’t heard noises from the other room for hours now, since Junior had knocked on her bedroom door and begged her to come out so he could explain why they had to kill the president. She had refused, so he had said he was going into town to get her “girl stuff.” She had heard the truck roar off. Junior was gone. Now was her chance to escape. If she could escape, Ben wouldn’t have to drink more of his whiskey to forget killing Junior and Jacko.
She moved everything from in front of the door to her bedroom. She cracked the door and peeked out. The big room was empty. She came out slowly.
Gracie jumped at the voice behind her. She whirled around. A big fat ugly man was now standing between her and the door to her bedroom: the man that killed Bambi. His breath smelled of alcohol; his body odor could stop traffic.
“You ever touch one of these?” the fat man asked.
Gracie looked down to his hands cupped by his crotch. He was holding his penis. It wasn’t all wrinkly and limp like Dad’s that day in his bathroom; it was purple and swollen up like it was going to pop. It was plenty big enough to hurt a girl her age. She recalled Ms. Boyd saying something about erections, that a boy’s penis becomes hard in order to penetrate a girl’s “You touch this bod and Junior’s gonna kill you!”
“Well, Junior ain’t here right now, is he?”
She now recalled Ms. Boyd’s advice from sex ed class. She pointed a finger at the man and said, “No! And no means no!”
He just laughed. “Not to me it don’t.”
She made a mental note to tell Ms. Boyd that “no means no” doesn’t work so well with big fat ugly men on a mountain in Idaho. Finally, she recalled her mother’s advice: If a boy doesn’t take no for an answer, kick him in the balls. Gracie assumed that advice applied to big fat ugly men. So she kicked him in his balls, her best Tae Kwon Do kick with the hiking boots-but the fat man only yelped and waved his hand around. From the look he gave her, she had only succeeded in making him really mad. There was only one thing to do now.
The cold air shocked her as she hit the cabin door. The fat man would never have caught her if she hadn’t slipped on the ice. His hot breath hit her neck like a blow dryer. His hands grabbed at her clothes. Her feet were dangling.
“Come on back inside, girlie. Bubba ain’t had no virgin since-”
She heard a dull thud and the fat man groan. He released her, and she fell to the ground. She looked up to see Junior swinging a shovel and hitting the fat man in the head again.
“Bubba, you son of a bitch!”
Bubba went down to his knees; his eyes were glazed over and his head was bleeding. Junior’s face was wild; he was swinging again when Jacko grabbed the shovel from behind.
“Now don’t go and kill our only munitions expert, Junior,” Jacko said. “He’s just drunk.”
“He’s out!” Junior yelled. He kicked the fat man named Bubba in the stomach. “Get the fuck off my mountain!”
Junior threw a set of keys at Bubba. He grabbed the keys, crawled away to a safe distance, and then got to his feet and stumbled over to an old pickup truck. He got in and drove fast down the mountain.
“Oh, Junior, you saved me!”
Patty hugged him real tight. Tears were in her pretty blue eyes. Ever since Junior had seen her picture in that magazine, he knew they had to be together. And now they were.
“I was so scared! I was like, oh my God, he’s gonna rape me, where’s Junior? And there you were-you were totally awesome!” She wiped her eyes on his shirt. “Ooh, I love your shirt. Plaid’s my favorite.”
She looked up at Junior like that Mary Ann girl looking at the professor on that Gilligan show he had seen at the motel. Then she said three words that brought tears to Junior’s eyes.
“You’re my hero.”
She hugged him again, burying her face in his chest. Junior’s heart was about to bust, he was so damned happy. Her hugging him, that made it worth losing Bubba and his explosives skills. Patty pulled back and squeezed his biceps.
“Wow, you’re buff, Junior. Totally studly. Hey, look, I’m real sorry about this morning, getting so upset and all. I mean, it’s not like we’re Republicans, for crying out loud. I’m sure you have a very good reason to kill the president.”
“He ordered the major assassinated.”
“The major your daddy?”
“Well, there you go. That’s a totally good reason. I mean, who could blame you for being a little PO’d?”
“Now we’re gonna return the favor.”
“Nanna always says, What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I’m not real sure what that means.”
He took her hands. “Patty, are you ready for your big surprise?”
He glanced over at the bedroom door by the kitchen; her eyes followed his and then turned back real fast.
“Well, yeah, sure, but, um, why don’t you show me later, after dinner maybe. Show me around your mountain first. I mean, our mountain. Before it gets dark.”
“Well, okay, I guess it can wait.”
“Sure it can.”
He smiled; she said our mountain. “Sure, okay.”
Patty got a funny look on her face. “Uh-oh. Did you get my tampons?”
Junior went to the kitchen table and returned with the box of girl stuff. “Here.”
Patty took the box and said, “I’ll be right back.”
She disappeared into her room. Her talking about that girl stuff so straight out- period, tampons, bleeding — made Junior real uncomfortable. He never figured that would be a regular topic of discussion; he hoped it wouldn’t. A few minutes later she came back out.
“All better now. And, hey, sorry about calling you a numb-nut, during the road trip.”
“Aw, heck, honey, I been called a lot worse.”
Junior leaned down and cupped her pretty face. Then he kissed her forehead.
“Patty, I dreamed of this day-”
“Yeah, Mrs. Boyd told us about those kind of dreams in health class.”
Damn, there she goes again.
“Huh? Oh, no, I didn’t mean that.”
“Whatever. Let’s go see our mountain.”
She smiled real big at him, and he forgot about the tampon talk by the time they got outside.
“Lemme think here,” he said, putting his hands on his hips and turning in all directions as he thought of the best place to start the tour of their mountain. What would most impress Patty?
“Oh, I know, I’ll show you the creek first. It’s my favorite place in the whole world. Hey, you ever seen real bear tracks?”
He turned back, and she was gone.
See ya! What a loser! Does he really think I’m going to marry him? The bridal suite-that’s his big surprise? As if.
Gracie was running down the mountain like she was running down a soccer field on a breakaway and holding the tampons like relay batons. She was making good time on the dirt road, even though there were muddy patches she couldn’t see until she slipped. But she managed to stay on her feet each time. The sun was down; the road was getting darker and harder to see as it wound through the trees and down the mountain. She caught a glimpse of the main highway below; she was getting close. She saw a car drive by.
The sound of her breathing was now joined by another sound-a truck. Junior was coming. She had to get down to the highway… The truck noise was gaining on her… She turned on the speed, tricky going downhill… What’s that in the road?… Some kind of metal plate, like they use when they repair the streets back home… The noise behind her was closer now… on top of her… She took a quick check behind her and her foot caught the edge of something and She went tumbling and the tampons went flying; she hit the ground hard and rolled over and over until her head hit something. Then the world was black.
When Gracie opened her eyes, her head ached, she was cold, and she was in a new place. A tight place. A box. She could see trees above. A face appeared over her. Junior. And she realized what he was doing to her.
“Please, Junior, I’m really sorry! I won’t run again, I promise! Don’t do this to me, please! ”
Junior’s face was hard.
“I’m sorry, too, Patty, ’cause you ruined my big surprise. Now I gotta teach you a lesson. Night or two down there, you won’t run again. The major, he used to put me down there when I needed to get my head on straight, and it didn’t do nothing bad to me.”
“Oh, no, nothing bad at all-you’re just some kind of freaking psycho!”
Then it was dark.
Downtown Dallas after five was a ghost town, especially on a Friday night. The lawyers and bankers had retreated to the suburbs for the weekend, gone home to mama and the kids. FBI Special Agent Jan Jorgenson had only an empty apartment waiting for her, so she was running the deserted streets of downtown, not an advisable venue for most joggers. But then, most joggers don’t carry a. 40-caliber Glock semiautomatic in their waist pack-well, this was Texas; maybe they did.
She had missed her lunch-hour runs every day this week. She needed exercise. Running cleared her mind and allowed her to think. So far she had thought her way into a dead end.
The revenge theory just didn’t hold water. Yes, Colonel Brice had a Viper tattoo. Yes, the man at the park had a Viper tattoo. Yes, Brice had served on Viper team under the command of Major Walker. Yes, Brice had testified against Walker and the other Viper team soldiers. But that was almost forty years ago. And Major Walker was dead. She had to face facts: there was simply no connection between Major Charles Woodrow Walker and Colonel Ben Brice and Gracie Ann Brice’s abduction. There were only coincidences-coincidences the size of a goddamned whale, but coincidences nonetheless.
Four miles and her body felt good again. She had exited the federal building on the western edge of downtown, run east on Main Street, slowing to check out the Neiman Marcus window displays in the day’s last light-she always liked shopping with her mom at the Mall of America when she was a kid-and then to the freeway. She turned north to Ross Avenue, then west past the I.M. Pei-designed symphony center and the Museum, then south a few blocks, then west on Elm Street, past a skyscraper shaped like a rocket ship and one with a hole in the middle of the damn thing- what’s the story with that? — and now into Dealey Plaza, past the School Book Depository and to the grassy knoll, unchanged in forty years, to the exact spot where an American president was assassinated She stopped short.
She turned back and looked up at the sixth floor window of the School Book Depository. Crouched in that window-a much greater distance than she had realized-Lee Harvey Oswald had aimed a bolt-action rifle at a moving target and fired three shots in six seconds, putting two bullets within a nine-inch diameter, the first shot in Kennedy’s neck, the third shot in his head. Standing here now, seeing the shot required-three shots, no less-she shook her head. No way. The Feds took the easy way out. They never looked past the obvious connection And it hit her: she had committed the same sin.
Jan was back in the federal building in under five minutes, running past the security desk with a quick nod to Red, the night guard-she felt his eyes on her backside-then up the elevator to the third floor and down the corridor of the silent FBI offices, her pounding feet and heart the only noises. She opened her office door, turned on the light, went over to her desk, opened the Walker file, flipped the pages fast… her eyes raced down each page for names… names of AUSAs… Assistant United States Attorneys… prosecutors on the Walker case ten years ago…
“Oh my God.”
She found a name: Raul Garcia. And another: James Kelly. And a third: Elizabeth Austin.