They headed east on the Superstition Freeway. Bryant drove the Accord while Margo stared out the window at the storm system brewing ahead of them. The road pinched down into just two lanes winding its way through the desert landscape toward the base of the Superstition Mountains. Occasionally, Bryant would glance at his phone on the console to see if he’d missed a call somehow.
“This is all my fault,” Margo said.
“This FBI agent. He’s trying to get back at me as punishment.”
Bryant said nothing. He knew to stay out of the way of Margo’s brilliant mind.
“When I was twelve,” Margo said, rubbing her hands together in anxiousness. “My mom wouldn’t let me go see a movie I wanted to see. She thought it was too racy. So the night my friends went to the movie, I told her I was going to babysit for a few hours. But I lied. I went to the movie instead.”
Bryant glanced over at her, watching the girl stare out the window, reliving the past like it was a movie playing out on the windshield.
“You feel guilty about that,” Bryant said. “That’s normal. You were just twelve. You want to hear some of the stuff I did when I was twelve?”
“No,” Margo shook her head, “you don’t understand. It was more wicked than that. When my mom asked who I was babysitting for, I told her it was someone with the FBI and he couldn’t give us his phone number because it was too dangerous. And I was the only one allowed to know where he lived. So she couldn’t check up on me.”
“What did your mother say?”
Margo’s eyes began to glisten. “Nothing. She just accepted it. She never even asked me anything more about it.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
“Did you enjoy the movie?”
Margo twisted to face him. “Of course not.”
Bryant let time pass before he said, “Just out of curiosity, do you think there’s any chance your mom believed that story of yours without questioning it any further?”
Margo returned her gaze out the windshield. With a faraway look, she said, “No.”
“That’s right,” Bryant confirmed. “She knew you were telling her a story.”
“You mean lying?”
“At twelve, I’d call it telling a story. She probably knew you’d feel guilty about it and figured that would be enough punishment on its own. I mean look all these years later and you still feel remorse about it.”
“So you don’t think this FBI agent is penance for my sin?”
Bryant shook his head slowly. “Penance? I don’t think so. You’ve overpaid as it is.”
They drove on for a while without either of them speaking. Just the windshield wipers and the rain pelting the hood of the car. Both of them kept rapt attention to Bryant’s cell phone.
After a few minutes, Margo said, “I miss my mom.”
“Yeah,” Bryant agreed. “I know what you mean.”
He could feel her staring at him, but she never spoke. They began climbing a hill, reaching the base of the Superstitions, and Bryant wondered where they could possibly be headed.
“When this is over,” Margo asked, “will you still be my doctor?”
It was a good question. A fair question.
“Margo, I think I’m a little more than your doctor, don’t you?”
He glanced over at her and saw her smile. It seemed to be the answer she was hoping for. And maybe for the first time in months, it was the answer he was looking for as well. She had saved him. Because of her, he’d become attached to the world once again, and he would never allow anything to change that.
As they headed down the foreboding road with the thick clouds and lightning storm ahead of them, Bryant realized that he now had something to lose. It was an unsettling thought.
“Will this work?” Margo asked.
“Yes,” Bryant said. “I have no doubts about that.” He faked a smile and hoped it stuck.
The road was full of potholes and the low points were accumulating pools of water.
Next to him, he could sense Margo tensing up.
“What’s the matter?” Bryant asked.
“The voices,” she said, with a distant expression, like she was intercepting a wireless transmission.
“What’re they saying?”
Bryant kept swiveling his head from the road to Margo and back.
“One of them wants me to turn around,” she said, staring straight ahead. “The other one keeps telling me to go ahead. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Okay,” Bryant said, putting together his thoughts. “This makes sense. You’re having conflicted feelings about our plan. You’re not sure it will work, so your subconscious wants you to go back. It’s there to protect you.”
This seemed to work. Margo nodded, almost to herself, and said, “I used to think they were aliens, but they’re not aliens, right, Doctor Bryant?”
“No,” Bryant assured her. “They’re not aliens. Auditory hallucinations? Probably. Aliens? Definitely not.”
“You think you can help me get rid of them?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Without having to take medicine?”
“Yes,” he said. “Psychotherapy is a proven biological treatment. It produces lasting physical changes to the brain much like learning does. I’ll get to the bottom of this. I always do.”
Margo’s shoulders relaxed as she leaned back in her seat. After a long moment, she said, “You could probably help lots of kids, couldn’t you?”
He shot her a look. “You selling something?”
Margo grinned. “Just wondering if you’d keep your practice open to other kids like me.”
He grinned. “You sound just like—”
Bryant smiled at the sound of his daughter’s name coming from Margo’s mouth. There was something pure about her tone. Something almost comforting.
“Yeah,” he said. “She was the champion of the neglected. The uncool ones. She would—”
Bryant’s cell phone blinked and the default ringtone sprung to life. They both stared at it like it was a stick of dynamite.
“I think you should answer it,” Margo said.
Bryant touched the screen, then put the phone to his ear. “Yes.”
“In fifty yards you’ll see a yellow sign warning drivers of an upcoming curve in the road. Ten yards past that sign there’s an opening in the desert. It’s a dirt road. Turn right down that path and drive another three miles.”
The line went dead.
Bryant placed the phone down, then spotted the yellow sign.
“Him?” Margo squeaked.
“Where are we going?”
“I’m not sure,” he said, squinting through the haze of the rain shower. He slowed the car, then carefully turned into the dirt road. As the front wheels dropped onto the desert floor, the tires sagged into the softened dirt, making it even harder to maintain control.
“I don’t like this,” Margo said, a tremble in her voice.
Bryant grabbed her hand and gave her a quick glance. “It’s okay. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“I’m not worried about me.”
And the way she looked at him, he believed her. It made him wonder whether he’d made a mistake by taking her.
As he drove between large cacti and Texas sagebrush, the path was clearly sloping down. Up ahead a large depressed area of the desert became visible. Normally desert washes were vacant gullies of loose debris and river rocks. Now, however, because of all the rain, the wash had turned into a flowing river. It didn’t seem they would be able to cross the deep expanse of flowing water, until a pair of headlights flashed at them from across the waterway. Something artificial came into view. Something manmade.
“What is that?” Margo asked.
“I don’t know.”
As they inched closer, a wooden structure full of plywood and angular trestles lay across the river creating a makeshift bridge for them to cross. Maybe twenty feet in length.
“No,” Bryant murmured. “That can’t possibly be strong enough.”
The headlights flashed again and by now Bryant could see that it came from a white Sherriff’s SUV, urging him to cross the manmade structure.
Bryant didn’t move. He tried to see who was driving the vehicle.
The driver’s side door opened, and a thick man with a handlebar mustache rose from the front seat and leveled a shotgun to his shoulder. He aimed it straight at Bryant.
Instinctively, Bryant placed a hand on Margo’s arm. “Get down.”
Margo scrunched down in her seat, but she was too curious to go all the way.
“He’s not going to shoot,” she said.
“Yes . . . no . . . I don’t know.” She crouched even lower as she tried to understand the thoughts she was reading. “He doesn’t want to . . . but there’s too much money at stake.”
“That’s Mrs. Bryant’s IRA going to a good cause.”
“We can’t stop now,” Bryant said, gently depressing the accelerator. “We need to stop this maniac for good.”
As the car crept forward, the platform moaned from the weight of the vehicle, slowly imbedding itself into the bank of the wash.
“Take off your seatbelt,” Bryant said, unbuckling his own.
“Because if we go in, I want us to be able to escape.”
She obeyed him.
The front end of the car crawled up the temporary bridge and the only thing they could see through the windshield was the gray sky above them. Bryant used a gentle touch on the gas to ease up on the structure until they were completely on top of the bridge.
Margo had her nose against the passenger window watching the water flow under them at a frantic pace. As the car began to descend the other side, Bryant kept his foot on the brake, managing to keep control until it jerked forward from the structure and sank down onto the saturated desert floor once again.
The handlebar-mustache man pointed them down the sloppy path. Bryant wasn’t sure how much deeper he could go without getting stuck in a patch of mud.
“Look,” Margo said as they moved away from the wash. She was twisted around in her seat now and craning her neck over the headrest to see out the back window.
Bryant glanced in his rearview mirror and saw a chain tied from the bridge to the bumper of the Sheriff’s SUV which then dragged the bridge through the wash until the entire platform was on their side of the flowing water.
“Now what?” Margo asked in her small voice.
“It’s okay,” Bryant said, pulling out his phone and tapping the screen a couple of times. It opened up to a message he’d already had typed in for Detective Meltzer. One simple word: Now.
Bryant handed Margo the phone and said, “When I tell you, go ahead and hit send.”
She stared at the phone. “Can’t I just do it now?”
“No. We need to make sure he’s here.”
“Oh, he’s here,” she said with certainty.
Bryant glanced at her. “Yeah?”
“Well, we need to be certain he has Jeff.”
This didn’t seem to trigger any feelings from her, so Bryant took that as an ambiguous question lingering out there in the desert ahead of them.
The path curved around mesquite trees and low-lying bushes. Bryant crept the car forward and tried to avoid puddles. Margo had her legs tucked under her and was curled over the phone, her thumb hovering over the send button.
“You okay?” Bryant asked.
He examined the road ahead of them with both his hands clutching the steering wheel. Turkle said three miles, but they probably hadn’t gone a half mile yet.
“Doctor Bryant,” Margo uttered, staring down at the phone. “We have no signal out here.”
Bryant stopped the car. Why hadn’t he thought of that? Doubt dripped down the back of his mind. This was why Turkle had taken so long to contact them after kidnapping Jeff. He was eliminating every possible way that Bryant could be followed or call for help.
There was a loud thump as the car jolted forward.
They turned around and saw a thin man with a potbelly sticking out from under his tight T-shirt. He banged a rifle against the trunk of the car to encourage Bryant to keep the car moving.
Bryant eased off the brake and let the car roll forward. The potbelly guy walked behind them with his rifle held out as a constant reminder of what might happen should he stop.
Margo was twisted around on her knees, peering over the backrest at the guy with the gun.
As calmly as he could, Bryant said, “Please turn around.”
“Because you’re making me nervous”
“I’m making you nervous? What about him?”
“I don’t care about him. He’s just for show.”
Margo turned and sat back down on the passenger seat. “How can you be so calm?”
“I’m not,” he said truthfully, “but bullies like Turkle feed off of fear and I’m not about to offer him any.”
Margo kept staring at the phone in her hand as if it might suddenly pick up a signal.
Bryant rolled the car forward while it was getting kicked from behind.
“Can you tell if this guy is going to shoot that rifle?” Bryant asked.
Margo lifted her head, while her eyes darted from side to side. “No,” she said. “It isn’t even loaded.”
“You’re sure about that?”
She nodded, then turned to him. “Yes, I’m positive.”
Bryant slammed on the brakes. He shoved the gear into park and jumped out of the car. Potbelly stood in an attack position with his rifle on his shoulder and his cheek tight against the stock.
Bryant charged up to the guy, yanked the barrel of the rifle out of his hands and tossed it to the ground. The guy seemed smaller without his weapon and his face showed complete shock.
Bryant grabbed a handful of the guy’s T-shirt and pulled him close. “You tell your mustache friend that a SWAT team is on their way to bring all of you in. If you’re smart, the both of you will get out of here as quickly as possible, before they get here.”
Bryant shoved the guy to the ground and watched as he scrambled to his feet, total amazement on his face. The guy kept a close eye on his attacker as he stepped backward looking at Bryant as if he were Superman—unafraid of being shot by a rifle at close range—then began running down the sloppy path toward the street.
Bryant kicked the rifle into the bushes and got back into the car. “Is he coming back?”
“I doubt it,” Margo said.
Then they both looked out the windshield at what lay ahead of them. A soggy desert floor and the psychopath who waited for them.
Bryant jammed the gear into drive and stepped on the gas. “Let’s get this over with,” he said with as much confidence as he could muster.
“Maybe we should go back to where we could get a signal,” Margo said.
“No, it’s okay.” Bryant glanced at the clock on his dashboard. “We had a time restraint on the operation. They’ll be on their way in less than five minutes.”
“Five minutes?” she asked, with a questioning look.
“It’s all right, Margo. I know what I’m doing.”
As Margo went back to staring at the cell phone, he realized that his words were missing their mark.
That’s when he began to sneak peeks at the phone himself.