Chadwick hesitated, then took Mallory's compass from Hunter's outstretched hand. He went to find Kindra Jones and—for the first time in many years—to load his .38 service revolver.
In the wee hours of morning, the little town of Fredericksburg pretty much shut down.
A single lonely street lamp burned in front of City Hall. Banners for an art and wine festival sagged over the intersections, and the darkened limestone storefronts made the shopping district look almost like the city fathers wanted it to—a quaint Old West village. Main Street was a pastiche of white picket fences and barbed wire, grapevine arbors and prickly pear cactus, rose gardens and restored log cabins, B&Bs and Mexican restaurants—the Western and German and South-of-the-Border influences all wrestling for the soul of the town, and all of them losing to the tourists.
At three A.M., Chadwick was parked on the north end of Milam, the heat from his car hood shimmering in the cold. He was staring at the lighted cross on the hilltop just outside of town, wondering if it had been put there as a personal insult to those who had lost their faith.
Kindra Jones came out of the motel office across the street and walked to the car.
“Nothing,” she reported. “You?”
Chadwick shook his head. He handed her a cup of truck stop coffee.
Chadwick's belief in his own strategy was unraveling. He'd been operating on the best-case scenario—that Mallory had run when the shooting started, somehow evaded Pérez, and managed to hitch a ride at the road. He assumed a local would not have picked her up, knowing as they did the nature of Cold Springs kids and being familiar with their black uniforms. A trucker might have stopped, but few used that road except for local deliveries, which meant they would've pulled in somewhere close by for the night. Either way, Chadwick was assuming that Mallory would've gotten away from her driver at the first opportunity. That made Fredericksburg, or some hamlet around there, the logical place to search.
So far he and Kindra had come up dry. And at dawn—when rides out of town got easier to find—Chadwick's odds of finding her would get very long indeed.
All this assumed the best-case scenario: that Mallory was on her own. If she was with Pérez, the task of finding her could be hopeless.
“There's another strip of motels on the west side of town.” He tried to sound enthusiastic about meeting more sleepy night clerks.
Jones raised her coffee cup. “Nowhere but up.”
As they drove, Chadwick kept an eye out, like a patrol cop—scanning doorways, sidewalks, alleys. Down by the creek off West Schubert, local teenagers clustered around a couple of pickup trucks, having an impromptu party. As Chadwick drove past, some of the kids stuck their joints and beer bottles behind their backs, as if that made them invisible. He knew they'd spotted the Cold Springs logo on the side of the car—every kid in the area knew exactly what that meant—and he suddenly felt like a dogcatcher.
“I was Mallory, that's where I'd be,” Jones said. “I'd ditch whoever picked me up soon as I got to someplace there were lots of people. You're a runaway girl, the last person you trust is somebody who'd pick up a runaway girl.”
Chadwick looked over, surprised by the insight. “Confession time?”
Kindra grinned. “Okay. I got an inside track. I ran away a few times.”
“Your folks come after you?”
“Nah. I did some stupid things. Some of the things you have to do to make money on the streets—then I came home on my own. See, back then, that was our boot camp. We didn't have to pay two thousand a month to learn reality. Momma just boot you outside.”
She laughed, and Chadwick couldn't help smiling.
The anger that had been coiling around inside him all night, like a stripped high-voltage line, momentarily untwisted.
He looked back at the kids at the creek, debating whether he should stop to talk to them. He tried to picture Mallory hanging out with these teens from Fredericksburg. She would've fit in about as well as Race did at Laurel Heights.
Chadwick drove on.
“What about you?” Jones asked.
“What about me, what?”
“How'd you grow up?”
“My reality school was the Air Force—Thailand, right at the end of the Vietnam War. Me and Hunter.”
“That must've been some fun.”
She said it in the tone that young people used, like the Vietnam War was a TV rerun she'd seen and enjoyed on Nick at Nite.
Chadwick remembered how he used to react to his granddad's stories about World War II—listening politely, unable to comprehend, and his grandfather giving him that empty stare, frustrated by what he could not share.
Time is the best revenge, he thought.
The next few blocks, Chadwick thought about Korat, and the service revolver now chafing in its shoulder holster. He thought of Julio de la Garza, the Mexican sniper in the woods, his throat warm and taut under Chadwick's grip. The memory was not pleasant, but there was something focal about it—a clarity that kept Chadwick's raging emotions in check. He would not lose Mallory Zedman. Eight years of finding children, of making sure they were safe—all of that meant nothing if Mallory Zedman was lost.
They searched another strip of hotels, then the only convenience store that was open twenty-four hours. No luck.
At five A.M., they pulled in to an all-night pancake-and-diesel restaurant at the junction of Highways 290 and 87—their last-ditch hope before doubling back. The waitress, who'd been on duty all night, had no recollection of anyone resembling Mallory Zedman.
“A young girl I would've remembered,” she said, looking Kindra over. “We don't get many of them.”
Her voice indicated that she was thinking about something other than Mallory.
The high-voltage line in Chadwick's gut made a sparking, vicious knot.
“You know what?” he told the lady. “We're staying for breakfast.”
Over Kindra's objections, he sat down at the counter and waited until the waitress, sour-faced, pushed two menus across.
They had the restaurant to themselves except for three young truckers at a window booth. Once it became apparent that Kindra and Chadwick were ordering food, the truckers fell silent, staring at them.
“Chadwick,” Jones murmured. “We don't have to—”
“Sit down,” he said softly. “Order something.”
He stared at the off-color pictures of eggs and bacon, the smiley-face pancake meals. He tried to convince himself he was hungry.
One of the truckers said, “Nigger,” just loud enough for the comment to slice the air.
Chadwick looked up. None of the truckers were looking at them, but one of them—a guy wearing a green bowling shirt—was grinning at his pals.
“Forget it,” Jones said tightly. “Ain't worth it.”
But Chadwick's nerves were too raw to forget. He rose.
“Hey,” Jones insisted softly. “They're rednecks. They don't change—it isn't worth trying.”
Chadwick walked toward the window booth.
Jones cursed, then fell in behind him, muttering, “Or if you insist . . .”
Green Shirt's smile melted as he realized just how big Chadwick was, and saw the bulge under the shoulder of his coat—the gun Chadwick was making no great effort to hide.
“The lady needs an apology,” Chadwick told him.
“Shit, man,” Green Shirt said, sliding his words sideways, so as to make himself invisible to criticism. “Apologize for what? Get a little brown sugar, it turns your head.”
Chadwick grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked him out of the booth, over his friends, spilling him onto the floor like so much laundry. The other two men pressed themselves against the window.
“Get up,” Chadwick told him. “Apologize.”
“Chadwick,” Kindra said, then she turned to the truckers, her voice urgent and polite. “Look, gentlemen—Mr. Chadwick here has had a rough night. I would humor him. Really.”
Suddenly, she and the truckers were unlikely allies—the common enemy being Chadwick's rage. Chadwick knew this, knew he should be in control, but he no longer cared.
“You were out of line, Eddie,” one of the guys in the booth offered. “She's right.”
Eddie with the green shirt got up from the floor, wiped the spit off his mouth. He tried for a tough-guy look, but the fear kept melting it off his face. “Sorry. I'm sorry. Okay?”
Chadwick walked back to the counter, but the waitress had reclaimed their menus. “I think y'all should look elsewhere for breakfast,” she told them primly.
“Good idea,” Kindra answered. “That's an excellent idea.”
She didn't have to worry about Chadwick arguing. The fight had gone out of him.
They walked to the car, leaving three terrified truckers and a sour old waitress with something to talk about for weeks. Another local publicity triumph for the staff of Cold Springs.
Chadwick got behind the wheel, stared through the windshield. The sun wasn't up yet, but the east was lightening, turning the color of wolf fur.
“I appreciate the sentiment and all,” Kindra said, “but don't fight my fights, okay?”
“That wasn't for you. If it was for you, it might've been excusable.”
She spread her hands. “Okay. Whatever, Chadwick. Remind me not to grow up my kids the Air Force way, huh? It sure as shit doesn't work.”
Chadwick didn't respond. He was trying to get up his nerve to call Hunter and admit defeat, formulate Plan B.
Then his cell phone rang.
Chadwick picked it up, expecting Ann with flight information.
Instead Mallory's voice said in his ear, “You passed right by me. You're supposed to be this great tracker of kids.”
Brave words, but her voice didn't sound taunting. It was broken as static.
“Where are you, Mallory?” he said. “How'd you get this number?”
“It wasn't genius work,” she told him. “I called Cold Springs. I got your voice mail. Your recording gives your cell phone number. Listen—I've got a problem.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“I mean a bigger problem than running away. Pérez is after me. He's trying to kill me.”
“Tell me where you are. I'll protect you.”
“Where have I heard that before?”
“What's your other option, Mallory? Running?”
“What the hell was I supposed to do—sit and take a bullet? Look—I'll make a deal with you. I'll tell you where I am.”
“You're at Town Creek, with that crowd of teenagers.”
“Not anymore. I'll meet you. But you've got to come alone. Promise you'll listen to me. Then you can decide if I have to go back to Cold Springs.”
“There can't be any if to that.”
“But you have to listen to me first. You've got to promise you'll hear me out. Agreed?”
Chadwick thought about it, but despite trying hard, he couldn't see any downside.
They agreed on the all-night convenience store back in Fredericksburg.
Mallory hung up without a goodbye.
Kindra said, “You're negotiating with that girl?”
“I'm bringing her in.”