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Big as asteroids, bone yellow.
The grains of sand glowed on the computer screen. The man was sitting forward, neck aching, eyes in a hard squint -- from concentration, not from any flaw in vision.
In the distance, thunder. The early morning sky was yellow and green and a storm was due at any moment. This had been the wettest spring on record.
Grains of sand...
"Enlarge," he commanded, and dutifully the image on the computer doubled in size.
Strange, he thought.
Leaning forward again, straining, studying the screen.
Sand, Lincoln Rhyme reflected, is a criminalist's delight: bits of rock, sometimes mixed with other material, ranging from .05 to 2 millimeters (larger than that is gravel, smaller is silt). It adheres to a perp's clothing like sticky paint and conveniently leaps off at crime scenes and hideouts to link murderer and murdered. It also can tell a great deal about where a suspect has been. Opaque sand means he's been in the desert. Clear means beaches. Hornblende means Canada. Obsidian, Hawaii. Quartz and opaque igneous rock, New England. Smooth gray magnetite, the western Great Lakes.
But where this particular sand had come from, Rhyme didn't have a clue. Most of the sand in the New York area was quartz and feldspar. Rocky on Long Island Sound, dusty on the Atlantic, muddy on the Hudson. But this was white, glistening, ragged, mixed with tiny red spheres. And what are those rings? White stone rings like microscopic slices of calamari. He'd never seen anything like this.
The puzzle had kept Rhyme up till 4 a.m. He'd just sent a sample of the sand to a colleague at the FBI's crime lab in Washington. He'dtwice, and quit once, the criminalist had rehired the unflappable nurse/assistant an equal number of times. Thom knew enough about quadriplegia to be a doctor and had learned enough forensics from Lincoln Rhyme to be a detective. But he was content to be what the insurance company called a "caregiver," though both Rhyme and Thom disparaged the term. Rhyme called him, variously, his "mother hen" or "nemesis," both of which delighted the aide no end. He now maneuvered around the visitors. "He didn't like it but I hired Molly Maids and got the place scrubbed down. Practically needed to be fumigated. He wouldn't talk to me for a whole day afterwards."
"It didn't need to be cleaned. I can't find anything."
"But then he doesn't have to find anything, does he?" Thom countered. "That's what I'm for."
No mood for banter. "Well?" Rhyme cast his handsome face toward Sellitto. "What?"
"Got a case. Thought you might wanta help."
"What's all that?" Banks asked, motioning toward a new computer sitting beside Rhyme's bed.
"Oh," Thom said with infuriating cheer, "he's state of the art now. Show them, Lincoln. Show them."
"I don't want to show them."
More thunder but not a drop of rain. Nature, as often, was teasing today.
Thom persisted. "Show them how it works."
"Don't want to."
"He's just embarrassed."
"Thom," Rhyme muttered.
But the young aide was as oblivious to threats as he was to recrimination. He tugged his hideous, or stylish, silk tie. "I don't know why he's behaving this way. He seemed very proud of the whole setup the other day."
Thom continued. "That box there" -- he pointed to a beige contraption -- "that goes to the computer." <
"Whoa, two hundred megahertz?" Banks asked, nodding at the computer. To escape Rhyme's scowl he'd grabbed the question like an owl snagging a frog.
"Yep," Thom said.
But Lincoln Rhyme was not interested in computers. At the moment Lincoln Rhyme was interested only in microscopic rings of sculpted calamari and the sand they nestled in.
Thom continued. "The microphone goes into the computer. Whatever he says, the computer recognizes. It took the thing a while to learn his voice. He mumbled a lot."
In truth Rhyme was quite pleased with the system -- the lightning-fast computer, a specially made ECU box -- environmental control unit -- and voice-recognition software. Merely by speaking he could command the cursor to do whatever a person using a mouse and keyboard could do. And he could dictate too. Now, with words, he could turn the heat up or down and the lights on or off, play the stereo or TV, write on his word processor, and make phone calls and send faxes.
"He can even write music," Thom said to the visitors. "He tells the computer what notes to mark down on the staff."
"Now that's useful," Rhyme said sourly. "Music."
For a C4 quad -- Rhyme's injury was at the fourth cervical vertebra -- nodding was easy. He could also shrug, though not as dismissingly as he'd have liked. His other circus trick was moving his left ring finger a few millimeters in any direction he chose. That had been his entire physical repertoire for the past several years; composing a sonata for the violin was probably not in the offing.
"He can play games too," Thom said.
"I hate games. I don't play games."
Sellitto, who reminded Rhyme of a large unmade bed, gazed at the computer and seemed unimpressed. " Lincoln," he began gravely. "There's a task-forced case. Us 'n' the feds. Ran into a problem last night."
"Ran into a brick wall," Banks ventured to say.
"We thought...well, I thought you'd want to help us out on this one."
Want to help them out?
"I'm working on something now," Rhyme explained. "For Perkins, in fact." Thomas Perkins, special agent in charge of the Manhattan office of the FBI. "One of Fred Dellray's runners is missing."
Special Agent Fred Dellray, a longtime veteran with the Bureau, was a handler for most of the Manhattan office's undercover agents. Dellray himself had been one of the Bureau's top undercover ops. He'd earned commendations from the director himself for his work. One of Dellray's agents, Tony Panelli, had gone missing a few days earlier.
"Perkins told us," Banks said. "Pretty weird."
Rhyme rolled his eyes at the unartful phrase. Though he couldn't dispute it. The agent had disappeared from his car across from the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan around 9 P.M. The streets weren't crowded but they weren't deserted either. The engine of the Bureau's Crown Victoria was running, the door open. There was no blood, no gunshot residue, no scuff marks indicating struggle. No witnesses -- at least no witnesses willing to talk.
Pretty weird indeed.
Perkins had a fine crime scene unit at his disposal, including the Bureau's Physical Evidence Response Team. But it had been Rhyme who'd set up PERT and it was Rhyme whom Dellray had asked to work the scene of the disappearance. The crime scene officer who worked as Rhyme's partner had spent hours at Panelli's car and had come away with no unidentified fingerprints, ten bags of meaningless trace ev idence, and -- the only possible lead -- a few dozen grains of this very odd sand.
The grains that now glowed on his computer screen, as smooth and huge as heavenly bodies.
Sellitto continued. "Perkins's gonna put other people on the Panelli case, Lincoln, if you'll help us. Anyway, I think you'll want this one."
That verb again -- want. What was this all about?
Rhyme and Sellitto had worked together on major homicide investigations some years ago. Hard cases -- and public cases. He knew Sellitto as well as he knew any cop. Rhyme generally distrusted his own ability to read people (his ex-wife Blaine had said -- often, and heatedly -- that Rhyme could spot a shell casing a mile away and miss a human being standing in front of him) but he could see now that Sellitto was holding back.
"Okay, Lon. What is it? Tell me."
Sellitto nodded toward Banks.
"Phillip Hansen," the young detective said significantly, lifting a puny eyebrow.
Rhyme knew the name only from newspaper articles. Hansen -- a large, hard-living businessman originally from Tampa, Florida -- owned a wholesale company in Armonk, New York. It was remarkably successful and he'd become a multimillionaire thanks to it. Hansen had a good deal for a small-time entrepreneur. He never had to look for customers, never advertised, never had receivables problems. In fact, if there was any downside to PH Distributors, Inc., it was that the federal government and New York State were expending great energy to shut it down and throw its president in jail. Because the product Hansen's company sold was not, as he claimed, secondhand military surplus vehicles but weaponry, more often than not stolen from military bases or imported illeg ally. Earlier in the year two army privates had been killed when a truckload of small arms was hijacked near the George Washington Bridge on its way to New Jersey. Hansen was behind it -- a fact the U.S. attorney and the New York attorney general knew but couldn't prove.
"Perkins and us're hammering together a case," Sellitto said. "Working with the army CID. But it's been a bitch."
"And nobody ever dimes him," said Banks. "Ever."
Rhyme supposed that, no, no one would dare snitch on a man like Hansen.
The young detective continued. "But finally, last week, we got a break. See, Hansen's a pilot. His company's got warehouses at Mamaroneck Airport -- that one near White Plains? A judge issued paper to check 'em out. Naturally we didn't find anything. But then last week, it's midnight? The airport's closed but there're some people there, working late. They see a guy fitting Hansen's description drive out to this private plane, load some big duffel bags into it, and take off. Unauthorized. No flight plan, just takes off. Comes back forty minutes later, lands, gets back into his car, and burns rubber out of there. No duffel bags. The witnesses give the registration number to the FAA. Turns out it's Hansen's private plane, not his company's."
Rhyme said, "So he knew you were getting close and he wanted to ditch something linking him to the killings." He was beginning to see why they wanted him. Some seeds of interest here. "Air Traffic Control track him?"
"LaGuardia had him for a while. Straight out over Long Island Sound. Then he dropped below radar for ten minutes or so."
"And you drew a line to see how far he could get over the Sound. There're divers out?"
"Right. Now, we knew that soon as Hansen heard we had the three witnesses he was gonna rabbit. So we managed to put him away till Monday. Federal Detention."
Rhyme laughed. "You got a judge to buy probable cause on that?"
"Yeah, with the risk of flight," Sellitto said. "And some bullshit FAA violations and reckless endangerment thrown in. No flight plan, flying below FAA minimums."
"What'd Mis-ter Han-sen say?"
"He knows the drill. Not a word to the arrestings, not a word to the prosecutors. Lawyer denies everything and's preparing suit for wrongful arrest, yadda, yadda, yadda...So if we find the fucking bags we go to the grand jury on Monday and, bang, he's away."
"Provided," Rhyme pointed out, "there's anything incriminating in the bags."
"Oh, there's something incriminating."
"How do you know?"
"Because Hansen's scared. He's hired somebody to kill the witnesses. He's already got one of 'em. Blew up his plane last night outside of Chicago."
And, Rhyme thought, they want me to find the duffel bags...Fascinating questions were now floating into his mind. Was it possible to place the plane at a particular location over the water because of a certain type of precipitation or saline deposit or insect found crushed on the leading edge of the wing? Could one calculate the time of death of an insect? What about salt concentrations and pollutants in the water? Flying that low to the water, would the engines or wings pick up algae and deposit it on the fuselage or tail?
"I'll need some maps of the Sound," Rhyme began. "Engineering drawings of his plane -- "
"Uhm, Lincoln, that's not why we're here," Sellitto said.
"Not to find the bags," Banks added.
"No? Then?" Rhyme tossed an irritating tickle of black hair of f his forehead and frowned the young man down.
Sellitto's eyes again scanned the beige ECU box. The wires that sprouted from it were dull red and yellow and black and lay curled on the floor like sunning snakes.
"We want you to help us find the killer. The guy Hansen hired. Stop him before he gets the other two wits."
"And?" For Rhyme saw that Sellitto still had not mentioned what he was holding in reserve.
With a glance out the window the detective said, "Looks like it's the Dancer, Lincoln."
"The Coffin Dancer?"
Sellitto looked back and nodded.
"We heard he'd done a job in D.C. a few weeks ago. Killed a congressional aide mixed up in arms deals. We got pen registers and found calls from a pay phone outside Hansen's house to the hotel where the Dancer was staying. It's gotta be him, Lincoln."
On the screen the grains of sand, big as asteroids, smooth as a woman's shoulders, lost their grip on Rhyme's interest.
"Well," he said softly, "that's a problem now, isn't it?"
Copyright © 1998 by Jeffery Deaver