If she was Italian, then she was Sicilian, and if she was part Indian, she was not a peaceful Navajo but an Apache. There was an unusual strength in her, a toughness, and if she’d had the chance to finish Ahriman herself without being caught, she probably would have acted on the opportunity.
Martie liked her a lot.
“I was seventeen at the time,” Chase said, almost to himself. “God knows why they didn’t accuse me, too. How did I escape? When they’re burning witches, why not the whole family?”
Returning to something that Zina had said, Dusty raised a key question: “if she committed suicide? What did you mean by that?”
“Tell him, Chase,” said Zina, moving from the corn bread to the pot of chili. “See if they think it sounds like something a little child would do to herself.”
“Her mother was in the next room,” Chase said. “She heard the gunshot, ran, found Valerie-Marie seconds after it happened. No one else could’ve been there. The girl definitely killed herself with her father’s pistol.”
“She had to get the pistol out of a box in the closet,” Zina said. “And a separate box of ammunition. And load the thing. A child who’d never handled a gun in her life.”
“Even that isn’t the hardest to believe,” Chase said. “What’s hardest is. . .“ He hesitated. “This is awful stuff, Mrs. Rhodes.”
“I’m getting used to it,” Martie grimly assured him.
Chase said, “The way Valerie-Marie killed herself. . . the news quoted Ahriman as calling it ‘an act of self-loathing, of gender denial, an attempt to destroy the sexual aspect of herself that had led to her being molested.’ That little girl, you see, before she pulled the trigger she undressed herself, and then she put the gun. . . inside. . .
Martie was on her feet before she realized that she intended to get out of her chair. “Dear God.” She needed to move, to go somewhere, do something, but there was nowhere to go except—as she discovered when she got there—to Zina Glyson, around whom she put her arms as she would have put them around Susan at such a moment as this. “Were you dating Chase then?”
“Yes,” Zina said.
“And stood by him. And married him.”
“Thank God,” Chase murmured.
“What it must have been like,” Martie said, “after the suicide, to defend Carl to other women, and stand by his son.”
Zina had accepted Martie’s embrace as naturally as it had been given. The memory made this Southwest princess tremble after all these years, but both Sicilian and Apache women were loath to cry.
“No one accused Chase,” she said, “but he was suspected. And me . . . people smiled, but they kept their children at a distance from me. For years.”
Martie brought Zina back to the table, and the four of them sat together.
“Forget all that psychological blather about gender denial and destroying her sexual aspect,” said Zina. “What Valerie-Marie did, no child would think to do. No child. That little girl did what she did because someone put it in her head to do it. Impossible as it seems, crazy as it sounds, Ahriman showed her how to load a gun, and Ahriman told her what to do to herself, and she went home and just did it, because she was. . . she was, I don’t know, hypnotized or something.”
“It doesn’t sound impossible or crazy to us,” Dusty assured her.
The town was torn apart by Valerie-Marie Padillo’s death, and the possibility that other Little Jackrabbit kids might be suicidally depressed caused a sort of mass hysteria that Zina called the Plague Year. It was during this plague that a jury of seven women and five men returned unanimous guilty verdicts against all five defendants.
“You probably know,” said Chase, “other inmates consider child molesters the lowest of the low. My daddy. . . he lasted just nineteen months before he was killed at his job in the prison kitchen. Four stab wounds, one through each kidney from behind, two through the gut from in front. Probably, two guys sandwiched him. No one would ever talk, so no one was ever charged.”
“Is your mother still alive?” Dusty asked.
Chase shook his head. “The other three ladies from the school, nice people, all of them—they served four years each. My mom, she was released after five, and when they let her go, she had cancer.”
“Officially, the cancer killed her, but what really killed her was shame,” Zina said. “Tern was a good woman, a kind woman, and a proud woman. She’d done nothing, nothing, but she was eaten up by shame just dwelling on what people thought she’d done. She lived with us, but it wasn’t long. The school had been closed, Carl lost his interest in the car dealership. Legal bills took everything. We were still scraping by ourselves, and we hardly had money to bury her. Thirteen years, she’s dead. Might as well be yesterday to me.”
“What’s it like here for you, these days?” Dusty asked.
Zina and Chase exchanged a look, volumes written in one glance.
He said, “A lot better than it used to be. Some people still believe it all, but not many after the Pastore killings. And some of the Little Jackrabbit kids.. . they eventually recanted their stories.”
“Not for ten years.” Zina’s eyes in that moment were blacker than anthracite and harder than iron.
Chased sighed. “Maybe it took ten years for those false memories to start falling apart. I don’t know.”
“In all that time,” Martie wondered, “did you ever think of just picking up and leaving Santa Fe?”
“We love Santa Fe,” Chase said, and his heart seemed to be in his declaration.
“It’s the best place on earth,” Zina agreed. “Besides, if we’d ever left, there are a few out there who would’ve said our leaving proved all of it was true, that we were crawling away in shame.”
Chase nodded. “But just a few.”
“If it was just one,” Zina said, “I wouldn’t have left and given him the satisfaction.”
Zina’s hands were on the table, and Chase covered both of them with one of his. “Mr. Rhodes, if you think it would help you, some of those Little Jackrabbit kids, the ones who recanted, I know they would talk to you. They’ve come to us. They’ve apologized. They aren’t bad people. They were used. I think they’d like to help.”
“If you could set it up,” Dusty said, “we’ll devote tomorrow to them. Today, while there’s still light and before it snows, we want to go out to the Pastore ranch.”
Chase pushed his chair back from the table and got to his feet, seeming taller than he had been earlier. “You know the way?”
“We’ve got a map,” Dusty said.
“Well, I’ll lead you halfway,” Chase said. “Because halfway to the Pastore ranch, there’s something you should see. The Bellon Tockland Institute.”
“Hard to say. Been there twenty-five years. It’s where you’ll find Mark Ahriman’s friends, if he has any.”
Without pulling on a jacket or sweater, Zina walked with them to the street.
The piñons in the forecourt were as still as trees in a diorama, sealed behind glass.
The squeak of the iron hinges on the spindled gate was the only sound in the winter day, as if every soul in the city had vanished, as if Santa Fe were a ghost ship on a sea of sand.
No traffic moved on the street. No cats roamed, no birds flew. A great weight of stillness pressed down on the world.
To Chase, whose Lincoln Navigator was parked in front of them, Dusty said, “Does that van across the street belong to a neighbor?”
Chase looked, shook his head. “I don’t think so. Maybe. Why?”
“No reason. Nice-looking van, is all.”
“Something’s coming down,” Zina said, gazing at the sky.
At first Martie thought she meant snow was falling, but there was no snow.
The sky was more white than gray. If the clouds were moving at all, their motion was internal, concealed behind the pale skin that they presented to the world below.
“Something bad.” Zina put her hand on Martie’s arm. “My Apache premonition. Warrior blood senses violence coming. You be careful, Martie Rhodes.”
“We will be.”
“Wish you lived in Santa Fe.”
“Wish you lived in California.”
“World’s too big, and all of us too small,” Zina said, and again they hugged each other.
In the car, as Martie pulled into the street, following Chase’s Navigator, she glanced at Dusty. “What about the van?”
Turned in his seat, peering through the rear window, he said, “Thought maybe I’d seen it earlier.”
“At the shopping center where we bought the recorder.”
“Is it coming?”
One right turn and three blocks later, she asked, “Yet?”
“No. Guess I was wrong.”
In California, one time zone farther west than Santa Fe, Mark Ahriman ate lunch alone, at a table for two, in a stylish bistro in Laguna Beach. A dazzling Pacific vista lay to his left; a generally well dressed and monied luncheon crowd was seated to his right.
Not all was perfect. Two tables away, a thirtyish gentleman—and this was stretching the word to its elastic limits—let out a bray of laughter from time to time, so harsh and protracted that all donkeys west of the Pecos must have pricked their ears at each outburst. A grandmotherly woman at the next table was wearing an absurd mustard-yellow cloche hat. Six younger women at the far end of the room were obnoxiously giggly. The waiter brought the wrong appetizer, and then didn’t return with the correct dish for a tedious number of minutes.
Nevertheless, the doctor didn’t shoot any of them. For a true gamesman like him, little pleasure was to be had in a simple shooting spree. Mindless blasting appealed to the deranged, to the hopelessly stupid, to waxed-off teenage boys with far too much self-esteem and no self-discipline, and to the fanatical political types who wanted to change the world by Tuesday. Besides, his mini-9mm pistol had a double-column magazine that held only ten rounds.
After finishing lunch with a slice of flourless dark-chocolate cake and saffron ice cream, the doctor paid his check and departed, granting absolution even to the woman in the absurd cloche hat.
Thursday afternoon was pleasantly cool, not chilly. The wind had blown itself to far Japan during the night. The sky was pregnant, but the rain that was supposed to break shortly after dawn had not yet been delivered.
While the valet brought the Mercedes, Dr. Ahriman examined his fingernails. He was so pleased by the quality of his manicure that he almost didn’t pay attention to the surrounding scene, didn’t look up from his hands—strong, manly, and yet with the gracefully tapered fingers of a concert pianist—almost didn’t see the stranger lounging against a pickup parked across the street.
The truck was beige, well maintained but not new, the type of vehicle that would never be collectible even a thousand years from now and, therefore, one in which Ahriman had so little interest that he had no idea what make or model year it was. The bed of the truck was covered by a white camper shell, and the doctor shivered at the thought of a vacation thus spent.
The lounging man, although a stranger, was vaguely familiar. He was in his early forties, with reddish hair, a round red face, and thick eyeglasses. He was not staring directly at Ahriman, but there was something about his demeanor that screamed surveillance. He made a production of checking his wristwatch, and then looking impatiently toward a nearby store, as if waiting for someone, but his acting ability was far inferior even to that of the movie star currently preparing for his once-in-a-career role as a presidential nose nosher.
The antique-toy shop. Just a few hours ago. A half-hour drive and six towns away from here. That was where the doctor had seen the blushing man. When he’d amused himself by imagining the surprise that would sweep the shop staff if he gut-shot the other customers for no reason other than whimsy, this was one of two patrons who, in his mind’s eye, had been targets.
In a county with a population of three million, it was difficult to believe that this second encounter in only a few hours was merely happenstance.
A beige pickup with a camper shell was not a vehicle one would ordinarily associate with either undercover police surveillance or a private detective.
When Ahriman took a closer look at it, however, he saw that the truck boasted two antennae in addition to the standard radio aerial. One was a whip antenna, attached to the cab, most likely in support of a police-band receiver. The other was an odd item bolted to the rear bumper: a six-foot-long, straight, silvery antenna with a spiked knob at the top, surrounded by a black coil.
Driving away from the restaurant, Dr. Ahriman was not surprised to see the pickup following him.
The blushing man’s trailing technique was amateurish. He did not stay on the bumper of the Mercedes, and he allowed one or even two vehicles to intervene and screen him, as perhaps he had learned from watching idiotic detective shows on television, but he didn’t have sufficient confidence to let Ahriman out of his sight for more than a second or two; he constantly drove close to the center line of the street or as near to the parked cars on the right as he dared get, shifting back and forth as the traffic in front of him briefly obscured his view of the Mercedes. Consequently, in the doctor’s rearview and side mirrors, the pickup was the only anomaly in the traffic pattern, unprofessionally visible, its big antennae slashing at the air, weaving like a Dodgem car in a carnival ride.
These days, with advanced transponder technology and even with satellite tracking available to them, the pros could trail a suspect all day and night without actually being within a mile of him. This tracker in the pickup was such a loser that his only professional act was not decorating his antennae with Day-Glo Styrofoam balls.
The doctor was baffled—and intrigued.
He began switching streets with regularity steadily moving into less-traveled residential neighborhoods, where there was no traffic to screen the pickup. As expected, the stalker compensated for the loss of cover merely by dropping farther back, nearly one block, as though confident that his quarry’s mental capacity and radius of concern were equal to that of a myopic cow.
Without indicating his intention with a turn signal, the doctor abruptly hung a hard right, sped to the nearest house, shot into the driveway, shifted into reverse, backed into the street, and returned the way he had come—just in time to meet the pickup as it rounded the corner in lamebrained pursuit.