"The kid always makes it. I told you that."
Margaret McDill had not seen the man in her life until yesterday, but he had dominated every second of her existence since their meeting. He had told her to call him Joe, and he claimed it was his real name, but she assumed it was an alias. He was a dark-haired, pale-skinned man of about fifty, with deep-set eyes and a coarse five-o'clock shadow. Margaret could not look into his eyes for long. They were dark, furious pools that sucked the life out of her, drained her will. And now they carried knowledge about her that she could not bear.
"I don't believe you," she said quietly.
Something rippled deep in the dark eyes, like the flick of a fish tail. "Have I lied to you about anything else?"
"No. But you...you let me see your face all night. You won't let me go after that."
"I told you, the kid always makes it."
"You're going to kill me and let my son go."
"You think I'm going to shoot you in broad daylight in front of a freakin' McDonald's?"
"You have a knife in your pocket."
He looked at her with scorn. "Jesus Christ."
Margaret looked down at her hands. She didn't want to look at Joe, and she didn't want to chance seeing herself in one of the mirrors. The one at home had been bad enough. She looked like someone who had just come out of surgery, still groggy with anesthesia. An unhealthy glaze filmed her eyes, and even heavy makeup had failed to hide the bruise along her jaw. Four of her painstakingly maintained nails had broken during the night, and there was a long scratch on her inner forearm from the initial scuffle. She tried toremember exactly when that had happened but couldn't. Her sense of time had abandoned her. She was having trouble keeping her thoughts in order. Even the simplest ones seemed to fall out of sequence by themselves.
She tried to regain control by focusing on her immediate environment. They were sitting in her BMW, in the parking lot of a strip mall, about fifty yards from a McDonald's restaurant. She had often shopped at the mall, at the Barnes & Noble superstore, and also at the pet store, for rare tropical fish. Her husband had recently bought a big-screen television at Circuit City, for patient education at his clinic. He was a cardiovascular surgeon. But all that seemed part of someone else's life now. As remote as the bright side of the moon to someone marooned on the dark half. And her son, Peter...God alone knew where he was. God and the man beside her.
"I don't care what you do with me," she said with conviction. "Just let Peter live. Kill me if you have to, just let my son go. He's only ten years old."
"If you don't shut up, I might take you up on that," Joe said wearily.
He started the BMW's engine and switched the air conditioner to high, then lit a Camel cigarette. The cold air blasted smoke all over the interior of the car. Margaret's eyes stung from hours of crying. She turned her head to avoid the smoke, but it was useless.
"Where's Peter now?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
Joe took a drag off the Camel and said nothing.
"Didn't I tell you to stop talking?"
Margaret glanced at the pistol lying on the console between the seats. It belonged to her husband. Joe had taken it from her yesterday, but not before she had learned how useless a gun was to her. At least while they had Peter. Some primitive part of her brain still urged her to grab it, but she doubted she could reach the pistol before he did. He was probably waiting for her to try just that. Joe was thin but amazingly strong, another thing she'd learned last night. And his hard-lined face held no mercy.
"He's dead, isn't he," Margaret heard herself say. "You're just playing games with me. He's dead and you're going to kill me, too-"
"Jesus Christ," Joe said through clenched teeth. He turned over his forearm and glanced at his watch. He wore it on the inside of his wrist so that Margaret couldn't see the time.
"I think I'm going to be sick," she said.
"Again?" He punched a number into the BMW's cell phone. As he waited for an answer, he muttered, "I do believe this has been the worst twenty-four hours of my life to date. And that includes our little party."
"Hey," he said into the phone. "You in your spot?...Okay. Wait about a minute, then do it."
Margaret jerked erect, her eyes wide, searching the nearby cars. "Oh my God. Peter! Peter!"
Joe picked up the gun and jammed the barrel into her neck. "You've come this far, Maggie. Don't blow it now. You remember what we talked about?"
She closed her eyes and nodded.
"I didn't hear you."
Tears rolled down her cheeks. "I remember."
A hundred yards from Margaret McDill's BMW, Peter McDill sat in an old green pickup truck, his eyes shut tight. The truck smelled funny. Good and bad at the same time, like just-cut grass and old motor oil, and really old fast food.
"You can open your eyes now."
Peter opened his eyes.
The first thing he saw was a McDonald's restaurant. It reassured him after his night of isolation. The McDonald's stood in the middle of a suburban strip mall parking lot. As Peter panned his eyes around the mall, he recognized the stores: Office Depot, Barnes & Noble, the Gateway 2000 store. He'd spent hours in that store. It was only a few miles from his house. He looked down at his wrists, which were bound with duct tape.
"Can you take this off now?"
He asked without looking up. The man behind the wheel of the truck was hard for him to look at. Peter had never seen or heard of Huey before yesterday, but for the last twenty-four hours, he had seen no one else. Huey was six inches taller than his father, and weighed at least three hundred pounds. He wore dirty mechanic's coveralls and heavy plastic glasses of a type Peter had seen in old movies, with thick lenses that distorted his eyes. He reminded Peter of a character in a movie he'd seen on the satellite one night, when he sneaked into the home theater room. A movie his parents wouldn't let him watch. The character's name was Carl, and the boy who was Carl's friend in the movie said he sounded like a motorboat. Carl was nice, but he killed people, too. Peter thought Huey was probably like that.
"When I was a little boy," Huey said, peering thoughtfully through the windshield of the pickup, "those golden arches went all the way over the top of the restaurant. The whole place looked like a spaceship." He looked back at Peter, his too-big eyes apologetic behind the thick glasses. "I'm sorry I had to tape you up. But you shouldn't of run. I told you not to run."
Peter's eyes welled with tears. "Where's my mom? You said she was going to be here."
"She's gonna be here. She's probably here already."
Through the heat shimmering off the asphalt, Peter scanned the sea of parked cars, his eyes darting everywhere, searching for his mother's BMW. "I don't see her car."
Huey dug down into his front coverall pocket.
Peter instinctively slid against the door of the pickup truck.
"Look, boy," Huey said in his deep but childlike voice. "I made you something."
The giant hand emerged from the pocket and opened to reveal a carved locomotive. Peter had watched Huey whittling for much of the previous afternoon, but he hadn't been able to tell what Huey was working on. The little train in the massive palm looked like a toy from an expensive store. Huey put the carving into Peter's bound hands.
"I finished it while you was sleeping," he said. "I like trains. I rode one once. When I was little. From St. Louis, after Mamaw died. Joey rode up by hisself on the train and got me. We rode back together. I got to sit in front with the rich people. We wasn't supposed to, but Joey figured a way. Joey's smart. He said it was only fair. He says I'm good as anybody. Ain't nobody no better than nobody else. That's a good thing to remember."
Peter stared at the little locomotive. There was even a tiny engineer inside.
"Whittlin's a good thing, too," Huey went on. "Keeps me from being nervous."
Peter closed his eyes. "Where's my mom?"
"I liked talking to you. Before you ran, anyway. I thought you was my friend."
Peter covered his face with his hands, but he kept an eye on Huey through a crack between his left cheek and palm. Now that he knew where he was, he thought about jumping out. But Huey was faster than he looked.
Huey dug into his coveralls again and brought out his pocketknife. When he opened the big blade, Peter pressed himself into the passenger door.
"What are you doing?"
Huey grabbed Peter's bound wrists and jerked them away from his body. With a quick jab he thrust the knife between Peter's forearms and sawed through the duct tape. Then he reached over and unlocked the passenger door of the truck.
"Your mama's waiting for you. In the playground. At the McDonald's."
Peter looked up at the giant's face, afraid to believe.
"Go see her, boy."
Peter pushed open the truck's door, jumped to the pavement, and started running toward the McDonald's.
Joe reached across Margaret McDill's lap and opened the passenger door of the BMW. His smoky black hair brushed against her neck as he did, and she shuddered. She had seen his gray roots during the night.
"Your kid's waiting in the McDonald's Playland," he said.
Margaret's heart lurched. She looked at the open door, then back at Joe, who was caressing the BMW's leather-covered steering wheel.
"Sure wish I could keep this ride," he said with genuine regret. "Got used to this. Yes, sir."
"That's not part of the plan. And I always stick to the plan. That's why I'm still around."
As she stared, he opened the driver's door, got out, dropped the keys on the seat, and started walking away.
Margaret sat for a moment without breathing, mistrustful as an injured animal being released into the wild. Then she bolted from the car. With a spastic gait born from panic and exhaustion, she ran toward the McDonald's, gasping a desperate mantra: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want....The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want....The Lord is my shepherd..."
Huey stopped his green pickup beside his cousin Joe with a screech of eroded brake pads. Two men standing under the roofed entrance of the Barnes & Noble looked over at the sound. They looked like bums hoping to pass themselves off as customers and spend the morning reading the papers on the sofas inside the bookstore. Joe Hickey silently wished them good luck. He'd been that far down before.
When he climbed into the cab, Huey looked at him with the relief of a two-year-old at its returning mother.
"Hey, Joey," Huey said, his head bobbing with relief and excitement.
"Twenty-three hours, ten minutes," Hickey said, tapping his watch. "Cheryl's got the money, nobody got hurt, and no FBI in sight. I'm a goddamn genius, son. Master of the universe."
"I'm just glad it's over," said Huey. "I was scared this time."
Hickey laughed and tousled the hair on Huey's great unkempt head. "Home free for another year, Buckethead."
A smile slowly appeared on the giant's rubbery face. "Yeah." He put the truck into gear, eased forward, and joined the flow of traffic leaving the mall.
Peter McDill stood in the McDonald's Playland like a statue in a hurricane. Toddlers and teenagers tore around him with abandon, leaping on and off the foam-padded playground equipment in their sock feet. The screeches and laughter were deafening. Peter searched among them for his mother, his eyes wet. In his right hand he clutched the carved locomotive Huey had given him, utterly unaware that he was holding it.
The glass door of the restaurant opened, and a woman with frosted hair and wild eyes appeared in it. She looked like his mother, but not exactly. This woman was different somehow. She looked too old, and her clothes were torn. She pushed two children out of the doorway, which his mother would never do, and began looking frantically around the playground. Her gaze jumped from child to child, lighted on Peter, swept on, then returned.
"Mom?" he said uncertainly.
The woman's face seemed to collapse inward upon itself. She rushed to Peter and crushed him against her, then lifted him into her arms. His mother hadn't done that in a long, long time. A terrible wail burst from her throat, freezing the storm of children into a still life.
"Oh, dear Jesus," Margaret keened. "My baby, my baby, my sweet baby..."
Peter felt hot tears rolling down his cheeks. As his mother squeezed him, the little wooden train dropped from his hand onto the pebbled concrete. A toddler wandered over, picked it up, smiled, and walked away with it.