My sister was abducted from here nearly thirty years ago. The person who took her was never found. And neither was she. Her abductor nearly killed me. So I’m back here now trying to find the truth.’ Atlee Pine has spent most of her life trying to find out what happened that fateful night in Andersonville, Georgia. Her six-year-old twin sister, Mercy, was taken and Atlee was left for dead while their parents were apparently partying downstairs. One person who continues to haunt her is notorious serial killer Daniel James Tor, locked away in a Colorado maximum security prison. Does he really know what happened to Mercy? The family moved away. The parents divorced. And Atlee chose a career with the FBI dedicating her life to catching those who hurt others. When she oversteps the mark on the arrest of a dangerous criminal, she’s given a leave of absence offering the perfect opportunity to return to where it all began, and find some answers. But the trip to Andersonville turns into a roller-coaster ride of murder, long-buried secrets and lies. And a revelation so personal that everything she once believed is fast turning to dust.
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To the memory of Bob Schule:
No one could ask for a better friend.
You will always be missed,
You will never be forgotten.
ONCE MORE SHE RODE into the Valley of Death.
Only this “valley” was in Colorado, at ADX Florence, America’s only federal supermax prison. The “death” reference was spot-on, though; the place reeked of it by virtue of the crimes committed by the inmates housed there.
FBI Special Agent Atlee Pine had driven pedal-to-the-metal to get here in her modern-day version of a horse: a turquoise 1967 Mustang with a parchment convertible top. She had spent two years restoring it with the original owner, a veteran FBI agent who had been an informal mentor to her shortly after she’d finished her training at Quantico. When he died, he left it to her. Pine couldn’t imagine being without it.
Now, after her swift journey, she sat in the prison parking lot gathering both her nerve and her courage to see one particular monster who resided here among many other human abominations. They were, to a man, the stuff of nightmares. Collectively, they had slaughtered thousands of people, without a smidgen of remorse.
Pine was dressed all in black except for her white blouse. Her shiny FBI shield was clipped to her jacket lapel. It took ten minutes to clear security, where she had to forfeit both her weapons: the Glock 23, her main gun, and an eight-shot Beretta Nano, the backup she kept in an ankle holster. She felt a little naked without the twin pistols, but prisons had rules. And, for obvious reasons, “no guns carried by visitors” was one of the biggies.
She sat on the hard stool in a cubicle in the visitors’ room, her long legs curled around the stool’s metal supports. Across from her was a thick glass barrier. On the other side of the glass, the man she had come to see would soon appear. A few minutes later, six burly guards escorted a heavily shackled Daniel James Tor into the room and chained him to a bolt in the floor before departing, leaving the law and the lawless sitting across from each other separated by polycarbonate glass that could withstand most bullet strikes.
Tor was an impressive physical specimen, standing six-four and tipping the scales at 280 sculpted pounds. His physique, even now in his fifties, looked NFL ready. She knew that his body was covered in tats, many of them inked on his skin by some of his victims. Tor apparently had such confidence in his control over his prey that he would allow them a sharp instrument with which they could have ended their nightmares. Not a single one had ever attempted it.
He was a freak of nature both physically and emotionally. He was a narcissistic sociopath, or so all the consulted experts had proclaimed. That was arguably the deadliest combination nature could bestow on a human being. It wasn’t that he killed with malice; it was actually worse. He could feel no empathy whatsoever toward others. His thirst was solely for self-pleasure. And the only way he could quench that desire was in the absolute destruction of others. He had done this at least thirty times; these were only his known victims. Pine and others in law enforcement suspected the real number might be double or even triple that.
His head was shaved, his chin and jaw the same. His cold, antiseptic eyes flitted over Pine like those of a curious serpent before striking its prey. They were the pupils of a predatory wild animal; the only thought behind them was to kill. Pine also knew that Tor, the consummate con man, could play any role demanded of him in order to lure his victims to their doom, including appearing to be a normal person. And that in itself was terrifying enough.
“You again?” he said, his tone intentionally patronizing.
“Third time’s the charm,” she replied evenly.
“You’re starting to bore me. So make it count.”
“I showed you Mercy’s picture during the last visit.”
“And I said I needed more information.” Despite his words about being bored, Pine knew he needed someone to try to dominate. He required attention to justify his very existence. She intended to use that to her advantage.
“I’ve given you all I have.”
“All that you think you have. I mentioned that last time. I called it homework. Have you done it? Or are you going to disappoint me?”
Pine was treading a delicate line here. She knew it—and, more important, so did Tor. She wanted to keep him engaged without allowing him to completely overwhelm her. That was what bored the man. “Maybe you have some ideas that might help me.”
He looked at her moodily. “You said your twin sister was six when she was taken.”
“From her bedroom in the middle of the night near Andersonville, Georgia. With you in the room?”
“And you think I struck you but didn’t kill you?”
“You actually cracked my skull.”
“And I performed a nursery rhyme to decide which one of you to take?”
“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
“So whomever the rhyme started on, it would end on the other because of the even number of words.”
She leaned forward. “So why did you pick me to start the rhyme with? Because then you knew Mercy would be the loser.”
“You’re going too fast, Agent Pine. You must slow down if we’re to get anywhere.”
Pine instinctively decided to punch back. “I don’t feel like wasting any more time.”
He smiled and rattled his shackles as he responded, “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
“Why did you choose to let me live and not Mercy? Was it just random? A coincidence?”
“Don’t let your survivor’s guilt run away with you. And I don’t have time for whiners.” He abruptly smiled and added, “Even with over thirty life sentences to my name.” He acted proud of his legal punishment, and she knew he was.
“Okay, but it’s important for me to know,” she said calmly.
“I cracked your skull, so you said. You could have easily died.”
“Could have but didn’t. And you always liked to make sure with your victims.”
“And you do realize that you’re now refuting your own argument that I was the attacker that night?”
“I don’t see it that way.”
“Let me press the point then. Do you know of any other time when I took a six-year-old from her bedroom and left a witness alive?”
She sat back. “No.”
“So why think I did so in your case? Because your hypnotherapist elicited that memory from you? You told me about that the last visit. Curious thing, hypnotherapy. It’s wrong as often as it’s right, maybe more so. But you would have studied me at the FBI. All of you did because I was required reading,” he added casually, though she could detect a glint of pride in his words. “You said you knew I was operating in Georgia around that time. So you know what I think? The hypnosis didn’t produce an actual memory, it merely gave you the basis to form a conclusion at which you had already arrived based on extraneous information.” He shook his head. “That would never stand up in court. You put me there because you wanted to put me there, and you didn’t have the real person to fill in the blanks in your memories. You wanted closure so badly, you’re willing to accept an untruth.”
She said nothing because the man could be right about that. As she sat mulling this over, he said, “Agent Pine, have I lost you?” He rattled his chains. “Hello, FBI, my interest meter is plummeting by the second.”
“You changed your MO over the years. Not all your attacks were alike. They evolved.”
“Of course they evolved. Like any occupation, the longer you do it, the better you get at it. I am no exception. I am, in fact, the rule for my...particular specialty.”
She kept the bile in her stomach from leaching into her throat at this comment. She knew he was waiting to see the revulsion on her face at his comparing murderous activity to an occupation. But she would not give him the satisfaction.
“Granted. But now you’re reinforcing my conclusion. Just because you hadn’t done it before doesn’t mean you would never do it. You got better, as you said. Your MO evolved.”
“Had you known me to do it since that time?”
Pine was ready for that one. “We don’t know all of your victims, do we? So I can’t answer that with any certainty.”
He sat back and gave her a grudging smile at this slickly played rejoinder. “You want an answer now, don’t you? Did I or didn’t I, simple as that?”
“Again, it would cost you nothing. They won’t execute you for it.”
“I could lie and say you’re right. Would that be enough for you?”
“I’m an FBI agent.”
“Meaning I need—”
“You need the body—or skeleton, rather—after all this time, is that right?”
“I need corroboration,” she said simply.
He shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know where all the bodies are buried.”
“Then they were wrong about your photographic memory?”
“Not at all. But I’ve intentionally forgotten some of them.”
He leaned forward. “Because they weren’t all memorable, Agent Pine. And I don’t want to provide closure to every whimpering family member who comes begging to me. That’s not exactly my thing, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“Do you remember where you buried Mercy?”
“You’ll have to come back and have another chat with me. I’m tired now.”
“But we just started talking,” she replied, a note of urgency in her voice.
“Call me Dan.”
She looked at him blankly. She had not been expecting that request. “What?”
“It’s our third date. It’s time to use real names, Atlee.”
“And if I don’t want to?”
He clapped his hands silently together. “Then poor, sweet, and probably dead Mercy Pine remains an enigma forever. Poof.”
“When do you want to meet again?”
“A month from today...Atlee. I’m a busy man. So say it, or we’re done. Forever.”
Pine walked out, got her guns—and had to force herself to not charge back into the prison and blow Dan’s fucking head off.
She climbed into her car and headed back to Shattered Rock, Arizona, where she was the sole FBI agent for huge swaths of thinly populated land. An hour into her drive she got an Amber Alert on her phone. A little girl had been abducted. The suspect was driving a gray Nissan pickup very near Pine’s current location.
Under the lustrous glow of a hunter’s moon, the god of law and order smiled on her that night, because five minutes later the truck flew past Pine going in the opposite direction.
She did a one-eighty, the Mustang’s custom rubber smoking and squealing in protest before regaining purchase on the asphalt. Pine hit the blue grille lights she’d installed, laid the fancy chrome gas pedal to the floorboard, and roared off to save a little girl’s life.
Pine swore to herself that this time she would not fail.
THERE WAS A SINGULARLY CRITICAL RULE with Amber Alerts for law enforcement: You got to the victim and the abductor as quickly as possible and walled off any means of escape. After that, you could work the situation any number of ways. Brute force, or talking the suspect out of any violence to the hostage, if that was a possibility.
When the man turned off the main road after seeing the flashing blue lights coming up fast on his butt, Pine knew she would have to read the situation and make that choice soon. At least she knew the terrain. Pine had taken a detour down this very road to let her head clear after her second session with Tor. Thus she knew this was a box canyon, with the road she was on the only way out.
She called in her location to the local police along with her identity and pursuit status. She knew they would deploy a response immediately. But they were in isolated territory here. The cops would not be showing up in a couple of minutes. For now, it was just Pine, her twin guns, wits, training, and experience—adding up to the best hope the child had to survive.
Dusk was fading to darkness as they wound higher and higher on the switchback road. The lane was growing narrower and the drop-off higher with each passing turn of the wheels.
She tried to see the man and the girl in the truck cab but couldn’t make out more than vague silhouettes. But the plate number in the Amber Alert was correct, and the guy was clearly trying to get away. Whether he realized the road was going to run out on him at some point, Pine didn’t know. But she did know this was going to get complicated. Yet Pine had been rigorously trained in complicated.
A half mile later the point of no return was reached. Pine positioned her Mustang sideways in the middle of the narrow road, blocking the way back out, with the passenger side facing the truck. If he tried to ram her, she would shoot him through the windshield. She took out her trusty Glock and drew a bead through the open passenger window.
The Nissan made a loop and pointed its hood back the way it had come. The man stopped and put the truck in park, the engine idling. Pine could almost see the wheels turning in the guy’s head: Do I try it or not?
When he turned on his high beams, probably to blind her, she shot them out. Now, Pine figured, she had his full and undivided attention. After she once again reported in their current location to the local cops, Pine sat there with one hand wrapped around her gun grip and the other on the door lever.
For a while, they just sat there. Then, ten minutes later, the driver’s-side door of the Nissan opened. The guy had apparently made up his mind.
And the chess match began.
Pine mirrored this move with her door.
Four feet hit the dirt from the Nissan.
Pine swung her long legs out and stood, her boots smacking the asphalt.
As the man and little girl stepped out from behind the cover of the truck door, Pine leveled her pistol at his broad chest.
“FBI. This is the end of the line. Step away from the girl. Lie facedown on the ground, legs spread, fingers interlocked behind your head. Do it now or I will open fire.”
The man didn’t obey a single one of her commands. Instead he squatted down and placed the girl squarely in front of him.
Okay, she thought, this sack of shit was going to play it the hard way and use a kid as a shield. Why am I surprised?
Under the illumination thrown from the truck’s interior light, Pine had observed that he looked to be in his early fifties. He was medium height, thick and muscled, with a bald head and a thin line of graying, unkempt hair creeping ivy-like around this dome. His features were weathered, ugly, and demented. He was a walking stereotype of an aging pedophile. He wore a dirty T-shirt that showed off his bulging barbell biceps and dusty corduroy pants with worn boots. The girl was about ten or eleven, tall for her age, with a lean, athletic build. Her twin blond braids dangled on either side of her head. She wore soccer shorts with grass stains on them and a matching jersey. Her knees were dirty, as were the long socks and her Adidas soccer shoes. She looked scared, of course, but there was also a resolute spirit that Pine could see in the girl’s eyes.
Pine didn’t know if this was a stranger-danger scenario or a family snatch case. He looked too old to be her father, but who knew these days?
“Cops are on the way. Do what I said, and you walk away still breathing.”
The man stared at her without answering.
“Habla ingles?” she asked.
“I’m American, bitch,” he barked. “Do I look like a Mexie to you?”
“Then you have no reason not to follow my instructions.”
He pulled a Sig pistol from his waistband and pressed the muzzle against the girl’s head.
“This is my way out. Throw down your piece or the princess’s brains get scrambled.”
“You drop your gun, you get a lawyer, and you do your prison time.”
“I’ve been down that road. I didn’t much like it.”
“What’s your name?”
“Don’t try that good-cop crap with me.”
“I’m sure we can work this out.”
“Shit, you think we’re doing a deal here?” the man said incredulously.
“Let her go and we can try to solve what’s bothering you.”
“You believe I’m falling for that mumbo-jumbo?”
They could now hear sirens in the background.
“It’s not mumbo-jumbo if it’s true.”
“I’m not dealing.”
“Then how do you see this playing out?”
“With you moving your car and letting me outta here. I got stuff I want to do with this little beauty. And I’m itching to get started.” He put his other arm around the girl’s windpipe.
Pine’s finger moved closer to the trigger of the Glock. Should she chance taking a shot? “And what about the cops coming?”
“You talk to them.”
“I’ve got no jurisdiction over them.”
“Look, you dumb bitch, I’ve got the girl. That means I’ve got the leverage. You do what I say, not the other way around.”
“You’re not leaving here with her.”
“Then you got one big problem, bitch.”
Pine decided to change tactics. She glanced at the girl. “Do you know this guy?”
The girl slowly shook her head.
“What’s your name?”
“Shut up,” the man cried out, pushing the gun against the girl’s head. “And you shut up too!” he barked at Pine.
“I want all three of us to walk away from this thing.”
“You mean two of you. You could give a shit about me.”
“I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if you force my hand.”
“You shoot me, she’s dead.”
Pine looked at the girl once more, quickly sizing her up. She reminded Pine of herself at that age. Tall, rangy. But she was once more struck by the girl’s calm eyes. She ran her gaze over the uniform, the grass-stained shorts and dirty knees. This girl was a scrapper. So maybe, just maybe, this might work. It was risky, but Pine had no options that weren’t.
“You play soccer?” Pine asked.
The girl slowly nodded.
The man pulled her back toward the edge. Ten feet more and it was a thousand-foot drop.
“Do not move another inch to that edge,” ordered Pine as she moved forward.
The man halted. And so did Pine.
The sirens were growing closer. But if Pine didn’t finish this soon, things might escalate when the uniforms did arrive.
“I’m running out of patience here,” the man barked.
“I gave you an option. The only one I can give. Prison’s not great, but it’s a lot better than a grave. You don’t get released or paroled from six feet under.”
The man started toward the edge again, dragging the girl with him.
“Stop!” bellowed Pine, trying to line up her target through the tritium night sight installed on her Glock. Her rear sight ring held twin glowing tritium inserts, while her front post held a tritium insert surrounded by nonluminous white paint. It was very accurate, but she couldn’t fire. She might hit the girl. Or the guy’s trigger finger might jerk when Pine’s round struck him.
The man smiled triumphantly as he read Pine’s dilemma in her features. “You won’t shoot. Now that’s leverage, lady.”
Pine glanced at the girl. Okay, it’s do-or-die time. “I played soccer. Only goal I ever scored was on a back kick. Hit it right between the goalie’s legs. Bet you’re a much better player than I was.” Pine held the girl’s gaze, communicating with her eyes what she couldn’t do with her words.
The man barked: “Shut the hell up about soccer. Now, for the last time, put down—”
The girl’s foot kicked backward and up and struck the squatting man right in the crotch. He let her go and doubled over, his face scrunched in pain, and the Sig fell out of his hand. “Y-you l-little b-bit—” he moaned, his face turning beet red. He dropped to his knees, gasping for air.
Pine raced forward, kicked the man’s weapon behind her, grabbed the girl’s arm, and pulled her to safety.
That should have been the end of it. Pine had her gun, and he didn’t have his. Or his hostage. She was home free. It was over.
But it wasn’t over. Because when the man finally stood and straightened, he looked at Pine and spat out, “You think you got me? I got nine lives!” He glanced ferociously at the girl, who was staring back at him with revulsion. “I can’t remember how many like her I’ve done and then cut up and left for the animals. And I’ll be out again to do more. You hear me, FBI bitch?”
Pine stared at him for a long moment. In the man’s taunting face, she saw someone else.
Pine knew full well she shouldn’t take the bait. But she was going to do it anyway.
She looked to the sky, where the moon burned a dull yellow and red.
The hunter’s moon, she knew, also known as the blood moon.
More accurately the predator’s moon, and right now I’m the predator.
She holstered her gun and stepped forward.
In her mind’s eye the giant Daniel James Tor stared back at her. Pine’s nemesis, the stuff of nightmares. She was about to make it all go away.
The man grinned in triumph. “You just made a damn big mistake.”
“How’s that?” But she already knew what his answer would be.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, lady, I’m a man.” He charged her in a bull rush.
A moment later he staggered backward, dazed, his face bloodied by the devastating blow delivered by the size eleven boot at the end of her long right leg. He bent over, groaning.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” said Pine. “I’m now going to kick the shit out of you.”
She slammed her foot into his chin, lifting him straight up. A palm-out blow delivered directly to the bridge of the nose made the man howl in pain, and he collapsed on his back like he’d been struck with a sledgehammer.
The battle really should have ended there, but Pine jumped astride him and clamped the muscular legs of her nearly six-foot frame around the man’s arms, easily pinning them to his sides. Then she proceeded to rain blow after blow down on him, fist, elbow, forearm, open palm, using every technique she had learned from years of MMA and close-quarter battle training.
It was as though nearly thirty years of pent-up anger had just been unleashed. She felt cartilage and bone in his face give way at the same time she heard the FBI angel on her shoulder screaming at her that this was against every rule the Bureau had. And still Pine could not stop what she was doing.
At first the man had struggled against her, but then he had fallen limply into unconsciousness, his face quickly dissolving into a bloody, pulpy mass. She could smell the stink of him rise to her nostrils, mixed with her own sweat. It was both sickening and exhilarating.
Finally, exhausted from the effort, Pine slowly rose off him, her features pale and her limbs shaky. Her mind was suddenly aghast at what she had just done, as the FBI shoulder angel reasserted itself. Pine let out a gush of breath, looked down at her bloody hands and jacket sleeves, and wiped them on her pants. She walked over to the girl, who drew back at her approach. Pine stopped, feeling ashamed at the girl being afraid of her.
“Are you okay? Did he hurt you? Did...did he do anything to you?”
She shook her head.
As the sirens grew closer, the little girl looked over at the man.
“Is he...is he dead?”
“No. Just...unconscious.” Pine wasn’t actually sure of that. She squatted down on her haunches. “What’s your name?”
“Holly, it was so brave what you did. And you understood exactly what I wanted you to do. It was amazing.”
“I have three older brothers.” Holly smiled weakly. “When they pick on me, I can kick really hard.”
Pine put out a hand and squeezed the girl’s shoulder. “I’m so glad that you’re okay.”
“Are you really an FBI agent?”
“I didn’t know girls could do that. I thought that was like, you know, just on TV.”
“Girls can do anything we want. Never doubt that.”
Pine stood as the cop cars screeched to a stop a few feet away. She looked over at the bloody man lying motionless on the ground.
Pine took out her creds and headed over to explain what had happened, including the reason why she had nearly beaten a man to death.
This just might be the end of the actually not-so-very-Special Agent Atlee Pine.
PINE ACCESSED THE SECURE DOOR of her office in Shattered Rock, Arizona, the closest town to the Grand Canyon. This topographical jewel was the only natural wonder of the world located in America, and Pine had jurisdiction over any federal crimes committed there. Her assistant, Carol Blum, was sitting at her desk in the office’s small foyer. Blum was in her sixties and had been at the Bureau for several decades working in various offices and capacities. The mother of six grown children, none of whom lived close by, she came in early and went home late. As she had told Pine, the FBI was now her life, as she didn’t really have hobbies for amusement. She was tall and attractive, her hair immaculately styled, her makeup and jewelry understated, and her clothing choices always professional.
“How was your workout?” asked Blum.
Pine normally exercised at the crack of dawn at a gym in the small downtown area of Shattered Rock. The workout facility was beloved by hardcore movers of iron for its minimalist style of fitness. There was no AC, no fancy machines, no Pelotons and Spandex workout clothes within miles of the place. Only barbells and enormous steel plates and grunting people heaving them into the air with a ferocious intensity.
And lots and lots of sweat.
“I didn’t make it this morning. Got back later than I thought from Colorado the other night and decided to sleep in yesterday to catch up. Then I slept badly last night and got up too late this morning to go. Stuff on my mind.”
Blum looked at her in concern. “What stuff?”
“Come into my office and I’ll fill you in on the ‘wonderful’ details. Oh, and you might be getting a new boss.”
Blum’s expression didn’t change. Pine loved that the woman was unflappable. In all her years at the Bureau, she had no doubt seen everything.
“Do you want some coffee?”
“Carol, you don’t have to make me coffee. That’s actually fulfilling a really bad stereotype.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me offering to make you a cup of coffee. Now, if you had demanded a cup, I would have felt differently. I remember a lot of male agents who ran afoul of that rule over the years.”
“What did you do when that happened?”
“I just trained them better,” said Blum brightly.
She walked over to the Keurig machine on the credenza set against the wall and turned it on, pulling a pod out of a drawer at the same time.
When she walked into Pine’s office with the steaming cup of coffee, Pine was seated behind her desk. Blum set the cup down and settled in the chair across from her boss.
The office had been recently renovated, although Pine had told the contractor to leave alone the twin indentations in the wall. The first hole had occurred when a witness Pine had been interviewing decided to take a swing at her. He had missed his target, and his fist had hit the wall instead. The second crack had been caused by Pine’s throwing the man headfirst into the drywall. It had been Blum’s idea to not repair the wall. As she had said, a picture was worth a thousand words.
“So?” said Blum expectantly. “What happened?”
Pine took a drink of her coffee before answering.
“While I was still in Colorado, I got an Amber Alert. I fortunately ran into the guy. And stopped him from getting away with an adorable little girl named Holly.”
“But that’s wonderful, Agent Pine. You’re to be commended.” She paused. “Then I don’t see the problem.”
“Yeah, well, the thing is, I got a little carried away in subduing him.”
“Carried away? How so?”
“He’s in the hospital now with a fractured skull among other injuries.”
“I’m sure you did what you had to do.”
“The fact is, I didn’t have to beat him up.”
“Why did you do it then?”
“He came at me, tried to attack me, and...I took out my frustrations.”
“I had just spent time with Tor.”
“So...so maybe it was Tor you were attacking?”
“I could have stopped. I should have stopped.”
“But as you said, he attacked you.”
Pine shook her head. “After the girl was safe, I decided to escalate things.”
“But it would be difficult to judge your actions in the field at that moment.”
“The Bureau ‘judges’ actions in the field all the time, Carol.”
“That’s true,” she admitted.
There was a knock at the outer secure portal. The two women glanced at each other.
“Wolves at the door already?” said Pine.
Blum escorted the man into Pine’s office a few moments later. It was Clint Dobbs, the head of the FBI in Arizona. He was in his fifties, around six feet tall, with broad shoulders, a developing paunch, and graying hair. He was so far above Pine in the pecking order that she saw the man only when there was a catastrophe. She assumed that this situation qualified as such. She was surprised, though, that he was here alone. Dobbs usually traveled with an entourage of agents. She wondered why not this time.
Dobbs sat in the chair across from Pine, who had risen at the sight of her superior. When Blum made to leave, Dobbs put up a hand. “You can stay, Carol. You need to hear this, too.”
Blum shot a glance at Pine and then remained standing by the desk.
Dobbs looked back at Pine, his expression unreadable. “Sit down, Pine.”
“I suppose this is about what happened the other night,” said Pine as she sat back down.
“Not unless you kicked the shit out of somebody else I don’t know about,” he said gruffly.
“No sir,” said Pine quietly. “It was just the one.”
Dobbs nodded. “The guy you caught was a registered sex offender, Clifford Rogers. Just got out of prison six months ago. Paroled early after kidnapping and raping a nine-year-old. Only served nineteen years. The prison system was bursting at the seams, apparently, and the dipshit lawyer the scumball got hold of seized on some technicality and ran with it. Rogers was also suspected of murdering an eight-year-old two weeks after he got out. But they couldn’t find her body. Had to let him go. In fact, that was the case with four other victims going back about thirty years. Guy was a certified monster, but the law couldn’t prove it, except for the rape charge. He snatched the little girl you saved from a soccer match. She’d be dead if you hadn’t intervened. Instead, she’s back home with her family.”
“Has Rogers regained consciousness?”
“And he said you beat him nearly to death for no reason.”
“And what’s your story?”
“I did my job. A bit overzealously, maybe.”
“Did he say differently?”
“I’m not really sure I care what the guy says,” replied Dobbs, which surprised Pine, because the man usually went unfailingly by the book.
“Did he file a complaint against me?”
“He certainly wants to.”
Blum said, “Well, minds can be changed.”
Dobbs eyed her pointedly. “And what does that mean precisely, Carol?”
“Six years ago, Special Agent Voorhies out of Tucson.”
“You have a long memory,” noted Dobbs.
“The point is, an understanding was reached. And Agent Voorhies did what he needed to do. He’s been a productive agent ever since.”
Pine said, “What did he do?”
“Let’s just say he crossed the line,” said Dobbs. He sat back and his features grew pensive. “How about this: How about I go and have a chat with Mr. Rogers and convince him that filing a formal complaint against you would not be in his best interests?”
“I don’t want you taking any heat for what I did, sir,” said Pine.
“Which is why I’m offering to do just that. You’re a good agent. I don’t want this to derail your career.”
Blum asked, “Do you think he’ll agree to that?”
“Last time he was in prison he got solitary confinement because he begged for it. He goes into gen pop with the rep of a child rapist and killer, he’ll last about five minutes. And he knows we can make that happen.”
Blum looked at Pine and said, “Okay. That sounds like a plan.”
“But surely there will be an internal investigation,” noted Pine.
“You didn’t discharge your weapon. The guy didn’t die. Rogers isn’t going to make a complaint. From what I hear from the locals in Colorado, the mayor wants to give you a key to the city.”
“Okay,” said Pine doubtfully.
Dobbs straightened up. “But I’m not going to beat around the bush, Pine. What you did was way out of bounds. In my book, you get one free card, and you just burned it.”
“Does this mean I’ll face no disciplinary action?”
“It does. This time.”
Pine glanced down. “I appreciate that, sir. I...I expected far worse.”
He stroked his chin. “You haven’t taken a vacation in God knows how long, right?”
“A vacation, sir? Well, actually, I was given time off just—”
“That wasn’t a real vacation. You know it and I know it. People don’t almost die several times during a vacation.”
“Okay, it has been a while, yes.”
“Me, I go fly-fishing every year. Never catch a damn thing and I love every minute of it.”
“And for how long is my vacation to be?”
Dobbs rose, buttoned his suit jacket, and headed to the door. “For as long as you need, Pine.” He looked back at her. “How did your visit to ADX Florence go, by the way?”
“It wasn’t very productive.”
“Well, maybe you can use your vacation to make it more productive.” He stopped and looked down at the floor. “This Rogers creep remind you of anyone?”
“Yes, but in only one way.”
“Daniel Tor is a few levels above, I would imagine.”
“NBA versus a high school team.”
“Well, he’s locked up for life. You’re not. But in a way, I believe you really are, too. What do you think?”
“I...have some issues to work through, clearly.”
Blum spoke up. “And I think I should be there to assist her in this.”
They both looked at her. Dobbs said slowly, “That’s up to Pine.”
Pine said, “Carol, you don’t have to—”
Blum interjected, “Yes, I do.”
Dobbs said, “Well, I’ll leave you to figure it out.” He nodded to the women and left.
Blum looked at Pine and Pine stared back at her assistant.
“It was a long time ago, Carol. A very long time ago.”
“And I’ve seen you go into every case and come out with a solution. And maybe it’s time you took a crack at it.”
“I’ve been to see Tor three times now.”
“But there is no guarantee that he had anything to do with your sister’s disappearance.”
Pine looked down at her hands. “I...I don’t know if I’m up for this, Carol.”
“Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, I think you are. At the very least I think you have to be. Like Agent Dobbs said, you just burned your only free card. And you can’t leave the Bureau involuntarily or otherwise. You were meant to be an FBI agent.”
Pine rose from behind her desk. “But this is not your problem.”
“I’m your assistant. I’m going to help you. And that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
Pine smiled at her. “That’s very kind of you.” Her gaze grew distant. “Well, then we’ll need to pack for the trip.”
“Back in time, Carol. Back in time.”
BLUM SAID, “I know you said we were going back in time, but it looks like we stepped back into the past, literally.”
Pine was driving the rental SUV and Blum was riding shotgun. They had flown into Atlanta and then driven a little over two hours pretty much due south to Sumter County, and more particularly to Andersonville, Georgia, population around 250 people. They were now passing through the faded main street of the small town.
“Sometime back in the seventies, the mayor and some others decided to turn the clock back and make Andersonville into a tourist attraction by making it look like it did during the Civil War. We’re on Church Street, which is the main drag. The train tracks running perpendicular to it are where the prisoners were brought in on their way to Andersonville Prison. It was the last trip many of them would ever make.”
“The prison is close by?”
Pine stopped the car and pointed to the street. “See all those footprints painted on the street? That represents the prisoners walking the quarter mile to the prison. Longest walk of their lives, probably.”
Blum shuddered. “How horrible.”
“The town put together a seven-acre area called Pioneer Farm, just off here. They have a smithy, a jail, a smokehouse, and a sugar cane mill, among other attractions. You can see the sign overhead from here that says, ‘Welcome to Andersonville Civil War Village.’”
Blum read it, nodded, and added, “And an RV park and restaurant.”
“About eighty thousand people visit a year, so I guess the mayor’s plan paid off. The really big event is coming up shortly.”
“Mock Civil War battles. Reenactments, they call them. There’ll be a parade and a marching band coming down this way. Soldiers in blue and gray. More bands playing, line dancing, clogging, lots to eat and drink. Quite the shindig. People selling uniforms and guns and flags and swords and quilts and other stuff. And only four bucks to get in.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s on that sign over there.”
The pair exchanged a quick smile.
“So all those tourists come here for that?” asked Blum.
“No, they also come because of the infamous Confederate prison that used to be here.”
“To visit a prison? That’s sort of weird.”
“Well, it was the most notorious prison in the Civil War. Around thirteen thousand Union prisoners died there. There’s a National Historic Site here and a huge military cemetery. And I read there’s some sort of prisoner of war center here too. The commandant of the prison, Henry Wirz, was hanged as a war criminal.” She pointed up ahead to a tall obelisk in the center of the street. “That’s the Wirz Monument.”
“Wait a minute, a war criminal gets a monument?”
“It was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy. I guess they believed Wirz got a raw deal and was just used as a scapegoat.” She paused. “Tor knew about Wirz being hanged. He told me the first time I met him, when I said I was from the Andersonville area.”
“So he was here then?”
“He was operating in the state when my sister was taken. He committed murders in Macon, Atlanta, Columbus, and Albany. That was why it occurred to me that he might be involved in Mercy’s disappearance. But him knowing about Wirz might be because he read up on me before I visited him for the first time. He could have learned about it then.”
“You told me on the plane ride that he occurred to you as the abductor in your sister’s case after you’d gone to hypnotherapy?”
Pine nodded. “But there’s the chicken-and-egg problem. I obviously knew about Tor before I underwent hypnosis. So maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that I think he did it. In fact, he pointed out that possibility to me at our last meeting. But I had already thought of it.”
Blum shivered. “I can’t imagine being in the same building with someone like that, much less talking to him.”
“He definitely has the ability to get under your skin. Turn things around that you say. Appear normal, logical even, though he’s a monster.”
Pine thought back to the giant of a man who had so cruelly and violently ended the lives of so many innocent people. “Actually, that term doesn’t come close to covering it.”
“So is that it for the town? They all work in tourism?”
“No. In the sixties a mine and refinery opened. They ship out thousands of tons of bauxite ore every week from here on the freight trains.”
“It’s found in the kaolinite clay soil here. Mulcoa is the company that mines it here. It was once used to make aluminum. Now it’s used for abrasives and in hydraulic fracturing to get to oil and gas deposits. With all the fracking going on now, the bauxite business is pretty good.” She pointed to a storefront as they drove along. “Drummer Boy Civil War Museum. They have uniforms and flags and guns and other artifacts from the war.”
“Well, it’s nice to see that the Civil War can still be a benefit for some. I really didn’t learn much about it growing up where I did.”
“It’s like a second bible of sorts in the South.”
“And where did you live here?”
“I’ll show you.”
The road leading to her old home was just as Pine remembered it, mostly dirt, potholed, curvy, and isolated.
Blum looked around. They hadn’t passed another house for nearly a mile. “What in the world did you and Mercy do for fun? I can see you didn’t go on many playdates.”
“And our mom didn’t have a car. My dad took the only one we had to work at the mine. So we walked or, as we got older, we rode our bikes. Most of the time we just played out in the yard. My mom would take us to Americus on the weekends to do the grocery shopping and other errands. The school bus picked us up right there,” she said, pointing out a spot in front of an aged, sprawling oak. “We were only in first grade when Mercy disappeared.”
Something caught in Pine’s throat and she coughed and slowed the truck, lifted her sunglasses and brushed at her eyes.
Blum looked at her cautiously. “How long since you’ve been back?”
Pine took a moment to compose herself and lowered her glasses. “We moved really soon after Mercy was taken. I haven’t been back here since then.”
Pine shook her head. “There was nothing for me to come back to, Carol.”
“I guess I can understand that.” Blum put a supportive hand on Pine’s shoulder. “And your father committed suicide, you said?”
“On my birthday. He stuck a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.”
“On your birthday? How awful.”
“I think it was his bizarre way of letting me know he was thinking of me. You see, my parents blamed themselves for what happened. Then they ended up blaming each other. That was the reason why they split up later. They were both apparently drunk and stoned on weed downstairs when Mercy went missing and I was attacked.”
Blum shook her head. “The guilt they must’ve been feeling.”
They navigated a curve and a dilapidated, falling-down, plank-sided house came into sight at the end of a dirt road.
“It looks abandoned,” observed Blum.
“No, it’s not.” Pine pointed to an ancient Ford pickup truck parked partially behind the house. It seemed to have more rust than not. And there was a chunky black Lab with a wide tan collar sleeping on the porch.
“Someone really lives in that? It looks like a good wind would knock it down.”
Pine frowned. “And how many broken-down homes do you see in Arizona in the middle of nowhere? People live where they can.”
They pulled to a stop in the dirt front yard and climbed out. Pine looked over the only home she had known for the first six years of her life. It was smaller than she remembered, but that was always the case, wasn’t it?
The front door stood open, and the porch sagged both from wood rot and gravity’s pull. One of the windows was cracked and the planks were warped. The painted surfaces were peeling. Trash was piled in the yard. There was an old fifty-gallon oil drum with smoky ends of debris sticking out. That was evidently the mode used to burn trash here.
The dog stirred, rising slowly to its feet on arthritic legs and letting out a couple of feeble barks. Its muzzle was gray, and it looked unsteady.
“Hey, boy, how you doing?” said Pine in a comforting voice.
She slowly approached the dog, her fist held out. She let him sniff her before she tickled his ears and received a lick in return.
She sat on the porch, looked around, and stroked the dog’s head while Blum stood next to her. “I wonder who lives here now?”
“That would be me.”
They turned to see a man who had just come around the side of the house. The shotgun was a Remington twelve-gauge side-by-side, and it was pointed right at them.
PINE ROSE FROM THE PORCH. “You really live here?” she asked. Her eyes were calm and fixed on the man, even as her right hand slid in the vicinity of her holstered Glock.
The man was tall, lean, and he seemed, despite his white hair and matching beard, to be constructed out of granite. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. A sweat-stained Stetson was on his head, under which the unruly locks of his snowy white hair were visible. His face was sun and wind whipped, and the wrinkles there were pronounced and contained startling depth. Pine gauged him to be well over sixty, a fact belied by his ropy muscles, which were evident because of the short-sleeved shirt he was wearing. His jeans were faded and cut tight to his long legs and slim hips. The pair of crumbling boots he wore looked held together merely by prayer.
“I do, which means you gals are trespassing.”
“I used to live in this house,” said Pine, glancing over her shoulder.
The man lowered the shotgun, but just a bit. “When?”
“Beginning in the mideighties.”
He looked her over. “You must’ve been a baby then.”
“Me and my sister.”
He glanced at Blum. “This your ma?”
“No, she’s my friend.”
“So what are you doing back here? Sightseeing? Ain’t much to see. Cemetery and that old Confederate prison.”
“I came back to see my old homestead. How long have you lived here?”
“’Bout three years. Who are you?”
“Atlee Pine. That’s Carol Blum.”
Blum eyed him closely. “And what’s your name?”
“Cyrus Tanner. Friends call me Cy.”
“Can I call you Cy, even though we’re not officially friends?” said Blum. “And could you point that shotgun somewhere else? Because while my nerves and those of my friend are pretty strong, accidents do happen with weapons.”
“What? Oh, sorry ’bout that.”
He lowered the shotgun and looked at them nervously. “What do you want here then?”
Pine said, “Just to look around. Pure nostalgia. Are you from Andersonville?”
“No, came over from ’Bama. Mississip’ before that.”
“So you bought the house then?”
He chuckled. “Hell, I don’t have the money to buy no house, not even one as run-down as this. I’m, uh, renting.” He pointed to the chunky, aged Lab, which had flopped back down. “Me and Roscoe there. Ain’t we, boy?”
Roscoe gave a little show of yellowed teeth as he looked happy at hearing his name.
“Me and Roscoe been partners for a long time. Best friend I ever had. Beats people by a long shot on that score.”
“Do you mind if I look around?” said Pine.
“Ain’t much to see.”
“Do you work at the bauxite mine?” asked Blum.
He shot her a swift glance. “The mine? No, I do some odd-job work ’round here. Good with engines and stuff. Anything like that needs tinkering I can most likely fix. Get paid in cash. Don’t like to pay no taxes. I get by and cover my bills. Keep a roof over me and Roscoe’s head. What do you gals do for a living?”
Pine took out her official creds. “I’m an FBI agent. Carol is my assistant.”
Tanner looked wildly at them. “A Fed? Look, I didn’t mean that stuff ’bout the taxes—”
“I’m not with the IRS, Mr. Tanner, and I don’t care about your philosophy on paying taxes. Or not.”
“Well, okay,” he muttered, not looking convinced. “What are you really doing here then? It’s not on the official Civil War tour,” he added with a weak grin.
Pine glanced at Blum before looking back at the man. “My sister was abducted from this house nearly thirty years ago. The person who took her was never found. And neither was she. So I’m back here now trying to find the truth.”
The cigarette nearly fell out of the man’s mouth. “Holy shit, you being straight with me?”
“Never been straighter in my life.”
He looked back at the house. “I never knew that when I started living here.”
“No reason for you to know.”
“You said they never caught the bastard?”
“Or found my sister.”
“So...are you here, what, looking for clues and stuff? Been a long time.”
“I’m not here to do a forensic scrub, if that’s what you mean. But I am here to try to sort some things out. And I thought coming here would be a good first step.”
He put the shotgun down on the porch. “You want to take a tour of the place then?”
“That’d be great. You sure you want to leave the gun there?” added Pine.
“Hell, it’s not even loaded. I just use it for show. You know, scare folks off.”
“You get many trespassers out here?”
“Mostly kids looking for a place to drink and have sex. I got nothing against them doing either one, just not in my house.”
He led them into the front room. The wallpaper was hanging down in tatters, and the only items in the room were a large lime green bean bag chair, a scarred side table holding a chunky old TV with rabbit ears on top, and a square of dirty carpet with prominent urine stains.
“Roscoe’s got him some kidney problems,” noted Tanner in an embarrassed fashion as he gazed at the marks.
“How’s the TV reception around here?” said Blum.
“For shit. But I tinker with it here and there. Get some stuff on sometimes. Mostly sports.” He grinned. “If the news comes on, I just turn off the sound. Too damn depressing.”
Pine took a moment to look around the room. It was hard for her to imagine ever living here. This seemed like foreign soil to her.
“Where did you and your sister sleep?” asked Blum.
Pine pointed to the stairs. “Up there.”
Tanner drew back and let her lead the way up the scarred, uncarpeted plywood stairs.
Now, with every step, Pine was drawing closer to that horrible night in 1989. The landing outside the bedroom door found her mind and soul, if not her body, returning to that time in her life. She stared at the closed door for a moment as though it might plausibly be a portal to another universe that would answer all her questions.
Nothing like setting the bar too low.
Tanner said, “You can go on in, ma’am. Ain’t nothing in there now. I sleep on the bean bag chair downstairs. Don’t have no bed.”
Pine gripped the doorknob like it was the only thing tethering her to the earth, turned it, and pushed the door open. When she stepped through, in her mind’s eye, the room and she had been fully transported back to the late eighties, to the absolute worst moment of her life.
She saw the bed, the nightstand, the cheap light fixture, the chest of drawers on top of which she and Mercy had kept their dolls. And the square of carpet with the My Little Pony graphic on it. The tiny closet where their few clothes hung. The blue ball that Pine loved to kick and throw, and the little ballerina dress that Mercy, the dancer and more girly of the two, loved. She would wear the garment until it grew so dirty the white had turned brown, forcing her mother to whisk it away in the middle of the night and wash it in the sink, for they had no other means to launder their clothes.
And finally, the one window in the room. Through which Tor, or someone like him, had climbed and clamped gloved hands over the mouths of the little girls. Then had come the nursery rhyme, the thumping of their foreheads. The selection of Mercy to take, the fist smashing into Pine’s head, fracturing her skull and leaving her for dead. Her mother tottering in the next morning, nursing a hangover from the comingling of pot and beer. Only to discover one daughter gone and the other near death.
The ambulance ride to the hospital, the anxious faces hovering above her, the stark white ceiling of the ambulance—perhaps an early glimpse of Heaven—the gurney sprint through the hospital. The pinch of a needle, the unconsciousness of anesthesia, the subsequent cut into and repair of her skull, though she was clearly not aware of that, followed by the long, frightening recovery. Frightening because she really had no understanding of what had happened to her.
Then back home, to find Mercy still gone, her parents inconsolable. Unable to talk about their other daughter, unable to let Pine out of their sight, yet reluctant to hold her, or to talk to her about any of it. The thickness of guilt lay heavy over them all, crushing out what little family nucleus was left to them.
Pine came out of these thoughts like she remembered waking up from her surgery. Instantly alert and curious but still befuddled somehow, as though she had risen too quickly from deep water and there was something potentially deadly floating inside her.
Blum was looking worriedly at her. “Are you all right?”
She nodded. “Just remembering some things.”
Pine crossed the floor, opened the window, and looked down.
“A ladder. The man had to use a ladder to get up here.”
“Did they find one?” Tanner asked curiously.
“No. At least not that I know of. I was only six. The police didn’t really talk to me. Not after they learned I couldn’t really help them.”
“Were there ever any suspects?” asked Blum.
“My father was the first suspect, perhaps the only one.”
Blum and Tanner exchanged a quick glance.
“You think he did that to his own kids?” asked Tanner, clearly not believing this.
“No. It wasn’t my father. I would have recognized him. And why come in through the window? And they were drinking and smoking pot that night. He couldn’t have made it up the stairs, much less climbed a ladder. And I saw the man come through the window, though I really couldn’t describe him back then.”
“But the police didn’t believe that?” said Blum. “They still pursued your father as a suspect?”
“It’s why we had to move from here. Everyone in town thought he had done it, despite there being no evidence to support that.”
“And your daddy?” asked Tanner.
“He’s dead now.”
“And your ma?”
Pine didn’t answer right away. In some ways, the mystery of her mother had overshadowed even Mercy’s disappearance, at least to Pine. Blum looked at her curiously, but Pine didn’t seem to notice.
“I’d rather not talk about it,” replied Pine. She closed the window after searching her memory, going back to that night and trying to confirm that it was indeed Daniel Tor coming through the window. She arrived at what she had expected: no firm conclusion.
They went back outside, where she sat on the porch and stroked Roscoe’s head.
“He likes you,” said Tanner approvingly. “And Roscoe’s a good judge of character. Got to be where if he don’t like somebody I bring around, they don’t come back around. Yep, old Roscoe keeps me from making dumb decisions. Well, at least fewer than I used to.”
“I needed a Roscoe in my life a long time ago,” opined Blum.
She and Tanner exchanged a knowing look.
Pine rose and said, “Thanks for letting us look around, Cy.”
“You gonna be in town long?”
“As long as it takes.”
“Well, I might see you ’round then. Me and Roscoe eat at the little café on the main street most nights. They call it the Clink, after the prison, I guess. Good food and cheap beer.”
“We might see you there then,” said Blum.
Tanner took off his hat in a gesture of good-bye, fully revealing his thick wavy hair, and tacked on a broad smile.
They got back into the rental and headed out.
Pine said, “I always wondered what happened to the Marlboro Man. Now I know.”
“He’s a hottie,” said Blum, looking in the side mirror and seeing Tanner standing there. “The picture of ruggedly handsome. I bet he has a two-pack, which is like an eight-pack for a twenty-year-old.”
“If he really wants to be healthy, he should stop smoking.”
“That just adds to the bad-boy mystique.”
“Control yourself, Carol.”
“I am always in control, Agent Pine. It comes with being a mother of six. Once you keep your sanity with that, there’s nothing ever again that can overwhelm you.”
“So you don’t want to talk about your mother?”
Pine started to say something and then stopped. She seemed to recalibrate her thoughts and said, “I know what happened to my father. I don’t know what happened to my mother.”
“Do you mean you don’t know how she, what, died?”
“For all I know my mother is alive.”
“But you don’t know where she is?”
“Have you tried to find her?”
“Many times. With no luck at all.”
“But you’re an FBI agent. How can that be?”
“Good question, Carol. Good question.”
THEY HAD A RESERVATION at a bed-and-breakfast located right outside the small downtown area of Andersonville. It was a large, old home renovated to cater to guests and called the Cottage.
Pine was normally a light packer, a one-suitcase sort of girl. But for this trip, she had brought a second small suitcase. She set it on her bed and opened it. She looked down at the oddball assortment of items carefully packed inside.
This represented, along with the photo of her and her sister, the sum total of her possessions from her parents. There was a black bow tie of her father’s. A key chain with the bauxite mining company’s name and logo engraved on it. A dozen drink coasters that she and Mercy had used as makeshift checker pieces. A lavender hair ribbon of her mother’s. A ring and pair of earrings, both costume jewelry, but still precious to her. A small book of poems. A pocketknife of her father’s with his initials. A Wonder Woman comic book. A cracked teacup.
And...She lifted the small doll with the dented face from inside the suitcase and moved a strand of fake hair away from its bulging right eye. This was her doll, Skeeter from the Muppet Babies TV series.
Mercy had had a matching one, only hers was named Sally. Pine had wanted Mercy to name her doll Scooter, because Skeeter was his twin sister. Only Mercy wouldn’t hear of it because Scooter was “a boy.” Pine smiled at the memory.
She had almost thrown all this in the trash a long time ago. But something had stayed her hand, she wasn’t sure what. Pine slowly put them all away and zipped up the suitcase.
She met Blum in the front room, and they headed to dinner at the place Tanner had recommended, the Clink café.
They walked from the Cottage to the main street, which was quaint if somewhat downtrodden. It was a nice crisp evening, and there were numerous people out and about. Many, Pine could tell, were tourists because they would take out their cameras or, more often, their phones and take photos of items in different store windows or interesting pieces of architecture or sculptures or signs in their path.
The Clink had a cheery sign albeit with a silhouette of a man behind bars, and a colorful striped awning out front. The window was engraved with old-fashioned lettering promising: GOOD FARE AT FAIR PRICES, NO IMPRISONMENT REQUIRED.
They went inside and were guided to a table by a young woman with blond hair tied back in a ponytail and wearing a black hip-length blouse, dark jeans, and flat ballerina shoes. They looked over their menus and made their decisions. It was heavy on red meat and root vegetables. Pine also ordered a beer on tap and Blum a gin and tonic.
“Nice place,” said Blum, looking around at the full house. “Seems like pretty much everybody who lives here is at the Clink for dinner.”
“I imagine quite a few of the tourists come here, too.”
They gave their food orders to a gravelly-voiced waitress with stringy gray hair and a tired expression.
As they sipped their drinks, Blum said, “Do you remember much of the town?”
“Not really. This restaurant wasn’t here then. And we didn’t come into Andersonville very often. But it hasn’t changed all that much, at least from what I do remember. I don’t think all this Civil War touristy business was really around then, at least not as prominently.”
“Well, a town has to do what a town has to do. Little places just trying to survive.”
“Little places made up of people trying to survive,” Pine amended.
Later, as they were nearly finished eating, Cy Tanner came in and looked around. He had an older woman with him. His gaze fell on them and he hurried over to their table with the woman moving slowly in his wake.
Blum greeted him with a smile. “Hello, Cy. Where’s Roscoe?”
He grinned at her and doffed his hat. “Hey, Carol. Old Roscoe’s outside chewing on a rubber bone and being the unofficial greeter.” Then he turned to the woman with him. “This here is Agnes Ridley.” He looked at Pine excitedly. “She remembers your family, Agent Pine.”
Pine shot the old woman a curious glance. She was in her late seventies with fine white hair through which her pink scalp could be glimpsed. She was small and round with a kind face and wore a flannel shirt, granny jeans, and white, clunky orthopedic sneakers. Her blue eyes contained flecks of gray, behind thick, horn-rimmed glasses.
“Please, sit down, Mrs. Ridley,” she said.
Ridley said apologetically, “I don’t want to interrupt your meal, dear.”
“You’re not. Please. We’re pretty much done.”
They took their seats while Pine continued to look at her.
Ridley stared back at her with an expression of abject wonder, as though she couldn’t believe her own eyes. She finally said, “I imagine you don’t remember me. And I see you grew into your feet. Both you and your sister were tall.”
“I’m trying to recall you, but—”
“Well, you didn’t call me ‘Mrs. Ridley.’ You called me ‘Missy Aggie.’”
A look of comprehension came over Pine’s features. “I do remember that.”
“Well, that’s so sweet,” responded Ridley, obviously pleased. “We lived a few miles away, but here in Sumter County. I met your mother at church. I had no children of my own and I stayed at home, so I quite often babysat you and your sister.”
Pine’s eyes widened. “Me and Mercy?”
“Yes, dear. Now Atlee is a name I know well. I had an aunt with that name. Course we called you ‘Lee.’ But I’ve never known anyone else named Mercy.”
“Folks called me ‘Lee’ until I went to college.”
Her face crinkled. “You two were quite the pair. Inseparable. Never could tell you apart.”
Blum looked at Pine. “Identical twins then. I never knew that. You never said.” She sounded a little disappointed.
“I...I’ve never been very comfortable talking about it.” She paused and her expression softened. “My sister had a freckle here,” said Pine, pointing to a spot next to her nose. “I didn’t. Mercy said God gave her a kiss because she came out first, and it turned into the freckle.”
“Well, that’s beyond precious,” commented Blum.
Pine turned back to Ridley. “So you remember my parents?”
Ridley’s smile vanished. “I knew and liked your mom very much, Lee.” She caught herself. “I mean, Atlee.”
“ ‘Lee’ is just fine, Mrs. Ridley.”
“I was older, of course. But we were good friends, me and your mother. Julia worked some to make ends meet and had to go on errands and appointments, and that’s why she needed a babysitter. Your dad, I didn’t know as well. But he sure loved his little girls.”
“How did my mom get to those places? She didn’t have a car that I knew of.”
“Oh, I’d let her take my old Dodge pickup truck. That’s what I would drive over in. She couldn’t pay much, and I rarely asked for any money. My husband had a good paying job. We didn’t need anything extra.” She paused and her face crinkled even more deeply, like a flower reversing to a bud. “My ‘payment’ was to spend time with you girls.”
Blum said, “I wish you’d lived near me. I had six kids, all under the age of twelve at one point. Most days I felt like I’d been hit by a freight train.”
“And you remember what happened then?” asked Pine, her gaze on Ridley.
The old woman nodded slowly. “Yes, I do. It hit the whole town hard. Never had anything like that happen here. And thank God we’ve never had anything like that again.”
“What can you tell me about it?” said Pine. “I was still very young and really have a lot of memory gaps. Plus the adults back then didn’t talk to me about it.”
“Well, I’m sure they were quite worried about how it affected you. Now, I went to the hospital to help your mother. She pretty much never left your side while you were in there.”
“I remember waking up and seeing her.”
“She was so broken up. Lost one daughter and nearly lost the other. I don’t know if you realize how close you came to dying, Lee.”
“No, I guess I don’t. What about Mercy’s disappearance?”
“Well, as you probably know the police were as puzzled as everyone else.”
“Sheriff Dalton from Macon County,” said Pine. “I didn’t remember his name, of course. I looked him up later.”
“Yes, well he’s dead now, but one of the deputies who worked on the case is now the sheriff over in Macon.”
“Dave Bartles. He was one of the first deputies at the house after your mother called 911. I know because Julia called me, too, and I rushed over there. Now he’s getting close to retirement.”
Blum said, “But we’re in Sumter County, like you said. Why would the Macon County police be involved? And why not the police here in town?”
Pine glanced at Blum. “Andersonville doesn’t have its own police force. The law enforcement comes from the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. But we lived right across the line in Macon County, so the Macon County Sheriff’s Department did the investigating.”
Ridley nodded. “And they called in the state police to look at things. And the FBI, too.”
“Because it was a kidnapping,” said Pine.
“Yes, I guess that’s right. Now, Cy told me about you being with the FBI. I...I suppose your becoming an agent maybe had something to do with what happened to your sister.”
“It did, yes,” said Pine. Maybe more than I thought.
Ridley drew a long breath and eyed Pine anxiously. “Well, the long and the short of it was the police believed your daddy had done it.”
“And I told them it wasn’t him,” Pine said firmly.
The old woman said, “I knew your father had nothing to do with it. And the fact was they could never prove anything against Tim, and then y’all moved away.”
“I don’t think we had a choice,” said Pine. “My dad got fired from the mine. We couldn’t survive here.”
“The thing is, Lee, you and your family disappeared in the middle of the night.”
“I remember we moved very quickly one night, but you mean they didn’t tell anyone?”
“No, they didn’t. You were there one day and gone the next. This was only a few months after you got out of the hospital. I went over to check on everybody and the place was empty. Not that y’all had much. But there was really nothing left. A few sticks of furniture. Your parents must’ve gotten a U-Haul trailer or something. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was no note or anything. Not a word to anyone. Haven’t heard from them since.”
Pine slowly took this in. “I don’t know why they did it that way.”
“Now, Cy told me about your daddy being dead. I’m very sorry. Like I said, I didn’t know Tim all that well. But I liked him. Now, is Julia still alive?”
Pine said, “I’m...I’m not sure.”
Ridley looked taken aback by this. “Have you not been in touch with her lately?”
“It’s longer ago than that,” said Pine vaguely.
“Oh,” said Ridley, looking sad. “Well, I’m sorry about that.”
“Did your parents not explain things to you when you left here?” interjected Blum, who could see how uncomfortable Pine was looking. “Or at least told you where they were moving to?”
“I remember the new house and then going to school and finding out I was in South Carolina. About fifty miles outside of Columbia.”
“Good Lord,” said Ridley.
“I was only six. I guess my parents didn’t think it mattered to me where we had moved,” Pine said, a little defensively. “And we moved several times after that.”
“Until they divorced?” said Blum.
“Yes,” said Pine curtly. It was clear she did not relish sharing her personal history with two strangers, or even Blum.
They all fell silent at this as Pine felt her face burn and she looked down at the tabletop.
“I suppose you’re back here to try to find out what happened?” Ridley finally said.
“I should have done it a long time ago.”
Ridley stared at her for a moment. “Lee, have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’?” she said quietly, glancing at Tanner nervously.
“I have. But in this case, it doesn’t apply.”
“Because my sister could still be alive.”
“Do you...do you really think so?” said Ridley doubtfully. “After all this time?”
“The odds are clearly against it. But my life has been full of beating the odds.”
Ridley looked her over. “I guess I can understand that. I mean, you want to know the truth. Whatever it might be.”
“And what if the truth is your father did do it?”
“Then I’ll have to accept that. But we’re not there yet.”
Tanner spoke up. “How do you plan on tackling this sucker?”
“There are standard protocols for investigating cold cases. It starts with looking at the established records and going from there, hoping for some lead or inconsistency that no one has discovered previously.”
“So you’ll be talking to this fellow, Dave Bartles?” said Tanner.
Pine looked at Ridley, who said, “Lots of folks already know you’re back in town.”
“From when we checked in at the Cottage?” said Blum.
“Gladys Graham owns the place and she likes her gossip.” Ridley smiled knowingly. “Although she doesn’t go by Gladys any more. Don’t think she much liked that name.” She laughed. “Look at me. How many parents name their kids Agnes anymore?”
“What name does she go by?” asked Pine.
“Is that her middle name?”
“No, I just think she thought it was classy, you know, like that famous clothes guy with the white hair.”
“You mean Ralph Lauren?” said Blum.
“That’s the one. She had it legally changed and everything. Anyway, we don’t need that social media down here. Gladys is like Facebook and Twitter all rolled into one.” Ridley put a small, puffy hand on Pine’s arm. “Honey, do you really want to dive back into the past?”
Pine stared back fiercely at the old woman. “I don’t think I have a choice, if I want to have a future.”
PINE AND BLUM were crossing the front parlor of the Cottage when a voice called out.
“I guess you don’t remember me.”
They both turned to see the woman walking toward them.
She was in her midforties, slim and pretty, with red hair cut close to her head, and an active spring in her step. She had on dark green slacks that contrasted sharply but attractively with her hair, with a thin black leather belt, a white blouse open at the collar, and black pumps.
“I’m Lauren Graham,” said the woman, her hand extended to Pine. “I was in high school when you and your family lived here. Sorry I wasn’t around when you checked in.”
Pine shook her hand. “I’m afraid I don’t remember you.”
“It’s no wonder. You were so little.”
The two women stared awkwardly at each other across the small space separating them.
Graham said hesitantly, “I guess it must seem sort of surreal being back here.”
“Well, it doesn’t appear to have changed much.”
“In some ways, yes. In other ways, I think it’s changed a lot.” Pine took this in and nodded. “I guess every place changes, whether we want it to or not.” Pine cleared her throat and said in a more businesslike tone, “Did you come out to the house when we lived there?”
“I used to help your mother with cleaning and doing some shopping. I didn’t see you and your sister all that much. It was sporadic, certainly not every week. But I was glad for the work.”
“I just saw Agnes Ridley at dinner.”
“Yes, that’s right. She babysat for you and Mercy.”
It was strange for Pine to hear people talk about her sister as though she was somewhere living her life just like everyone else.
“I was surprised to see you back here. When your family left, I never thought you’d come back. Not after that awful night.”
“I understand we sort of moved away in the dead of night?” Pine said expectantly.
Graham stared at her for a moment before answering. “I remember it was the talk of the town for a few days. No sign you even lived there. And nobody ever heard from your parents again.”
“Agnes Ridley told us the same thing. That must have been a shock,” said Pine.
“Look, I don’t blame your mom and dad. The things people were saying. It was disgusting. I would have moved, too. Who needs that crap, especially after suffering such a loss.”
“They were saying those things because they thought my father was involved somehow?”
“Either that, or they thought he cared more for his beer and pot than he did his kids. But that’s not the way I saw it.”
“They made one mistake, and someone took advantage of it. You can’t watch your kids twenty-four/seven. They loved you and your sister very much. Your mom would have died rather than let something happen to her girls.”
Pine seemed taken aback by this statement. “I...uh, never really talked about it with her. She didn’t want to...go there, I suppose.”
“I guess I can understand that. But I can also understand that you probably had a million questions you wanted answers to.”
Pine now looked at Graham in a different and perhaps more favorable light. “I did. Only I never got those answers.”
Graham looked down at the FBI shield on Pine’s hip. “FBI agent now. Very impressive.”
“You could tell from just glancing at the shield?”
“I Googled you after you made the reservation. Recognized the last name.”
“It’s a job I enjoy doing.”
“Where are you living now?”
Graham looked wistful. “Never been there. Hear it’s beautiful.”
“It is,” interjected Blum when it appeared Pine was not going to respond. “Quite different from here. But this part of the country has its own charm.”
Pine looked at her and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, where are my manners? This is Carol Blum, she’s my assistant.”
“Hello, Carol.” Graham smiled. “I’ve never really been anywhere. I went to college at Georgia Southwestern State University. Worked in Atlanta for a while in the hospitality sector, and then came back here.”
“Are you married?”
“I was. But no longer.” She looked around at the space. “I bought this place and started my little business. It’s mostly tourists coming to see the prison, but it pays the bills and lets me get by. I used to have more ambition, but this seems to fit me okay now. Though I would like to travel a bit. And who knows, I might get married again.”
“This is a charming house,” said Blum, looking around.
“Thank you. I grew up in it.”
“What? This was your family’s home?” said Blum.
“Me and my four siblings. My parents died years ago. My brothers and sister didn’t want it. Sort of all clicked. I had saved my money, bought them out and took the plunge.” Graham turned to Pine. “They never found out what happened to your sister, did they?”
“So, are you here trying to change that?”
“What do you remember about what happened?”
Graham glanced at Blum. “Would you both like some coffee? I just made a fresh pot. There’s a bit of a chill out there. We can talk out on the side porch, where we serve our complimentary breakfast.”
Pine and Blum moved to this room and took a minute to look around.
They finally arrived at a glass display cabinet set against one wall. The cabinet was so large that it rose all the way to the ceiling. Inside was a collection of dolls, some quite large, almost lifelike, and some small, all dressed in old-fashioned clothing.
Blum drew closer to look at them. “These are really nice. Vintage. The largest one isn’t really a doll. It’s like a mannequin. Cost a pretty penny to put this together, I bet.”
“I see you’ve noticed my little collection.”
They turned to see Graham standing in the doorway with a tray of coffees and a plate of sugar cookies. They sat at a table and she passed them out.
Graham glanced at the cabinet. “My mother actually started collecting them. When I was little they were like my fantasy friends. I gave them all names and histories and...well, they became very real to me.” She looked down, seemingly a bit embarrassed.
“Children have very vivid imaginations,” said Blum diplomatically, as Pine looked strangely at Graham.
“Yes, well, I’ve never had any of my own.”
Pine glanced at Blum before refocusing on Graham. She seemed nervous but also excited, thought Pine. She imagined there wasn’t much that was thrilling in Graham’s life, and recollecting a mystery might liven things up.
“About that day,” prompted Pine.
Graham began, “I was at school and it was all anyone was talking about. Police sirens and the ambulance taking you to the hospital. Then the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in. And even the FBI,” she added, once more looking at Pine’s shield. “I went over that night to see if I could help with anything. Your father was there, your mom was with you at the big hospital over in Americus.” She looked embarrassed. “There was a crowd of people around just gawking. It wasn’t right. But I was there to help,” she added quickly.
She paused and took a sip of her coffee, shooting glances at Pine and Blum as though to gauge their reactions to her words.
“Did you see my father?” asked Pine in a strained voice that made Blum look at her.
Pine wasn’t sure what she was feeling. She had not prepared well for what this trip might do to her emotionally, when preparation had been key for everything she had done in her life.
So why did I drop the ball this time?
Graham said quietly, “Your father...well, Tim had been drinking some. And who could blame him? I mean, after what had happened?”
“And he got into a fight with one of the men. Somebody broke it up, luckily.”
“Why weren’t the police there?” said Pine. “It was a crime scene. It should have been secured as such. Even my father shouldn’t have been there.”
Graham regarded Pine from under hooded eyes. “You mean because he was a suspect?”
“Yes. In fact, he was the only suspect.”
“I think you’re right about that. As far as I know, there was never any other.” She broke off and stared uncomfortably at Pine.
“I told the police it wasn’t my father.”
“You were only a child, Lee.”
“I go by Atlee now.”
“All right, Atlee. And you’d been terribly injured. I believe by the time you could tell them anything at least a week had passed. The person had hit you so hard, your skull had fractured.” Tears clustered in the woman’s eyes.
“So I guess they didn’t believe me that it wasn’t my dad.”
Pine suddenly felt like she had been swallowed whole by something, and that she was now sinking into a horrible muck of her own making.
Blum glanced at Pine and took up the line of questioning. “What else do you remember, Lauren?”
“The FBI was called in when it became apparent that the local and state police couldn’t solve it.”
“Meaning they didn’t have any evidence against Agent Pine’s father even though he was their only suspect?”
“We have crime here now,” said Graham. “And we had crime back then. But not kidnapping. And no murders. Today, it’s either fights among usually drunk or drugged-up men, or people stealing stuff. Now, Julia Pine swore that her husband was passed out on the floor of the living room drunk as could be and that Tim hadn’t moved from that spot when she woke up around six on the couch and went to check on you and your sister. And from the number of empty beer bottles and the remains of smoked joints they found between them, I guess that seemed plausible.”
“There was never any forensic evidence tying my father to what happened.”
“Well, I imagine his prints and DNA were all over the house,” said Blum. “Since he lived there it would be hard to exclude him based on that.”
“Plus, I saw a man coming through the window,” said Pine. “And he was wearing gloves. There would have been no trace really.”
Graham nearly spilled the coffee she had picked back up. “You saw a man?”
“Yes, that’s why I knew it wasn’t my father. Why would he come through the window?”
“And you told the police that?”
Pine hesitated. “I believe that I did. But I was just a kid with a cracked skull. I doubt they cared.”
“Have you been out to your old house?”
“I have. A man named Cyrus Tanner lives there now. He said he was renting it.”
Blum interjected, “He’s quite attractive and interesting.”
Graham smiled. “Yes he is. And Cy Tanner says lots of things. It doesn’t make them all true.”
“So he’s not renting it?” asked Blum.
“I don’t think anyone even knows who owns that place anymore, so I doubt he’s sending in payments to anyone.”
“Then he’s squatting?”
“He’s not the only one. The town has lost nearly thirty percent of its population since 2000, not that we had a lot to begin with. Now, the rest of Sumter County is doing better. Wages are up and so are employment and property values. There’s more young people. But there are abandoned places, and your old home is one of them.”
“I guess I can see that.”
“Do you really think you can solve it all these years later?”
“Lots of cold cases get solved,” Blum pointed out.
“But most don’t,” said Graham.
“How do you know that?” asked Pine.
“I’m actually working on a crime novel,” answered Graham. “As I mentioned, this place gives me a living but not much more. I’m hoping to break out of that rut by establishing myself as a writer of historical crime fiction.”
“So you have more ambition than you let on?” said Blum.
Graham glanced at her lap. “I guess so.”
“Let me guess—your story takes place during Civil War times,” said Pine.
“Nice deduction. Good historical fiction reeks of atmosphere. And the war is fully settled into every fiber of this town, for good and bad. For me, I hope it’s good. The point is, I’ve done a lot of research into old crime cases. And most remain unsolved.”
Pine rose. “Well, mine won’t, not for lack of trying anyway. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day.”
Pine walked out of the room, leaving Blum and Graham alone.
Graham looked at Blum. “Do you think she can really do this?”
“If she can’t, I’m not sure who can.”
“ALL GROWN UP NOW, I see.”
It was the next day, and Pine and Blum were seated across from Dave Bartles at the Macon County Sheriff’s Office in Oglethorpe, Georgia.
Bartles was in his fifties with iron-gray hair, a solid, fit physique, sharp-edged features, and the look of a man who had seen his share of depravity over his law-enforcement career.
“All grown up,” said Pine, her lips set in a firm line.
“FBI agent, I hear.”
“I guess I know why you’re here.”
“I’m sure it was an easy deduction.”
“We didn’t solve the case back then, and neither did the GBI, or even your own agency.”
“You had a suspect.”
“Do you still think he did it?”
“We didn’t even have enough to charge him. And we could never find a motive. They were both really young, but from all the people we talked to, they were doting parents.” He paused. “When they weren’t drunk or stoned.”
“So is that what you think? He was intoxicated and did what he did because of that?”
“I did. At first. But then what did he do with the body? They only had the one old clunker car, and no one saw him driving it that night. We looked all over the property and the woods around. No freshly dug graves. No body turned up in the water. No body turned up anywhere. It’s hard to hide a corpse sober. Much less drunk.”
“Daniel James Tor was operating in the area right around that time.”
Bartles looked at her thoughtfully. “He killed a little girl from Macon, about an hour from here. The FBI finally got the bastard. You think he took your sister?”
“They did investigate his presence in the area, but my sister’s abduction did not fit his geometric pattern of activity.”
Bartles frowned. “Geometric? What does that mean?”
“Tor was a math prodigy. And he selected his victims based on their locations adhering to mathematical shapes. That’s how he was eventually caught. They predicted his next area of activity and had assets there that deployed swiftly.”
“So your home’s location didn’t fit this ‘math’ pattern?” He looked skeptical.
“No. Over the course of eighteen months in 1988 and 1989, Tor was suspected of abducting and killing four people in the state of Georgia, one each from Albany, Columbus, Atlanta, and the little girl you mentioned from the city of Macon. That formed a rough geometric shape. I called it a diamond. He corrected me and called it a rhombus.”
“He corrected you?” Bartles said sharply.
“I’ve been to see Tor three times now at ADX Florence.”
“I didn’t even know that monster was still alive. They should have executed his ass.”
“He’s serving enough life sentences that he’ll never see the light of day.”
“Hang on, if you went to see him you must’ve thought he did it, even though it didn’t fit his pattern.”
“I suspected he might have been involved because he was in the area at the time.”
“I remember after you got out of the hospital, you told us you saw a man come through your bedroom window. You think it was Tor?”
Blum was watching Pine closely.
“I had some hypnotherapy done recently, to bring out repressed memories.”
“Did it work?”
“I don’t know. The man I saw could have been Tor. But since I knew all about Tor before, and also knew he was in the area at the time...”
“You mean that could have influenced your memory, maybe erroneously,” said Bartles.
“Well, what did Tor say?”
“He’s never going to admit to it. And even if he does, he’ll never provide corroborating evidence. He has no incentive to. So that’s a dead end.”
Bartles spread his hands. “Which explains why you’re here.”
“Can I look at the file?”
“You can. I just don’t know what you expect to find three decades later.”
“Neither do I. But I can only give it my best shot.”
Bartles slowly nodded. “I’ll have the file brought up and copied. Just to warn you, there’s not much there. It’s not that anything is missing. There just wasn’t a lot there to begin with.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t purged the files after all this time.”
“Normally we would have. But the case was never solved, Agent Pine. So we held on to it. You just never know, right?”
As he was escorting them from his office, Bartles said, “I never imagined you growing up to be an FBI agent.”
“Life can be unpredictable.”
“I hear you work out in Arizona.”
“Did you hear that from the Lauren Graham information network?”
Bartles chuckled. “We are friends. Nice gal. You like it out there?”
“Yes, it’s very different from here in some ways. In other ways, it’s a lot alike.”
“People are people,” said Blum. “No matter where they are.”
“If you find something out, let me know,” said Bartles. “We don’t have many unsolved cases around here. And I’d like to close that one, if I could.”
Pine and Blum started to head to the lobby.
“What was that Tor fellow like?” he asked abruptly.
Pine turned back around. “Take your worst nightmare and multiply it by a hundred.”
“So it’s that obvious? You can just tell that by being around him?”
“No, you can’t. That’s what makes it a nightmare. You won’t realize he’s a monster until it’s too late.”
“BARTLES WASN’T KIDDING when he said there wasn’t much here,” said Blum.
They had spread out copies of the documents, notes, reports, and evidentiary photos on Pine’s bed in her room at the Cottage. It was, under any measure, a sorry collection.
She picked up a photo and held it out to Pine. “You and your sister?”
Pine took the photo and nodded. “Our fifth birthday. I have the same one in my wallet. It’s the only picture I have of us. My parents didn’t have a camera. My mom borrowed a friend’s Polaroid and took three pictures. One for each of us and one for herself. She must’ve given this one to the police so they could search for Mercy.”
“You and your sister really were mirror images of each other.”
Pine stared at two little girls from what seemed a thousand years ago. All bright eyes and smiles. “We were inseparable. Mercy and Lee Pine. Two people but really one. Only that was a long time ago,” she added wistfully. “I think every day about what it would have been like to have my sister around all this time. We were always each other’s best friend. I...I would like to believe that we would have always been best friends.”
Pine thought about what Mercy would be like now. Would they still be identical in appearance, or would the years have carved differences into them? She just hoped that Mercy wasn’t dead. But how realistic was that?
“If none of this had happened, you might not be with the FBI,” Blum pointed out.
“I’d take that trade-off in a heartbeat.”
“I would, too, if I were you,” said Blum. She picked up a hospital record with X-rays attached. “Your injuries really were very serious, Agent Pine. You nearly died.”
Pine nodded absently. “I remember opening my eyes in the hospital and seeing my mother hovering over me. At first, I thought I was dead, and she was an angel.” She glanced at Blum in embarrassment. “Silly thoughts of a little girl.”
“I’m sure seeing your mother was very comforting to you,” said Blum firmly.
Pine looked over the items on the bed. “Not even the FBI could really find much. No trace. No leads. No motives. No nothing. A complete dead end.”
“No one heard or saw anything?”
“You observed how remote it was. It was the same back then, if not more so.”
“What did the police do?”
“Other than thinking my father had done it? Not much.”
Blum looked at her watch. “It’s dinnertime.”
“Same place?” asked Blum.
“I suppose. Why, are you hoping to see Cy Tanner again?”
“Don’t make me blush, Agent Pine.”
“You know, I’m really not hungry. Why don’t you go without me.”
“Are you sure? I can wait.”
“No, I think it’ll be better if I’m by myself for a bit.”
“I know this is a lot to deal with.”
“I’ve been dealing with it for a long time now. But if you do the same thing over and over again, how can you expect a different result? Which is why I’m here.”
“Call me if you need me.”
After Blum left, Pine slowly gathered up the pieces of the file and put them back into the box the sheriff’s office had provided.
She left her room and headed out onto the main street of Andersonville.
The night air again held an autumnal chill and she was glad of her jacket as she walked along the quiet streets. She had few memories of the place. She had been so young when she had left. And that time in her life had been dominated by the abduction of Mercy.
The town’s buildings, though old and not in the best shape, seemed not to have changed much. The water tower on metal stilts emblazoned with the name of the town was still there. She passed rustic shops, all with old A-frame roofs and deep front overhangs, and consignment shops with their wares; she glimpsed through a dimly lit window stacked cases of old empty pop bottles in a place selling “antiques.” The town reminded her a little of the movie To Kill A Mockingbird. A quaint Southern hamlet on the rocks, unsure of its future but still plugging along somehow, trusting that better times were just around the corner.
Then there were the ubiquitous railroad tracks running through the area, which was really the only reason there was a town. The National Prisoner of War Museum and the prison site and the vast, adjacent cemetery dominated the area, and there were numerous signs proclaiming this as an enticement for visitors to take it all in and spend their tourist dollars. She supposed the town had to make the best of the hand it had been dealt. A notorious prison in its midst was ripe for exploitation to bring in needed revenue. At least it could be an important history lesson in the cruelty that human beings could show other human beings.
She stepped over puddles of a recent rain that had laid bare the hard, nonporous red Georgia clay. Tall, thin scrub pines with their shallow roots thrived here, though storms and accompanying high winds would easily shear them off or even pull them from the earth itself.
She sat on a damp bench and stared out into the darkness.
Her mother had confided in Pine years later that she had been in so much pain during the delivery that when it was over, she had named the first daughter to come out Mercy, since it had been a “mercy” of sorts for her that the ordeal was halfway over.
When her oldest daughter had vanished that night, Julia Pine had not said her name out loud for the longest time. In fact, she had only told Pine the origins of her sister’s name when Pine had gone off to college.
And then Pine had come home from college one summer to find her mother gone, with only a brief note left behind that really explained nothing. She thought of the moment she had walked into the apartment she shared with her mother and found only a single piece of paper, leaving her to somehow make sense of another grievous loss. Pine smacked her fist against the arm of the bench and had to fight back the compulsion to scream.
Why did you just leave me like that, Mom? Leave me with nothing? First Mercy, then Dad, then you.
Tor had told her on the first visit to the prison that losing Mercy had meant that Pine had a hole in herself that could not be filled. That she would never be able to trust anyone again. That she could never be close to anyone again. That she would die alone feeling the loss of her twin just as strongly as the day it happened.
And maybe he’s right about that. But I can still find out what happened to her. Maybe that will close the hole. If only a little.
But what about the disappearance of her mother? How could she fill that void? Unlike Mercy, Pine’s mother had left of her own free will. Pine remembered just sitting on the floor stunned, as she held the paper in her hand. And then going around in a fog for days afterward, before collecting herself and doing her best to get on with her life.
She had called the police but Pine was no longer a child, so there had been no question of abandonment. Over the years, she had searched for her mother. When she had joined the FBI she had continued that search, but there had been no trace of the woman. She had vanished so completely, it was like she had never existed at all.
And if I can’t figure out this part of my life, I can’t do my job as an agent. And Dobbs will be as good as his word. Another incident like with that creep Cliff Rogers and I’m gone from the Bureau. And then what do I do?
In her anxiety, Pine rose and started walking again, until she heard the screams.
Then she automatically started sprinting toward the sound, her gun drawn.
Her long legs carried her quickly to an ill-lighted and empty part of the main street. Pine saw the old woman first. She had dropped her bag, the contents strewn across the darkened street.
“What is it?” cried out Pine, taking her by the arm.
The old lady pointed with a shaky hand at a space in between two darkened buildings.
Pine could just make out what was lying there.
It can’t be, she thought. Please, it can’t be.
A WOMAN IN HER LATE TWENTIES, pale skin, slender but shapely, with long, light brown hair and unusually sharp facial features.
Unfortunately, each of these details was rendered in death.
Two deputies from Sumter County were next to Pine staring down at the body. They were standing behind a screen that the men had erected to shield the body. One deputy was tall, thin, and in his twenties. By the sickened look on his face, this was his first homicide. His partner was fortyish and hefty, and he didn’t look much better.
“Are you two investigating as well?” Pine asked.
The older man shook his head. “Just securing the scene. The Investigative Division does the processing and the rest. GBI will probably be called in, too,” he added, referring to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
She had already showed them her shield and credentials. The old woman who had been the first to find the body was sitting on a bench, still showing the effects of the discovery in her sobs and shivers. Pine had tried to comfort her, to little avail.
Some onlookers had gathered, but the two deputies had quickly taped off the area and then erected the screen.
“What’s the get-up she’s in?” said the younger deputy.
Pine had noticed this the moment she had seen the body. “It’s a veil. Looks to be a wedding veil.”
“Wedding veil? So what the hell does that mean?” asked the older deputy.
It doesn’t mean anything good, thought Pine.
As they stepped from behind the screen, a rattling ancient Crown Vic sedan pulled up and a man in his late fifties climbed out. He was around six feet tall, with a portly frame, thinning gray hair, and weighty jowls. His suit was baggy, his shirt wrinkled and his tie askew, but his gaze was firm and active, and he carried himself with a quiet confidence. He walked over and identified himself as Max Wallis, with the GBI. He nodded at the deputies. “I’ll be over to see the body in a minute.” He looked at Pine. “Did you find the victim?” he asked.
She pointed at the old woman on the bench. “I was second on the scene.”
“I’ll still want to talk to you,” said Wallis.
“She’s FBI, sir,” said the older deputy.
Wallis looked like someone had slapped him. “Come again?”
Pine held out her shield and official credentials. “I was in town visiting. I used to live here. I heard screams and came running.”
Wallis studied the information on her credential card for a few moments, his eyebrows hiking at certain intervals. “Okay, just don’t go anywhere.”
He walked over to the old woman and sat down next to her. Pine watched as he conversed with her, giving her some Kleenex when she started to sniffle and holding her hand and patting her shoulder supportively at other times.
That was a good technique, thought Pine. It was reassuring and designed to set the person at ease, with, Pine hoped, a clearer account from the woman about what had happened.
Wallis finally rose, walked back over to the deputies, and ordered one of them to drive the woman home. They had already collected the dropped items from her bag.
The younger deputy departed with her while the other stood guard at the scene.
“Was she any help?” asked Pine.
Wallis flipped through his notebook. “Not really. She saw the body and panicked, dropped her bag. But she didn’t see or hear anything. She doesn’t know the victim, either.”
“A town this small people pretty much know everybody. So she might not be from here.”
“The crime scene techs will be here any minute. She may have ID on her.”
“Why do you say that?”
“No bag or purse. She’s been laid out in a posed position. Thought went into this. I don’t think the killer would have left ID behind. But if he or she did, it was because they wanted us to know the vic’s identity.” She looked at her watch. “It’s been forty minutes since I arrived at the scene, the old woman was here maybe a couple minutes before that.”
“So whoever put her there is long gone.”
“It was dark when I arrived here. And this is the far end of the main street. You have some trees just behind.”
“You don’t think he carried her here in his arms?”
“Transport in a car is much more likely. The shops here are all closed. That’s not the case on the other end of the street. And there’s better illumination that way too.”
“Which shows familiarity with the area,” said Wallis.
“It’ll be interesting to see the time of death.”
“I don’t think she was killed here. When I arrived, I looked around the whole area, listened for sounds, the works. Nothing. I think she was killed off-site and then the murderer placed the body here for someone to find.”
“You sound like you’ve done this before.”
“And you’re here just visiting?”
“More or less.”
He thought for a moment. “Look, you want to work with me on this?”
“GBI has a lot of good people and expertise, but this is rural Georgia and assets are stretched. I’m not too proud to ask for expert help when it so conveniently presents itself.”
Pine looked at the screen. “All right. But there’s one thing you need to know.”
“You’ll see it for yourself, but the killer put a wedding veil on the woman.”
“A wedding veil?”
“How do you know she didn’t put it on her herself?”
“She’s in her late twenties wearing expensive jeans, a cashmere sweater, and a suede jacket with low-rise croc-skin boots. No way she’s walking around in that outfit with a veil. And it looks to be vintage, a lot older than she is.”
Wallis scratched his stubbly cheek. “So that veil must have some meaning for the killer? Something symbolic?”
“This scene was meticulously laid out. So everything has meaning. It’s almost like a little ceremony put together by the killer. Everything just so.”
“Okay, so what’s your preliminary observation?”
“I’m pretty sure of one thing.”
“I don’t think this will be the last time we see his work.”
PINE AND WALLIS stared down at the body.
The forensic processing team and a member of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Investigative Division had shown up in a single black van. A minute later a small, thin man dressed in a dark suit arrived. He was the coroner, called in to officially pronounce a death they all knew had already occurred.
As they began their tasks, Blum showed up after getting a text from Pine and being cleared through the secure perimeter.
Pine introduced Blum to Wallis.
“Sorry to interrupt your visit here,” said Wallis, eyeing Blum. “I’ve taken advantage of your boss being here and roped her into helping.”
“I doubt much effort was required for that,” replied Blum. She looked down at the body. “A wedding veil,” she said, glancing at Pine, who nodded.
“I believe so.”
Blum took a closer look. “It’s old. My mother’s generation. You can tell by the design and the style. World War II–ish.”
Wallis gave her an appraising look. “You got a good eye.”
“Well, I certainly try to keep both of them open at all times.”
Pine squatted down and ran her gaze over the dead woman. Her eyes were open and bulging. There were marks and bruises around her throat.
“Death by compression of the windpipe,” said Pine as Wallis nodded. “Asphyxiation.”
The coroner had stooped next to the victim on the other side and begun his examination. This included checking out the deceased’s eyes and shining a light down her throat, and feeling around the base of her neck.
He said, “I agree with that. Hyoid bone is crushed.”
“Petechial hemorrhaging,” added Wallis, pointing to the woman’s eyes.
The coroner nodded. “Strangulation puts pressure on the blood vessels servicing the eyes and they burst.” He looked at the eyes more closely, hitting them with a pen light. “Pupils have contracted, eye fluid has dried, and the irises have altered. This is not a recent death.”
Pine touched one limb. “And she seems to be in full rigor. How far along I don’t know.”
“Let me see if I can firm that up a bit.” The coroner made a small incision in the abdomen, inserted a liver temp probe through it, and checked the reading. “Factoring in the ambient temp and air dampness, the size and a