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THE TOWN OF MIRIAM was some four hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas in the Virginia Mountains, a drive of less than seven hours when highway traffic was light and his radar detector showed the road to be clear of trolling state police. He had made the trip often in recent weeks and this time had set out late on a Wednesday night, pushing past the speed limit most of the way there. Because he’d taken a low dose of his painkiller, it had not made him drowsy, and he’d needed to stop only for gas.
At around a quarter past six on Thursday morning, he had parked on the residential street where the father and son lived and then sat fifteen or twenty yards down from their home to wait. The tall evergreen hedge bordering the sidewalk screened the yard from view but also gave him some convenient, well-situated cover. He would not stay long; his intention was simply to observe their patterns and routines. By late afternoon, he would be on his way back to Vegas, giving him a full day to recover from the trip and prepare for his after-dinner appointment with the judge.
The yellow school bus pulled up to the house at seven o’clock, flashing its lights and extending its stop sign. He had noted in his previous visits that it was always on schedule, and this morning was no different. The boy, too, was invariably prompt when it arrived—credit the father.
Sipping the coffee he’d picked up at a diner near the railway depot outside town, he watched the father and son come down the gravel path to the street. Something inside him snarled as they hugged and the boy jumped aboard the bus. But he had managed to keep its bite in check so far and knew he could do so until the right moment came.
Credit the man who once had been a father.
Now the stop sign folded back against the school bus, and it rumbled off. The father stood and watched its wide rear end for a moment before turning back to the house. He would typically leave for his job at the auto-repair shop forty-five minutes later.
Straightening, the man in the car put his coffee cup in the holder beside his seat. On previous days, he’d waited to follow the father. On others, he’d charted the son. He had not decided between them. Or, more properly, the decision had yet to be revealed to him.
After a minute or two, he drove on after the bus, remaining several car lengths behind. A few more pickups, and then it was out carrying the children over a local road that rolled west toward the edge of town, where the Catholic church and outbuildings stood between dun-colored mountain slopes to back defiantly on the sheer drop of the valley ridge. In Nevada, the desert wilderness always breathed close on civilization’s neck. Its people understood this secret in their bones but would never share it with the tourists for fear of scaring them off. Every beast needed to be fed, and it was important to keep the swarm, with its money and giddy excess, lured by the tantalizing lights.
At the wrought-iron fence in front of the church grounds, the bus driver made a last stop to discharge his youthful passengers, idling at the gate as the students shouldered their bookbags and walked to the converted priory that served as their schoolhouse.
In his car behind the bus, the visitor again waited for its stop sign to be retracted. Once its operator drove off, he would move on past the church, wait a few minutes, and then circumspectly double back to resume his watch.
He never forced his inspirations and truly did not know whether it would be the father or the son. But time was growing short, that much was sure, and he felt confident the choice would present itself to him before long.
When it did, he meant to be ready.
Chinese food on Friday nights, Saturday mornings at the golf course, and Sundays out on the patio snoozing with his face under an outspread copy of the Wall Street Journal. Among the pleasures of retirement, Quentin Dorset supposed he placed the highest value on his leisurely, untroubled weekends.
He keyed the ignition of his Lexus SUV in the parking area outside Wu Liang’s, got the air going, popped on his lights, and waved to the driver of the Jaguar idling in the slot beside him. Joss Garland, a regular in Dorset’s dinner group, tapped his horn in acknowledgment and pulled out with his two passengers, Anthony Cervelli and Matt Pakonen. A moment later, Dorset saw the retired bishop of the Diocese of Las Vegas, Monsignor Sebastian Valdercourt, follow in his Honda.
Dorset had known the clergyman for twenty years. And he went back even longer with Garland, who had been among the Strip’s most well-known casino managers once upon a time. His boisterous storytelling was peppered with names like Sinatra, Presley, Newton, and Ann-Margret, who Dorset still thought was the sexiest woman ever to kick up her shapely legs onstage.
Yes, Joss had been a bona fide mover, and the same could have been said about all of the members of the group. Cervelli had headed the Nevada Gaming Commission throughout the 1980s. Pakonen was a celebrated defense attorney who’d represented mob boss Anthony Frattone at the height of his unrivaled power in Vegas—and whom Dorset had ironically gotten to know on a social basis after presiding over an extortion-racketeering trial that sent Frattone to prison for a quarter-century.
But the diverse bunch included more than just former legal and political big wheels. Or, putting it another way, Dorset thought, recognizable but attention-starved old farts, me paenitet, Monsignor. Blake Weller was a bestselling novelist in his thirties, Sheldon Cranston an agent representing dozens of current entertainers, Lars Ullen a preeminent chef. Though he was onstage at the Sands tonight and only joined them on occasion, Jackie “Rob” Calston one of the group’s relative newcomers, was half of Rob and Hood—pun obviously intended—the hottest illusionist act in town.
Surfacing from his thoughts, Dorset watched Garland’s Jaguar leave the outdoor lot, passing under the ornamental Chinese arch. No sooner had it swung onto Spring Mountain Road than he heard a buzzing noise over to his left. He glanced around as Ullen, wearing a silver jet-style helmet, sped off on his little Italian scooter.
Dorset supposed he’d better get going as well. He would drive back to Vista Bella on his customary route, heading in the opposite direction of the Jag toward South Decatur, then taking the interstate and Summerlin out to his home off the gated community’s eighteen-hole golf course. First, though, he’d make his usual stop at the gas station and Food Mart on the corner of West Charleston.
It was now a few minutes past nine o’clock. All told, he’d be in his living room mixing a Bitter Canadian by ten.
He backed out of his spot and drove under the arch to exit the plaza and merge with the evening traffic.
After stepping down from the district court, Dorset had second-guessed his decision on a host of occasions. He was in good health for a man of sixty-eight and felt he could have stayed on another five years, perhaps longer. But losing his wife had robbed him of something vital to the post. He didn’t know what name to lay on it. Commitment? Focus? Really, he didn’t know. He and Gilda had bought the Vista Bella house just three months before she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They’d planned to spend their weekends shooting holes on the course, socializing at the club, easing into their senior years. It was never to be, though. They hadn’t even had a chance to furnish the house when the pernicious disease took her from him.
And so he’d vacated the bench. The transition had been undeniably rough—rougher than he’d foreseen. And slower, too. There was boredom and loneliness and the long, sleepless nights of wondering if he’d made the right choice. But then, in eventual stages, almost before he knew it was happening, his doubts had eased off, and Dorset had found he’d settled into his lifestyle.
Approaching West Charleston now, he signaled, moved into the right lane, turned into the gas station, and pulled up to the pump. He got out, slid his credit card into the reader, and put the nozzle in his tank. He’d noted his fuel needle was halfway down and locked the handle before walking over to the grocery for his newspaper.
“SeÑor Juez, cÓmo estÁs?”
Dorset took out his wallet and smiled at the man behind the cash register. He always held a copy of the weekend Journal for him and had set it out on the counter beside cardboard displays of Easter candy and egg-decorating kits.
“I’m well, Enrique,” he said, handing over a five. “I ordered a new dish tonight, the Mongolian beef. It was the chef’s special.”
“Ah. Is good?”
“Perfection,” Dorset said. “You’re welcome to join me one of these nights.”
The vendor flapped a dismissive hand. “I not such an important person.”
“Nonsense. Who am I but a subpar golfer with bad knees?” Dorset said. “Seriously. You should come to dinner some night, try that duck for yourself. My treat.”
Enrique passed him his change. “Gracias, SeÑor Juez. Maybe one time, I surprise you.”
“I hope you do,” Dorset said. He tucked the paper under his arm. “Buen fin de semana, Enrique. Enjoy the weekend.”
A nod. “TÚ tambiÉn.”
Dorset headed outside. It was a beautiful March night in the valley, seasonably brisk, the moon a silver crescent above Mount Charleston, stars speckling the clear black sky. The chocolate Easter eggs and bunnies on Enrique’s counter had reminded him that the holiday was right around the corner, although special occasions of that sort were admittedly when he thought most about Gilda, who’d always applied a festive touch to their home when they were coming up on the calendar.
Thought about her, yes. And missed her dearly.
He strode from the glow of the storefront window into the dark and crossed to the pump island with its lighted canopy. The gas nozzle had cut off when his tank was full, and he paused before going around to hang it back on the pump, opening his passenger door to toss in his Wall Street Journal.
“Excuse me, sir, I think this might be your wallet.”
Momentarily startled, Dorset straightened with his door open, turned toward the sound of the voice, recovered at once. The man who’d come up to him under the canopy was smiling pleasantly, a brown leather billfold held out in his left hand. Thirtyish and clean-cut, he wore trendy thick-rimmed eyeglasses, a blue pullover Windbreaker with a kangaroo pocket and the Nike swoosh in front, and khaki trousers.
“I found it over there on the ground,” he said in a friendly tone, nodding toward the Food Mart. “Figured you might’ve dropped it when you left.”
Dorset didn’t have to check his trouser pocket. He could feel his billfold against his thigh, and the one in the young man’s hand didn’t resemble it at all. A gift from Gilda for some long-ago birthday, its worn tan leather was monogrammed in gold with his initials.
“It isn’t mine, thanks.” He smiled. “You’re very decent wanting to return it… have you seen if there’s identification inside?”
The man shook his head. “No,” he said. “But look at this.”
His right hand went into his kangaroo pocket and reappeared an instant later. Dorset’s eyes widened in shock when he saw what was in it. The man was gripping a small black pistol, aiming it at him point-blank. He barely had time to wonder how he could have missed its outline against the jacket’s thin nylon fabric before its snout was shoved hard against his side.
“Get in,” the man said. His voice was harsh now. “Then slide behind the wheel.”
He bodied up against Dorset, angling the weapon’s muzzle up under his ribs, thrusting it into him as he forced him toward the SUV’s door.
Dorset gasped as the air left his lungs, half stumbling, half falling into the passenger seat. The man was incredibly strong—far more powerful than he’d have guessed.
“Listen to me… you can have the vehicle,” he said. “My money. Anything else. You don’t need to do this.”
“Shut up. Don’t think I wouldn’t put a bullet in you right now.”
The man’s eyes burned into Dorset from behind his glasses. He pushed him deeper into the vehicle, got in after him, and shoved him over the center console against his faltering resistance.
Dorset winced as his shoulder bashed painfully against the driver’s-side door.
“Let’s go,” the man said from the passenger seat. The muscles of his jaw flexed. “You’ll drive.”
Dorset hesitated with the key in his hand, looking over at the man, struggling to keep his fear under control.
It proved impossible. Those eyes. They were boring into him. He felt as if he’d been pinned under the lens of a microscope.
“You have a wide forehead,” the man said, his voice dropping to a low mutter. “I had to measure to scale from photographs.”
Dorset looked at him in confusion. “What did you say?”
The man blinked as if startled from a momentary trance. Then Dorset felt the gun jab his side again.
“Never mind. Put your key in the ignition… hurry.”
Dorset inserted it, turned it, felt the Lexus shiver to life. He looked out at the Food Mart’s window and saw Enrique behind the counter.
“Do anything stupid, and you’ll be dead before he can help.”
Dorset’s pulse roared in his ears. “What is it you want?” he heard himself ask. His voice sounded distant and wavery. “Will you at least tell me that?”
The man was silent. His pistol still buried in Dorset’s side, he slammed the passenger door shut. And only then gave his answer.
“I’m going to king you,” he said.
“This place… why did we drive here?”
“Shut up and stop. I already told you what I want to do. You should be pleased.”
Dorset braked, cut the motor. I’m going to kill you, he thought. He was sure they had been his words… right ?
The pistol nudged his ribs. “Now, get out. Slowly. Remember, there’s no one to hear me empty my gun into you.”
Dorset shuddered. He was greasy with sweat under his shirt.
“What are you waiting for? Open your door.”
Dorset reached for the handle and was reluctantly shifting around to leave the vehicle when he was struck under the back of his neck. It wasn’t hard—a light, stinging slap. But then he felt a sudden numbness spreading from his shoulders down through his limbs.
Dorset’s thoughts shrank into a cold point of terror. An instant later, darkness eddied around him, and he was swept away.
© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc.