I order the steak. Gwen just shakes her head. I reach out to stop the flight attendant and say, “Bring her something; she needs to eat.” It isn’t that I care, I tell myself. It’s that she does me no good if she collapses. We’re both running on adrenaline and anger and shock right now—well, to be fair, for me it’s mostly anger—and that’s not a good way to go into a situation that will probably turn out to be dangerous. I don’t believe for a second that Rivard sent us because we’re convenient. He could—and maybe has—hired others to do this job.
He’s sending us because we’re expendable. The cost of the best airplane food in existence and the jet fuel to get us there is the equivalent of buying us coffee to him.
My cell phone rings, and I flinch hard enough to pull a muscle. I’m strung too tightly. I hate that Gwen saw it.
“Yes?” I answer.
“Thought you’d want to know, possible sightings of Melvin Royal reported in Texas.” It’s Mike Lustig’s voice on the other end. “You still in Atlanta?”
“Just leaving,” I tell him, which at least has the benefit of being true. “Is it credible, you think?”
“Shit, you know nothing’s credible until we have surveillance photos, fingerprints, or DNA,” he says. “Trouble is, we’ve got a body in Texas that’s surfaced with a similar profile, and it fits in geographically to the reports. Could be him.”
I look at Gwen. Can’t help the instinct. She knows I’m talking to Mike but doesn’t know what it’s about. Yesterday, she’d probably have asked.
Today, with the shadow of what just happened lurching between us, she says nothing and averts her gaze.
“Hey, Sam, you still with me? You got any reason to think he’s got some support in Texas? Specifically, East Texas, up near the Louisiana border?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, can you ask her?”
“Not right now,” I say. “Is this recent?”
“Recent enough. Girl was abducted about six days ago. Body dumped in a bayou, found because a gator severed her leg where it was chained to a block. Gave the hunters who spotted her a hell of a shock. Last time she was seen alive was at a shopping center. Her ex liked to pick women off from places like that, didn’t he?”
Callie was abducted from a local shopping-mall parking lot. I say nothing. Mike knows Melvin Royal’s MO as well as I do.
“This vic had stun-gun marks,” Mike says. “Same as most of his victims did. So it tracks. But Texas is a long way off from where we had other reports. Feels like a decoy to me. Not that we aren’t looking into it; we are.” He’s quiet for a moment, waiting for me to say something. I still don’t. “You don’t sound right. Everything okay?”
“Sure,” I say. “Just thinking. You talk to Ballantine Rivard?”
“I called. He’s not available, air quotes and all. Got a feeling I’m going to have to go get court paper to open up the pearly gates.”
“Don’t think you’ll get too much even if you do get inside,” I say.
“Probably not, but I deal with rich asshole sociopaths all the time. I checked him out: the usual lawsuits for underpayment, improper dismissal, contract violations, that sort of stuff. I don’t imagine anybody who runs a company this big has cleaner hands. His son was a damn mess, though.”
“Yeah, I know.” I’m distracted by the reappearance of the flight attendant with a cart. It’s chock-full of ridiculously indulgent, high-priced liquor. “Listen, I’ve got to go. You be safe, Mike.”
“You, too,” he says. “You’re not doing something stupid, are you?”
“Probably,” I say, then hang up.
I order another scotch.
Gwen sticks with water. No ice. I suspect the taste of scotch is now associated with the memory of that video, and now that I think of it, the shimmering taste in my own mouth turns a little sour. I down it in a gulp and hand the tumbler back.
The flight attendant smiles at me without any real warmth and reaches beneath the cart to take out a sealed manila envelope. She hands it to me. “From Mr. Rivard,” she says. “With his compliments.”
She wheels the cart away, and I look across at Gwen. She sips water and says, “I suppose he likes you better.”
Inside the envelope is a file folder. It’s full of photocopies, and I glance at each page before I pass it on to her. Carl David Suffolk’s Kansas driver’s license, reproduced in color, doesn’t do him any favors; he’s a puffy, pale man with a receding hairline who’s chosen to cultivate a goatee to cover up what’s probably a weak chin. Beneath the license are his personal details: single, no kids. His bank account balance, which is healthy but not impressive.
The next page is a copy of his employee ID, in which he looks even less prepossessing. He works at a place called Imaging Solutions—copy shop, print shop, something like that. The rest of the file is a list of phone numbers he regularly calls and texts, and most of them have names beside them, as well as addresses. A few don’t, which means they’re disposable phones. Rivard’s also included a list of screen names that Suffolk uses, along with the specific sites that they’re associated with. Most are innocuous.
A few raise the hair on the back of my neck. Suffolk visits chat sites that mainly host children and teens. At his age, and childless, it’s a pure red flag.
At the very end of the file, there’s a handwritten note. It says:
In this envelope I have a sealed message, which I trust you to hand to Mr. Suffolk. It contains the details on payment I will make to him upon his agreement to go with you. If he does not agree, I suppose you should use your discretion.
As agreed, I have made the offer to buy the video from the dark web and remove it entirely. However, there is a significant complication. It seems the video has already been delivered to another untraceable buyer, and that, I cannot control.
There may not be any way to stop the video from seeing the light of day.
I don’t like it. Instinctively, something tells me that Rivard is playing us, but I have no idea how, or why. Rich men don’t look at people like us as human beings; we’re pieces they move, levers they pull to get what they want.
There’s a sealed, expensive-looking envelope at the back of the file with Suffolk’s name written on it. I strongly consider opening it, but I don’t. Yet.
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