Page 27


"Is that still what you remember, Mitch, that you were on the phone with your wife?"


In fact, he had been on the phone with the kidnapper. What had seemed a safe and easy lie at the time might now be a noose into which he was being invited to place his neck, but he could see no way to abandon this falsehood without having a better one to use in its place.


"Yeah. I was on the phone with Holly."


"You said she called to tell you that she was leaving work early because of a migraine."


"That's right."


"So you were on the phone with her when Osteen was shot."


"Yes."


"That was at eleven forty-three a.m. You said it was eleven forty-three."


"I checked my watch right after the shot."


"But Nancy Farasand tells me that Mrs. Rafferty called in sick early yesterday, that she wasn't in the office at all."


Mitch did not reply. He could feel the hammer coming down.


"And Ms. Farasand says that you called her between twelve-fifteen and twelve-thirty yesterday afternoon."


The interior of the Honda felt like a tighter space than the trunk of the Chrysler Windsor.


Taggart said, "You were still at the crime scene at that time, waiting for me to ask a series of follow-up questions. Your helper, Mr. Barnes, continued planting flowers. Do you remember?"


When the detective waited, Mitch said, "Do I remember what?"


"Being at the crime scene," Taggart said drily.


"Sure. Of course."


"Ms. Farasand says that when you called her between twelve-fifteen and twelve-thirty, you asked to speak to your wife."


"She's very efficient."


"What I can't understand," Taggart said, "is why you would call the Realtor's office and ask to speak to your wife as much as forty-five minutes after, according to your own testimony, your wife had already called you to say that she was leaving there with a terrible migraine."


Great clear turbulent tides of air drowned the alleyway.


As Mitch lowered his gaze to the dashboard clock, a helpless sinking of the heart overcame him.


"Mitch?"


"Yeah."


"Look at me."


Reluctantly, he met the detective's gaze.


Those hawkshaw eyes didn't pierce Mitch now, didn't drill at him as they had before. Instead, worse, they were sympathetic and invited confidence, encouraged trust.


Taggart said, "Mitch...where is your wife?"


Chapter 54


Mitch remembered the alley as it had been the previous evening, flooded with the crimson light of sunset, and the ginger cat stalking shadow to shadow behind radium-green eyes, and how the cat had seemed to morph into a bird.


He had allowed himself hope then. The hope had been Anson, and the hope had been a lie.


Now the sky was hard and wind-polished and a frigid blue, as if it were a dome of ice that borrowed its color by reflection from the ocean not far to the west of here.


The ginger cat was gone, and the bird, and nothing living moved. The sharp light was a flensing knife that stripped the shadows to the lean.


"Where is your wife?" Taggart asked again.


The money was in the car trunk. The time and place of the swap were set. The clock was ticking down to the moment. He had come so far, endured so much, gotten so close.


He had discovered Evil with an uppercase E, but he had also come to see something better in the world than he had seen


before, something pure and true. He perceived mysterious meaning where he had previously seen only the green machine.


If things happened for a purpose, then perhaps there was a purpose he must not ignore in this encounter with the persistent detective.


For richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. To love, honor, and cherish. Until death us do part.


The vows were his. He had made them. Nobody else had made them to Holly. Only he had made them to her. He was the husband.


No one else would be so quick to kill for her, to die for her. To cherish means to hold dear and to treat as dear. To cherish means to do all you can for the welfare and the happiness of the one you cherish, to support and to comfort and to protect her.


Perhaps the purpose of bringing him together here with Taggart was to warn him that he had reached the limits of his ability to protect Holly without backup, to encourage him to realize that he could not go any further alone.


"Mitch, where is your wife?"


"What do you think of me?"


"In what sense?" Taggart asked.


"In every sense. What's your take on me?"


"People seem to think you're a stand-up guy."


"I asked what you think."


"I haven't known you until this. But inside you're all steel springs and ticking clocks."


"I wasn't always."


"No one could be. You'd blow up in a week. And you've changed."


"You've only known me one day."


"And you've changed."


"I'm not a bad man. I guess all bad men say that."


"Not so directly."


In the sky, perhaps high enough to be above the wind, miles too high to cast a shadow on the alley, a sun-silvered jet caught his eye as it sailed north. The world seemed shrunken now to this car, to this moment of peril, but the world was not shrunken, and the possible routes between any place and any other place were nearly infinite.


"Before I tell you where Holly is, I want a promise."


"I'm just a cop. I can't make plea bargains."


"So you think I've hurt her."


"No. I'm just being level with you."


"The thing is...we don't have much time. The promise I want is, when you hear the essence of it, you'll act fast, and not waste time picking at details."


"The devil's in the details, Mitch."


"When you hear this, you'll know where the devil is. But with so little time, I don't want to screw with police bureaucracies."


"I'm one cop. All I can promise is—I'll do my best for you."


Mitch took a deep breath. He blew it out. He said, "Holly has been kidnapped. She's being held for ransom."


Taggart stared at him. "Am I missing something?"


"They want two million dollars or they'll kill her."


"You're a gardener."


"Don't I know."


"Where would you get two million bucks?"


"They said I'd find a way. Then they shot Jason Osteen to impress on me how serious they are. I thought he was just a guy walking a dog, thought they shot some passerby to make a point."


The detective's eyes were too sharp to read. His gaze filleted.


"Jason thought they were going to shoot the dog. So they scared obedience into me and at the same time cut the eventual split from five ways to four."


"Go on," Taggart said.


"Once I got home and saw the scene they staged for me there, once they had me in knots, they sent me to my brother for the money."


"For real? He's got that much?"


"Anson once pulled some criminal operation with Jason Osteen, John Knox, Jimmy Null, and two others whose names I've never heard."


"What was the operation?"


"I don't know. I wasn't part of it. I didn't know Anson was into this crap. And even if I did know what the operation was, it's one of the details you don't need now."


"All right."


"The essence is...Anson cheated them on the split, and they only found out what the real take was a lot later."


"Why snatch your wife?" Taggart asked. "Why not go after him?"


"He's untouchable. He's too valuable to some very important and very hard people. So they went after him through his little brother. Me. They figured he wouldn't want to see me lose my wife."


Mitch thought he had made a flat statement, but Taggart saw the hidden hills in it. "He wouldn't give you the money."


"Worse. He turned me over to some people."


"Some people?"


"To be killed."


"Your brother did?"


"My brother."


"Why didn't they kill you?"


Mitch maintained eye contact. Everything was on the line now, and he could not hold back too much and expect cooperation. He said, "Some things went wrong for them."


"Sweet Jesus, Mitch."


"So I came back to see my brother."


"Must've been some reunion."


"No champagne, but he had second thoughts about helping me."


"He gave you the money?"


"He did."


"Where is your brother now?"


"Alive but restrained. The swap is at three o'clock, and I've got reason to believe one of the kidnappers popped the others. Jimmy Null. Now it's just him holding Holly."


"How much have you left out?"


"Most of it," Mitch said truthfully.


The detective stared through the windshield at the alley.


From a coat pocket, he withdrew a roll of hard-caramel candies. He peeled the end of the roll, extracted a candy. He held the sweet circlet between his teeth while he folded shut the roll. As he returned the roll to his pocket, his tongue took the caramel from between his teeth. This procedure had the quality of a ritual.


"So?" Mitch said. "You believe me?"


"I've got a bullshit detector even bigger than my prostate," said Taggart. "And it isn't ringing."


Mitch didn't know whether to be relieved or not.


If he went alone to ransom Holly, and if they were both killed, at least he would not have to live with the knowledge that he had failed her.


If the authorities took it out of his hands, however, and if then Holly was killed but he lived, the responsibility would be a burden of intolerable weight.


He had to acknowledge that no possible scenario would put him in control, that inevitably fate was his partner in this. He must do what seemed right for Holly, and hope that what seemed right turned out to be right.


"Now what?" he asked.


"Mitch, kidnapping is a federal offense. We have to notify the FBI."


"I'm afraid of the complication."


"They're good. Nobody's more experienced with this kind of crime. Anyway, because we have only two hours, they won't be able to get a specialty team in place. They'll probably want us to take the lead."


"How should I feel about that?"


"We're good. Our SWAT's first-rate. We have an experienced hostage negotiator."


"So many people," Mitch worried.


"I'll be running this. You think I'm trigger-happy?"


"No."


"You don't think I'm a dog for details?" Taggart asked.


"I think maybe you're best of show."


The detective grinned. "Okay. So we'll get your wife back."


Then he reached across the console and plucked the car key from the ignition.


Startled, Mitch said, "Why'd you do that?"


"I don't want you having second thoughts, bolting off on your own, after all. That isn't what's best for her, Mitch."


"I've made the decision. I need your help. You can trust me with the keys."


"In a little while. I'm only looking out for you here, for you and Holly. I've got a wife I love, too, and two daughters—I told you about the daughters—so I know where you are right now, in your head. I know where you are. Trust me."


The keys disappeared into a jacket pocket. From another pocket, the detective withdrew a cell phone.


As he switched on the phone, Taggart crunched what remained of the circlet of candy. A caramel aroma sweetened the air.


Mitch watched the detective speed-dial a number. A part of him felt that with the contact of that finger to that button, not only a call had been placed but also Holly's fate had been sealed.


As Taggart spoke police code to a dispatcher and gave Anson's address, Mitch looked for another sun-silvered jet high above. The sky was empty.


Terminating the call, pocketing the phone, Taggart said, "So your brother's back there in the house?"


Mitch could no longer pretend Anson was in Vegas. "Yeah."


"Where?"


"In the laundry room."


"Let's go talk to him."


"Why?"


"He pulled some sort of job with this Jimmy Null, right?"


"Yeah."


"So he must know him well. If we're going to get Holly out of Null's hands smooth and easy, nice and safe, we need to know every damn thing about him we can learn."


When Taggart opened the passenger's door to get out, a clear wind blasted into the Honda, bringing neither dust nor litter, but the promise of chaos.


For better or worse, the situation was spinning out of Mitch's control. He didn't think it would be for the better.


Taggart slammed the passenger's door, but Mitch sat behind the wheel for a moment, his thoughts spinning, tumbling, his mind busy, and not just his mind, and then he got out into the whipping wind.


Chapter 55


The polished sky and the sharp light and the flaying wind, and from the overhead power lines, a keening like an animal in mourning.


Mitch led the detective to the painted wooden service gate. The wind tore it from his hand as he slipped the latch, and banged it against the garage wall.


Undoubtedly, Julian Campbell was sending men here, but they were no threat now, because they would not arrive before the police. The police were only minutes away.


Following the narrow brick walkway, which was sheltered from the worst of the wind, Mitch came upon a collection of dead beetles. Two were as big as quarters, one the diameter of a dime. On the underside they were yellow with stiff black legs. They were on their backs, balanced on curved shells, and a gentle eddy of wind spun them in slow circles.


Cuffed to a chair, sitting in urine, Anson would make a pathetic figure, and he would play the victim convincingly, with the skill of a cunning sociopath.


Even though Taggart had implied that he heard truth in Mitch's story, he might wonder at the hard treatment Anson had received. With no experience of Anson, having heard only the condensed version of events, the detective might think the treatment had been worse than hard, had been cruel.


Crossing the courtyard, where the wind badgered again, Mitch was aware of the detective close behind him. Although they were in the open, he felt crowded, pinched by claustrophobia.


He could hear Anson's voice in his mind: He told me that he killed our mom and dad. He stabbed them with garden tools. He said he'd come back to kill me, too.

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