“Why didn’t you tell me Turkle had Jeff?” Bryant snapped from the passenger seat.
They were in Meltzer’s car driving west on Chandler Boulevard. Meltzer’s windshield wipers were working at maximum speed. The radio was on the all-news channel. It was just loud enough to hear the tone of the announcer’s voice but not the exact words.
“You were taking care of the kids,” Meltzer said, glancing sideways at him.
Bryant was low on energy but high on anxiety. “Sam, how do we—”
“Are they okay?” Meltzer asked.
“No,” Bryant said flatly. “Not even close.”
Meltzer had to dance around this one. “How much do they know about their dad? I mean can they help us find him?”
Bryant frowned. “The mom did a good job of buffering them from the real psychotic stuff. They don’t know any more than you do.”
“Leave them alone,” Bryant said. “They’ve been through enough.”
Meltzer nodded. “Yeah, of course. Sorry.”
Meltzer routinely swerved the car to avoid puddles growing from the curbs. Chandler didn’t have a sewer system which took away excess rain. The desert tended to swallow up the moisture as quickly as it came. Unless it rained nonstop for days at a time.
“I don’t like Margo being handled by the FBI,” Bryant said.
“She’ll be fine. They’ll keep her in the safe house for a couple of days until this thing plays out.”
“I just think she needs someone to be there for her.”
“You can see her tonight.”
Meltzer drove through the downpour with both hands gripping the wheel, the wind pushing the four-door sedan from one side of the road to the other.
“Listen,” Bryant said, looking out the passenger window, “we’ve never spoken about the accident.”
“I know,” Meltzer said. “I just assumed you would get to it when you were ready.”
“Yeah, well, I’m only curious about one thing. Robert Henson.”
“Okay? What would you like to know?”
“The autopsy. Did you see the report?”
“See it? I was there.”
Meltzer took his foot off the gas and tapped the steering wheel with his index finger. “He was nine times over the legal limit. He died of alcohol poisoning.”
“So he died before the crash?”
“Yeah, he died with his foot on the accelerator. The only thing keeping his car on the road was the guard rail.”
Bryant sighed, realizing that Turkle was twisting the facts to fit his narrative. After a few moments, Bryant could sense Meltzer staring at him.
“Are you ready to discuss that day?” Meltzer asked. “I can—”
“No,” Bryant said. “That’s all I needed.”
“Because I was at—”
“It’s okay,” Bryant said, holding up his hand. “I have a more pressing question.”
“Why hasn’t Turkle called yet?”
“Because he’s setting us up,” Meltzer said. “He’ll use Jeff as a tool to get what he wants.”
Bryant was about to ask what the guy wanted, but he already knew that. Or thought he did. He considered all the ways Turkle seemed to show up out of nowhere. The guy was incredibly resourceful. Meltzer must’ve noticed his preoccupation with their surroundings as he kept scouring the landscape for a black SUV.
“Relax,” Meltzer said. “We’ll see him soon enough.”
Bryant looked at him. “You getting clairvoyant on me?”
“More like philosophical.”
As Meltzer drove down a combination of side streets, Bryant noticed the detective spent a lot of time glancing in his rearview mirror.
“You seem a bit anxious,” Bryant said.
“I’m cautious. There’s a difference.”
“I see.” Bryant nodded. Then he remembered something. “You never told me where we were going.”
Bryant cocked his head. “Church?”
“Yes,” Meltzer said, flatly. “I’ve found someone who thinks he has answers.”
* * *
FBI agent Jack McCoy had been given the security detail of protecting the alien girl, Margo Sutter, and he needed to stay awake another twelve hours before his shift ended. Their safe house was ten miles east of Chandler in a highly secure facility. The windows were bulletproof and the alarm system remarkable. He kept staring out the front window of the small house tucked into a cul-de-sac of a rural community and it seemed to be sending the wrong signals to his guest.
“You’re making me nervous,” Margo Sutter said from the couch. She had skinny little legs and her hands played with imaginary objects in her lap.
“Sorry,” McCoy said. “It’s my nature to pace.”
“Well, I’m not feeling very safe when you keep looking outside the way you do.”
McCoy sat on a leather rocking chair and crossed his legs. The girl watched him carefully.
“Feel better?” he asked.
“Not really.” Margo looked out the same window and McCoy had to grin at that.
“He’s no danger to you,” McCoy said. “I was merely trying to get the jump on him before he did something stupid.”
“Like break in?”
McCoy shook his head. “He can’t break in.”
“How do you know?”
“Because this complex is bulletproof and locked up as tight as a safe house could be.”
“Then how do you get out?”
McCoy pointed to the front door. “See that green button on the wall? I push that and it disarms the alarm system for five seconds. It gives me time to exit without causing a ruckus.”
This seemed to calm her nerves.
McCoy withdrew a cigarette from his inside jacket pocket and tapped it on his pant leg. “So you speak with aliens, huh?”
That one brought a smile to her face.
“Sometimes,” she said demurely, as if playing with him.
McCoy adroitly twirled the cigarette around in his fingers. Years of practice paying off. “Any way you can ask them where Ron Turkle is?”
Margo frowned. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Yeah? Then tell me how it works. How do they contact you?”
“Well, it’s not like I hear their voices in my ear. I hear them in my head.”
“And how do they hear you?”
Margo shrugged. Innocence dripping from her face. “I don’t know if they ever hear me.”
“That sounds a little one-sided if you ask me.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
McCoy could tell he’d sparked a certain level of curiosity with the girl. She kept looking around the room with a sense of purpose. Finally her attention rested on the cigarette in his hand.
McCoy held it up. “You want one?”
Margo looked surprised. “No, of course not. I was just wondering when you were going to smoke it.”
McCoy held the cigarette in front of his face and stared. “With any luck . . . never.”
“So you just like holding it?”
“Exactly. As long as I can have that same sensation of holding it and placing it in my mouth and letting it hang from my lips, I’m good. That’s all I need.”
Margo glanced out the window behind him as if something caught her attention.
McCoy swung around and scrutinized the landscape. Nothing but rain.
“You see something?” McCoy asked.
When he turned back, Margo was staring at him with a peculiar expression.
“You wouldn’t be reading my mind, would you?” he asked.
Margo kept staring. “Are you afraid of something?”
“Not at all,” he said, forging a look of composure. “It’s just that I don’t lie to myself.”
“Which means you lie to other people.”
“Well,” McCoy tapped his cigarette on his leg again. “Let’s just say, I couldn’t do my job very well unless I strayed from the truth just a bit.”
“Have you lied to me?”
McCoy shrugged. “No reason to lie. You’re not a criminal. You’re under our protection.”
“And what if I don’t want your protection?”
“Trust me,” McCoy said, placing the cigarette in his mouth, “you want our protection.”
“Not really,” she said, almost to herself. “You do realize that I’m virtually impossible to kill. People have tried and failed. So keeping me locked up isn’t exactly the smartest choice.”
McCoy had heard the stories and wondered how much truth there was to her line of reasoning. “I understand.”
“Then why isn’t Dr. Bryant in here? He’s the one who needs the protection, not me.”
“He’s safe,” McCoy assured her, taking the cigarette from his mouth and twirling it around between his fingers.
“How do you know?”
“It’s my job to know,” McCoy said, pulling out his cell phone and glimpsing at the screen to see if he’d missed any messages. He was getting glib with the girl, but couldn’t help himself. After all, his assignment wasn’t exactly riveting stuff. Babysitting a teenager so a lunatic FBI agent doesn’t get to her. He casually scrolled through his phone list and found Ron Turkle’s contact info. He wondered how much Turkle would pay him for Margo Sutter. McCoy had heard stories from his fellow agents that Turkle was offering several thousand for certain information leading to her capture.
Margo’s eye rolled around the room, not focusing on any one thing.
McCoy instinctively put his hand on his gun tucked in his shoulder holster.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Your partner is not sleeping.”
McCoy sighed. “And you know that because you can read his mind?”
“Yes. Just Like I know you were thinking about Agent Turkle’s bounty money for me.”
That stopped him. He cocked his head. “Wow. You’re for real, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’m real,” she said earnestly.
McCoy twirled his cigarette with a quicker pace. “Can you tell me who’ll win the Kentucky Derby next year?”
The girl put one leg over the other and crossed her arms. “Really?”
“Hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying.”
“Money is important to you, isn’t it?”
“It’s important to everyone.”
McCoy pointed his cigarette at her from between his index and middle fingers. “You’re too young to understand. Wait until you have kids and need money for college and weddings and schoolbooks and cars and insurance. Believe me, you’ll have an entirely new perspective on money.”
Margo pulled her arms closer to her chest and frowned.
“So, what’s up with my partner?”
“I think he’s going through a terrible divorce and he needs your help.”
McCoy sat back in his chair and nodded. “Yeah, he’s got a lot on his mind right now. The divorce isn’t helping.”
Margo’s eyes remained elusive. “He’s extremely depressed.”
McCoy waved the back of his hand at her. “He’ll be fine.”
“No, he won’t. You have no idea how bad he is. He’s thinking about committing suicide.”
McCoy sat upright now and looked down the hallway leading to the closed bedroom door where his partner should have been sleeping. Margo was staring at him with her eyebrows raised.
“Are you kidding me?” she said. “You were the best man at his wedding and you’re not going to help him?”
Now he really felt like a real jerk. Especially with this conscience being exposed so openly.
“Shit,” he said, flicking his unlit cigarette onto the couch next to Margo as he got up and made his way to the bedroom. He wasn’t sure who he was mad at, but he was pissed at someone.
When McCoy opened the door, he noticed his partner lying on his side away from him. “Keith?” he said.
McCoy felt the room get colder as he moved around the bed to examine his partner’s body. The man was still wearing all his clothes, which was peculiar for a civilian, but not for an FBI agent during safe house shifts.
“Keith?” he called again.
McCoy was on his knees now, right next to his partner. He placed his hand on Keith’s cheek.
The agent flung up and snatched McCoy’s hand with lightning speed, gripping and twisting his arm until McCoy yelled, “Stop! It’s me!”
Agent Keith Barrington was thick and stocky with a weatherworn face and large, meaty hands.
Keith let go of his partner’s hand and wiped the sleep away from his pillow-creased face. “What’s the problem?” he said, placing his feet down to the floor and sitting up.
“I thought . . .” McCoy said, rubbing his bruised wrist.
“You thought what?”
“I thought you were in trouble.”
“In trouble? I’m inside an FBI safe house. Where’s the trouble?”
McCoy tried to think about his guest’s mindreading skills. “Maybe you were having a nightmare? Were you dreaming about your divorce?”
Now Keith Barrington scrutinized McCoy with an expression he would use on fugitives telling him stories. “You came in here to wake me up because I was having a bad dream?”
“Listen,” McCoy said, “this girl is the real deal. She can actually read people’s minds. And she told me you were considering . . . suicide.”
At first, Keith’s face remained intense, as if he were considering the comment with great interest. Then after a few seconds he broke out into a wide smile and patted his partner on the shoulder. “Look, buddy, I’ve had a rough time with Lindsay and the kids, but, hey, I’m not going anywhere. The thought never entered my mind.”
Either Keith Barrington was a much greater actor than McCoy ever suspected, or . . . he gazed back toward the living room where he’d left Margo Sutter. A somber notion developed inside his head.
“Crap,” McCoy said, running out the door and finding an empty living room. He stared at the green button by the front door and knew he’d been had by a teenage clairvoyant.