The pager beeped as Ross pulled off the freeway for gas. He glanced at the number and frowned. What was the matter with those guys? Couldn't they survive for two days without yanking on his electronic leash for help?
He tilted the motorcycle onto its side stand at the deserted pump and pulled the pager off his belt. He frowned at the number on the display and stalked over to the pay phone next to the ice machine.
His partner picked up on the first ring. "Organized Crime Task Force. Harper."
"This had better be good, pal." Ross leaned on the dented metal of the bracket protecting the phone from the weather.
"Oh, it is. How's the vacation?""Two days isn't a vacation. It's a weekend. I'm scheduled for five days leave, Ray. Five. You page me, you better be telling me my apartment building's burning down."
"Nope. Worse than that. They got a live one."
"Hamilton Falls. We just got a memo asking for your services. The lieutenant out there says their fink just blew the whistle. A near-miss this timewhich adds up to two and a half kids total over the last couple of months. That's "reasonable and probable grounds to believe," in my book."
Ross stood silently, watching a flock of children spill out of the fast-food place next door. Shrieking, their giggles high-pitched, they tumbled into the play area.
One small town. Two deaths and a near-miss in four months.
"Think fast. Harmon knows I'm talking to you."
So much for his hard-earned five days. "Tell him I'll call him from Hamilton Falls."
"What about your vacation?"
"I guess scenic Interstate 90 was it. Look on the bright side. The woman of my dreams could be anywhere, even in Hamilton Falls."
Ray Harper snorted. "Just make sure she doesn't have kids."
Ross sipped a cup of coffee and considered the manila file folders on the blotter. The lieutenant who usuallyoccupied this office was out at an accident scene. At the front counter, a uniformed patrolman just out of the academy took a complaint, while a telephone rang insistently at an empty desk in the bullpen. Outside the door of his borrowed office, a laser printer began to wheeze.
He had never been to Hamilton Falls before, but the familiar government-issue furniture, the beige linoleum, the numbering system on the files, and even the bad coffee combined to make him feel at home. He could have been in any law-enforcement office in the state.
Ross stretched as the caffeine hit his bloodstream. He ran his fingers through his thick brown mane. Hair. One of the perks of working on the Task Force.
He stacked the files and spread the contents of the first one on the blotter. He hated reading this stuff.
The autopsy report on the so-called SIDS baby, Andreas Wyslicki, lay on top of a transcript of a police interview with the pediatrician, MichaelArcher. Ross started with the interview, reading slowly. His approach to such a witness was to absorb details not of medical procedure, but of personality, of speech patterns, of hints to the habits and preoccupations of the speaker. And Archer was definitely preoccupied.
Archer advises the baby arrived by ambulance approx. 18:40 March 12th. Parents reported that the baby alarm had gone off because he had stoppedbreathing. They had done CPR to no effect. Paramedics could not revive him, and he was pronounced DOA at the hospital.
Ross took another sip of tepid coffee.
Archer cannot account for victim's death. Has been victim's pediatrician since he was born two months ago. Archer requests he be allowed to view autopsy report when completed.
The station clerk's voice penetrated his concentration. "He's in Lieutenant Bellville's office, Harry."
A uniform leaned in the door. "Investigator Malcolm?" Ross put his hands on both arms of the chair and levered himself to his feet. "Yes. You're Harry Everett?"
"The same. Glad you could join us."
"I'm not. I was two days into a five-day leave." The other man looked intimidated until Ross smiled. Then Everett smiled back.
"Sorry about that. But these kids...well, we needed the help."
"Yeah. I've been reading the reports. I'd like to get some background on your informant."
"No problem." He leaned out the door. "Jenny, would you bring me the fink file on Rita Ulstad?" Ross watched as the station clerk, a pretty blonde with a Meg Ryan haircut, sashayed out to the records room and returned carrying another manila folder. That short skirt did less forher than she probably imagined. "Thanks." Everett smiled absently and opened the file she handed him.
"Anything for you," Jenny crooned to Everett as she moved away, but her glance remained on Ross, sparkling with interest. Ross had no doubt about the message. He considered it briefly and rejected it. If there was a woman in his future, he hadn't met her yet. That was one thing he was happy to leave up to the Lord.
"So." Ross tilted back in the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. "What do you have in mind for strategy?"
Harry Everett handed him the file to give himself a moment. "I've heard about you," he said finally. "That you got broken in at Waco."
Ross frowned and moved restlessly. "You heard wrong," he said shortly. "That was long before my time."
"But you're a cult specialist, right? The only one the Task Force has. You did that bunch of Aryan wanna-bes in the hostage situation in Spokane, right?"
Ross fought against the memories that welled up out of the dark place inside him, a place he tried to keep scabbed over and undisturbed. His last sight of Annie and Kailey floated in his mind's eye for a moment, the way it did every time he busted into a run-down apartment or staked out a house, searching for evidence of the organized crime these little cults were so good at hiding. The kids were the worst. Big frightened eyes. Utter distrust. Just like Kailey, screaming at the sight of him.
Ross came back to the present with a jolt and struggled to remember what Harry Everett had been talking about. Oh,yeah. Spokane. "I was involved." He got the conversation back on track with an effort. "Tell me what you need."
Everett backed off and got to the point. "I think we need an undercover. I think you need to buddy up to one of the members and find out as much as you can. I'd suggest our informant, but she's lost their trust and doesn't interact with them anymore. There's got to be a reason for these deaths, but no one knows enough about the Elect to find out what it is. They could be into blood sacrifice, for all we know, and faking the accidents afterwards."
"What does your informant say?"
"She says they're not like that. But there's two and a half dead kids. That's evidence of something weird, in my opinion."
"Two of them were natural, weren't they?"
"You have to ask yourself. Look at the last one. A pillow and some steady pressure wouldn't be very natural."
"But to what purpose? If you're going to make a blood sacrifice, why do it that way, with no ceremonial?"
Harry shrugged. "Who knows how they think?" "Okay. So where do I find these people?" "Easy. Pick the most upstanding citizens in Hamilton Falls and you'll find one. The principal of the high school. A fireman. A bookshop owner." He nudged the informant's file and it slid off the stack. "We'll arrange a conference for you and our fink can give you the details."
Ross pulled his notebook out from under the folders and began jotting down notes. "All these upstanding citizens belong to a cult? Usually cult members isolate themselves, don't mix.""They don't. You can't get them to socialize at all. They won't even let their kids play sports."
"Then why are they so successful in Hamilton Falls? Do they have something on the mayor or what?"
"That wouldn't be hard," Harry scoffed. "I didn't vote for the guy. But these people are honest, even if they're trusting to the point that it's easy to rip them off. They don't believe in lawsuits or stereos or anything."
"And this makes them a cult?"
"You tell me. You're the expert."
"I will, when I know more. So who else belongs?"
"You'll love this. The doctor on all these cases." Ross's eyebrows lifted with interest. "Yeah? The pediatrician?"
"Couldn't find a thing on him. But maybe you can from the inside."
Sounded like the logical place to start. "Tell me about the most recent family." Ross turned a page of his notebook.
"The Blanchard kid is the son of the high-school principal. You should see the wife. What a doll. The sister's not bad, either, if you like the wholesome type."
Ross set his teeth and ignored the bait. "How did they come to your attention?"
Everett jerked his chin at the folder. "Ulstad. She's a nurse at the hospital, and to hear her tell it, these people are knocking off their kids one by one. She used to belong and got kicked out. You've got to take her with a grain of salt because she's got a massive hate on for these people, but her information is worth looking into. Especially with the Blanchard kid. He was the near-miss.""How soon can I talk to her?"
"I'll try to get it set up for this afternoon. After that, you're on your own as far as finding a way in. Although I have a few suggestions."
He gave Everett a long look. "Like what?" "The sister I just mentioned." "What about her?" "She's single." --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.