DENVER WAS NOT HAWAII. THERE WERE NO BEACHES, NO palm trees, no bikinis, no mai tais sipped slowly on the deck of the Lava Shack on Maui. Instead there were people dressed like they were expecting the next ice age, directing planes down taxiways lined with mounds of freshly plowed snow. There wasn't anyone wearing a bikini within five hundred miles. Worse yet, while it was only 3:00 p.m. local time on Thursday afternoon when Jonathan Quinn's flight began disembarking, a layer of gunmetal-gray clouds made it seem like it was almost night.
It was definitely vacation over, back to work.
After he exited the plane, Quinn made his way toward the front of the terminal, pulling his only piece of luggage, a carry-on suitcase, behind him. Not far beyond his arrival gate was a small kiosk. He stopped and bought an overpriced cup of coffee.
As he took a sip he glanced around. There seemed to be an equal amount of people walking to and from the gates. A typical busy afternoon in a typical busy international airport.
But it wasn't typical people he was looking for. He did a lot of traveling and knew from experience that you could never be sure who you might run into. In his business, that wasn't necessarily a good thing. But his arrival appeared to have been unobserved. He took another sip of his coffee and moved on.
Instead of following the crowd and proceeding to the passenger pickup area, Quinn found a seat next to a set of arrival and departure screens near the ticketing and check-in counters. He pulled out the book he'd been reading on the plane, South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami, and started in where he'd left off. When he finished the book an hour later, two dozen additional flights had arrived. He closed the novel and returned it to his bag. Time to call in.
"I thought you said you'd arrive first thing this morning," the voice on the other end of Quinn's phone said, irritated.
"Selective memory, Peter," Quinn replied. "Those were your words. Is my ride here?"
"It's been there since eight a.m.," Peter fumed. He told Quinn where to find the car, then hung up.
The ride turned out to be a blue Ford Explorer. The vehicle came equipped with leather seats, an AM/FM radio, a CD player, and two men, neither of whom felt it necessary to give Quinn their names. He designated them the Driver and the Other One.
As Quinn climbed into the back seat, the Other One tossed him a nine-by-twelve-inch padded manila envelope. It was about an inch thick and weighed maybe a pound. Quinn started to open it.
"Don't," the Driver said. He was glancing at Quinn in the rearview mirror.
"Why not?" Quinn asked.
The Other One turned toward him. "Not until we're gone. Instructions."
Quinn rolled his eyes and set the envelope on the seat beside him. "I wouldn't want you to get in trouble."
They drove in silence for the next hour, through Denver and into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It was dark now and Quinn was getting hungry. The last meal he'd had was on the plane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, if you could call the less-than-inviting beef Stroganoff he'd been served a meal. But he kept his hunger to himself. He knew if he didn't, his two new companions might decide that they were hungry, too. God forbid he be forced to eat with them.
Instead, he tried to imagine that the pine trees they drove by were palm trees, and that the cloudy sky was just the regular afternoon rainstorm moving onto the island. After a few minutes, he gave up and just stared out the window. The dirty snow along the side of the road was a poor substitute for the beaches of Kaanapali.
Finally, the Driver exited I-70 and drove a mile down a two-lane road into the darkened wilderness, before turning left onto a narrower, snow-packed road. A hundred yards ahead, a green Ford Taurus sedan was parked off to the side, tucked up against the encroaching woods. The Driver stopped behind it and turned the SUV's engine off. If Quinn didn't know better, he would bet he was about to be removed permanently. Deserted road. Two silent goons. A getaway car. Classic assassination scenario.
Game over, buddy. Thanks for playing, but you lose.
And though he knew he had nothing to worry about, he tensed a little, preparing himself just in case.
Without a word, both the Driver and the Other One opened their doors and got out. As they did, a blast of cold air swept into the SUV. Quinn watched as they walked over to the Taurus and climbed in. A moment later, the sedan roared to life. Without even giving the engine time to warm up, the Driver executed a quick U-turn, then sped off, back toward I-70.
Quinn chuckled to himself. This sort of cloak-and-dagger bullshit was really kind of amusing, if you thought about it. Asinine, but amusing.
He got out of the Explorer, his teeth clenching against the frigid air. The leather jacket he was wearing was a lousy barrier to the cold, but it was all he'd had with him when his vacation on the islands was cut short.
He hurried around the front of the vehicle and got into the driver's seat. The moment he had the door closed and the engine started again, he flipped the heater on full blast, letting the warm air fill the cabin. One of his first stops would be a place he could buy a winter coat, maybe even a couple of sweaters. Thermals, too. God, he hated cold weather.
Once he was reasonably warm, Quinn reached into the back and retrieved the padded envelope. He poured the contents onto the passenger seat. Inside were two business-size envelopes, a folded map, and three sheets of paper. Two of the sheets were a wire-copy news report about a fire in some place called Allyson. Apparently a vacation rental had burned down, and the person who'd been staying there—an unnamed man—had died.
Quinn picked up the final piece of paper and scanned it. It was the job brief containing his instructions and a limited amount of background information. Peter, as always, was trying to control what Quinn knew. Still, it was more information than the news article had revealed.
The dead guy's name was Robert Taggert. Quinn's assignment was to determine if the fire had indeed been an accident—which the local authorities were leaning toward—or something else.
That was all there was. Nothing else on Taggert. No helpful hints as to what Quinn should look for. Just an address—215 Yancy Lane—and a contact name with the local police force. On the surface, a piece-of-cake job. No reason for Quinn to have been brought in. Which to Quinn meant there was
probably more to it than the brief was letting on.
He grabbed the map and unfolded it. The location of the fire was marked with a small red X. It was at least a couple hours' drive from Quinn's current position. He set the map down and opened the first envelope. Cash, about five grand. A week's worth of expense money if nothing too costly came along. Longer if Quinn didn't have to pay anyone off. And if this really turned out to be a one- or two-day job, a little extra cash for his own pocket.
The other envelope held two identifications, both with Quinn's picture. The first was a Colorado driver's license. The second was an authentic-looking FBI ID. He'd played a Fed before, but it had been a while.
His new name, he was amused to see, was Frank Bennett. Peter had a thing for classic pop singers. Quinn guessed that "Tony Sinatra" would have been a little too obvious.
He set everything back down, then reached under the driver's seat looking for the one thing that hadn't been in the packet. When he pulled his hand back out, he was holding a soft leather case. He unzipped it and found what he expected inside, a 9mm SIG Sauer P226 and three fully loaded magazines. It was his weapon of choice. He put his hand back under his seat and pulled out a second pouch, this one containing a sound suppressor designed to attach to the end of the gun's barrel. Anything else he needed would be in the standard surveillance kit that was undoubtedly in the back of the vehicle.
He stored the gun, mags, and suppressor in the glove compartment, then put the Explorer in drive.
BREAKFAST THE NEXT MORNING WAS SCRAMBLED EGGS and sausage, in the restaurant at the Allyson Holiday Inn, where he'd spent the night. He sat alone in a booth, with a copy of the local paper on the table next to his plate.
It was full of the usual stuff small-town papers were interested in. A couple of short blurbs made up the international section: one about curbing ethnic tensions in Europe, and another on the continuing chaos in Somalia. The national news items were longer stories, with footers directing readers to other pages for the rest of the story—an ailing Supreme Court justice, a corporate fraud trial in Chicago, and a rundown of the expected highlights in the President's upcoming State of the Union address.
But it was the local stories that commanded the bulk of the front page. Rather, one local story. The Farnham house fire. The story was a follow-up to the piece that had been included in Quinn's brief. It contained nothing new. Just old information reworked to sound fresh and feed the curiosity of the local population. The fire investigators were calling the blaze an accident. Faulty wiring. One tourist dead. There was little else. Taggert's name still hadn't appeared. That seemed a bit unusual, but Quinn suspected Peter might have something to do with it.
A waitress walked by carrying a pot of coffee. She stopped when she saw what Quinn was reading. "That was awful, wasn't it?" she asked.
He looked up. Her nametag identified her as Mindy. "The fire?"
"Yeah," she said. "That poor man."
"Did you know him?"
"No," she said. "He might have come in here to eat, I guess. A lot of tourists do. Coffee?"
"Please," Quinn said, pushing his cup toward her.
She refilled it. "What I can't help wondering is if he has a family somewhere. Maybe a wife. Maybe some kids." She sighed. "Awful."
"It sure is," Quinn said.
She shook her head. "They say it happened while he was sleeping. Probably a nice guy, just enjoying a vacation, then suddenly he's dead."
She moved on, refilling a few more cups of coffee on her way back to the register. Happens all the time, Quinn thought to himself.
The Allyson Police Department's headquarters was located about a mile from the Holiday Inn. Quinn's contact was the chief of police, a guy named George Johnson.
Quinn flashed his FBI ID to the desk sergeant and was quickly ushered into Chief Johnson's office. The chief stood as Quinn entered.
Johnson was a tall man. He'd probably been in good shape once, but now carried a few extra pounds from too many years behind a desk. His face showed the strain of his job, too, eyes baggy and dark, jowls heavy and drooping. But his smile was genuine, and his handshake was firm. Quinn took both
as signs of a man who liked his job despite its difficulties.
"Agent Bennett," Chief Johnson said. "I can't say that I've ever really had to deal with the FBI before. But I guess this is a day of firsts for me."
The chief motioned to the empty chair in front of his desk. As Quinn sat down he wondered what Chief Johnson meant by "a day of firsts," but knew better than to ask right away.
"What can I do for you?" Johnson said as he eased himself back into his chair.
"Quite honestly, Chief, I'm not sure you can do anything," Quinn began. "I'm not really here on official Bureau business."
Johnson eyed Quinn curiously. "Then why are you here?"
"It's about the fire you had the other day."
"The Farnham fire," the chief said as if he'd expected it all along.
"That's right," Quinn said. "I'm here about the victim. Robert Taggert."
The chief paused, obviously surprised Quinn knew the man's name. "What about him?"
"He's apparently a relative of a special agent back in D.C. Somebody a bit higher up the food chain than I am. Since I was in the area on other business, they asked me if I could swing by and check things out. It's more soothing someone's concerns than anything else. I'm sure you have everything well in hand."
The chief was silent for a moment. "Is that why that other guy was out here earlier this morning?"
Now it was Quinn's turn to hesitate. "I'm not sure I know who you're talking about."
The chief opened the center drawer of his desk and pulled out a business card. Reading, he said, " 'Nathan S. Driscoll. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.' "
"May I see that?" Quinn asked.
The chief shrugged, then handed the card to Quinn. "I've never talked to anyone from ATF before either," the chief said.
The card was high-quality, printed on government-issued card stock, and complete with the ATF symbol embossed on one side.
"I don't know him," Quinn said. "But could be he's here for the same reason I am. If my guy back in D.C. was desperate enough, I'm sure he'd call in as many favors as he could." Quinn handed the card
back to Johnson. "What time was he here?"
"Left no more than thirty minutes ago," Johnson said.
Outwardly Quinn forced himself to smile. "I hate to make you go over this stuff again, but would you mind?"
The chief shook his head. "No problem. But like I said to Agent Driscoll, there's really not much to tell. It was an accident. That's it."
"I heard that. But Andersen—that's the guy back in D.C.—he wasn't satisfied. I guess when all your information is coming from what you read in the paper, you just want to make sure you're not missing something."
"If he's getting his information from the paper, how did he know Taggert was the one killed?"
"That's a great question," Quinn said honestly. "I have no idea."
The chief seemed to give it some thought. "Maybe it was the sister."
"The sister?" Quinn asked.
"Taggert's sister," the chief said. "She's the only one we told."
Quinn nodded. "That makes sense. Is there anything else you can tell me?"
The chief shrugged, then said, "It's not much."
"Anything will help."
Johnson pulled a thin file off the top of a stack on the right side of his desk. He perused its contents for a moment, then gave Quinn a halfhearted smile. "As I said, it's not much. The fire was apparently electrical. We think it started in the living room. A space heater that caught fire or something similar. Taggert was in the upstairs bedroom. He was probably overcome by smoke before he could get out. By the time the fire department got there, it was too late. Once the flames were finally out, there wasn't really much left of anything."
“How’d you identify the body?”
“We checked with the agency that handled the Farnham place, Goose Valley Vacation Rentals. When he signed the rental agreement, he left an emergency number. That’s how we were able to contact his sister. She forwarded his dental records to us. We got ’em the next day. They were a match.”
“I’m curious. Why was his name never released to the press?” Quinn asked.
“The sister requested we keep it quiet. Since he wasn’t a local, I didn’t see that it was much of a problem.”
“Could I get her number from you?” Quinn asked.
“The sister? Shouldn’t your friend have that? I mean, if they’re related?”
“Probably. You’d think he’d have given it to me, wouldn’t you?”
Johnson pondered for a moment. Then he glanced down at the file again and leafed through a couple of pages until he found what he was looking for. He jotted a number down on a piece of paper and handed it to Quinn.
“Not much else I can tell you,” Johnson said. “It was an accident. These things happen.”
“Has there been an autopsy?”
The chief nodded. “That’s standard.”
“Who handled that?” Quinn asked.
“Dr. Horner. At Valley Central Hospital.”
“Would you mind if I talked to him?”
“Not at all,” the chief said. “Though I don’t think he’ll be much more help than I am.”
“You’re probably right. But I just need to cover my bases.”
The chief pulled out another piece of paper and wrote something on it. He handed it to Quinn. It was the address of the hospital.
“Thanks,” Quinn said.
“Anything else?” the chief asked.
“Not that I can think of.” Quinn stood up, and Johnson did likewise.
“I’d like to get a look at the accident scene, if that’s okay? Since I’m here and all.”
“Be my guest. Do you know where it is?”
“Just be careful when you’re out there. Officially, it’s still a potential crime scene, though we’re really just wrapping things up.” Quinn held out his hand and the two men shook again.
“Thanks, Chief,” he said. “You’ve been a big help.”
A storm front had moved into the area while Quinn had been talking to Chief Johnson. The clouds were dark and low, and heavy with moisture. It wouldn’t be long before snow started to fall, Quinn realized. He needed to get a move on so that he could survey the fire scene before any snow disturbed what evidence might be left.
As he drove through town he used his cell phone to call the number the chief had given him for Taggert’s sister. After four rings, an answering machine picked up.
“Hello. After the beep, please leave us a message, and we’ll call you back.”
The voice was female, but flat and unmemorable. The message itself was laughably generic. Quinn didn’t recognize the speaker, but he was willing to bet whoever she was, she was not related to Taggert.
He found the Farnham place with little trouble. There was a sign posted at the end of the driveway warning unauthorized individuals to stay off the property. A rope that had probably been strung across the entrance lay off to the side, out of the way.
Quinn turned off Yancy Lane and drove up the snow-packed driveway. A white Jeep Cherokee was already parked in front of what was left of the Farnhams’ vacation home. Quinn parked his Explorer several feet away from it, then took a look around.
It had been a large house before the fire, at least two stories tall. Now the only things still standing were a blackened fireplace, a stone chimney pointing up at the sky, and a few scorched walls. Otherwise, it was an uneven pile of charred junk.
It was clear there had been little the fire department could do once they’d arrived on the scene. Their efforts had undoubtedly been directed more at containing rather than extinguishing the blaze. Though, with several feet of snow on the ground and an air temperature probably hovering at no more than twenty-five degrees, the likelihood of the fire spreading was pretty much nil.
More of a marshmallow roast than a rescue operation, Quinn thought.
He zipped up the Gore-Tex jacket he’d bought the night before, then climbed out of the Explorer. If it was possible, the clouds seemed darker and heavier now, the storm threatening to break at any moment.
What struck Quinn first was the silence. There was no hum of cars on the distant highway. No crack of wood being split by one of the neighbors in anticipation of a cold night. No yelling of children at play or hints of distant conversations. There wasn’t even a breeze blowing through the trees. Even the snow crushing under his feet and the whisper of his own breath seemed muffled and far away.
Everywhere a silence, a stillness. The only movement other than his own was the blanket of clouds rolling and dipping in an eerily soundless dance above his head.
But where his sense of hearing provided him little, his other senses more than made up for the deficit. The odor of burnt wood, melted plastic, and death hung in the air as if refusing to leave, claiming the site for its own. And on Quinn’s tongue, a tangy, acrid taste coating its tip and the roof of his mouth.
His first stop was the Cherokee. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and put it on the hood of the vehicle. It was still warm. He returned his hand to his pocket and walked over to the house.
Chief Johnson had said the fire department believed the blaze started somewhere in the living room. Quinn located where he thought the front door used to be, and quickly spotted a path just beyond it through the debris.
He followed the trail into the remains of the house. At various points along the path were fresh scrapings of wood and cleared spots where the fire investigators had examined possible points of ignition. Quinn knew what he was looking for, but so far he hadn’t seen it.
Near the center of the house he found an area that had been cleared of extraneous debris, exposing a spot on the floor near the remains of a wall. He leaned down for a closer look. There was a melted mound of plastic that had congealed into a lumpy, blackened mass on the floor. It could have been anything from a pile of CD cases to a lamp, or possibly even the space heater Chief Johnson had mentioned. Without cutting it apart, there was no way to tell.
Quinn stood up and looked around. As he suspected, the spot was the lowest point the fire had touched. There was no question this was where the blaze had begun. He could see the patterns made by the flames as they moved outward and then up what was left of the walls toward the second floor. But as to how the fire started in the first place, there was no definitive indication.
The job brief had said the second-floor room in which Taggert had died had collapsed onto the family room in the back of the house. Quinn backtracked out of the living room the way he had come in, then walked around the perimeter of the burnt remains until he was in the backyard.
At the far end of the debris, a man was leaning down, looking at the snow a few feet away from the house. His back was to Quinn, and on his jacket were three large letters: ATF.
Quinn stared at him for several moments, his face expressionless, then returned his attention to the house. His best guess was that he was standing only a dozen or so feet away from where Taggert had been found. Unfortunately, there was nothing much to see. A half-burnt dresser was about the only identifiable piece of furniture left; other than that, the back of the house was just an additional mound of junk.
He spotted another path through the wreckage, this one no doubt created to recover the body. But it didn’t look inviting. And there really was no reason for Quinn to take a closer look. Any useful information had likely been destroyed in the fire.
He closed his eyes, freeing his mind from any distractions, and tried to mentally visualize what had happened. If this wasn’t an accident, then someone had wanted Taggert dead. In that case, whoever had set the blaze would have wanted to make sure it took. Quinn pictured the arsonist-assassin as he went methodically through his tasks. He would have arrived either via the driveway or by way of—
Quinn opened his eyes and turned around to face the rear of the property. Directly in front of him, the snow had been thoroughly packed down, probably by the fire crew. There was a point in the snow about thirty feet away from Quinn where the foot traffic tapered off to a few scattered tracks, and another ten feet beyond, where the snow was just a flat surface, undisturbed since the last storm. This went on for a hundred feet to the back of the property. There the forest began again, lining the rear of the Farnhams’ property, then wrapping around the sides of the clearing and coming all the way back to the house along either edge.
It was beside the row of trees along the left side of the property where Quinn spotted something. It was an indentation in the snow, perhaps only a pinecone or a branch that had fallen from a tree and created a depression in the cover of white. Or perhaps something more.
The man in the ATF jacket stood and turned in Quinn’s direction. He was in his mid-twenties, a good ten years younger than Quinn. He was also a couple inches taller, topping out at about six feet. His brown hair was short, but not drastically so. When he saw Quinn, he smiled and started walking over.
“Thought I’d run into you here,” he said as he got close. “Look what I found.”
He held out a silver bracelet. Quinn reached his hand out, but instead of taking the piece of jewelry, he grabbed the ATF man by the wrist and pulled him forward. At the last second, Quinn released his grip. The man’s momentum was still carrying him forward as Quinn shoved him in the chest. The ATF agent immediately lost his footing and fell to the ground.
“What the hell?” the man said.
But Quinn had already started walking away.
QUINN HEADED TOWARD THE DEPRESSION HE’D SPOTTED in the snow. Behind him, the ATF agent pulled himself up off theground and ran to catch up.
“What are you all mad about?” the man asked.
Quinn stopped. “What are you doing here, Nate?”
“What do you mean, what am I doing here?” Nate asked. “You told me to come.”
“I told you to come to Colorado,” Quinn said. “I didn’t tell you to come to the accident scene. And I especially didn’t tell you to impersonate an ATF officer and go visit the police.”
“What’s the big deal?” Nate asked. “Thought it was a good chance to put some of my training to work. I don’t think it harmed anything.”
Quinn was tempted to do more than just throw Nate back to the ground for that comment. “How do you know that?” he asked. “How do you know you haven’t done any harm? Maybe Chief Johnson is sitting in his office right now wondering why he had two visits in one day from federal officials about a fire he thought was just an accident. Maybe while you walked around here you stepped on something that might have been an important clue. Have you talked to anyone else?”
Nate shook his head. “No. Just the chief of police.”
“Give me the bracelet,” Quinn said.
“The bracelet. The thing you were showing me earlier.”
“Right,” Nate said. He looked down at the hand he had been carrying it in. It was empty. “I must have dropped it when you pushed—”
He stopped himself. “When I fell.”
Quinn waited as Nate retrieved the bracelet and brought it back. This time when he held it out, Quinn took it.
He draped it over his left palm so he could get a better look at it. The bracelet was a series of solid, half-inch square links with some sort
of design on the face of each. A few of the links had melted some from the fire, but otherwise it was surprisingly still intact. Quinn stuck it in his pocket.
“Think it means anything?” Nate asked.
“I want you to go back to your car and wait for me.”
“How am I supposed to learn anything that way?”
Quinn looked Nate in the eye. “Today’s lesson: Do what you’re told.”
Nate stared back for a moment, then looked down. Without another word, he turned and began walking away.
Once Nate was gone, Quinn continued toward the line of trees at the edge of the property. As he neared it, the first flakes of snow began floating down from the sky.
“Great,” he muttered under his breath as he picked up his pace.
When he arrived at the depression, he bent down to get a closer look. Immediately he knew it wasn’t caused by a pinecone, and definitely not by a branch. It was a footprint. Several, actually. Now knowing what to look for, he could see more indentations running along the trees leading back to the rear of the property.
At first Quinn couldn’t tell whether the footprints were heading to or away from the house. A closer look revealed they were doing both. Someone had approached the house from the forest, then returned, keeping his—or her—feet in the same indentations. In fact, the person may have made more than one trip. Or maybe more than one person had used the same tracks. It was impossible to tell. Snow boots, though. Sorels, if Quinn guessed right.
As he followed the tracks, making a new set of his own beside them, the air began to thicken with falling snow. The prints were deep enough, though, that it would take some time before they completely disappeared.
A hundred yards from the house, Quinn found that whoever had made the tracks had stopped, either coming or going, and used the cover of several pine trees to shield him from the house. The person had stomped around a bit, probably to stay warm.
“You watched the fire from here,” Quinn said to himself, picturing the scene in his mind. “Made sure it was doing what you wanted.”
But why had he gone back?
Because now that Quinn had had a chance to look at several of the depressions, the top set of footprints definitely were heading back to the house.
He tried to reason it out, but no answer came to him. He decided not to worry about it for the moment, then continued following the person’s footprints deeper into the woods.
He immediately noticed there was something different about these new tracks. There weren’t multiple passes on them. Just one set, heading toward the house.
Okay, Quinn thought. So, our guy approaches the house from somewhere
off in the forest. He starts the fire. Walks back into the woods. Finds a tree to hide behind to make sure he’s done a thorough job. Then what?
The only possible answer he could come up with was that the firedidn’t take the first time.
Or, he suddenly realized, someone else had shown up, potentially ruining the arsonist’s plan.
Except there hadn’t been any report of another body. Just Taggert. The only thing Quinn could definitely determine from the tracks was that the assassin hadn’t left the scene the same way he’d come.
Quinn sat in the driver’s seat of the Explorer, still parked in front of the Farnham house. He was talking on his cell phone to Peter, head of an agency simply called the Office.
“Definitely not an accident,” Quinn said.
“Witnesses?” Peter asked.
“Don’t appear to be any.”
“And Taggert was the only victim?”
“Yes,” Quinn said. “Unless there’s something else you think I should know.”
“Nothing,” Peter told him. Quinn sensed a lie. “Did the chief have anything else?”
“He did drop something I was unaware of,” Quinn said.
“What was that?”
“He said they talked to someone who claimed to be Taggert’s sister. Know anything about that?”
“Just wrap things up and send me your report,” Peter said, ignoring the question.
“Not interested in cause of death?”
“No. You found out everything we need to know.”
“What did you do?” Quinn asked. “Hire someone you didn’t trust to get rid of this guy? Now you’re worried maybe he didn’t do as good a job as you’d hoped?”
There was a momentary silence from the other end of the line.
“We didn’t kill Taggert. He’s no use to us dead.”
“Who was he?”
“You don’t need to know that.”
“All right, whatever, Peter. I should be out of here by the end of the day. You’ll have my report in the morning.” Quinn paused. “There’s a few more things I want to check.”
Peter waited a moment before responding. “What?”
“There’s no car. Nothing here and nothing in the police report. Taggert couldn’t have just walked in.”
“Maybe he took a cab.”
“Out here he’d need his own vehicle.”
More silence on the other end. “Cadillac,” Peter finally said.
“He was driving a white Cadillac.”
“Thanks,” Quinn said. “That’ll help.”
“Whoever started the fire probably took it. They’re long gone by now.”
Quinn was thinking along the same lines. But it wouldn’t hurt to check it out. He did find it odd, though, that Peter seemed so anxious for him to close the case.
“What else?” Peter asked.
“You said a few things.”
“Just a figure of speech,” Quinn lied.
“I’m sorry, Agent Bennett. There wasn’t a car there when the fire department arrived,” Chief Johnson said. “We shouldn’t have missed that. I’m not going to apologize. We’re a small force, and we don’t get a lot of people dying like that around here. Still, I should have noticed it.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Quinn said into his phone. “Maybe a friend brought him up. Or maybe he just hired a ride.”
“I guess that’s possible,” Johnson said. “I’ll look into it.”
“Maybe Taggert’s sister will know something. If nothing else, she might at least know what kind of car he drove,” Quinn said, hoping to delay any search by the police until he’d been able to conduct one of his own.
“Good idea. I’ll try her.”
“Let me know if you come up with anything,” Quinn said. He asked the chief to fax him a copy of the final report, giving him a number that would send the document straight to Quinn’s e-mail inbox. They said their goodbyes, then Quinn hung up and got out of the car.
The snow was continuing to fall, lighter than before but steady. To
his left, he heard the door of the Jeep Cherokee open and close. A moment
later, Nate joined him.
They stood side by side looking at the remains of the Farnham house, the sound of their breathing the only noise breaking the silence.
After nearly two minutes, Nate said, “Did you find anything?”
Quinn didn’t answer right away. When he did, his voice was calm.
“What were my instructions when I called you?”
“I know. I fucked up. I should have just waited in my hotel room until you called, just like you told me.”
“Why?” Quinn asked.
Nate hesitated, then said, “Because I could have messed everything up?”
“Because,” Quinn said, his voice calm as he turned to look at
Nate, “that’s what I told you to do.”
Quinn looked at his apprentice, his face neutral. “I’ve told you what sorry gets you.”
Nate glanced down at the ground, then back up at Quinn. “Sorry gets you killed.”
Quinn turned without another word and started making a perimeter search of the parking area. Nate silently followed him a few steps behind.
Quinn didn’t really expect to find anything else. What tracks hadn’t been covered up by the new snow had undoubtedly already been destroyed by the rescue vehicles during the fire. He stopped after only a few minutes. If Taggert had a Cadillac, there was no longer any sign of it.
So, Quinn thought. Where is it now?
He stared into the wilderness, mulling it over. If Peter was right, the car was probably hundreds of miles away, dumped in a random parking lot. But there was another possibility. And the more Quinn thought about it, the more likely it seemed.
Back in the Explorer, he started the engine and pulled out onto Yancy Lane. Glancing in his rearview mirror, he saw Nate following him in the Cherokee. At least there was something the kid didn’t need to be told.
Quinn picked up his phone and called local information.
QUINN KNEW IF THE KILLER HADN’T DRIVEN OUT OF town, then his most likely destination had been the nearest alternatetransportation, whatever would have gotten him out of town faster. There was really only one place they needed to check. The Goose Valley Community Airport.
And there it was—a white, late-model Caddy. It was parked at the far end of the almost deserted airport parking lot, so it wasn’t a stretch to guess that the airport had closed for the day because of the coming storm. It wasn’t a big facility in the first place. Quinn knew there couldn’t be more than a handful of flights a day, mostly private.
Quinn parked the Explorer next to the Cadillac, Nate pulling up alongside him in the Cherokee. No one would see them, and even if someone did, it was doubtful they’d come over to see what Quinn and Nate were doing. Not in this weather.
Quinn got out of his car and stepped over to the Caddy.
“Who does this belong to?” Nate asked as he walked up.
“Not important,” Quinn said.
Quinn checked the doors. Locked. He walked back over to the Explorer and retrieved a long, flat piece of flexible metal from the surveillance kit. The metal strip was straight for about a foot and a half, then bent up and down like a T wave on an EKG, forming a hook at the end.
He carried the instrument over to the Caddy and handed it to Nate. “Open it,” he said, pointing at the car.
Nate smiled, then slipped the modified slim jim between the window glass and the weather stripping on the front passenger door. Within thirty seconds, the lock released and Nate opened the door.
“You’re better than before,” Quinn said. “But you still need work.You’ve got to be able to get in under five seconds. Any make or model. Otherwise, there’s a good chance you’re dead.”
Nate’s smile didn’t falter. “But I did do better.”
Quinn shook his head, a smile briefly touching his lips. “A little.”
The inside of the car looked tidy, but not unusually so. Chances were Taggert’s assassin was a day-player like Quinn—hired per job, but not part of any bigger picture. If searching the car hadn’t been on the killer’s to-do list, then it wasn’t done. Why waste the effort on something you weren’t getting paid for?
Quinn popped open the glove compartment. Inside he found an unused owner’s manual, a maintenance log, a couple of maps, a disposable camera still sealed in a plastic bag, the vehicle registration, a rental agreement—so it wasn’t Taggert’s personal car—a pair of expensive Ray-Ban sunglasses, and two fully loaded magazines. He left the sunglasses, but stuffed the mags and rental agreement into his pocket.
Next he checked under the car’s front seats, hoping to find a gun that matched the ammo. But there was nothing.
Nate was still standing outside the Caddy’s door. Quinn looked out at him.
“I’ll pop the trunk,” Quinn said. He removed one of the mags from his pocket and held it up. “We’re looking for a gun. A Glock 9mm.”
“Okay,” Nate said.
Quinn released the trunk, then began searching the rest of the interior of the Caddy while Nate checked out the back. Quinn had barely begun when he heard Nate’s footsteps returning around the side of the car. He looked over as Nate leaned in.
“What is it?” Quinn asked.
“You need to see.”
Quinn was annoyed, but said nothing as he followed his apprentice back to the open trunk.
“She’s dead,” Nate said, unnecessarily.
Taking up a good portion of the trunk space was the body of a woman wrapped generously in silver duct tape. There was none of the smell Quinn would have usually expected, but that was no doubt due to the cold.
He recognized her almost immediately. Even bound as she was, there was no mistaking her. It was Jills. Helpful Jills, informative Jills, happy Jills. Sometime coworker, sometime acquaintance. Quinn clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Now he knew why the arsonist had come back to the house. Taggert hadn’t been alone.
Quinn had no idea if “Jills” was her first or last name. It wasn’t the kind of question you asked someone in this business. It probably wasn’t her given name, anyway. Just like Peter wasn’t Peter’s. Or like Jonathan Quinn wasn’t his.
She was a courier mostly, though Quinn had heard she’d done a little operations work recently. Never on one of his gigs, though.
Operations was a dangerous life choice. Which was why Quinn liked what he did. No one bothered with the guy who came in after the fact, nosing around a bit, making things pretty for the locals. Quinn’s line of work was about as safe as it came in the world of freelance espionage. Not without its hazards, but he was usually able to sleep soundly at night.
I guess this is why Peter asked if anyone else had died, Quinn thought as he stared down at her. What harm would it have done to tell Quinn that Jills was part of the program?
One thing was for sure. It looked like Quinn was going to have to do a bit of serious cleaning after all.
“You’re sure it was Jills?” Peter asked.
It was almost noon. Quinn stood near the window in his motel room at the Holiday Inn, alone. The storm didn’t look like it was going to let up soon. He was concerned that the roads back to Denver might close down in the next few hours, so he’d sent Nate off to pick up his stuff. As for Quinn’s own bag, it was packed and waiting in the
“No question,” Quinn said. “But whoever did it beat her up pretty bad first.”
Peter was briefly silent. “You took care of it?”
“It’s handled,” Quinn told him. He’d called a disposal guy based in Denver he’d used before. Jills and the Cadillac would disappear within a couple hours. He’d arranged for her cremated remains to be delivered to the Office, but he decided not to share that information with Peter.
“What about the local police?”
“They don’t suspect anything. I’m assuming Taggert’s sister gave them a false lead on the car.”
Peter wasn’t biting. “Good,” was all he said.
“What was Jills doing here? Was she working with him, or was she working for you?”
“How should I know?” Peter said, sounding a bit too rehearsed.
“So you’re saying this wasn’t your operation?”
“I never said it was.”
Why was Peter trying so hard to sell him? Quinn wondered.
“And Taggert wasn’t your responsibility?”
“Not our responsibility,” Peter echoed.
That cinched it. Peter was lying about something. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have even answered Quinn’s questions in the first place. There was definitely more going on here than Peter was letting on.
“I’m heading out now,” Quinn said. “I’ll e-mail you my report tomorrow when I get home.”
“Stay available,” Peter said. “We might have something else coming up soon.”
“If I’ve got nothing else going on, we can talk.” Quinn hung up.
Excerpted from THE CLEANER © Copyright 2011 by Brett Battles. Reprinted with permission by Dell. All rights reserved.