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|The Prey Series|
The thought popped into her head as she lay in the soft-washed yellowed sheets in the hospital bed. The thought popped in between the gas pains and muscle spasms, through the pungent odor of alcohol swabs, and if she'd read the thought in a book, she might have smiled at it.
She wasn't smiling at anything now.
She stared past the IV drip bag at the whitewashed plaster ceiling and tried not to groan when the pains came, knowing that they would end; tried not to look at the hard-eyed Mexicano at the end of the bed, his hand never far from the pistol that lay under the newspaper on the arm of his chair. Tried not to think about Paulo.
Tried not to think about anything, but sometimes the thoughts popped up: tall, wiry Paulo in his ruffled tuxedo shirt, his jacket on the chair, a glass of red wine in one hand, his other hand, balled in a fist, on his hip, looking at himself in the full-length mirror on the back of his bedroom door, pretending to be a matador. Paulo with the children's book Father Christmas, sitting naked at her kitchen table with a glass of milk and a milk mustache, delighted by the grumpy Santa Claus. Paulo asleep next to her, his face pale and trusting in the day's first light, the soft light that came in over the gulf just before sunrise.
But the thought that might have made her smile, if it was in a book, was:
Just like the fuckin' Godfather.
Like this: an Italian restaurant called Gino's, with the full Italian-cliché stage setting sienna orange walls, bottles of Chianti with straw wrappers, red-and-white checked tablecloths, baskets of hot crusty bread as soon as you sat down, the room smelling of sugar and wheat, olives and peppers, and black oily coffee. A few rickety tables outside faced the Plaza de Arboles and the fifties tourist-coordinated stucco church across the way, San Fernando de Something-or-Other. The church belfry contained a loudspeaker that played a full, slow bell version of the Singing Nun's "Dominique," more or less at noon, depending on whose turn it was to drop the needle on the aging vinyl bell-record.
Paulo took her to lunch almost every day, picking her up at the hotel where she worked as a bookkeeper. They'd eat Mexican one day, California or French the next, Italian twice a week. He picked her up about noon, so on most days she could hear, near or far, the recorded bells of San Fernando's.
Gino's was the favored spot. Despite the clichéd Italian stage-setting, there was an actual Gino cooking at Gino's, and the food was terrific. Paulo would pick her up in a black BMW 740iL, his business car, with his smooth-faced business driver. They'd hook up with friends, eat a long Caribbean lunch and laugh and argue and talk politics and cars and boats and sex, and at two o'clock or so, they'd all head back to work.
A pattern: not predictable to the minute, but predictable enough.
Israel Coen sat up in the choir loft at the back of the church with his rifle, a scoped Remington Model 700 in .30-06. He'd sighted it in along a dirt track west of town, zeroed at exactly sixty yards, the distance he'd be shooting across the Plaza de Arboles. There was no problem making the shot. If all you wanted was that Izzy Coen make a sixty-yard shot with a scoped Remington 700, you could specify which shirt button you wanted the slug to punch through.
Not that everything was perfect. The moron who'd bought the gun apparently thought that bigger was better, so Izzy would be shooting at sixty yards through an eight-power scope, and about all he could see was a shirt button. He would have preferred no magnification at all, or an adjustable two- to six-power scope, to give him a little room around the crosshairs. But he didn't have that, and would have to make do.
The problem with the scope was exacerbated by the humidity in the loft. Not only was the temperature somewhere in the 120s, he thought, but the humidity must have been 95 percent. He'd sweated through his shirt at his armpits and across his chest, and the sweat beaded on his cheeks and forehead and arms. When he put the rifle to his cheek, the scope fogged over in a matter of seconds. He had a bottle of springwater with him, and that helped keep his body cool enough to function, but there was nothing he could do about the fogging eyepiece. The shot would have to be a quick one.
No matter. He'd scouted the play for three days, he knew what the conditions would be, and he was ready, up high with a rifle, yellow vinyl kitchen gloves protecting against the inadvertent fingerprint, the jeans and thin long-sleeved shirt meant to guard against DNA traces. Izzy was good.
He'd been in the loft for an hour and ten minutes when he saw the 740iL ease around the corner. He had two identical Motorola walkie-talkies sitting next to his feet. Izzy believed in redundancy. He picked up the first walkie-talkie, pushed the transmit button, and asked, "Hear me?"
Ten of them had been sitting in the back of Gino's, the talk running down, a friend leaving and then another, with his new girlfriend, who'd been brought around for approval. Then Paulo looked at his watch and said to Rinker, "We better get back."
"Just a minute," she said. "Turn this way." She turned his chin in her hand, dipped a napkin into a glass of water, and used the wet cloth to wipe a nearly invisible smear of red sauce from his lower lip.
"I was saving that for later," he protested.
"I couldn't send you back that way," she said. "Your mother would kill me."
"My mother," he said, rolling his black eyes.
They walked out of the Italian restaurant Just like the fuckin' Godfather and the black BMW stopped beyond the balustrade that separated the restaurant's patio from the Plaza. They walked past an American who sat at a circular table in his Hawaiian shirt and wide-brimmed flat hat, peering into a guidebook all the details as clear and sharp three days later, in the hospital, as the moment when it happened and the driver started to get out and Paulo called, "I got it, I got it," and Rinker reached for the door handle, but Paulo beat her to it, stepping in front of her in that last little quarter-second of life...
The shot sounded like a firecracker, but the driver knew it wasn't. The driver was in his pocket as Rinker, suddenly feeling ill not in pain, yet, but just ill, and for some inexplicable reason, falling went to the ground, Paulo on top of her. She didn't understand, even as a roaring, ripping sound enveloped her, and she rolled and Paulo looked down at her, but his eyes were already out of control and he opened his mouth and his blood gushed onto her face and into her mouth. She began screaming as the roaring sound resumed.
She rolled and pushed Paulo down on the cobbles and turned his head to keep him from drowning in his own blood, and began screaming at the driver, "Paulo, Paulo, Paulo..."
The driver looked at her, everything slow-moving. She saw the boxy black-steel weapon in his hand, a gun like she hadn't seen before. She saw his mouth open as he shouted something, then he looked back over the car and then back down at Paulo. Then he was standing over them, and he lifted Paulo and put him on the backseat, and lifted her, and put her in the passenger seat, and in seconds they were flying across the Plaza, the hospital three minutes away, no more.
She looked over the seat, into Paulo's open eyes; but Paulo wasn't there anymore.
Paulo had gone. She could taste his blood in her mouth, crusting around her teeth, but Paulo had left the building.
Izzy Coen said,"Goddamnit," and he wasn't sure it'd gone right. The scope had blocked too much and he ran the bolt and lifted the rifle for a second shot, the bodies right there, and he saw the driver doing something, and then as Izzy lifted the rifle, the driver opened up and the front of the church powdered around him and Izzy thought, Jeez...
An Uzi, he thought, or a gun just like it. Izzy rolled away from the window as the glass blew inward, picked up the two walkie-talkies, and scrambled to the far corner of the loft and the steel spiral stair, the bullets flying around him like bees. He dove down the stair and punched through the back door, where a yellow Volkswagen Beetle was waiting with its engine running. Izzy threw the gun in the back, climbed in, and slammed the door. The driver accelerated away from the church's back door and shouted, "What was that? What was that gun?"
"Fuck if I know," Izzy said. He was pulling off the latex gloves, shaking glass out of his hair. Blood on his hand he dabbed at his cheek: just a nick. "A fuckin' Uzi, maybe."
"Uzi? What is this Uzi?"
"Israeli gun, it's a machine gun..."
"I know what is a fuckin' Uzi," the driver shouted. "Why is this fuckin' Uzi? Why is this?"
"I don't know," Izzy said. "Just get us back to the plane and maybe we can find out."
The airstrip was a one-lane dirt path cut out of a piece of scraggly jungle twenty kilometers west of the city. On the way, the driver got on his cell phone and made a call, shouting in Spanish over the pounding of the Volkswagen.
"Find out anything?" Izzy asked when he rang off.
"I call now, maybe find out something later," the driver said. He was a little man who wore a plain pink short-sleeved dress shirt with khaki slacks and brown sandals. His English was usually excellent, but deteriorated under stress.
A couple of kilometers east of the airstrip, they stopped and the driver led the way through a copse of trees to a water-filled hole in the ground. Izzy wiped the Remington and threw it in the hole and tossed the box of shells in after it. "Hope it doesn't dry up," he said, looking at the ripples on the black water.
The driver shook his head. "There's no bottom," he said. "The hole goes all the way to hell." The phone rang on the way back to the car and the driver answered it, spoke for a minute, and then clicked off with a nervous sideways glance at Izzy.
"Two dead," the driver said. "One bullet?"
"One shot," Izzy said with satisfaction. "What was that machine gun?"
The driver shrugged. "Bodyguard, maybe. Nobody knows."
The airstrip terminal was a tin-roofed, concrete block building, surrounded by ragged palmettos, with an incongruous rooster-shaped weather vane perched on top. What might have been a more professional windsock hung limply from a pole beside the building, except that the windsock was shaped like a six-foot-long orange trout, and carried the legend "West Yellowstone, Montana." A Honda generator chugged away in a locked steel box behind the building, putting out the thin stink of burnt gasoline. Finger-sized lizards climbed over walls, poles, and tree trunks, searching for bugs, of which there were many. Everything about the place looked as tired as the windsock. Even the trees. Even the lizards.
From the trip in, Izzy knew the generator ran an ancient air conditioner and an even older dusty-red Coca-Cola cooler inside the building, where the owner sat with a stack of Playboy magazines, a radio, and a can of Raid for the biting flies.
"I'll call again," the driver said. "You check on the plane."
When Izzy had gone inside, the driver, now sweating as heavily as the American, dug a revolver out from under the front seat of the Volkswagen, swung the cylinder out and checked it, closed the cylinder, and put the gun under his belt at the small of his back.
Izzy and the driver had known each other for a few years, and there existed the possibility that the driver's name was on a list somewhere; that somebody knew who was driving Israel Coen around Cancún. But the driver doubted it. Nobody would want to know the details of a thing like this, and Izzy wouldn't want anyone to know.
Only two people had seen the driver's face and Izzy's in the same place: Izzy himself, and the airport manager.
The driver walked into the airport building and pulled the door shut. The building had four windows, and they all looked the same way, out at the strip. And it was cool inside. Izzy was talking to the airport manager, who sat with a Coca-Cola at a metal desk, directly in front of the air conditioner.
"Is he coming?" the driver asked.
"He's twenty minutes out," Izzy said, and the airport manager nodded.
The driver yawned. He had twenty minutes. Not much time. "Nice trip," he said to Izzy. He tipped his head at the door, as though he wanted to speak privately. "Hope your business went well."
"Let me get my bag," Izzy said. He stepped toward the door, and the driver pulled it open with his left hand and held it. Izzy stepped out, the driver right behind him, his right hand swinging up with the revolver. When it was an inch behind Izzy's head, he pulled the trigger and Izzy's face exploded in blood and he went down. The driver looked at the body for a moment, not quite believing what he'd done, then stepped back inside. The airport manager was half out of his chair, body cocked, and the driver shook his head at him.
"Too bad," he said, with real regret.
"We've known each other for a long time," the airport manager said.
"Why is... Let me say a prayer."
"No time," the driver said. "Today we killed Raul Mejia's baby boy."
He shot the airport manager in the heart, and again in the head to make sure. Back outside, he shot Izzy twice more, the shots sounding distant in his own ears, as if they'd come from over a hill. He dragged the body inside the airport building and dumped it beside the airport manager's. He took Izzy's wallet and all of his cash, a gold ring with a big red stone and the inscription "University of Connecticut, 1986," and every scrap of paper he could find on him. He also found the padlock for the door on the manager's desk, and the key to the generator box in the manager's pocket. He went outside, padlocked the door behind himself, killed the generator. There was a black patch of bloody dirt where Izzy's head had landed. He scuffed more dirt over it, got back in his Volkswagen, and pulled away.
Raul Mejia's baby boy.
The driver would have said a prayer for himself, if he could have remembered any.
Rinker didn't know the names of the players. When she woke up, she was in the hospital's critical care unit, three empty beds with monitoring equipment, and her own bed. Anthony and Dominic, Paulo's brothers, were sitting at the foot of the bed. She couldn't quite make out their faces until Anthony stood up and stepped close. Her mouth was as dry as a saltine cracker: "Paulo?"
Anthony shook his head. Rinker turned her face away, opened her mouth to cry, but nothing came out. Tears began running down her face, and Anthony took her hand.
"He was... he was dead when they got here... We, uh, you have been in surgery. We need to know, did you see the man who shot you?"
Rinker wagged her head weakly. "I didn't see anything. I just fell down, I didn't know I was shot. Paulo fell on top of me, I tried to turn his head, he was bleeding..."
More tears, and Dominic was turning his straw hat in his hands, pulling the brim through his fingers in a circular motion, like a man measuring yards of cloth.
"We are trying to find out who did this the police are helping," Anthony said. "We, uh... You will be all right. The bullet went through Paulo and fell apart, and the core went into you, in your stomach. They operated for two hours, and you will be all right."
She nodded, but her hand twitched toward her stomach.
"I think I'm, I might have been, I think...," she began, looking at Anthony and then Dominic, who had stepped up beside his brother.
Dominic now shook his head. "You have lost the baby."
Dominic reached out and touched her covered leg. He was tough as a ball bearing, but he had tears rolling down his cheeks. He said, "We'll find them. This won't pass."
She turned her head away and drifted. When she came back, they'd gone.
She was in the hospital for a week: missed Paulo's funeral, slept through a visit by Paulo's father. On the fourth day, they had her up and walking, but they wouldn't let her go until she had produced a solid bowel movement. After that painful experience, she was wheeled out to one of the family's black BMWs and was driven to the Mejia family compound in Merida. Paulo's father, rolling his own wheelchair though the dark, tiled hallways, met her with an arm around her shoulder and a kiss on the cheek.
"Do you know what happened?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No. I don't understand it yet. We've been asking everywhere, but there is no word of anything. Some people who might, in theory, have reason to be angry with us from years ago have let it be known that they were not involved, and have offered to help find those who were."
"You can believe them?" she asked.
"Perhaps. We continue to look... There was a strange circumstance the day Paulo was killed." He hesitated, as if puzzling over it, then continued. "Two men were killed at an airstrip not far from here. Shot to death. One was the airstrip manager and the other was an American. There was no indication that they were involved with Paulo's assassination. With that strip, there is always the question of unauthorized landings" he meant drug smuggling "but still, it is a strange coincidence. The American was identified through fingerprints. He was not involved in trade, in" he made a figure eight in the air with his fingers, meaning drugs "but he served time in prison and was believed connected to American organized crime, to the Mafia. A minor person, he was not important. We are asking more questions of our police, and our police are talking with the Americans. We will find out more, sooner or later."
"When you find them," Rinker said through her teeth, her cold eyes only inches from the old man's, "when you find them, kill them."
His eyes held hers for a moment, doing an assessment of the woman he knew as Cassie McLain. They didn't know each other well, but the old man knew that Paulo's involvement with her was more than casual; knew she'd been pregnant with one of his own grandchildren, this tidy blond American with the perfect Spanish. After the moment, he nodded. "Something will be done," he said.
"This dead American at the airstrip," she said, at the end of the audience. "Do you even know where he was from?"
"That we know," he said. He closed his eyes for a minute, parsing the information in his head. He smelled lightly of garlic, and had fuzzy ears, like a gentle Yoda. There was a legend that in his early years he'd had an informer hung upside down by his ankles, and had then lit a fire under his head. According to the legend, the informer stopped screaming only when his skull exploded. Now Mejia opened his eyes and said, "He lived in a town in Missouri, called Normandy Lake. A woman who lived there told the Missouri police that he'd gone to Cancún on vacation. She said she would come for the body, but she didn't come. When the police went back to the house, she had gone. She'd packed all her personal belongings and had gone away."
"That's crazy," Rinker said, shaking her head. But her brain was moving now, cutting through the glue that had held her since the shooting, and she was touched by a cool tongue of fear. After a moment, she said, "I don't want to go home. I'm a little frightened. If it would be all right, I would like to go to the ranch until I can walk. Then I think I will go back to the States."
"You are welcome to stay as long as you wish," the old man said. He smiled at her. "You may stay forever, if you wish. The friend of my baby."
She smiled back. "Thank you, Papa, but Cancún..." She made the same figure eight in the air as he had. "Cancún is Paulo. I think it would be better to go away when I am well."
One of the old man's bodyguards wheeled her back out to the BMW, and as the car pulled away, she looked at the driver's shoulders and the back of his head and realized that she now knew more about what happened at Gino's than the old man did.
She knew that the bullet had been aimed not at Paulo, but at her.
If the old man found out that his baby boy had been killed because of Rinker, and that Rinker had never told them of the danger she hadn't expected it, hadn't believed it could happen then maybe the old man's anger would be directed at her.
She shivered at the thought, but not too much, because Rinker was as cold as the old man. Instead of worrying, she began planning. She couldn't do anything until she got her strength back, which might take some time. She'd benefited from the report put out by the Mejia family and the Mexican police that she'd been killed along with Paulo at the time, they'd done it simply to protect her from a possible cleanup attempt if it turned out that she'd seen the shooter.
The story would serve her well enough. The St. Louis goombahs didn't have anything going in Mexico, as far as she knew, and the only information they would have gotten would have come from the newspapers.
On the other hand, with the old man pushing his drug-world contacts, sooner or later the truth would come out. By that time, she had to have made her move.
Before she talked to the old man, she hadn't had anything to do; now she'd be busy. As Cassie McLain, she'd retired, and was living on her investments. As Clara Rinker, she had to move money, retrieve documents, talk to old acquaintances across the border.
She had to be healthy to do it all.
Rinker spent a month at the old man's ranch, living in a bedroom in the main house, with an armed watcher to follow her around. The middle brother, Dominic, visited every third day, arriving at noon as regular as clockwork, to bring her up to date on the family's investigation.
All the time at the ranch, she waited for her image of Paulo to fade. It never did. To the very end of her stay, she could smell him, she could taste the salt on his skin, she still expected to see him standing in the kitchen, listening to futbol on a cheap radio, his white grin and black tousled hair and his weekend bottle of American-style Corona...
By the second week on the ranch, bored but still weak, feeling more and more pressure to move while remaining determined not to move until she was solid, she began talking with her watcher. His name was Jaime, a short, hard man with a deeply burned face and brushy mustache. He was good-natured enough, and went everywhere with a pistol in his pocket and an M-16 in the back of his truck.
Rinker said, "Show me about the M-16."
After a little talk, and perfunctory protests by Jaime, he hauled two chairs out to a nearby gully, set up a target range, and showed her how to fire the M-16. She did well with the weapon and he became interested he was a gunman, deeply involved with the tools of his profession and brought out other guns. A scoped, bolt-action Weatherby sporting rifle, a pump.22, a lever-action treinta-treinta, and a shotgun.
They spent two or three hours a day shooting: stationary targets, bouncing tires, and, with the.22, they'd shoot at clay pigeons thrown straight away. The clays were almost impossible to hit at the end, she might hit one or two out of ten, learning to time her shots to the top of the target's arc.
As they shot, Jaime talked about rifle bullets and loads, wind drift and heat mirages, uphill and downhill shooting, do-it-yourself accurizing. He liked working with her because she was serious about it, and attractive. An athlete, he thought, though she didn't really work at it, like some gym queens he knew in Cancún trim, smart, and pretty in a blond gringo way.
And she knew about men. He might have put a hand on her, himself, if she hadn't been in mourning, and mourning for the son of Raul Mejia. He remained always the professional.
"There is no way that you can carry or keep a long gun for self-protection," he told her. "With a handgun, you have it always by your hand, like the name says. With a rifle, which is very good if you have it in your hand, well, it will be in the bedroom and you will be in the kitchen when they come for you. Or you will be sitting in the latrine with your pants around your ankles and a Playboy in your hands maybe not you, but me, anyway and the rifle will be leaning against a tree, and that's when they will come. So this gun" he slapped the side of the M-16 "this gun is fine when you are shooting, but you must learn the handgun for self-protection."
She demurred. She wanted to learn the long guns, she said. Rifles and a shotgun. Not a double-barreled bird gun or anything cute, but a stubby, fat-barreled combat pump. She didn't want to learn how to shoot any fuckin' birds: give her a shotgun and a moving target five yards away...
He shook his head and smiled good-naturedly and showed her the long guns, two weeks of first-class tuition, but he kept coming back to the handgun. "Just try it," he'd say. "You are very natural with a gun. The best woman I have ever seen."
"Shooting's not exactly rocket science," she'd said, but the phrase didn't translate well into Spanish; didn't come off with the irony of the English.
In her second two weeks on the ranch, she went a half-dozen times into town, to her apartment, and gathered what she needed in order to move. She also wiped the place: There'd be no fingerprints if anyone came looking for her. Then one Wednesday, after she'd been on the ranch for a month, Dominic came out and said, "We've got word about a man who some people say might have been the driver for the shooting. We don't know where he is, but we know where his family is, so we should be able to find him. Then we might learn something."
"When?" she asked.
"By the weekend, I hope," Dominic said. "We have to know where this came from, so we can get back to business. And for Paulo, of course."
That was on a Wednesday. She was still not one hundred percent, but she was good enough to run. She'd handled everything she could by phone, she had documents she could get to, she'd moved the money that had to be moved. She would leave on Thursday afternoon.
She'd already worked it out: She had two doctor's appointments each week, on Monday and Thursday. The driver always waited in the lobby of the clinic. When she came out of the doctor's office, if she turned left instead of right, she would be at least momentarily free on the streets of Cancún, and not ten yards from a busy taxi stand.
She should have half an hour before the driver became curious. If she got even two minutes, she'd be gone. She'd done it before.
Rinker and Jaime went for one last shooting session on Thursday morning, with the shotgun. Jaime had six solid-rubber, fourteen-inch trailer tires that he could haul around in a John Deere utility wagon. They went out to the gully and Jaime rolled the tires, one at a time, down the rocky slope. The tires ricocheted wildly off the rocks, while Rinker tried to anticipate them with the twelve-gauge pump. When she hit them, at ten yards, she'd knock them flat, but on a good day, she struggled to hit half of them with the first shot. She learned that a shotgun, even at close range, wasn't a sure thing.
When she'd emptied the shotgun, they'd pick up the tires and Rinker would drive them to the top of the slope and roll them down while Jaime shot at them. Taking turns. He did no better than she did, though they both pretended that he did. On this day, she made what she thought later was almost a mistake.
Jaime pulled the Beretta from his belt clip and said, "Just one time with the handgun, eh? Make me happy."
"Jaime..." With asperity.
"No, no, no..." He wagged his finger at her. "I insist. We have time before the doctor, and this you should learn."
He ignored her. A half-dozen empty Coke cans sat in the back of the John Deere, and he threw three of them down the gully. "You can do this. You will find it much harder than the rifle or the shotgun."
"Give me the gun, Jaime," she said, making the almost-mistake.
He stopped in midsentence, looked at her, and handed her the Beretta. She'd always liked that particular gun when she was shooting nines: It seemed to fit in her hand.
And she liked Jaime and might have wanted to impress him a bit, on this, her last afternoon. She flipped the safety and pulled down on one of the cans and shot it six times in three seconds before it managed to flip its now-raggedy ass behind a rock.
They stood in a hot, dusty, powder-smelling silence for several seconds, then Rinker slipped the safety on and passed the piece back to Jaime.
Jaime looked at the gun, then at her, and said after a while, "I see."
He didn't really. He'd probably find out soon enough.
That afternoon, she ran.
Lucas Davenport parked in the street.
A rusty Dumpster blocked his driveway, which had become a bog of black-and-tan mud anyway, so he parked in the street, climbed out of the Porsche, and looked up at the half-finished house. The place had been framed and closed, and the rock walls had been set, but raw plywood still showed through the second story and parts of the first, although most of it had been covered with a black weather-seal. The lawn between Lucas and the house was a wreck, the result of construction trucks maneuvering over it after an ill-timed summer rain.
Two men in coveralls were sitting on the peak of the roof, drinking what Lucas hoped was Perrier water out of green bottles, and eating a pizza out of a flat white box. Given that they were roofers, and that when they saw him they eased the bottles down behind their legs and out of sight, he suspected that the bottles did not contain water. One of them waved with his free hand and the other lifted a slice of pizza, and Lucas waved back and started across the rutted lawn toward the front porch.
He crossed the ruts and rain puddles gracefully enough. He was a large, athletic man in a dark blue suit and nontasseled black loafers, with a white dress shirt open at the throat. His face and neck contrasted with the easy elegance of the Italian suit old scars marked him as a trouble-seeker, one scar in particular slicing down across an eyebrow onto the tanned cheek below. He had kindly ice-blue eyes and dark hair, old French-Canadian genes hanging on for dear life in the American ethnic Mixmaster.
The house was his or had been his, and would be again. Now it was a mess. An electrician stood on a stepladder on the new front porch working on overhead wiring. A couple of nail guns were banging away inside, sounding like cartoon spit balloons pitoo, pitoo and as he walked up to the porch, a table saw started whining. He could smell the sawdust, or imagined he could.
Listening to all the commotion, he thought, All right. Two guys on the roof, an electrician on the porch, at least two nail guns inside and a table saw. That was a minimum of six guys, and if there were six guys working on the house, then he wouldn't have to scream at the contractor. Seven or eight guys would have been better. Ten would have been perfect. But the house was only a week behind schedule now, so six was acceptable. Barely.
As he climbed the porch steps, he noticed that somebody had pinned a four-by-four beam in the open ceiling, down at the far end. It would, someday soon, support an oak swing big enough for two adults and a kid. The electrician saw him coming, ducked his head to look down at him from the ladder, and said, "Hey, Lucas."
"Jim. How's it going?"
The electrician was screwing canary-yellow splicing nuts onto pairs of bared wires that would feed the porch light. "Okay, I'm getting close. But somebody's got to put in that telephone and cable wiring or we're gonna get hung up on the inspection. The inspector's coming Tuesday, and if we have to reschedule, it could hold things up for a week and they won't be able to close the overheads."
"I'll talk to Jack about it," Lucas said. "He was supposed to get that guy from Epp's."
"I heard the guy fell off a stepladder and broke his foot that's what I heard," the electrician said, pitching his voice down. "Don't tell Jack I mentioned it."
"I won't. I'll get somebody out here," Lucas said.
Goddamnit. Now he was back in yelling mode again. Much of the problem of building a new house was in the sequencing sequencing the construction steps and all the required inspections in a smooth flow. One screwup, of even a minor thing like phone and cable-television wiring, which should take no more than a day, could stall progress for a week, and they didn't have a lot of time to spare.
Besides which, living in Weather Karkinnen's house was driving him crazy. He didn't have any of his stuff. Everything was in storage. Weather had even lost her TV remote, and never noticed because she watched TV only when presidents were assassinated. For the past two months, he'd had to get up and down every time he wanted to change channels, and he wanted to change channels about forty times a minute. He'd taken to crouching next to the TV to push the channel button. Weather said he was pathetic, and he believed her.
Inside the shell of the new house, everything smelled of damp wood and sawdust-smelled pretty good, he thought. Building new houses could become addictive. Everybody was working on the second story, and he made a quick tour of the bottom floor four new boxes were piled on the back porch; toilet stools and then took the central stairs to the second floor. One nail-gun guy and the table saw guy were working in the master bedroom, fitting in the tongue-in-groove maple ceiling. The other nail gunner was working in the main bathroom, fitting frames for what would be the linen closet. They all glanced at him, and the guy on the saw said, "Morning," and went back to work.
The saw guy shook his head. "Naw. I been working. Harold's been kinda jackin' around, though."
"Rick..." No time for carpenter humor. "Is Jack around?"
"He was down the basement, last time I saw him."
Lucas did a quick tour of the top floor, stopped to look out a bedroom window at the Mississippi he was actually high enough to see the water, far down in the steep valley on the other side of the road and then headed back downstairs. His cell phone rang when he was halfway down, and he pulled it out and poked the power button: "Yeah?"
"Hey." Marcy Sherrill, a detective-sergeant who ran his office and a portion of his life. "That FBI guy, Mallard, is looking for you. He wants you to get back to him soon as you can."
"Did he say what he wanted?"
"No, but he said it was urgent. He wanted your cell phone number, but I told him you kept it turned off. He gave me a number to call back."
"Give it to me." He took a ballpoint out of his jacket pocket and scribbled the number in the palm of his hand as she read it to him.
"You at the house?" she asked.
"Yeah. They're about ready to put in the toilets. We got four of the big high-flow American Standard babies. White."
He could feel her falling asleep, but she said, "Getting close."
"Two months, they say. I dunno. I'll believe it when I see it."
In the basement, Jack Vrbecek was peering up at the ceiling and making notes on a clipboard. "Hey, Lucas. Seven guys today."
"Yeah, that's good. That's good. Looks like things are moving. What're you doing?"
"Checking the schematics on the wiring. You're gonna want to know where every bit of it is, in case you need to get at it."
Lucas bent his head back to peer at the ceiling. "Maybe we ought to put in a Plexiglas ceiling, finish it off but then we'd be able to see everything."
"Except that the workshop would sound like the inside of the brass-band factory every time you turned on a saw," Vrbecek said. "This will be fine. We'll get you a complete layout, and with the acoustic drop ceiling, your access will be okay and you'll be able to hear yourself think."
Lucas nodded. "Listen, we've got to get somebody to do the cable and telephone stuff, and I heard someplace today, down at City Hall, I think, that the guy from Epp's broke his foot. If we don't get that in, with the inspector coming Tuesday..."
"Yeah, yeah. We're moving on it." He made a note on his clipboard.
"And one of the guys up on the roof is drinking what might be Perrier water, but might not be, and if he falls off and breaks his neck, I'm not the one who gets sued."
"Goddamnit. They're supposed to be in a twelve-step program, and if that's a goddamn bottle of beer..." They started for the basement stairs. At any other time, Lucas might have felt guilty about ratting out the roofers. But this was the house.
Two months earlier, Lucas had stood on the edge of a hole where his old house had once been, looking into it with a combination of fear and regret. Both he and Weather wanted to remain in the neighborhood, and they were old enough to know exactly what they wanted in a house, and to know they wouldn't get it by buying an older place. Building was the answer: taking down the old house, putting up the new.
Only when he looked into the hole did he realize how committed he'd become, after a long life of essential noncommitment. The old house was gone and Weather Karkinnen was, as she'd announced, With Child. They'd get married when they had time to work out the details, and they'd all live happily ever after in the Big New House.
As he'd stood on the edge of the hole, the low-spreading foundation junipers clutching at his ankles as though pleading for mercy they'd get damn little, given the practicalities of building a new house he'd expected to live with the regret for a long time.
He'd bought the place when he was relatively young, a detective sergeant with a reputation for busting cases. He was working all the time, roaming the city at night, building a web of contacts and working until five in the morning writing role-playing games, hunched over a drawing board and an IBM Selectric.
A couple of the games hit, producing modest gushers of money. After wasting some of it on a retirement plan and throwing even more down the rathole of sober, long-term investments, he'd finally come to his senses and spent the remaining money on a Porsche and a lake cabin in the North Woods. The last few thousand made a nice down payment on the house.
Standing at the edge of the old basement, he'd thought he'd miss the old place.
So far, he hadn't.
The hole had been enlarged, the new foundation had gone in, and in short order, the frame for the replacement house had gone up and been enclosed. He found the process fascinating. He'd enjoyed the design stage, working with the architect. Had enjoyed even more the construction process, the careful fitting-together of the plans, and the inevitable arguments about changes and materials. He even enjoyed the arguments. Sort of like writing a strategy game, he thought.
The old house, though comfortable, had problems. Even living in it alone, he'd felt cramped at times. And if he and Weather had kids, the kids would have been living on top of them, in the next bedroom down the hall. The Big New House would have a grand master bedroom suite with a Versailles-sized bathroom and a bathtub large enough for Lucas to float in Weather, a small woman, should be able to swim laps. The kid kids? would be at the other end of the hall, with a bathroom of his own, and there'd be a library and workrooms for both himself and Weather and a nice family room and a spot for Weather's piano. The new house was a place he thought he could happily live and die in. Die when he was ninety-three, he hoped. And with any luck, it should be finished before the kid arrived...
Right now, he didn't want to leave. Not even with the screaming up on the roof. He wanted to hang around and talk with the foreman and the other guys, but he knew he'd just be sucking up their time. He walked around the first floor once more, thinking about color schemes that would fit with the rock he'd picked for the fireplace. Twenty minutes after he arrived, he dragged himself back to the car.
And remembered Mallard. He took the cell phone out of his pocket and leaned against the Porsche and punched in the number written in the palm of his hand. An old lady went by on her bike, a wicker basket between the handlebars. She waved, and he waved back a neighbor making her daily trip to the supermarket up the hill on Ford Parkway.
"Is that pronounced like the duck?" Lucas asked.
An instant of silence, then Mallard figured it out. "Davenport. How far are you from the airport?"
"Ten minutes, but I ain't flying anywhere."
"Yeah, you are. You've got a Northwest flight out of there in, mmm, two hours and eight minutes for Houston and from there to Cancún, Mexico. Electronic tickets are already under your name. It's all cleared with your boss, and your federal tax dollars are picking the tab. I'll meet you at IAH in about six hours, and you can buy some clothes there."
"Whoa, whoa. I hate flying."
"Sometimes a man's gotta do..."
"What's going on?"
"Six weeks ago, somebody shot and killed a Mexican guy outside a Cancún restaurant and wounded his girlfriend. The guy who got killed was the youngest son of a Mexican druglord, or a guy who's supposedly a druglord, or maybe an ex-druglord... something like that. So the Mexicans started sniffing around, and word leaks out to a DEA guy. The shooter wasn't aiming at the druglord's son. It was a mistake."
"That's really fascinating, Louis, but Cancún is outside the Minneapolis city limits."
"The shooter was going for the girl, see. She was wounded, and the cops put out the word that she was dead, until they could find out what was going on. So after she got out of the hospital, she went out to the druglord's ranch outside of Mérida that's a city down there for a month, recovering. Then she disappeared. Like a puff of smoke. Everybody was looking for her, and eventually we get this request from the Mexican National Police about these fingerprints they'd picked up at the ranch. We had one print that matched. Came off a bar of soap."
Lucas finally caught up. "It's her?"
"Clara Rinker," Mallard said.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Get your ass down to Houston, first thing. The DEA has hooked us up with the National Police, and we're gonna talk to some people who knew her down there. You got a better feel for her than anybody. I want you to hear it."
Lucas thought about it for a minute, looking up at the half-completed house. "I can do it for a couple of days," he said. "But I got stuff going on here, Louis I mean, serious stuff. My fiancée is gonna be pissed. She's in the middle of planning the wedding, she really needs me right now, and I'm running off..."
"Just a couple of days," Mallard said. "I promise. Listen, I gotta go. I'm just coming up to National right now, and I gotta make some more calls before I get out of the car."
"Is Malone coming?"
"Yeah, she's coming, but you're engaged."
"I was just asking, Louis. You got something going with her?"
"No, I don't. But she does. Have something going. I gotta hang up. See you in Houston."
Weather would be upset, Lucas thought, looking back at the construction project. The house was only halfway done and needed constant supervision. The wedding planning was completely disorganized, and needed somebody to stay on top of it. Finally, there was a political pie-fight going on at City Hall, as a half-dozen candidates jockeyed for position in the Democratic primary for mayor. The political ramifications of the fight were severe the chief was already dead meat, her job gone. Lucas, as a political deputy-chief, was on his way out with the chief. But with a little careful maneuvering, they might be able to leave the department in the hands of friends.
He could leave the politics, though the chief was a lot better at it than he was. The real problem was Weather. Weather was a surgeon, a maxillofacial resident at Hennepin General. She and Lucas had circled each other for years, had had one wedding fall through. Lucas loved her dearly, but worried that the relationship might still be fragile. To leave her now, five months into the pregnancy...
Weather's secretary answered at Hennepin General. "Lucas? A patient just went in."
"Grab her, will you? I've got to talk to her right now," Lucas said. "It's pretty serious."
Weather came on a second later, showing a little stress. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Why?"
She was exasperated. "Lucas, when you call like this, and you say it's important, and you've got to talk to me right away, tell Carol, 'I'm not hurt, but it's important.' That'll keep me from an early coronary. Okay?"
Lucas sighed. "Yeah, sure."
"So what's going on?" she asked. She was looking at her watch, Lucas thought.
"Mallard called..." He told her the story in thirty seconds, then listened to four seconds of dead silence, and opened his mouth to say, "Well?" or apologize, or something, but didn't quite get there.
"Thank God," she blurted. "You're driving me crazy. You're driving the entire construction company crazy. If you'll just get out of the country for a few days, I could finish the wedding plans and maybe the builders could get some work done."
"Hey..." He was offended, but she paid no attention. She said, "Go to Cancún. God bless you. Call me every night. Remember: Flying is the safest way to travel. Have a couple martinis. Or better yet, there's some Valium in my medicine cabinet. Take a couple of those."
"You're sure you don't..."
"I'm sure. Go."
The trip to Houston was the usual nightmare, with Lucas hunched in a business-class seat, ready to brace his feet against the forward bulkhead when the impact came. Not that bracing would save him. In his mind's eye, he could clearly see the razor-sharp aviation aluminum slicing through the cabin, dismembering everybody and everything in its path. Then the fire, trying to crawl, legs missing, toward the exit...
He'd talked to a shrink about it. The shrink, an ex...military guy, suggested three martinis or a couple of tranquilizers, or not flying. He added that Lucas had control issues, and when Lucas asked, "Control issues? You mean, like I don't wanna die in an airplane crash?" the shrink who'd had three martinis himself said, "I mean, you wanna tell people how to tie their shoes, because you know how to do it better, and that means you don't want somebody else to fly you in an airplane."
"Then how come I'm not scared of helicopters?"
The shrink shrugged. "Because you're nuts."
In any case, the Valium hadn't helped. He'd just had time to drive to Weather's place, put some clothes and his shaving kit together, along with a small tube of drugs, and make it back to the airport in the Tahoe. He didn't want to leave the Porsche in the airport ramp because it might get stolen, and even if it didn't, he might not ever find it again. And pound for pound, he'd rather lose the Chevy than the Porsche.
The plane failed to crash either on the way to Houston or on landing when he really expected it, so tantalizingly close to safety or even when it was taxiing up to the gate, and a little more than five hours after speaking to Mallard, Lucas led the parade through the gate into the terminal.
Louis Mallard, who pronounced his name "Louie," was a stocky, professorial man who wore gold-rimmed professorial glasses and a dark professorial suit. He had a wrestler's neck and sometimes carried a .40-caliber automatic in a shoulder holster. Waiting with him, in a lighter-blue professorial suit, and carrying a black briefcase, was a lanky gray-haired woman named Malone. The last time Lucas had seen Malone, he'd seen quite a bit more of her.
"Louis," Lucas said, shaking the other man's hand. Malone turned a cheek, and Lucas pecked it and said, "Louis tells me you got one on the line."
She looked at Mallard, who said hastily, "I didn't exactly say that."
"Mmmm," Malone said. To Lucas: "It's somewhat true."
"Somebody conservative, well-placed in government," Lucas suggested. "Maybe a little money of his own." Malone was a four-time loser with a taste for artists and muscle workers.
"No," she said. "He's a Sheetrocker."
"A Sheetrocker." He waited for a smile, and when he didn't get one he got instead a defensive brow-beetling he said, "Well, that's good. Always jobs out there for a good Sheetrocker."
Before Lucas sank completely out of sight, Mallard jumped in. "He's also a writer. He's almost done with his novel."
"Okay, well, good," Lucas said.
"You gotta get some clothes?" Mallard asked, trying to keep the anti-Sheetrocker momentum going. "There's a place..."
"Nah, I'm okay. I had time to get home." He looked around. "So where're we going? We leave out of here?"
"We catch a ride to another terminal," Mallard said. "The ride's outside."
They rode to the next terminal in a dark-blue government car, driven by a man whom Mallard never introduced. A junior agent from the Houston office, Lucas thought, who looked a little sour about the chauffeur duties. Malone rode in the front with the agent, while Lucas and Mallard rode in the back.
During the walk to the car and the two-minute ride, Mallard quietly sketched the series of circumstances that had led to the identification of Rinker as the woman who was shot, and to the belief by the Mexican cops that a shooter from St. Louis was involved. The shooter was now dead, probably killed by a Mexican man who was still on the run. "She was pregnant," Malone said. "They killed her lover, and when she was wounded, she lost the baby."
Lucas winced, and Weather's face popped into his head. "You think she's headed back here? Back across the border?"
Mallard shook his head. "We don't know. We've put sketches of her everywhere. Every port of entry. The problem is, she doesn't look all that special. Mid-thirties, middle height, athletic, pretty, that's about it. The other thing is, Rinker just got out of the hospital, so it's possible that she's lost some weight, and might not look like she used to."
Malone turned and said, over the seat, "It's also possible that she's just running, that she's already in Majorca or someplace. The Mexican police have been tracing the phone calls she made from this ranch where she was recovering there were six calls up to Missouri and two went out to banks in Mexico. We got on top of the banks right away, but both of the calls went into the general number, so we don't know who she was talking to, or what she did. There aren't any records of large sums of money being moved on the days she called, that can't be accounted for. No big accounts closed or switched that can't be accounted for. With both the Mexican cops and this Mejia guy, this gang guy, taking an interest, we're pretty sure the banks are telling us the truth."
"Maybe safe-deposit boxes," Lucas suggested.
"We're trying to run that down. We thought maybe an off-the-books box. So far, nothing's panned out," Malone said.
"She's good," Lucas said. "But we knew that. How about the Missouri calls?"
"All six guys are connected all six guys admit that she called and all six say she was asking about John Ross, who we think was her main employer," Mallard said. "All six say they told her nothing, that they didn't have anything to tell her."
"Ross runs things around the river in St. Louis, the port, trucks, some drug connections over in East St. Louis," Malone added. "He has a liquor distributorship. You remember Wooden Head from Wichita?"
"Wooden Head worked for Ross."
"You believe the six guys? That they didn't have anything to say?"
"She talked to four of them for about five minutes, and the other two for about two minutes. We don't know what was said, but apparently not too much."
"You can say a lot in five minutes," Lucas said. "Does Ross have the six names?"
"Not as far as we know we haven't talked with him yet," Mallard said.
"Okay. So Clara's boyfriend gets killed and she's wounded and loses the baby, and they think the shooter is from St. Louis and she makes calls to St. Louis asking about this Ross guy, but she doesn't call Ross himself, as far as you know. So. You think Ross sent the shooter? That she's on a revenge trip? A kamikaze deal?"
Mallard shook his head again. "Don't know. We're guessing that's it. Whatever, Rinker's broken out now, she's in the open. I really want her. Really want her. She's run her score up to maybe thirty-five people: This woman is the devil."
"She's maybe more inflected than that," Malone objected. To Lucas: "We have a good biography on her now. You can read it on the way down to Cancún. She had quite the little backwoods childhood."
Their connection was tight: An hour after Lucas's Northwest flight put down at Houston, the Continental flight to Cancún lifted off. Mallard and Malone sat together, with Lucas behind them, next to an elderly woman who plugged her sound-killing Bose headphones into a Sony discman, looked at him once, with something that might have been skepticism, and pulled a sleeping mask over her eyes. When they were off the ground, Malone took a bound report out of her briefcase and handed it back to Lucas. "Rinker," she said.
Lucas had never been able to read on airplanes: The Clara Rinker file was a first. When Malone handed him the file, he'd wondered at its heft, and turned to the last page: page 308. He flipped through and found a dense, single-spaced narrative. Not the usual cop report.
The first page began: "There are only four known photographs of Clara Rinker three from driver's licenses and one from an identification card issued by Wichita State University. None of the people who knew Rinker were able to immediately pick her photograph from a spread of similar photographs prepared by the Bureau in each of the four photos, she had obscured her appearance with eyeglasses and elaborate hair arrangements. This is typical of what we know of Clara Rinker: She is obsessively cautious in her contacts with others, and she apparently has, from the beginning of her career, prepared herself to run."
The author of the report a Lanny Brown, whom Lucas hadn't heard of had a nice style that would have worked in a true-crime book. Rinker had been killing people for almost fifteen years. The first reports had been of various organized-crime figures, both minor and major, taken off by a killer whose trademark was extreme close-range shootings, many of them with .22-caliber silenced pistols.
Because of the circumstances of the shootings two of them had taken place in women's rest rooms, although both the victims were men the Bureau began to suspect that the shooter was a woman who lured the victims into private places with a promise of sex. A friend of one victim, in Shreveport, Louisiana, said that he'd spoken briefly at a bar with a pretty young woman who had a Southern accent, and later had caught a glimpse of the young woman and the victim leaving the club, in the victim's Continental. The car and the man were later found on a lover's lane. The man who was married had been shot three times in the head with a .40-caliber Smith.
No fewer than nine people had been executed in stairwells or between cars in parking structures. The Bureau believed that the choices of execution locale indicated that the shooter had carefully scouted the victims, knew where they parked their cars, and favored parking structures because they offered good access and egress, large numbers of strangers interacting with each other a strange woman wouldn't be noticed and sudden privacy: Bodies had apparently gone unnoticed for as much as four hours when rolled under a car.
She was also believed to have posed as either a Mormon missionary or a Jehovah's Witness: One quiet evening in suburban Chicago, a "straight-looking" young woman carrying what a neighbor said appeared to be a Bible or a Book of Mormon had knocked on the door of a recently divorced hood in Oak Park, Illinois. Neighbors who'd been sitting in a porch swing in the restored Victorian across the street said she'd spoken to whoever answered the door, then turned away and left.
Three days later, after they'd been unable to get in touch with the bad boy, friends looked in a window and saw him sprawled on the floor by the front door. He'd taken two in the heart and one in the head, and died in a pair of flowered boxer shorts with a tight grip on a can of Coors Light. The time of death was estimated from the fact that he'd apparently just taken off a pair of Greg Norman golf slacks and a midnight-blue and white-hibiscus aloha shirt, which other friends said he'd worn to a golf course three days earlier.
After summarizing the executions that Rinker was believed involved in, the Bureau report spent some time with her childhood. She'd grown up on a broken-down farm outside of Tisdale, Missouri, not far from Springfield. Her father had deserted the family when she was seven, and had died, unknown to the family, twelve years later, in a car accident in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Her mother, Cammy Rinker, had divorced Rinker's father four years after he left, and two weeks after the divorce was final, married a man named Carl Paltry. Paltry was an alcoholic and a bully, and had been arrested for beating both Cammy Rinker and Rinker's older brother, Roy. The police had learned of Roy's beating after a gym coach noticed that Roy was peeing blood.
According to Rinker's aunt her mother's sister Paltry also had sexually abused his wife Cammy Rinker, Clara, and possibly Clara's younger brother, Gene. The abuse had begun a few weeks after the marriage, when Rinker was eleven, and continued until she ran away from home when she was fourteen. Until she was eleven, she'd had a good record in school, but that went bad after Paltry arrived. The aunt also said that Rinker's older brother, Roy, had sexually abused her.
Paltry and Cammy Rinker had remained married for twelve years, until one day, when Clara would have been nineteen, and already working as a shooter, he'd disappeared. He hadn't run anywhere, the local cops said he'd gotten drunk and had beaten Cammy so badly that she'd been hospitalized, and Paltry had been arrested. He was out on bail when he disappeared. His car had been found parked, engine running, behind a Dairy Queen in Tisdale. His checkbook and wallet were on the passenger seat. He was never seen again, and the Bureau believed that Clara Rinker may have paid him a visit.
Rinker's mother had almost nothing useful to tell the Bureau. Her memory of Clara seemed uneven; and when she went to get family pictures, she found that all the photos of Clara were gone.
The Bureau had tracked Roy through a series of minor crime reports, and eventually found him in Santa Barbara, California, where he was involved in a lightweight prostitution ring. Roy and a man named Charles Green ran teenaged hookers around to country clubs. The Bureau report quoted one source as saying, "You could get your shoes and your knob polished at the same place and time. It was convenient for everybody."
Roy was two years older than Rinker and had left home two years after she had. He had seen her twice, when she'd stopped in Santa Barbara looking for their younger brother, Gene, who was also someplace in California. Roy didn't know anything about anything, though he said that Rinker appeared to be doing well, and drove nice cars. He had no photographs of her, and denied having sexually abused her. The interviewer thought he was lying.
Rinker's younger brother, Gene, had shown up on three police reports in California, all three for minor drug offenses. He was listed as "homeless" on the police reports and was apparently living on the beaches between Venice and Santa Monica. The Bureau had been unable to find him. Next to this paragraph, a female hand had scrawled, "Lucas: ask me M."
Lucas reached forward and tapped Malone's arm. "There's a note here to ask you about Gene Rinker."
She turned and said, "Yes. We found him yesterday. He was working for a pool-cleaning company in Pacific Palisades Los Angeles. We're holding him on a drug charge."
"He was in possession of marijuana."
"Maybe a gram."
"A joint? Jesus, is that...?"
"It's more than enough, is what it is. As soon as we get done here, I'm going to L.A. to talk to him. See if he has anything interesting on Clara."
"Okay." Malone turned away, and Lucas sank back into the report.
Rinker had worked for a bar in St. Louis, then for Ross, who was a liquor distributor. She'd also worked off and on as a bookkeeper-secretary for a mobster named Allen Kent, whose mother's family was closely tied to the old Giancana outfit in Chicago. Eventually, Rinker had put together enough money to buy a bar in Wichita, which had done well until she'd fled after her disastrous involvement in a series of killings in Minneapolis. Where she'd gone immediately after Minneapolis was unknown. She'd eventually popped up in Cancún, where she'd worked illegally as a bookkeeper at a boutique hotel called Passages.
Lucas had danced with her once, not knowing who she was, at her club in Wichita, The Rink. They'd had a good time, for a little time, that night. She'd even chatted with Mallard and Malone. She must've known who they were, although they hadn't known who she was. Later, she'd tried to kill Lucas in his own front yard. She'd missed almost purely by chance... as he'd missed her.
Reading about his own encounter with Rinker, Lucas was struck with the strangeness of writerly synthesis. He was in the story, but it didn't sound like him, or feel like him. He felt as though he were looking at himself in an old 8-millimeter movie, something that wasn't quite true, but was undeniably accurate... and he wondered if the entire report was like that, accurate but not especially true.
Rinker came across as Mallard saw her, as the daughter of the devil. At the same time, almost against the will of the writer, another picture was emerging, a kind of Annie Oakley old-timey story of survival.
After completing the detailed review of Rinker's life and activities, the report went on to detail what was known of the business and crime activities of her various bosses: Names were named, connections made, possibilities explored. Much was speculative, but all of it was based on the kind of rumor-fabric that Lucas had lived with most of his working life. Not much could be proven, but much could be understood...
He was two-thirds of the way through the report when he heard the flight attendant saying something, but he paid no attention until the plane's attitude changed with an audible clunk that reverberated through the cabin. He sat upright, looked around, and saw that people were packing up briefcases, putting away computers, sticking stuff back into the overhead. He looked at his watch: They'd been in the air for two hours and were coming into Cancún.
He leaned forward, tapped Malone's arm, and when she turned, passed the report back.
"No. Got another hundred pages. And I'll want to read the whole thing over," he said. "Good stuff in there. I can see what you meant when you said... inflected. Tough life."
"Which is not exactly an excuse for all the people she's killed especially people like Barbara Allen." Allen had been a rich charity-and-foundation socialite in Minneapolis. Rinker had shot her to death so that her client could get at Allen's husband.
"No. But it was still tough," Lucas said.
"The thing is, you kinda liked her," Malone said. "You went for that whole perky cheerleader teased-hair bar-owner act."
"What's not to like?" Lucas asked. He said, "Better buckle up," and leaned back out of the conversation.
The plane failed to crash in Cancún, but the heat and humidity jumped them as soon as they walked off the plane. They retrieved their luggage and took a taxi from the mainland over to the Island, where Mallard had gotten rooms at the Blue Palms. "Let's get cleaned up and find something to eat," he said. "The hotel restaurant is supposed to be okay."
"How about the Italian place where Rinker was shot?" Lucas asked. "Your report says it's pretty good."
"Saving that for lunch tomorrow," Mallard said.
The hotel room was a blank-faced off-white cubicle with a TV and a minibar, a too-soft double bed, and a bathroom without a tub. The place smelled faintly of bug spray and salt water, and could have been at any seaside anywhere. Lucas hung his clothes in the closet and washed his face, then walked out onto the narrow balcony and looked down at the water.
Rinker had been here, and not long ago. Had worked within a couple of blocks of the Blue Palms, had probably spent time on the beach ten stories down. She might well be in the same kind of place, somewhere else on the globe, looking for a job, trying to settle in.
Or she might have a hidey-hole in St. Louis, ready to go to war on her lover's killers. If she'd simply run, they'd never find her. But if she'd gone to St. Louis, he thought...
If she'd gone to St. Louis, they'd get her.
27 February 2020
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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