Niceville: Book One of the Niceville Trilogyby Carsten Stroud
Something is wrong in Niceville. . .
A boy literally disappears from Main Street. A security camera captures the moment of his instant, inexplicable vanishing. An audacious bank robbery goes seriously wrong: four cops are gunned down; a TV news helicopter is shot and spins crazily out of the sky, triggering a disastrous cascade of events that/b>… See more details below
Something is wrong in Niceville. . .
A boy literally disappears from Main Street. A security camera captures the moment of his instant, inexplicable vanishing. An audacious bank robbery goes seriously wrong: four cops are gunned down; a TV news helicopter is shot and spins crazily out of the sky, triggering a disastrous cascade of events that ricochet across twenty different lives over the course of just thirty-six hours.
Nick Kavanaugh, a cop with a dark side, investigates. Soon he and his wife, Kate, a distinguished lawyer from an old Niceville family, find themselves struggling to make sense not only of the disappearance and the robbery but also of a shadow world, where time has a different rhythm and where justice is elusive.
. . .Something is wrong in Niceville, where evil lives far longer than men do.
Compulsively readable, and populated with characters who leap off the page, Niceville will draw you in, excite you, amaze you, horrify you, and, when it finally lets you go, make you sorry you have to leave.
Read the first thirty-five pages. Find out why Harlan Coben calls Carsten Stroud the master of “the nerve-jangling thrill ride.”
Now with an excerpt from Carsten Stroud’s next book, The Homecoming.
“[An] A-ticket thrill-ride… As enthralling as a tale by the Brothers Grimm.” —Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
“Take a pinch of brilliant characters. Stir in some snappy dialogue and a helping of high-octane plot. Blend with a fantastically spooky location and serve hot. Carsten Stroud’s bouillabaisse of a new novel is a simmering read; one part thriller, one part suspense, and taken with a hefty sprinkling of supernatural hot spice, it’s one of the most compulsive page-turners of the year.” —A.J. Kirby, The New York Journal of Books
“A unique genre-bending novel that will haunt readers long after the last page… Niceville is a town readers have to visit for themselves in order to believe.” —Elizabeth Rabin, Fredericksburg Free Lance Star
“A generous collection of memorable villains, tight action sequences, and an occasional bit of black humor.” —Booklist
“Terrific dialogue, oddball characters, and a wild story make this a great read.” —Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty and Out of Sight
"Carsten Stroud's hard-boiled and engrossing Niceville rockets around its deceptively staid southern town, pulling bad guys and worse guys and long-ago misdeeds into a widening and unfolding tale about every kind of wickedness. Somehow it manages to get tighter, nastier, and more delightful as it rolls along toward its lovely and completely black-hearted final pages." —Peter Straub
"A compelling work that grabs your attention from page one." —Karin Slaughter
A truly one-of-a-kind tour de force, Niceville may be hard to categorize by genre, but it’s easy to describe as a reading experience – wildly, insanely entertaining! —John Lescroart
Read an Excerpt
Rainey Teague Doesn’t Make It Home
In less than an hour the Niceville Police Department managed to ID the last person to see the missing kid. He was a shopkeeper named Alf Pennington, who ran a used-book store on North Gwinnett, near the intersection with Kingsbane Walk. This was right along the usual route the boy, whose name was Rainey Teague, took to get from Regiopolis Prep to his house in Garrison Hills.
It was a distance of about a mile, and the ten-year-old, a rambler who liked to take his time and look in all the shop windows, usually covered it in about thirty-five minutes.
Rainey’s mother, Sylvia, a high-strung but levelheaded mom who was struggling with ovarian cancer, had the kid’s after-school snack, ham-and-cheese and pickles, all laid out in the kitchen at the family home in Garrison Hills. She was sitting at her computer, poking around on Ancestry.com with half her attention on the front door, waiting as always for Rainey to come bouncing in, glancing now and then at the time marker on the task bar.
It was 3:24, and she was picturing her boy, the child of her later years, adopted from a foster home in Sallytown after she had endured years of fruitless in vitro treatments.
A pale blond kid with large brown eyes and a gangly way of going, given to sudden silences and strange moods—she’s seeing him in her mind as if from a helicopter hovering just above the town, Niceville spread out beneath her, from the hazy brown hills of the Belfair Range in the north to the green thread of the Tulip River as it skirts the base of Tallulah’s Wall and, widening into a ribbon, bends and turns through the heart of town. Far away to the southeast she can just make out the low coastal plains of marsh grass, and beyond that, the shimmering sea.
In this vision she sees him trudge along, his blue blazer over his shoulder, his stiff white collar unbuttoned, his gold and blue school tie tugged loose, his Harry Potter backpack dragging on his shoulders, his shoelaces undone. Now he’s coming to the rail crossing at Peachtree and Cemetery Hill—of course he looks both ways—and now he’s coming down the steep tree-lined avenue beside the rocky cliff that defines the Confederate graveyard.
Minutes from home.
She tapped away at the keyboard with delicate fingers, like someone playing a piano, her long black hair in her eyes, her ankles primly crossed, erect and concentrated, fighting the effects of the OxyContin she took for the pain.
She was on Ancestry because she was trying to solve a family question that had been troubling her for quite a while. At this stage of her research she felt that the answer lay in a family reunion that had taken place in 1910, at Johnny Mullryne’s plantation near Savannah. Sylvia was distantly related to the Mullrynes, who had founded the plantation long before the War of Secession.
Later she told the uniform cop who caught the call that she got lost in that Ancestry search for a bit, time-drifting, she said, one of the effects of OxyContin, and when she looked at the clock again, this time with a tiny ripple of concern, it was 3:55. Rainey was ten minutes late.
She pushed her chair back from her computer desk and went down the long main hall towards the stained-glass door with the hand-carved mahogany arches and stepped out on the wide stone porch, a tall, slender woman in a crisp black dress, silver at her throat, wearing red patent leather ballet flats. She folded her arms across her chest and craned to the left to see if he was coming along the oak-shaded avenue.
Garrison Hills was one of the prettiest neighborhoods in Niceville and the sepia light of old money lay upon it, filtering through the live oaks and the gray wisps of Spanish moss, shining down on the lawns and shimmering on the roofs of the old mansions up and down the street.
There was no little boy shuffling along the walk. There was no one around at all. No matter how hard she stared, the street stayed empty.
She stood there for a while longer, her mild concern changing into exasperation and, after another three minutes, into a more active concern, though not yet shifting into panic.
She went back inside the house and picked up the phone that was on the antique sideboard by the entrance, hit button 3 and speed-dialed Rainey’s cell phone number, listened to it ring, each ring ticking up her concern another degree. She counted fifteen and didn’t wait for the sixteenth.
She pressed the disconnect button, then used the number 4 speed-dial key to ring up the registrar’s office at Regiopolis Prep and got Father Casey on the third ring, who confirmed that Rainey had left the school at two minutes after three, part of the usual lemming stampede of chattering boys in their gray slacks and white shirts and blue blazers with the gold-thread crest of Regiopolis on the pockets.
Father Casey picked up on her tone right away and said he’d head out on foot to retrace Rainey’s path along North Gwinnett all the way down to Long Reach Boulevard.
They confirmed each other’s cell numbers and she picked up her car keys and went down the steps and into the double-car garage—her husband, Miles, an investment banker, was still at his office down in Cap City—where she started up her red Porsche Cayenne—red was her favorite color—and backed it down the cobbled drive, her head full of white noise and her chest wrapped in barbed wire.
Halfway along North Gwinnett she spotted Father Casey on foot in the dense crowd of strolling shoppers, a black-suited figure in a clerical collar, over six feet, built like a linebacker, his red face flushed with concern.
She pulled over and rolled down her window and they conferred for about a minute, people slowing to watch them talk, a good-looking young Jesuit in a bit of a lather talking in low and intense tones to a very pretty middle-aged woman in a bright red Cayenne.
At the end of that taut and urgent exchange Father Casey pushed away from the Cayenne and went to check out every alley and park between the school and Garrison Hills, and Sylvia Teague picked up her cell phone, took a deep breath, said a quick prayer to Saint Christopher, and called in the cops, who said they’d send a sergeant immediately and would she please stay right where she was.
So she did, and there she sat, in the leather-scented interior of the Cayenne, and she stared out at the traffic on North Gwinnett, waiting, trying not to think about anything at all, while the town of Niceville swirled around her, a sleepy Southern town where she had lived all of her life.
Regiopolis Prep and this part of North Gwinnett were deep in the dappled shadows of downtown Niceville, an old-fashioned town almost completely shaded by massive live oaks, their heavy branches knit together by dense traceries of power lines. The shops and most of the houses in the town were redbrick and brass in the Craftsman style, set back on shady avenues and wide cobbled streets lined with cast-iron streetlamps. Navy-blue-and-gold-colored streetcars as heavy as tanks rumbled past the Cayenne, their vibration shivering up through the steering wheel in her hands.
She looked out at the soft golden light, hazy with pollen and river mist that seemed always to lie over the town, softening every angle and giving Niceville the look and feel of an older and more graceful time. She told herself that nothing bad could happen in such a pretty place, could it?
In fact, Sylvia had always thought that Niceville would have been one of the loveliest places in the Deep South if it had not been built, God only knew why, in the looming shadow of Tallulah’s Wall, a huge limestone cliff that dominated the northeastern part of the town—she could see it from where she was parked—a barrier wall draped with clinging vines and blue-green moss, a sheer cliff so wide and tall that parts of eastern Niceville stayed under its shadow until well past noon. There was a dense thicket of old-growth trees on top of the cliff, and inside this ancient forest was a large circular sinkhole, full of cold black water, no one knew how deep.
It was called Crater Sink.
Sylvia had once taken Rainey there, a picnic outing, but the spreading oaks and towering pines had seemed to lean in around them, full of whispering and creaking sounds, and the water of Crater Sink was cold and black and still and, through some trick of the light, its surface reflected nothing of the blue sky above it.
In the end they hadn’t stayed long.
And now she was back to thinking about Rainey, and she realized that she had never really stopped thinking about him at all.
The first Niceville cruiser pulled up beside her Cayenne four minutes later, driven by a large redheaded female patrol sergeant named Mavis Crossfire, a seasoned pro in the prime of her career, who, like all good sergeants, radiated humor and cool competence, with an underlying stratum of latent menace.
Mavis Crossfire, who knew and liked the Teague family—Garrison Hills was part of her patrol area—leaned on the Cayenne’s window and got the urgency of Sylvia’s story as fast as Father Casey had, a story she was inclined to take much more seriously than a police sergeant in any other mid-sized American town might have taken it at this early stage, because, when it came to Missing Persons, Niceville had a stranger abduction rate five times higher than the national average.
So Sergeant Mavis Crossfire was paying very close attention to Rainey Teague’s disappearance, and, after listening to Sylvia for about four minutes, she got on the radio and called her duty captain, who got on his horn to Lieutenant Tyree Sutter, the officer commanding the Belfair and Cullen County Criminal Investigation Division.
About ten minutes after that, every cop in Niceville and every county sheriff and all the local staties had gotten a digital download of Rainey’s photograph and description—Regiopolis Prep kept digital photo files on every student—and every officer who could be spared was rolling on the Rainey Teague disappearance. This was a very creditable performance, as good as the best city police force in the nation and a lot better than most. Motivation counts.
Less than an hour later, a beat cop named Boots Jackson called in from his riverside foot patrol along Patton’s Hard, walked into Alf Pennington’s bookshop on North Gwinnett, and developed the last confirmed sighting of Rainey Teague, which he then promptly punched in to the HQ mainframe on his handheld-computer link.
By this time the search perimeter had been expanded to include all the Cullen County and Belfair County deputies as well as the State Patrol guys as far north as Gracie and Sallytown, on the other side of the Belfair Range, and as far south as Cap City, about fifty miles downrange.
Sitting at his desk at the CID headquarters on Powder Ridge Road, Tyree Sutter, known as Tig, a blunt-featured broken-nosed black man large enough to have his own gravity field, saw the Alf Pennington notation appear on his Coordinated Search Screen. He immediately handed the contact off to Detective Nick Kavanaugh, a thirty-two-year-old ex–Special Forces officer, a white guy, around six one, lean, hard as cordwood, with pale gray eyes and a shock of shiny black hair going white at the temples, who was standing in Tig’s office door and staring at Tig like a wolf on a choke chain.
Kavanaugh was in his navy blue Crown Vic a minute later and flying up Long Reach Boulevard, following the bend of the Tulip, his strobes lit up but no siren, on his way to see Alf Pennington, pulling up to the curb outside Pennington’s Book Nook at 1148 North Gwinnett less than twenty minutes later. The time was 6:17 p.m. and Rainey Teague had now been officially listed as missing for one hour and fourteen minutes.
Alf Pennington, late sixties, rail-thin, with a dowager’s hump, bald as an eagle, with sharp black eyes and a downturned mouth, looked up from behind his banker’s desk as Nick came through the door, Alf’s sour expression deepening as Nick weaved his way through the bookcases.
Not by nature a sunny person, Alf worked up a disapproving frown as Nick approached his desk, registering the slim well-tailored summer-weight dark blue suit—too expensive for a cop—probably a bribe—the unbuttoned jacket—so he could get to his billy club, no doubt—showing a pure white shirt, open at the neck, his tanned angular face shadowed in the dim light, the wary gray eyes, the shining gold badge clipped to his belt, the obvious bulge of a gun on his right hip.
“Hello. You must be the police. Would you like a coffee?”
“Thanks, no,” said Nick in a pleasant baritone, looking around the shop, taking in the titles, breathing in the scent of must and wood polish and cigarette smoke, putting his hand out. “I’m Nick Kavanaugh. With the CID?”
“Yes,” said Alf, giving him a quick shake and taking his hand back to see if his pinky ring was still there. Alf, a closet Marxist from Vermont, didn’t like cops very much. “Officer Jackson said you’d be by.”
“And here I am. Officer Jackson says you saw Rainey Teague shortly after three? Can you describe him for me?”
“Done that already,” said Alf, his Yankee accent jagged with short, sharp fricatives.
“I know,” said Nick, deploying an apologetic smile to soften the request, “but it would be a big help.”
Alf looked skyward, his black eyes rolling as he collected himself.
“See him every weekday. He’s a lollygagger. Skinny kid, head too big, shaggy blond hair hanging down in his eyes, pale skin, snubby nose, big brown eyes like a cartoon squirrel, white shirt, tails hanging out, collar open, tie all loose, baggy gray pants, blue blazer with that Christer doodad on the pocket, dragging a Harry Potter knapsack behind him like it was full of bricks. That him?”
“That’s him. What time was this?”
“Just once more?”
“Three oh five, 3:10, maybe. Usually see him then, coming home from that Christer school.”
Nick was judging the street view from where Alf was sitting beside his desk. He had a pretty good sweep of North Gwinnett in front of him, the people going back and forth, the traffic streaming along, flashing steel in the afternoon light.
“You sitting here?” asked Nick.
“Good look at him?”
“Was he alone?”
“Did he seem in a hurry, or agitated?”
Alf’s frown deepened as he worked that through.
“You mean, like someone was following him?”
“Ayup,” said Nick.
Alf, a sharp old file, picked up on Nick’s mimicry and gave him a censorious frown, which Nick somehow managed to withstand.
“Nope. Just lollygagging. He stood there for a while, looking at the books.”
“He ever come in?”
“Nope. Kids don’t have any use for books nowadays. Always on those tweeters and such. He looks in, moves off next door. Uncle Moochie’s.”
“Ayup. Every day the same thing, looks in here, waves at me, and then moves down to stare at all that crap in Uncle Moochie’s window.”
“They spoke with Uncle Moochie. He says he saw the kid yesterday, saw him the day before, and the day before that, but not today.”
“Moochie,” said Alf, as if that was explanation enough.
“Moochie’s window is full of stuff a kid would like to look at,” said
Alf considered this, blinked, said nothing.
“Have you ever seen anyone who looked like he might be following the Teague boy? Anyone in the street who was paying too much attention?”
“You mean like one of those peedo-philes?”
“Yeah. One of those.”
“Nope. I did come to the door to look at the boy, him standing there, staring in at Moochie’s window. Kid always spent a good five minutes in front of Moochie’s, looking at all the pawn stuff. I figure, what you should do, you should go stand there for a while, yourself, see what you get.”
So Nick did.
The store where Uncle Moochie ran what he liked to call his brokerage service had been a fairly ornate barbershop back in the thirties, and it still had faint traces of gilt lettering in an arch across the front of the glass—SULLIVAN'S TONSORIAL ACADEMY—but the window was so jammed to the ceiling with antique clocks and gilt mirrors and pocket watches and china busts of pocket dogs and rusted Art Deco lamps and cameos and brooches and gaudy costume jewelry and tiny bronze nudes that it looked like a treasure chest. Nick could see how a kid would find the window fascinating.
According to Boot Jackson’s field report, Nick was right on top of the last place on North Gwinnett where anyone had seen the kid.
No one in the shops farther down North Gwinnett had seen him go by, although he was a regular at Scoops in the next block, and people often saw him climbing the base of the bronze statue of the Confederate trooper in the parkette at the intersection of North Gwinnett and Bluebottle Way.
But not today.
Today, as far as the Niceville PD had been able to determine, this spot of sidewalk in front of Uncle Moochie’s was the farthest Rainey Teague had gotten before . . . before something happened.
Pawnshops have security cameras, Nick was thinking. There it was, in the top left corner, one red eye blinking down at him.
Moochie, a morose Lebanese with a sagging face full of guile and sorrow, had once been enormous, but a severe case of ulcerative colitis had left him looking like a melting candle. He was a notorious fence but also a good street source for Nick, and he was happy to let Nick see the security video, leading him through the clutter and litter and overloaded display cases to the back of the narrow store, where, in an office that reeked of sweat and hashish, he opened up a cupboard concealing an LED monitor and pressed a few buttons on a panel.
“It’s all digital. Auto-erases every twenty-four hours, if I don’t cancel it,” said Moochie, as the video began to roll backwards, the time marker flickering in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
They stood there in Moochie’s crowded office and watched the people in the video walk jerkily backwards through time as the seconds coiled up again. A minute and thirty-eight seconds ran off and Nick saw himself standing on the walk outside Moochie’s, staring up at the video camera, and then Nick walked backwards away to the left of the picture. The marker spooled and flickered, the people in the video moving as in an old silent film, stiff and strange, as if they were all ghosts of the long-gone past.
Nick was very aware of Moochie beside him and for a time he wondered if Moochie himself was the last thing Rainey Teague saw.
Had Rainey come into the shop?
And if he had, what had happened then?
Was he upstairs right now, or in the basement?
The next shop along was Toonerville, a hobby shop with a big Lionel train going around and around in a miniature version of Niceville. Rainey never failed to go inside and talk to Mrs. Lianne Hardesty, who ran the shop. Rainey was a favorite there, but today, no Rainey.
Nick had never heard anything hinky about Moochie, no hint of a pedophile streak or any other kind of chicken-hawk leaning. His record, although far from edifying, contained nothing that indicated any sort of sexual impulses at all.
But you never knew.
Moochie grunted, hit a button, and the image froze with the time marker stopped at 1509:22. There was Rainey Teague, just stepping into the picture, seen from an angle above and to his right, so that the kid seemed foreshortened.
Moochie looked at Nick, who nodded, and Moochie hit a button that advanced the frames one at a time. Rainey’s clockwork figure ticked fully into the picture frame, exactly as Alf Pennington had described him, Harry Potter knapsack slung over his left shoulder, so full it was tilting him in that direction.
Nick’s heart rate climbed as he watched the kid standing there, feeling a shadow of what Rainey’s parents must be feeling right now, but even the shadow of that dread was cold and cutting.
Moochie kept the image moving, frame by frame, as Rainey came to a stop about a foot from the plate glass, shading his eyes to stare in at the pirate treasure, even, at one time, pressing his snub nose up against the glass, flattening it out in a comical way, his breath misting up the glass. People were moving past him in the image. No one was paying him any unusual attention.
“Freeze it there,” Nick said.
He leaned down to look at the kid’s face. The expression on it was utterly absorbed. He was staring at something in the display, and whatever he was looking at had completely fascinated him.
He was held there, as if by a spell, frozen and transfixed.
“Did he ever come into the shop?”
Moochie shook his head.
“I don’t let the Regiopolis kids come in. They’re all thieves. Little Ali Babas. Just like the street kids in Beirut.”
“Do you know what he was looking at, in the window? Whatever it is, it’s sure got his attention.”
“He’s looking at the mirror. I finally figured out it was that mirror,” said Moochie, staring at the boy in the frozen frame. “From the way he’s standing, it’s right in front of him. He’s looking right at it. It’s the one in the gilt frame. It’s very old, prewar at least. I mean the Civil War. It came out of Temple Hill, the old Cotton mansion up in The Chase. Delia Cotton gave it to her housemaid, a lady named Alice Bayer, she lives in The Glades, and Alice came in one day and asked me for fifty dollars on it. I gave her two hundred. It’s worth a thousand. I still have the ticket. Rainey liked to see himself in it, I think. He always stood there, looking into the mirror, anyway, just like that. Then he’d sort of shake himself out of it and off he’d go. The glass is rippled from age, so I guess it’s sort of a fun-house thing for the kid.”
Nick made a gesture and Moochie started inching the frames forward again, Nick looking for something, anything he could use. At time marker 1513:54 Rainey started to move his head backwards, his mouth opening. At 1513:55 he was starting to step back onto his left heel, and his mouth was opening wider.
At 1513:56 he wasn’t in the picture at all.
The camera was aimed at an empty patch of sidewalk.
Rainey was gone.
“Is it the camera?” Nick asked.
Moochie was just gaping at the screen.
Nick asked him again.
“No. It never does that. It’s brand- new. I got it put in by Securicom last year. Cost me three thousand dollars.”
“Back it up.”
Moochie did, one frame at a time.
First frame, Rainey’s not there.
One frame back, there he is.
He’s stepping onto his heel, with his mouth wide open.
Another frame back, he’s still there, and now he’s close to the window,
but beginning to . . .
Something he saw in a mirror?
Or someone behind him, refl ected in the mirror. What the hell was going on here?
“What’s the recording stored on?”
“The hard drive,” said Moochie, still staring at the screen.
“Is it removable?”
Moochie looked at him.
“I’m going to need it. No. Wait. I’m going to need the whole system. Do you have a spare?”
Moochie was far from thrilled by this development.
“I still have the old camera, hooked up to a VCR.”
“Run it again, one more time. This time go right through the sequence.”
Moochie pressed ADVANCE.
They stood and watched as Rainey Teague stick-walked jerkily into the frame, leaned close to the glass, stayed there, his expression growing more fixed as the seconds passed, Rainey drawing closer and closer to the glass until his nose was pressed up against it and his breath was fogging the window.
Then the recoil.
He steps back.
And . . . vanishes.
The camera kept rolling. They both stood there and watched it, riveted, locked on, with the utter wrongness of the thing rippling up and down their spines. In the frames they saw the feet of passing strollers, always that patch of bare sidewalk, now and then a piece of paper flickering through or the shadow of a bird rippling across the screen, and in the background people passing by, perfectly oblivious.
They ran the frames on until a uniform cop appeared in the image, crossing from the direction of Pennington’s Book Nook, reaching for the door of Uncle Moochie’s.
Nick recognized the big bulky shape and the pale freckled features of Boots Jackson, the Niceville cop assigned to canvass this block. They rolled it back and forth a few more times, but it was always the same.
At 1513:55, Rainey Teague is right there.
At 1513:56, the kid is gone.
He doesn’t leap out of the picture, or duck to one side, or jump way up high, or fade away, or turn into a puff of smoke, or get jerked away by the arms of a stranger. He just flicks off, as if he were only a digital image and somebody had hit erase.
Rainey Teague is just gone.
And he never comes back.
Of course in the harrowing days and nights that followed, as the CID and the Niceville cops and everybody else who could be spared tore up the state looking for the kid, no serious cop believed even for a second that what the camera was showing was literally the truth, that the kid had just snapped out of existence.
It had to be some sort of computer glitch.
Or a trick, like something David Copperfield would do.
So they started with the security system that Moochie had installed, examining it and testing it and retesting it, looking for the glitch, looking for any sign that Moochie had rigged the entire thing to cover up a simple kidnapping. The security machine, a Motorola surveillance system, was sent off to the FBI for a complete forensic examination. It came back without a flaw, showing zero signs of having been tampered with in any way.
Next came Moochie himself, who was put through an interrogation that would have done credit to the Syrian Secret Police. He also came through without a hint of guilty knowledge.
They took his shop apart.
They took Delia Cotton’s antique mirror to a lab and checked it for—well, they had no damned idea what, but whatever they were hoping for, it wasn’t there. It was just a medium-sized antique mirror with a tarnished silver face inside a baroque gilt frame, with a handwritten linen card on the back:
With Long Regard—Glynis R.
So Uncle Moochie got his expensive security system back, with their apologies, although he refused to have anything more to do with the mirror, which finally ended up in Nick Kavanaugh’s closet, and in the meantime they took Alf Pennington’s Book Nook apart, which he endured stoically, seeing it as a final confirmation of the innate brutality of the Imperium. They found nothing.
They took Toonerville Hobby Shoppe apart.
They looked at every available frame of every available surveillance camera video up and down North Gwinnett between Bluebottle Way and Long Reach Boulevard.
Not a trace.
Naturally, Nick Kavanaugh went effectively nuts around the ninth sleepless day, and his wife, Kate, a family practice lawyer, at Tig Sutter’s urging, slipped a couple of Valiums into his orange juice and packed him off to their bed, where he slept like the living dead for twelve hours straight.
While Nick was sleeping, Kate, after struggling with the idea for a time, called her father, Dillon Walker, who was a professor of military history up at the Virginia Military Institute in the Shenandoah Valley. It was late, but Walker, a widower who lived alone in faculty rooms on the edge of the parade square, answered the phone on the second ring. Kate heard his whispery bass voice in those familiar warm tones and she wished, as she often did, that her father lived closer to Niceville and that her mother, Lenore, the heart of Dillon Walker’s life, had not been killed in a rollover on the interstate five years ago. Her father was never the same after that. Something important had gone out of him, some of his amiable fire. But he was sharp enough to hear the tightness in her voice when she said hello.
“Kate . . . how are you? Is everything okay?”
“I’m sorry to call so late, Dad. Did I wake you?”
Walker sat up in his leather club chair—while not actually asleep on his military-style cot, he had been dozing over a copy of Pax Britannica, James Morris’ history of the British Empire under Victoria. Kate’s voice had that faint quiver in it that was always there when she was stressed.
“No, sweet. I was up late reading. You sound a little worried. It’s not Beth, is it? Or Reed?”
Beth, Kate’s older sister, was in a toxic marriage to an ex–FBI agent named Byron Deitz, who was cordially loathed by everyone in the family. Reed was her brother, a state trooper who drove a pursuit car, a hard-edged young man who was never happier than when he was running down a speeder.
“No, Dad. Not Beth. Not Reed. It’s about Nick.”
“Dear God. He’s not hurt?”
“No, no. He’s fine. To tell you the truth I sort of slipped him a mickey so he could sleep. He’s upstairs now, dead to the world. He’s been on a case for days, and he’s a total wreck.”
There was a pause, as if she were trying to find a way to begin. Walker leaned over and stirred the fireplace embers into a soft yellow flickering, sat back in the worn leather chair, and picked up his scotch. Tepid and flat, but still Laphroiag.
He could hear Kate’s breath over the phone, and pictured her there in their old family home, a slender auburn-haired Irish rose with sapphire blue eyes and a fine-cut, elegant face, very much the picture of her mother, Lenore. He sipped at the scotch, set it down.
“You sound like you have a question, Kate. Is it about Nick’s case?”
Then, “I guess it is, Dad. The fact is, we’ve had another disappearance.”
She heard her father’s breathing stop, and knew she had touched a sore point between them. Several years ago her father had begun an informal personal inquiry into the high rate of stranger abductions in Niceville, only to quit the project abruptly after Lenore’s death. He never picked it up again, and he had delicately but effectively evaded the topic ever since. When he spoke again his voice was as warm as always, but perhaps a little more wary.
“I see. And I guess this case is what’s keeping Nick from sleeping? Was it really an abduction? A stranger abduction? Like all the others?”
“So far they seem to think so. Can I tell you about it? Would that be okay?”
“Please, Kate. Anything I can do.”
Kate told him what they knew so far, Rainey Teague, on his way home from school, Uncle Moochie’s pawnshop, the security camera, and the way the boy just disappeared into thin air. Walker listened and felt his throat tightening.
“The boy’s name was Teague? Not Sylvia’s boy?”
“God. That’s awful. How is she?”
“Terrible. Falling apart.”
“You know Miles. He’s a typical Teague, and they all have that cold spot. But he gets quieter every day. They’ve both given up hope.”
“Where does the case stand now?”
“Everyone’s in it. Belfair and Cullen County, the state police, the Cap City office of the FBI.”
“Do they have any leads?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Then he spoke again, with a kind of forced calm in his voice.
“Anomalous, Dad? Like what?”
“I don’t know, really. I know you’re asking me because of the research I was doing, but I don’t know any more about this kind of thing now than I did then. That’s why I quit. It was pointless.”
“You quit when Mom died, Dad.”
He was quiet again.
She had crossed his line—she knew that—but she also knew she was his favorite child, the one he had always been closest to.
“I guess, by anomalous, I mean anything hard to explain.”
“Other than the fact that Rainey just vanished into thin air while being filmed by a security camera?”
“In front of Uncle Moochie’s pawnshop, right?”
“You said he was standing on the sidewalk, looking at something in Uncle Moochie’s window?”
“What was it?”
“It was a mirror.”
Silence from her father, but she could feel his tension, like a vibration humming down the wire.
“What sort of mirror?”
“An antique. Moochie said it was pre–Civil War. It came from Temple Hill. Delia Cotton gave it to the lady who does the cleaning and shopping.”
“Teagues and Cottons,” he said in a flat tone.
“Yes. Two of the old families.”
“Can you describe the mirror?”
“Gold frame, baroque, ancient glass, with the silvering coming off the back. Maybe seventeenth- century Irish. Or French. About thirty inches by thirty inches. Heavy. Has an antique linen calling card glued to the back.”
“What was on the card?”
“Very fine handwriting, in turquoise ink. ‘With long regard... Glynis R.’ ”
A taut silence again. Kate could hear him breathing, slow and steady, as if he were trying to calm himself. When he spoke again, all the genial warmth had left his voice.
“Where is it now? The mirror? Still at Moochie’s?”
“No. It’s here. It’s upstairs, actually. In our bedroom closet. Why?” Walker was quiet for so long that Kate began to think he had fallen asleep.
“Dad? You there?”
“Yes. Sorry. I was thinking.”
This sounded like... not a lie, because he never lied to her, but at least an evasion.
“Can you make any sense out of all this, Dad? The connections between the old families? Nick tried to establish who Glynis R. was, but Delia said she had no idea. Does the name mean anything to you?”
“No. No, it doesn’t.”
Again that sense of... wary distance.
“What should we do, Dad? I’d like to help Nick. And Sylvia’s family. Rainey was—is—such a sweet kid. I know it’s late, Dad. I know you need to sleep. So do I. Can you think of anything at all?”
“Do you use the mirror?”
“No. Of course not. It’s evidence, sort of.”
“You should give it back to Delia. Or to her cleaning lady. As soon as possible. I’m sure it’s quite valuable.”
“As I said, right now it’s part of the case. At least Nick thinks so.
Anything else, Dad?”
“Yes. Don’t ever use it. The mirror.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Neither do I.”
She tried to be light.
“Is it cursed?” she asked with a smile. “Like if we break it, we’ll get seven years of bad luck?”
“Maybe you should do just that.”
“Break it. Smash it. Throw the pieces into Crater Sink.”
“You’re teasing me now.”
“Yes. I’m just teasing you. I’m sorry not to have been more helpful. Honey, I need to sleep. You do too. How about you call me in the morning? Around eleven? We can talk some more?”
“I will, Dad. Love you.”
“Love you too, Kate. Love you very much.”
Kate never quite got around to calling Dillon Walker at eleven the next morning, mainly because of the flurry of activity following a call that came at daybreak, Tig on the line to say that Sylvia Teague’s red Porsche Cayenne had just been found by a patrol cruiser doing a routine check of the parking area near Crater Sink. Sylvia’s ballet flats were found at the rim of the sink itself. Of Sylvia Teague, no trace was found, in spite of the deployment of a robot dive camera which was brought in by Marty Coors, head of the State Police HQ in Cap City.
The camera went down and down into the sink, lights spearing out into the cold black water a way, only to die out, overwhelmed by the darkness. The control cable ran out at a thousand feet.
The attached sonar mapping system showed nothing but rock face and more rock face with a side channel running out of the sinkhole at nine hundred and eighty feet, leading, everyone assumed, eventually to the Tulip River in the valley below the cliff face.
If Sylvia Teague had gone into Crater Sink—and so far no suicide note had been found, and suicide was only one of several possibilities—they’d have to wait for natural processes to bring her back up again.
Or maybe she had been dragged into the side channel by a random current, which meant that perhaps someday what was left of her would come bobbing up in the Tulip River itself.
The Crater Sink search took most of the tenth day, with Nick, haggard and running on amphetamines, there for every minute of it. He stayed there until around six that same evening, the evening of the tenth day, when he got a call from Mavis Crossfire, who told him Rainey Teague had been found.
Nick got to the Confederate cemetery across the road from Garrison Hills just as the sun was setting. He saw the police vans clustered around a low hill on one of the meandering stone pathways that led through the rocky, uneven slopes of the graveyard, weaving past hundreds and hundreds of white stone crosses—here and there a few Stars of David—towards what was called New Hill, a part of the Civil War graveyard that had been set aside for the more prominent civilians of Niceville history.
New Hill had perhaps fifty miniature stone temples, most of them in the Palladian style, mostly family crypts with names like HAGGARD and TEAGUE, COTTON and WALKER, GWINNETT and MULLRYNE and MERCER and RUELLE carved into their lintels.
Each temple was made of marble blocks and each one had a solid oak door, locked and sealed, and then further protected by an iron grate. The ground in the cemetery was stony, so some of the lesser graves were simply a low mounded barrow of red clay brick with a long marble or stone cap, the barrow set deep into the ground and mounded all around with earth and grass. The crypt was accessible only by a low iron grating at one end, always padlocked.
The cops were gathered around one of these low mounds, watching two firemen with sledges who were attacking the roof of the crypt. Nick could hear their sledges clang with each blow, and he saw brick dust rising up in the glimmer of the headlights and the halogen work lamps that had been set up all around the mound.
Everyone turned to watch as Nick parked his Crown Vic down theslope and walked slowly up the hill to where they were working. Mavis Crossfire stepped out of the crowd—Nick could see the rangy form and Marine Corps crew cut of Marty Coors, the CO of the local state troopers, above the heads of the other cops, turning to stare at Nick, his face solemn and hard, his eyes full of uncertainty.
“Nick,” said Mavis, coming up to shake his hand. “He’s here.” Nick looked past her, at the mound, at the men slowly hammering it into brick chips and marble splinters.
“He’s in there? How do you know? That crypt hasn’t been open for more than a hundred years. They’re all like that. The padlocks are all rusted and seized. The bars are half in the ground and they’re all grown over.”
“Yes. That’s true. That’s all true. Nick, are you okay?”
Nick looked at her.
“ Hell, no, I’m not okay. Are you?”
Mavis gave him a smile that changed into an odd look.
“No. I’m not. None of us are. How we know he’s in there, Nick?
We can hear him.”
Nick looked at her for a long time.
Mavis nodded, her expression blank, except for a wary look in her eyes and a pallor in her skin.
“Yeah. That’s right. I didn’t want to tell you before you got here.
Didn’t want you to die in a crash racing over here. The groundskeeper heard something in the afternoon. Sounded like maybe a bird, but then he thought maybe not. He traced it to this mound here.”
“Who’s in it?”
“Guy named Ethan Ruelle. Died in 1921. In a duel on Christmas Eve, so the groundskeeper is saying. One of the fire guys has a sound sensor, the kind they use to search for people in a collapse? He stuck it up against the roof of that thing. We all heard it plain.”
“A kid. Crying.”
Nick looked at her, and then past her at the workers, at the cops standing around, the ambulance waiting a ways back, lights churning red and blue, casting a crazy hectic flicker across the graveyard.
“It’s a trick,” he said fi nally, his temper flaring. “This whole thing has been some kind of sick stunt. Someone is jerking us around, Mavis. It’s all just some kind of twisted game.”
“If it is, it’s a damn good one,” said Mavis, taking no offense, speaking in a soothing tone. “The guy tapped on the stone and the crying got worse. Something’s in there. We all think—maybe I should say we all hope—it’s Rainey.”
They heard a muffled crump, a gravelly tumble, and then everyone was talking loud and fast.
Nick and Mavis got to the mound just as Marty Coors stepped up and put his Maglite into the hole the fire guys had opened. There was a terrified face looking up at them, big round brown eyes, dirty blond hair, his dusty cheeks streaked with tear tracks, his mouth round and stretched as he went way back and down for the scream he finally came up with a few seconds later. It rang out across the graves and a flock of crows went exploding up out of a stand of linden.
The boy was Rainey Teague, and he was alive.
When they got him out a few minutes later, still in his school uniform, they realized he had been placed inside a long wooden box, a coffin, and the coffin wasn’t empty.
Rainey Teague had been cradled in the withered embrace of a corpse, presumably the remains of Ethan Ruelle. They had no idea how this had been done, how the tomb had been opened without any sign of tampering, or by whom, or why, but Rainey Teague was alive. They took him to Lady Grace, where, over the next five hours, he slipped slowly but inexorably into a catatonic state.
He was still lying there three days later when his father, Miles Teague, came to see his boy once again in the ICU unit. Rainey was lying in the middle of all the usual medical machinery, IV drips and beeping monitors and catheter racks and catheter drains.
The ICU docs told Miles—a blunt- bodied Black Irish man in his early fifties, with a well-cut, handsome face going rapidly to hell—before withdrawing to leave the man alone with his son, that Rainey’s catatonia was not an uncommon response to unimaginable trauma.
Miles Teague stared down at his son for two hours, watching him breathe in and out, then he leaned down and kissed him on the forehead, straightened up and went out to the parking lot and climbed into his big black Benz. He drove himself back to the family home in Garrison Hills, where he was found the next morning, in the same clothes, in a marble folly at the bottom of the garden, a handmade Purdey shotgun lying by his body and his head blown off at the shoulders.
ONE YEAR LATER-friday afternoon
Coker's Afternoon Required Some Concentration
The two-way radio in Coker’s pocket started to buzz, like a palmetto bug in a bottle. Coker was down deep inside himself, trying to see it all unfold. This Zen trick used to come naturally, but that was a long time back. He was looking through the yellow pampas grass at the snaky stretch of blacktop curving towards him through the long green valley, the heavy rifle in his hands as solid and warm as the neck of a horse.
The two-way buzzed again.
Coker pulled the handset out, thumbed the key.
“We’re at mile marker 47.”
Danziger’s voice was flat and calm, but tight. Coker could hear the sirens in the background, hear the hissing rush of wind, and the rumble of tires on the pebbled surface of the highway.
“What have you got?”
Coker listened to a short hard-edged exchange between Danziger and Merle Zane, the driver, both voices a little adrenalized, which was only natural.
“So far only four,” said Danziger, coming back, “They’re right on us but staying back. We’ve got one news chopper with us, but far as we can see no cops in the air yet. Anything up ahead?”
Coker looked down at the little portable TV on the ground beside him. On the tiny plasma screen he could see a dull black bullet-shaped car with a front like a clenched fist, Merle Zane’s Chrysler Magnum, flying down a curving ribbon of county road, patchwork farmlands all around, with four cars in close pursuit, two charcoal-gray and black Crown Vics, what looked like a black and tan deputy sheriff car, also a Crown Vic, and one dark blue unmarked car, a flying brick with big fat tires and a rack of black steel bumper bars right up front.
The image was coming from a local news chopper following the chase. Coker could see the roof-rack lights on the patrol cars flickering red and blue.
Coker twisted the volume button and heard the hyperventilating commentary of a young female newscaster describing the chase. The image pulled back as the chopper lifted to clear a line of transmission towers, briefly showing a rolling blue country with low brown hills far off to the south.
Coker was waiting in those low brown hills.
He picked up the radio, keyed it.
“So far no roadblocks, road is clear. Confirm you have four units.
Two state and a deputy. The blue Dodge Charger is one of their chase units. A hemi, three sixty-eight mill, a roll-cage, those heavy-duty ram bars. They’ve got him laying back in the pack but at the first chance he’ll pull around and climb right up your tailpipe. He’ll use those bumper bars on your off-side taillight, put you into a spin. Don’t let him get close.”
“We won’t,” said Danziger. “So nobody up ahead?”
Danziger’s tone was still flat, but Coker could hear the tension in his throat. Coker was monitoring the police frequencies, listening to the cross talk between dispatch and the pursuit cars.
“They’ve called for units from Sectors Four and Nine, but so far only two units can respond, and they’re twenty miles off, on the other side of the Belfair Range. They’re spread all over the county and most of their guys are up on the interstate, helping with traffic around the crash site. That’s where their chopper is too.”
“Okay,” said Danziger. “Good—”
Coker heard a solid thump, and the sound of glass cracking, and then Merle Zane’s voice, swearing softly.
“Christ. They’re shooting at us.”
Coker glanced down at the television, heard the announcer’s excited voice, her words tumbling out in a rush. The banner along the bottom of the screen read HAPPENING NOW! POLICE CHASE ROUTE 331 SOUTH SKYCAM NEWS POLICE CHASE! HAPPENING NOW! but the crawl did not name her. Coker figured whoever she was, she was having a hell of a good time.
Good for you.
Get it while you can, kid.
“Like I said. You’re letting them get too close.”
Coker heard the sound of a pistol firing, a series of sharp percussive cracks, and then Merle Zane’s voice.
“Danziger’s shooting back.”
“Well, tell him don’t, Merle. Shooting back just motivates them. He oughta know that. Tell him to keep his head down or they’ll take it off.”
He heard Merle Zane barking at Danziger, heard Danziger’s heated reply, but the shooting stopped, and then Merle was talking again.
“Mile marker 40. We’re two miles out.”
“I’m here,” he said, and clicked off.
He turned the sound on the plasma screen down and shut off the police radio. Didn’t really matter what the State guys were doing right now.
Whatever it was, it was too late.
The news chopper—now that was a problem.
He looked at the TV screen, trying to get an idea of how high up the chopper was, the angles, the kind of machine. Most of the news and some of the police choppers in the state were Eurocopter 350s. What he could hear of the rotor noise and the engine sounded like that’s what this one was. Nice fast machine.
But light and thin- skinned.
A flying egg.
He leaned back against a tree trunk, eased the rifle in his lap, took a slow breath, and opened himself up to what was going on around him.
In a stand of cottonwoods on the far side of the road a bunch of crows were bickering with another bunch of crows. The wind off the flatlands was stirring the pampas grass, making its shaggy heads bob and its brittle stalks hiss and chatter as they rubbed together. The afternoon sun was blood-warm on his left cheek. He looked up. The sky was a cloudless blue. Down the slope of the hill a possum was digging in the red earth, its tail showing like a curved black stick above the pale yellow grass. Three hawks were circling overhead, wings spread and fixed, gliding in lazy circles, riding the thermals as the day’s heat cooked off the lowlands. The air smelled of sweetgrass, clover, hot earth, and baking tarmac. It reminded him of Billings and the sweetgrass coulees down in the Bighorn valley. In the distance, faint but growing, Coker could hear the wail of sirens.
He looked down at the TV screen, saw the line of cars following Merle’s black Magnum, that dark blue interceptor weaving up through the pack, closing in on Merle as the two-lane started to rise up into the grassy foothills of the Belfair Range.
Across the street the crows fell silent, as if listening, and then they exploded upwards in one swirling black cloud, amber light shimmering on their wings.
He felt the drumbeat of a chopper, coming in low, hidden by the tree line, and then, under the siren wail, the squealing of tires as Merle pushed the Magnum through a curve a quarter mile away.
The sirens grew more shrill, crazy echoes bouncing off the hills all around, mixed up with the snarling sound of engines racing.
Coker hefted the rifle, put on a pair of ear protectors, let out a long slow breath, got into a seated brace, resting the rifle’s bipod on a stump in front of him, and depressed the stock until the squared-off muzzle brake was covering the top of the tree line.
The rifle was a semi-auto five-shot. He had five rounds in the box mag, and three more full mags in the canvas bag on the ground beside him. Coker figured that if he needed those extra mags, he’d be dead by sunset.
He did not put his eye close to the Leupold scope until he saw the shiny red ball of the news chopper appear above the trees. Then he leaned into the scope, set the stock in tight, braced for the machine’s mule-kick recoil, eased his finger onto the serrated ridges of the trigger blade, pressing down on it until he could just feel the sear begin to engage. Stopped. Held it.
The chopper was slipping left, skimming the tree line, following the curve of the hills, intent on the chase, a steady glide, hardly moving at all, so the newsgirl could get a good smooth camera pan. Coker could see two pale figures through the canopy bubble. The newsgirl would be in the copilot seat, on the left side of the canopy, working the radio and the camera and talking her talk.
The pilot would be in the right-hand seat, busy with the cyclic and the collective and the pedals, his mind totally taken up with situational awareness, with thinking about power lines and tree branches and big dumb suicidal geese and all the other air traffic that might be zipping around in the pursuit zone.
Even if the pilot had been looking right at Coker’s position, all he would have seen was a little scrap of tan cloth in a field of pampas grass, maybe a long black rod sticking up.
Coker locked down on the sight image, inhaled, breathed out slow, held it at half, stilled himself.
Squeezed the trigger.
The Barrett bucked in his grip, slamming back into his right shoulder, the muzzle-brake gasses flaring out sideways. The chopper image in his scope was momentarily obscured by the heat ripple but Coker saw the pilot take the .50- caliber round right in the middle of his chest.
Basically, the guy exploded, the hydrostatic shock wave blowing through the water-filled tissues of his body at the speed of sound, like an asteroid slamming into the sea.
Coker had seen it before, many times, a center mass hit like that. Usually, when you got down to the vehicle, you found the driver’s head hanging by strings, both eye sockets blown right out, ears and mouth running black blood, and nothing left of his upper body but pink vertebrae and gaping ribs.
Firepower, thought Coker. You gotta love it.
With no living hands on the cyclic and the collective, the chopper staggered, dipped, and then, vibrating crazily, went into a sideways roll.
In the TV screen Coker watched the camera image as the sky and the ground traded places. The TV picture turned into a whirling blur as the cottonwood trees came rushing up.
Faintly, through the sound-canceling earphones, he heard a high shriek of raw terror, thin as a silver wire, coming from the TV speakers. The newsgirl, fi ling her last best story, an up-close and personal eyewitness report right from the scene of a fatal chopper crash.
The thought made him smile, putting a cold yellow glitter in his pale brown eyes, his hard mouth tightening.
He felt the concussion through the earth as the chopper hit hard on the far side of the tree line. Out of the corner of his right eye he saw orange fire come billowing up, but by then he had shifted his position, reset himself, the rifle scope now zeroed in on the highway as Merle’s Magnum came flying up the curve towards Coker’s position.
Coker had taken a stand that allowed him to see down the entire length of the S-curve as the cars came directly at him. It would give him the most time-on-target and a field of fire that would stretch right down the line of cars.
Technically, if this were a Recon Marine ambush, there would be a five-man fire team on the long side of an L-shaped barrier, a chain of command-linked claymore mines at the forward edge—seven hundred steel balls embedded in a curved packet of C-4 plastic explosive, with those lovely words embossed on the front: FACE TOWARDS ENEMY. Click the clacker and off they all go in a blinding roar and a hailstorm of steel to shred the poor bastards in the kill zone, followed up by a mad minute from every rifl e and automatic weapon in the squad and, God willing, a mortar to seal the deal.
But this afternoon there was only Coker and his Barrett .50, at the top of the S-curve, watching them come. He could see Merle’s thin white face behind the wheel, and Danziger’s flash of dirty blond hair. Everything slowed down.
To the left side of Merle’s black car he had a pretty good slice of the dark blue interceptor coming up.
Not all of it.
He put the second shot of his five-round mag into the hood of the chase car. The super-heated engine block exploded in every direction, including chunks of hot iron that flew backwards right through the firewall and into the driver’s face, chest, and belly. The car swerved as the driver’s hands dragged the wheel to the right.
It slammed into a line of trees, blood spattered across the inside of the windscreen and sheeted over the air bag. The cruiser settled, and began to steam.
Now Coker had a clear line on the second car, the black-and-white sheriff’s car. One man behind the wheel. Coker could see his face turning as he flew by the wreck of the interceptor, see his mouth open in shock. He recognized the guy, an earnest young Cullen County cop named Billy Goodhew.
At that moment Merle Zane and Charlie Danziger flew by Coker’s position, horn blaring, Danziger staring out through the passenger window.
Coker never turned his head, was only dimly aware of them passing. You could have fired a 9 mm next to his ear right then and he would not have flinched.
Coker’s third round took Billy Goodhew’s head and upper body off and spattered it all over the prisoner partition behind him. It also took out the rear window and, in one of those weird accidents that happen in firefights, sent a glittering sun-drenched sheet of the deputy’s arterial blood and brain tissue across the windshield of the patrol unit on his tail.
Both state cars broke hard, tires smoking, grilles dipping down, cutting left and right, coming to a tail-to-tail blocking position, overlapped, trying to establish a defensive stand.
Coker put his fourth round into the driver’s side of the windshield on the left-hand car, saw the roof stipple with fragments and the shattered window cover itself with a sheet of black blood. Nobody popped out of the passenger door, so Coker figured the driver was alone.
Thanks to the recession, most of the state and county guys had been cut back to singles, even at night. It was a goddam disgrace. Fucking bean counters down in Cap City. They’d never have to make a DUI stop at two in the morning, all alone out on a deserted highway, pulling over some overloaded black Escalade with tinted windows and God-only-knows-what waiting inside it.
Coker turned his attention to the other car, which was stopped now, a lone trooper climbing out from behind the wheel, a shotgun in his left hand, a radio in his right, his Stetson jammed on all wrong and a wide-eyed holy shit expression on his round white face.
The kid turned and scooted around to the defilade side of the unit, out of Coker’s direct line of fi re, trying to put as much heavy metal between himself and whatever was shooting at him as he could.
Coker let him get set, even let him get off a round, just to make sure he knew where the center of his mass would be, and then he put his fifth round straight through the entire width of the car and blew the kid into bloody chunks.
The trooper’s shotgun clattered backwards.
And the quiet came down.
A moment of pressurized silence, Coker’s heart thudding in his ribs. And then he got up, shook his head to clear the ringing, and looked around him as if seeing the place for the first time.
The stillness was unsettling and in spite of the ear protection his hearing was vague and muffled, as if the world were wrapped in a bubble. His shoulder throbbed from the kick of the Barrett.
On the far side of the road a small forest fire had broken out and a pillar of white smoke was rising up into the sky.
The cottonwood smoke smelled nice, tangy and biting. Reminded him of Christmas back in Billings. Happy times. Coker breathed it in for a while, feeling the world come slowly back to normal.
He turned on the scanner and listened to the cross talk for a moment. All he heard was panic. Nobody knew what the hell had just happened and everybody was telling everybody else what to do about it at the top of their lungs.
He figured he had time for a quick cleanup.
Just to be on the safe side, he removed the empty box mag, slammed a new one home, released the bolt to chamber a round, flicked the safety to horizontal, and shouldered the rifle, all twenty pounds of it, on a patrol sling, where he could swing it around and bring it to bear if he had to.
He pulled out a Colt Python and walked down the road to the squad cars and put a big soft-nosed .357 round into every intact skull he could find, reloaded, and did what he could with whatever was left of whoever was left.
Then he extracted, with some difficulty because of the latex gloves he was wearing and the bits of tissue and blood and bone all over the interior, all the hard disks from the various dashboard cameras. That done, he stepped backwards out of the area, looking to see if he was leaving bloody boot tracks at the crime scene.
Coker went back and policed his shooting position, gathered up his five spent casings, kicked away his boot marks and scuff traces, double-checked the area once more, and then walked over the low brush-covered hill to his cruiser, a big black and tan Crown Vic with county markings.
He popped the trunk, broke the Barrett down, easing the hot barrel out of the lock, wiped the machine with a silicone-saturated cloth, and tucked it away in sections inside its carrying case.
Then he peeled off his bloodstained overalls, stuffed them into a brown paper bag, slammed the trunk, checked his uniform in the side mirror—he looked pretty good, all things considered—got in behind the wheel, and slowly drove away from the scene. In his rearview mirror a thin spiral of smoke was rising into the sky. The crows had come back, now that all the excitement was over, and a few of the hungrier ones were settling onto the roofs of the squad cars, drawn by the scent of fresh blood.
The sun was sliding down and long blue shadows stretched across the highway. A honey- colored light strobed along the side of his face as he drove through a stand of cottonwoods. On his police radio the air was crackling with cross talk, but it sounded like somebody at HQ—probably Mickey Hancock—was finally getting a grip on things. Soon they’d be calling him in, along with every other cop in the western hemisphere.
Coker sighed, looking out at the world rolling by with a satisfied mind. He smiled, put on his Ray-Bans, lit himself a cigarette, pulled the smoke in deep. His shift was just starting, with what looked to be a long, hectic night ahead. He was, however, consoled by the warmth and the lovely light. It promised to be a pretty evening.
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