Cold Springs Page 22


He shouldn't have seen her tonight. He'd told himself he needed to check her computer one more time, just for insurance. He needed to make sure the passwords hadn't changed.

But that wasn't why he'd waited for her, why he'd picked up dinner and lit candles and put on her favorite music.

He'd been hoping for the courage to tell her the truth. He thought if he looked straight into her eyes, he could confess what he had been sucked into, how hopelessly entangled he'd become. He would explain that his motive had been pure—he just wanted to save his daughter.

Norma would understand instantly. She'd grip his hands across the table, her face beautiful and compassionate in the candlelight. She wouldn't condemn him, wouldn't call him a monster. She'd talk the problem through with him until he figured out another way to save Mallory, and himself.

It would be so different than it had been with Ann—that last horrible argument of their marriage, when he'd tried to tell her about the letters from Samuel, only to have the conversation deteriorate into one more shouting match about why Ann should quit her job, why they should put Mallory in another school, get her away from Race. Finally, his patience had snapped—his years of frustration and rage discharged in a single brutal slap across his wife's jaw.

There could be no forgiveness for that. No second chance.

Once you lose control, women never trust you again. Norma had made that clear tonight, with the fear in her eyes.

He stared at the computer screen, the wireless connection accessing a bank account halfway around the world.

Bitterness tasted like cheap whiskey on his tongue.

Why the fuck not?

The calls had all been made. The setup was perfect. All it took now was a single e-mail.

“He ain't going away,” Pérez had warned him that afternoon. “You throw more money at this Samuel, play his easy fuck—you think he'll ever leave you alone?”

Pérez had been loading his gun at the kitchen table, pushing nine-millimeter cartridges into the magazine with the care of a pharmacist counting pills. “All I need is two plane tickets, Boss. I got a friend can help. We get the girl back, teach this Chadwick a lesson. Then you call this son-of-a-bitch Samuel's bluff. He shows his face, I blow him the fuck away.”

Pérez's plan had appeal.

But it wasn't the real reason John was hesitating.

He hated to admit it, but he had begun to see the wisdom in what Ann had done, calling Chadwick. At least Mallory was out of danger. At least she was far away from the Montroses. And after all these years, dreaming of destroying Ann, now that it was within his reach, he found it hard to do.

John could close the laptop, drive home.

The police he could handle. He had started pulling strings already on the Talia Montrose problem, letting a few well-placed friends in Oakland know that a certain homicide sergeant needed help distinguishing a concerned citizen from a suspect. The only person to fear was Samuel. And what could Samuel do to him—expose his past sins? That meant nothing to him anymore, as long as his daughter was safe.

The screen asked for a prompt.

How long would it take—ten minutes? Less. He had planned so well.

Across the Bay, the Sausalito ferry was coming back from its final evening run. He imagined his father at the Embarcadero docks, forty years ago, sitting on his toolbox, wiping the grease off his forehead with the back of his hand while he waited for the boat. He would be bone-tired, having worked repairs since six in the morning, but he'd still have energy to sit with John, tell him stories about the Pacific War. When the ferry docked, he would have exactly ten minutes, from 7:50 to 8:00, to do a final check on the engine before sending it back across the Bay, where it would dock in Sausalito for the night.

“That boat is no fool,” his father would tell him, tousling John's hair so he would smell like engine grease for a week. “Works here, but sleeps up north with the rich folk.”

He would flash his crooked teeth, the front two broken in a bar fight years ago, but John would see the sadness in his eyes, the spirit that had been broken when John's mother left.

John had promised himself he would never turn into his father.

He would be one of those rich folk across the Bay. He would keep his family together. As a boy, he assumed that if he just managed the first part, the second part would take care of itself.

He took out his cell phone, stared at the number that had been sent with the last letter.

Call when it's done, the letter said. The number will only work one time. Punch in 12 23. Then hang up. I will call you back.

12/23. John wasn't blind to the meaning of that. It had been Katherine Chadwick's birthday.

He dialed as he'd been told, then hung up.

Even though he was expecting it, the sound of the return call made him jump.

“Hello, John.” The voice was distorted. It could've been a man or a woman or a child.

Still, John was finally talking to the ghost—the one who had turned his life into hell all these years.

“I'm not going through with it,” John said. “Do what you want. You won't get a dime.”

There was a rushing, distorted sound in the background—maybe a highway, or a river. John wasn't sure.

The ghost said, “You think you're safe from me, John? You think I've forgiven you?”

“I don't care anymore.”

“That's brave. You know what your daughter did today?”

“She's out of your reach, you bastard.”

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“She ate one slice of bread,” the ghost said. “Drank some river water. She screamed at her instructors in the obstacle course, got put in a sack, John. A big burlap thing with a chain through it. Duct tape on her mouth. They locked her in a small room with no windows for two hours.”

John sank to his knees, the phone pressed against his ear, his forehead bowing toward the pavement that smelled of pigeon crap and rain.

“I can get to her anytime, John. Do anything I want.”

All his confidence drained away. Mallory was a little girl again, shivering in a huge black recliner, waiting for him to rescue her, her eyes accusing him for being gone so long.

“Please,” he said. “Leave her alone.”

“You have your instructions, John. You're going to cooperate. You know it's for the best. That is what we all want, isn't it? We all want a happy ending. Don't we?”

“My daughter—”

“She's asleep now. In a little cinder block cabin. She's shivering. No heat. She's hungry. They yell at her every morning, noon, and night. If you had custody, you could sign your name to some papers and have her home. Or do you want me to take care of her for you?”

“I'm online now.”

“That's good. The problem is, you used up your one call. Do what I told you. I'll be in touch. And John—you don't have any leeway left. Understand me?”

The line went dead.

John looked up at the screen of his laptop—the screensaver etching orange curlicues in the darkness.

He thought of his father's eyes, as bright as shattered glass, staring out at the lights of Sausalito as if they were patches of ship wreckage, burning on the Okinawan Sea.

Then John began to type.

10

“Kindra Jones—Chadwick,” Hunter said. “Mix it up.”

They shook hands, Chadwick trying to hold down his feeling of wariness, thinking about how many times he had replayed this scene with different women.

Kindra Jones was lithe, athletic, her hair in cornrows. She had perfect Nefertiti features, her long neck inclined slightly forward. Black horn-rimmed glasses, gold stud in her nose and clothes that seemed randomly chosen from dryers at the laundromat—camouflage and corduroy; olive, brown, muddy blue.

She had a firm handshake and a cocky smile that Chadwick immediately liked—and then, just as immediately, dreaded, thinking that she was destined to be another coin lost in the wishing well.

“Jones is from California,” Hunter put in. “You'll get along fine.”

As if all Californians were one happy family. But Chadwick nodded politely. “Where from?” he asked her.

“Alameda,” Jones told him. “And Sacramento. And a few other places. Papa was a rolling stone.”

She wasn't old enough to know that song, and the fact she did, almost made Chadwick smile.

Hunter gave them a quick briefing—the dozen clients he needed to schedule for pickup, twice that many gray and tan levels to process out to the other facilities. Business was good. The escort service couldn't afford downtime.

“And now, Ms. Jones,” Hunter said, handing her a stack of files to read, “if you would excuse me, I have a few things to go over with Chadwick.”

“See you,” Jones said, and her smile suggested she was really looking forward to starting work.

When she was gone, Chadwick said, “Promising.”

“Yeah,” Hunter said absently. “BA in education. Good recs. I'm sure you'll drive her away.”

“Cynic.”

Hunter pushed aside a paper plate of half-eaten cafeteria food—turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin bread. He switched on his main monitor, began rewinding a green-tinted surveillance tape.

Chadwick said, “You left the staff party pretty early.”

Hunter waved the comment aside. “Come here. I want you to see this.”

Chadwick pulled a chair around the side of the desk. He watched the tape rewind—ghostly figures moving backwards, bars of silver static.

Truth was, he'd been glad to leave the party himself. It had been the first time he'd seen his ex-partner Olsen since she'd quit escorting. He wasn't good at avoiding people, even when it was clear that was what Olsen wanted. She'd stood chatting with a group of other counselors, wearing her new white uniform, trying not to make eye contact with him, which wasn't easy. Given her basketball player's stature, the two of them had easily been the tallest people at the party.

“There,” Hunter said, stopping the tape and letting it run forward.

The camera angle was Black Level Clearing Three—looking down from a tree branch just outside the barracks. It was a night-vision shot, so everything in the picture glowed. Black Level students were being mustered in for dawn exercises. The instructor was Frank Leyland. Counselors shouldn't have been on duty yet—they usually didn't join the fun until after morning drills—but Chadwick recognized Olsen. She stood with her back to a mesquite tree, her blond hair and white fatigues blurred in the film like a bleach stain.

Mallory Zedman stumbled out of the barracks.

An assistant instructor was right behind her—yelling, though there was no sound. Mallory kept turning away from him, refusing to get in line. Then Olsen came up, put her hand on Mallory's shoulder, said something. Mallory reluctantly got into formation.

Leyland paced back and forth, issuing orders, lecturing—like any morning inspection. Then Mallory detached herself from the line. She stepped toward Olsen with something in her fist, something that glinted.

Olsen didn't see her coming until Mallory was on top of her. Then it was too late. Mallory's arm flashed and then she ran.

Chaos in the line. The kids broke in every direction. Olsen staggered, clutching her shoulder. The assistant instructor ran to Olsen's aid. Leyland started after Mallory.

Hunter hit the pause button, froze Leyland mid-stride, canted forward like an Olympian statue.

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