MITCH BURST INTO THE INTENSIVE-CARE UNIT.

"Detective Connors. I'm here to see Tommy Burns." He flashed his badge at the staff nurse.

"Right this way, Detective."

The head of admissions had filled Mitch in on the van driver's story. According to Tommy Burns, he was a freelance gardener who'd happened to pick up a hitchhiker a couple miles outside of Bedford last Tuesday night. The woman went by the name of Lizzie. Tommy drove her about forty miles north before she suddenly pulled a knife on him, forced him into the woods, stabbed and robbed him, leaving him for dead.

"Some local kids found him. They were out hunting. A few more hours and he'd have bled to death for sure."

"And he believes this Lizzie who attacked him was actually Grace Brookstein?"

"He seems certain of it. A few hours after he came to, he asked to have the TV turned on. Brookstein's face came on the news and he went crazy. We had to sedate him. He wants to talk to you but he's still very weak, so go easy. His wife and kids haven't even seen him yet."

Mitch thought, Wife and kids. The poor bastard's a family man. But of course Grace Brookstein didn't care about that. She picked him up, used him to get what she wanted, then left him to die in the woods, alone. Painful memories of his dad's murder came flooding back to him. Pete Connors's killer would never be caught. But Grace Brookstein sure as hell would be. Men like Tommy Burns deserved justice. They deserved to be protected.

Mitch approached Tommy Burns's bed full of compassion.

When he left the hospital fifteen minutes later, he found himself wishing Grace Brookstein had finished the job. Tommy Burns was about as likable as a bad case of hemorrhoids. He was also a rotten liar.

"Jesus, Detective, I already told you. I was the Good Samaritan, okay? I saw a chick in trouble and I did the right thing. One minute we was driving along, listening to the radio, nice as pie. The next minute, bam! The bitch has a knife to my throat. I never stood a chance."

Mitch wanted to believe him. Badly. Right now Tommy Burns was the only witness he had. But he didn't believe him. Something about the guy wasn't right.

"Let's go back to when you first picked her up, shall we, Mr. Burns? You said she looked like she was in trouble?"

"She was half dressed. It was freezing out there, snowing. She had this thin blouse on. You could see right through it." A half smile flickered across his face at the memory. Just then a pretty young nurse came in to refill the water pitcher. Mitch Connors watched Tommy Burns follow her lustfully with his eyes as she turned and left the room. A light went on in Mitch's brain.

"You didn't think to ask her why she was dressed like that on a freezing winter's night?"

"Nope. Why should I? None o' my business."

"I suppose not. Still, out of curiosity..."

"I'm not a curious person."

"Yes. I can see that."

Tommy Burns's eyes narrowed. Something about Mitch's tone gave him the feeling he was being mocked. "What d'you mean by that?"

"I don't mean anything by it. I'm simply agreeing with you that you lack curiosity. For example, you don't seem to have asked yourself why, after going to all the trouble of trying to murder you, this woman didn't finish the job."

Tommy Burns became agitated. "Hey now. Don't you go givin' me no 'this woman' bullshit. It was Grace Brookstein. I saw her on the TV, plain as day. You catch her, I'll be wanting that two-hundred-thousand-dollar reward."

"Fine," said Mitch. "Let's say it was Grace Brookstein who attacked you."

"It was."

"If it were me, I'd still be asking myself that question: 'Why did she let me live? Why didn't she finish the job?' But then again, you see, I am a curious person. We detectives usually are."

Tommy considered this. "I guess she thought she had. Finished the job, I mean. We were out in the middle of nowhere. Probably figured I'd die slow."

Mitch pounced. "Really? Why do you think she would want you to die slowly?"

"'Scuse me?"

"According to you, her motive was theft. She needed a ride and she needed money. That being the case, I could understand her wanting you dead. She wouldn't want witnesses, right?"

"Right."

"But what reason would she have to make you suffer? To prolong your agony?"

"What reason? Hell, I don't know. She's a woman, ain't she? They're all fucked-up bitches."

Mitch nodded slowly. "You're right. I mean, if a man had done this, he'd have taken the van, right?"

"Huh?" Tommy Burns looked well and truly confused.

"Once he'd gotten rid of you, he could have used the vehicle to get another forty, fifty, a hundred miles away from the crime scene before he dumped it somewhere. That'd be the smart thing to do, wouldn't it?"

"I guess it would."

"But women aren't as smart as us, are they?"

"Damn right they ain't."

Mitch leaned forward conspiratorially. "We both know what women are good for, don't we, Tommy? And it isn't their powers of reasoning!"

Tommy smiled stupidly. Now the cop was talking his language...

"Tell me, Tommy, do you regularly pick up hitchhikers?"

"Sometimes."

"Are many of them as attractive as Grace Brookstein?"

"No, sir. Not many."

"Or as good in the sack?"

"No, sir!" Tommy Burns grinned. "She was something else."

It was a full five seconds before he realized his mistake. The smile wilted. "Hey now, don't you go putting words in my mouth! I didn't...I mean...I'm the victim here," he stammered. "I'm the goddamn victim!"

IT WAS LATE BY THE TIME Mitch got home that night. If you could call the shitty two-bedroom rental that was all he could afford since Helen left him "home." Helen got everything when they split: Celeste, the house, even the dog, Snoopy. My dog. Mitch could understand the things that drove men to hate women. Men like Tommy Burns. It would be easy to slip down that path. He had to guard against it himself sometimes.

It had been quite a day. The press conference, a phone call from Grace Brookstein herself, and finally Tommy Burns. Burns was Mitch's first, real, concrete lead. Mitch knew he ought to feel elated. Instead he felt uneasy.

After Tommy Burns's slip of the tongue this afternoon, they'd come to an understanding: Mitch would look no further into a possible sexual assault of Grace Brookstein. In return, Tommy would forget about the $200,000 reward and would tell Mitch everything he could remember from that night: Grace's clothing, her demeanor, anything at all she might have said or done that could shed light on her plans. Tommy's van had been sent to forensics. When Mitch spoke to them a few hours ago, they'd been hopeful. It should provide a treasure trove of new evidence.

So why do I feel like crap?

Mitch had walked into that hospital this afternoon full of righteous rage and loathing. Grace Brookstein was a criminal, a heartless thief and would-be killer who had violently attacked an innocent family man. Except that if Tommy Burns was an innocent family man, Mitch Connors was Big Bird. The e-mail finally came through after midnight. Mitch had run a check on Tommy Burns's record. Sure enough, he had a string of sexual-assault convictions stretching back almost twenty years. Two rape charges had been thrown out for lack of evidence. So much for the Good Samaritan.

Something had happened in that van. Burns was a sexual predator and Grace had defended herself. In this case, at least, that made her the victim. Mitch suddenly realized, I don't want her to be the victim. I want her to be the bad guy. Usually he was unequivocal about his cases and the people he brought to justice. To Mitch, they were all paler versions of whoever had killed his father: bad men, men who deserved to be brought down. But already, this case felt different. Part of him hated Grace for her crimes. Her greed and lack of remorse were well documented. But another part of him pitied her. Pitied her for having to deal with the likes of Tommy Burns. Pitied her for having that pair of heartless vultures for sisters.

Mitch closed his eyes and tried to imagine how Grace Brookstein must have felt in Burns's van. Alone, on the run, already desperate, and the first man she trusted turned out to be a psychotic pervert. Burns wasn't a big guy but he was strong, and presumably determined. Grace must have shown great courage to fight him off like that.

What would her next move have been?

She wouldn't hitch another ride. Not if Burns had just raped her. She'd take off on foot. Which means she couldn't have gotten far that night. A couple of miles maybe. Five tops.

Pulling out a map, Mitch pinpointed the spot where Burns's van was abandoned. With a red Sharpie, he drew a circle around the van at a five-mile radius.

There was only one town inside the circle.

THE OLD MAN WAVED HIS FRAIL arms excitedly. Mitch Connors fought back the urge to laugh. He looks like Yoda having a seizure...

"I told 'em! I told 'em she wuz here, but they jus' pooh-poohed me. Reckon an old man like me don't know what he saw. Dead of night she shows up, dead of night. No suitcase! I told 'em. I said, she din' have no case. That ain't right. But did anybody listen to me? No, sir."

It turned out Richardsville only had the one motel. When Mitch called and mentioned Grace Brookstein's name, the proprietor of the Up All Night had gone ballistic. Yes, Grace had been there. He'd already told the police. Didn't those bozos speak to each other?

"I hope you gonna fire that officer. McInley. Arrogant little piece of S-H-I-T, 'scuse my language, Detective. But I told 'em."

Mitch turned to the technician sweeping the room for prints. The technician shook his head. "Clean as a whistle, boss. Sorry. If she was here, she did a good job covering her tracks."

The old man looked like his grizzled head might explode. "What do you mean 'if she wuz here'? Ain't no if. She wuz here! How many more times do I gotta tell you people? Grace. Brookstein. Wuz. Here."

"I'm sure she was, sir," said Mitch. But she's not here now. Another dead end.

"How's about my reward? Man on the TV said two hundred thousan' dollars."

"We'll be in touch."

THERE WERE MESSAGES WAITING FOR MITCH back at the station.

"Your wife called," the sergeant on the desk told him.

"Ex-wife," Mitch corrected her.

"Whatever. She was yelling something about your kid's school play. She wasn't a happy camper."

Mitch groaned. Damn it. Celeste's play. Was that today? Mitch had sworn up and down he'd be there, but with all the excitement of the last forty-eight hours, he'd totally forgotten. I'm the worst father in the world and the worst cop. Someone should give me a medal. Guiltily he began punching his old home number into his cell when the desk sergeant interrupted him.

"One more thing, sir. A guy was here earlier. He said he had information about Grace Brookstein; said he knew her. He wanted to talk to you but he wouldn't wait."

"Well, did you get his details?"

She shook her head. "He wouldn't tell me anything. He said he'd wait for you in this bar until six." She handed Mitch a dirty piece of paper with an address scrawled on it.

Mitch sighed. It was probably another crank. On the other hand the bar was only a couple blocks away. And anything was preferable to facing Helen's wrath, or hearing the disappointment in Celeste's voice.

The clock on the wall said ten of six.

AT SIX O'CLOCK EXACTLY, MITCH WALKED into the bar just as a good-looking, dark-haired man with a hawklike nose was walking out. When Mitch saw there were no other customers, he ran back onto the street and caught up with him.

"Hey. Was it you who wanted to see me? I'm Detective Connors."

The dark-haired man looked at his watch. "You're late."

Mitch was irritated. Who does this dickhead think he is? "Look, buddy, I don't have time for games, okay? Do you have information for me or don't you?"

"You know, you might want to be a little more polite to me. Your ass is on the line, Connors, and I can save it. For a price, of course. I know where Grace Brookstein's going to be at noon tomorrow. If you're nice to me - real nice - I'll take you to her."

CELESTE CONNORS CRIED HERSELF TO SLEEP that night.

Her daddy never called.




Line : 84

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