Authors: John Gilstrap
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Espionage, #American Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Fiction, #Suspense Fiction, #Adventure fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Crime & Thriller, #General, #Thriller
"Hoping that we'll back off, maybe."
"Or at least not press as hard."
Jesse regarded Gail. "He bet wrong, didn't he?"
She smiled. "Oh, yeah. This isn't the Old West. You want justice done, you call the police. Or, if you pull something like this, with these results, then you still call the police and own up to it. Let a jury decide who's the good guy and who's the bad."
Jonathan dropped the Explorer off at a self-storage place on the outskirts of Muncie and locked the door. Within a few hours, the owner of a body shop that specialized in under-the-table repairs would enter the storage bay and examine the vehicle for any bullet holes or other damage that might need repairing. Finding none, he would return it to the rental car lot at the Indianapolis Airport. No one would know anything of the events in which the vehicle had participated.
Leaving the storage yard, Jonathan walked down the street to a no-tell motel and took a cab to Indianapolis Airport. Of the day's long ordeal, Jonathan's fifteen minutes on airport property were his most nerve-racking. The pundits on the news who complained that American airports remained soft targets for terrorists needed to get their heads out of their asses. The place swarmed with police and dogs and electronic surveillance gimmickry, and there he was, walking around like a living training toy. Step a little too close to the wrong dog and he'd have some major explaining to do. Even though he never entered the main terminal, the proximity of this much security made him nervous as hell.
He headed straight for the cabstand. The hack who picked him up was an Arab, Jonathan's first lucky break of the day. Ever since 9-11, most Middle Eastern ex-pats went out of their way to avoid contact with anybody, and many of them were particularly uninterested in cooperating with police. If some lucky flatfoot was able to connect the dots as far as the airport, the trail would likely stop dead, because no one would step forward to tell anybody anything.
God granted good fortune to those who were perpetually careful.
He paid cash for his ride to a Sheraton in Indianapolis, and cash again for a second cab ride to the bus station. From there, it was a long bus trip to Evanston, where he caught yet another cab to O'Hare International Airport. He told that driver to drop him at the long-term parking area on Bessie Coleman Drive. When the cab was out of sight, it was then time to walk across the street to begin the final leg of the journey.
The executive air terminal at O'Hare was a lot like executive air terminals everywhere, much more sparsely appointed than the uninitiated would expect. There were no concessions to speak of, unless you counted the self-service coffee station, which at present was serving a product more suitable to a fountain pen than a coffee cup. People with their own planes don't need a concession stand.
Besides, Boxers was already wait's kid gets picked up, the family's gonna dig deep to come up with money they didn't even know they had."
Jonathan conceded the point with a nod. "And what do you make of the girl in the woods with the gun?"
"I think she should've dropped it instead of shooting it."
Jonathan smiled. Leave it to Boxers to get straight to the heart of an issue. After a minute or two of silence, Jonathan lifted himself out of the copilot's seat and headed for the back of the plane. "It's
time for me to catch a little shut-eye, if that's okay with you."
Boxers smiled. "Computer says you got an hour and forty-two minutes."
It was nearly five in the afternoon when Jonathan finally stepped through the double doors into the Signature Aviation Terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport. Boxers had work to do to close out the Gulfstream, and would drive himself home in his Nissan pickup. Jonathan had a ride waiting for him.
Venice stood in the lobby, arms folded and wound up tighter than a watch spring. When they finally made eye contact, it looked as if she'd just taken her first breath of the day. He saw tears in her eyes. Venice was a famous crier.
"Welcome home," she said. "I was worried."
Jonathan allowed himself to be hugged. "Like I always say, do what you do best."
Venice understood that he'd just said thank you. "Want me to help with a bag?"
"Nah, I got them. Did you bring the monstrosity?"
"Her name is Glow Bird," Venice said, fishing through her purse for her keys, "And I got a terrific parking place."
By any man's yardstick, Venice Alexander was hot. Her skin was the color of milk chocolate, and there were days when her smile could put the sun out of business. Jonathan could tell from her clothing that she was proud of her recent weight loss. They both knew that the pounds would come back--the same twenty came and went on a three-year cycle--but for now, it was nice to see her strutting a little.
"Tell me what you found out about Christine Baker," Jonathan prodded as they approached the door that would take them to the parking lot.
"Who is she?"
He hated it when people answered questions with questions. "She's my big surprise for the night. We knew about the Patrone brothers and a third party. She was the third party."
The door opened onto a beautiful spring day. The perfect blue sky made even the parking lot look vibrant. "Well, it's not exactly a unique name," Venice cautioned, "and the picture you sent was not of the best quality."
"I'm explaining that there aren't definitive data. But from what I could pull together, she was a committed cause-worker. Lots of symbolic arrests at various protests--mostly antiwar and antibusiness. Always anti, by the way."
Jonathan chuckled. "Protesting others' decisions is always easier than making one of your own." Up ahead, the Monstrosity awaited them: the world's only blaze-orange Mazda Miata.
tfit. Lots of tree-hugging, but no confirmed violence."
The curious phrasing caught Jonathan's attention. "
"Wherever zealots gather, there's always the potential for violence. That's what's got the FBI sitting up and taking notice. There's some suspicion that they burned down a ski lodge under construction a few years ago, but no solid proof." She opened the trunk of her ugly-ass car and invited Jonathan to load his bags into it.
"You couldn't have brought the Hummer?"
"I hate that big thing. Talk about monstrosities. You're free to take a cab if you'd like." She walked toward the driver's side.
Jonathan had to laugh. He always said he liked independent thinkers, and in Venice, he got that with plenty to spare. He filled the trunk with one duffel, and had to thread the other one into the space the Mazda people had the guts to call a backseat. He'd worn shirts that were bigger than the front seat.
He'd just stuffed the second bag in when a familiar voice called from across the parking lot, "Jon!"
A quick look across the lines of cars confirmed that he recognized the voice. He shot an annoyed glare at Venice.
"Oh yeah," she said in a tone more suitable to seeing a pustule than a person. "Ellen called. She needs help from you. But I swear to God, Digger, is you fall for another of her--"
Jonathan shut her down and turned to meet his ex-wife halfway as she navigated the last three rows of cars. He extended his arms for a hug. She allowed herself to be enfolded. "What a wonderful surprise," he said, his voice dripping irony. "You're finally coming back to me."
"Oh, Jon, I'm so frightened."
He broke the embrace and eased her away to arm's length. "Of what?"
She scowled and glared past his shoulder at Venice. "She didn't tell you?"
He followed her gaze. "Who? Venice? Tell me what?"
"I've been trying nonstop to reach you since yesterday."
Taking the mention of her name as an invitation to join, Venice stepped up.
"Is that true?" Jonathan asked. "Has Ellen been trying to reach me?"
Venice planted her fists on her hips. "Don't take that tone. You've been on the ground for all of five minutes."
He turned back to Ellen. "What is it, then?"
From the corner of his eye he saw Venice assume body language that said, "Wait till you hear this."
"Tibor's missing," Ellen said.
Jonathan smiled. "And you wanted to deliver the wonderful news in person. How thoughtful."
Venice sniggered, earning a withering glare from the ex.
"Must she stay?" Ellen snapped.
"I already told her," Venice explained, "that we don't drop everything to search for someone who's been missing for only a day."
Jonathan looked to Ellen for confirmation.
Her shoulders sagged and her eyes pleaded. "Please, Jon. There are extenuating circumstances."
Tibor Rothman was a certified prick, dedicated to making Jonathan's life as difficult as possible. It was'm just really, really scared."
"I should have heard from him by now," she said. She sniffed to regain control of her voice. "He always calls when he goes away."
"Has it really been less than twenty-four hours?"
She looked at the clock on the dash. "Not anymore. Almost thirty."
Jonathan knew he needed to be careful here. His hatred of Tibor was stratospheric, but he didn't want that to cloud the sensibility of what he was about to say. "Isn't it a little silly to push the panic button when he's only been out of your sight for a day?"
"He's been out of my sight for three days," she corrected. "Almost four." She turned her head to address Jonathan directly. "He's religious about calling in. He does it every single day. Except yesterday. And today."
Jonathan shifted his gaze to watch the road for her. "Is there reason to suspect foul play?"
"You know what he does for a living. He reports stories that anger people."
"What he does is hardly reporting," Jonathan scoffed. "Ruining people's lives isn't the stuff of Pulitzers."
"I know you don't like him--"
"But he's a good man."
"He's a thief and a liar."
Ellen started to argue, then settled herself. "Is that what you need me to say to get you to help me?" she begged. "Okay, he's a thief and a liar and a very bad man. And I love him."
The words cut deeper than he'd expected.
"I know that's not what you want to hear, Jon. And I don't want to hurt you. But I'm desperate."
"Still, we're talking about so little time. Where has he been?"
"Covering a story. I don't know what kind, or what the topic is. I never do. Apparently I'm only attracted to men who insist on shielding their lives from me."
Jonathan smiled at the irony. "Here's the thing, Ellen," he began, silently praying that he sounded earnest and reasonable. "Adults have the right to take time off for themselves. As long as they pay their bills and they don't abandon their children, they're free to take protracted vacations without telling anyone. Seventy-two hours is thought to be the minimum time that an adult be gone before anyone even begins to take an interest."
"But this isn't a vacation."
"It's a job. A story."
She shook her head vehemently. "Not this time. It's more than that. He's been...stressed."
He pointed up ahead. "You see those brake lights, right?"
Rather than slowing, she chose to swerve around the backup in the right-hand turn lane, and maybe even sped up a little to make the light.
"Are you worried that he had a heart attack or wrecked his car or something?"
She gave him a fearful look.
"If that's the case, then he's sure to turn up. He'll check into a hospital, or somebody will find him." That last part slipped out before he could stop it. Ellen never had been one for bluntness. "Look, I don't mean to sound cr that's not really your concern, is it?"
Her posture straightened. "What are you implying?"
"I'm implying the obvious," Jonathan said. "Fidelity isn't exactly his long suit. Your relationship is living testament to his willingness to break up a marriage."
She made that puffing sound that always used to spin him up. "He did not break up our marriage, Jon.
broke up our marriage by never being married."
"Hey, at least I was always faithful."
She coughed out a laugh. "To the Unit, not to me."
He felt color rising in his cheeks. "I never screwed around on the side. I never would do that."
Ellen glared at him again. "Fidelity isn't just about sex. It's about emotional commitment."
Jonathan let it go. He'd taken full responsibility for their breakup a long time ago, and it had long been a source of great shame. There was no sense in scraping the scab off the barely healed wound. "My point remains," he said. "Ninety percent of the time these adult missing persons turn out to be Exhibit One in a divorce."
Ellen softened, too. "Tibor's not like that. Not anymore. He wouldn't just walk out on me like that."
. "So what's left?" Jonathan asked. "If he's not cheating on you and you're not worried about him lying dead in a ditch, what
you worried about?"
Her race to make the next light failed, and she stood on the brakes to get the Mercedes stopped at the line. "He's been different lately. Just in the last week or so. Anxious, I guess."
"Good anxious or scared anxious?"
"A little of both. He's been consumed by this story. When I asked him what it was about, all he'd say was that it was big, and that I'd be proud of him when he was done. Then, when he left, he just disappeared. He called me from the office to chat as he walked to the post office to mail something, and another call came in. I got tired of sitting on hold so I hung up. Next time I heard from him he said he was out of town, but he didn't want to tell me where. He called a second night just to tell me that everything was fine, but I sort of knew from his voice that it wasn't. And then I didn't hear from him again."
Jonathan agreed that the circumstances were strange. "But there's just been so little time. Even if he's in imminent danger, we don't even know where to look."
"But you could find that out, couldn't you?"
"You're talking a lot of resources, Ellen. If it turns out to be a dead end--"
"If I was the one missing, would you be able to do something?" Ellen used the question with the skill of a surgeon using a laser, cutting straight to his soul.
"I'll see what I can do," he said.