Authors: Susan Dunlap
“Be glad to get back to Panama, then? Think you might just stay down there awhile?”
“Thought about it. Lots of things to like down there. Living’s good if you’re not in the camp. And the hunt, well …” He had leaned forward, and lowered his voice. Tchernak recalled biting back the urge to say, “Do you really think people are more interested in you than the game?” Grady had paused a moment, then grinned and said, “Oil exploration is ninety percent hype. I tell them I’ve got a sixth sense, a nose for oil, a rare ability to read the sediment. But here’s the truth, Tchernak, what I read is the local people. I spot the guy who’s nosed out the oil. Sometimes it takes me months, but I always find the real explorers. Then I follow them. It’s that simple. Oh, my experience, my background in geology helps, but it’s the locals who’re key.” He shrugged. “But now I’ve got responsibilities up here.”
“Didn’t you ask what those responsibilities were?” Kiernan would demand. Well, no. Grady didn’t seem eager to talk about them, and God knows, he himself didn’t want to hear about them. They’d sat, awkwardly silent, he suddenly swilling the watery beer, the familiar salt and grease of airport eateries smelling stronger, more cloying, till he could “feel” it on the glass and the table. And then the Broncos scored and they could talk sports until it was time for Grady’s plane.
What had struck him so strange, then? He squeezed his eyes tighter, trying to run the film back, to pause at that moment before he got caught up trying to avoid having to hear about Grady’s problem with his girlfriend. The girlfriend. Footloose Grady signing on for three more maudlin evenings. Wasn’t like the guy couldn’t get laid somewhere else. Women loved Grady’s little-boy bravado. Grady was only five-six, and still, when he went out with the football guys, it was little Grady who ended up with the girl. And here, hell, this was Nevada, any guy could get it here. So, why did Grady care about her? No, not the right question. Unless Grady had changed completely, the question was, What did he want from her?
Tchernak smiled. Grady had local responsibilities. And he was gone a lot. Bingo. He didn’t have to have Grady here to ask who was looking after those local responsibilities in his absence. What
her name? But now that name might as well have been three civilizations down at the bottom of Grady’s suitcase.
Dead end. For the time being.
He opened his eyes and stared at the dull gray screen. What else would Kiernan do? How would she find out what those responsibilities of Grady’s were? Bills?
Three minutes later Brad Tchernak was smiling again, looking at a gas and electric bill from an address across town.
He checked the e-mail. But it was way too soon for Persis to get back, even if she pushed him to the front of the list. He could call her. He could e-mail and tell her to hold the data till he contacted her. No, as soon as she heard that, she’d figure there was no rush and go back to whatever she was doing when she got his message. Better to let things go, and check back in here after he tracked down Grady’s local responsibilities at the utility-bill address. A man who makes a sudden foreign trip and comes home to disappear, what could he have stashed across town?
As Tchernak closed the apartment door behind him, he was thinking of Kiernan. Often enough he’d labeled her cold, distant, said it wasn’t normal the way she could turn off emotions, but now he envied her self-control. Grady Hummacher weighed on him. He cared about the guy, and he was damned worried.
HE FIRST THING
noticed when she pulled off the highway was the line of dead birds, a thick black shadow of the power line above. Las Vegas. Was there any other major city so totally committed to winning the war against nature? She turned toward the McCarran Airport exit. The airport was in the middle of town. She’d almost taken the previous exit when she spotted the soaring tower. Only at the last minute did she realize that tower was not the airport control tower but part of the Stratosphere Casino. The whole city was so flat around the sudden bursts of cartoonlike casinos that she had the feeling of driving on a game board, looking out for oversized markers.
At the first stoplight she dialed Tchernak’s message number. No message for her. The light turned green. She plunged ahead between the clumps of apartments, monuments to diversity in facade design. At the next light she called her own message number.
“You have one message.”
“Dr. O’Shaughnessy? This is Sheriff Fox at the sheriff’s department in Gattozzi. Please call me immediately.”
She patted around for a pen. In her own Jeep there was a pad on the dash. Here, in this rental car, there was nothing extra. She wrote the sheriff’s number on her hand.
So Jeff Tremaine did report the body. It made her think better of him. Jeff knew as much as, maybe more than she did about hemorrhagic fevers. What could she possibly tell the sheriff? Didn’t matter. Before she’d started in the detecting business, she’d assumed second opinions were confined to medicine. Then she’d run into police departments, sheriff’s departments, coroners, district attorneys, health departments, and discovered that the second opinion was the CHA opinion, as in Cover His Ass. Well, she’d have time at the airport to call and cover Jeff Tremaine’s tail.
She turned right. She could see the Car Rental Return sign now. By tomorrow investigators from Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control would outnumber the residents in Gattozzi. Every assay would be begun, every lead would be followed. By the time she got home tonight, she’d be exhausted, but it would be from energy well spent. A day she could be proud of. She should be glad …But she couldn’t shake off the picture of the woman on the slab. She
have been an immigrant. But she could as easily have lived in Nevada all her life. Her family might have lived here for generations. Her hemorrhagic condition might not be contagious. The truth was, Kiernan admitted mentally, she knew next to nothing about the woman’s death and truly nothing about her life. And yet the situation got to her in a way she didn’t want to think about. Who had been so callous or so desperate as to dump her disfigured body in the morgue? The act resonated of the Black Plague, with terrified villagers throwing their sick sisters, brothers, parents outside the door to die. Of undertakers picking up bodies like litter in the gutters. Who was this woman who had died with a face too distorted to recognize? These were questions too personal for Public Health. The case cried out for a good investigator.
Was that why Jeff Tremaine really called her? She turned right again, into the rental return area. Cars were lined up at the return port. She pulled in behind a nondescript white car and began gathering her few belongings. All around her, car doors were opening and slamming; trunk lids being shoved up, suitcases smacked to the macadam. Voices were sharp with end-of-trip accusations and instructions that referenced years of failures to please. To her right a black cocker spaniel leaped excitedly. She pictured Ezra, alone in the flat, his big wiry face on crossed paws, big brown eyes widening excitedly when he heard her footsteps.
She registered the slap of shoes on pavement at the same time a man said, “Dr. O’Shaughnessy?”
“Deputy Potter.” He emphasized the title in a way that made her think he was new to it. The shield he flashed looked shiny and his tan uniform was crisp and fit his young thickset body well. “Sheriff Fox would like to speak with you. My car is right over here.”
“Fine,” she said, walking the few steps to the blue-and-gold patrol car. “I do have a five o’clock plane.”
“We know that, ma’am.” Without looking at her, he opened the back door. “What airline are you flying?”
“No problem. I’ll give them a call for you and reschedule your flight.”
“Reschedule? I don’t think so. Are you arresting me?”
“No, ma’am. We’re just asking for your cooperation in our investigation.” His hand was still on the car door, and he stepped back so that she could see the grating that divided front seat from back. To protect him from the likes of her.
Her shoulders tightened. She took a step back.
“Are you carrying a weapon, ma’am?”
“What? No, goddammit, I am not carrying a weapon across the state line. I’m not planning to smuggle it onto the airplane. And I don’t have time to stand here and discuss it. It’s been a long day and I need to get home.”
“Sheriff Fox is
for your cooperation.”
In a minute he’d be telling her to put her hands on the car while he patted her down. No, not telling, “asking” in an offer-you-can’t-refuse manner. “Potter, what is this about? I know you’ve got an extremely dangerous situation in Gattozzi. But there’s nothing you’re going to find out from me that Jeff Tremaine can’t tell you himself. The disease warrants immediate and serious attention, but I can’t diagnose it for you. For that you’re going to need a virologist, an epidemiologist, and a lab with Level Four capacity. I’m sure the sheriff has already been in touch with Public Health. What do you think I can possibly tell you?”
“It’s not my place to say, ma’am. But Sheriff Fox in Gattozzi figured it was worth the expense of five deputies to find you.”
CHERNAK WAS HALFWAY
down the steps when the idea of checking out Grady Hummacher with his neighbors occurred to him. Maybe Kiernan wasn’t so fucking ingenious; he could spot the next move as well as she could. Detective work
all about instinct, just the way reading the defensive tackle was. There was no time on the line of scrimmage to scan a mental list of moves that meant the tackle was going to shift right and go underneath or shift left and spin behind you. You just had to
in your gut. Now his gut told him that the address across town would still be there in half an hour, and that the real question was here.
He turned back up the stairs and knocked on the door of the adjoining unit. It was an odd setup in these upscale condos. Grady’s four-room unit was attached to this grander place as if it were the servant’s quarters. The door to the “big house” was oak, half again as wide as Grady’s. A Henry the Eighth kind of a door. Tchernak lifted the metal lion’s head and let it swing back. Inside he could hear the bell ding through the foyer, a Henry kind of a foyer. He stepped back, glancing down the length of the long wooden porch. Unlike Grady’s brown-shingle unit, the facade on this half was stone. Faux stone. He’d been an extra in a couple of movies in college and he’d seen enough breakaway walls to recognize the comforting, soft contours of “faux.” But this was good faux—“faux of the highest quality,” he could imagine the builder describing it. The windows were framed in hunter green, and the whole place gave the feeling of Henry’s hunting lodge. Perfect for the wealthy or wishing-to-be-wealthy-appearing.
“Its open. I’ll be with you in a min,” a woman’s voice called. Her accent was midwestern maybe, Tchernak couldn’t tell. She wasn’t shouting, but her deep tone cut through every other noise, and you couldn’t miss it no matter how much you wanted to.
Tchernak smiled. Whoever she was expecting, it didn’t matter. Kiernan had broken into houses; the cops had found her in at least one apartment after she’d loided the lock and let herself in, and she’d had to do some fast lying to get herself out of that. That was thinking on her feet; and she was as sharp as they come at pedal fabrication. He wasn’t; he knew that. It worried him. But now he saw the truth; he simply wasn’t going to get into that situation. Women would let him in, they always had. He didn’t know why. He wasn’t handsome. In truth—he knew it—he was an ugly guy. His nose was big and bony; his face long; his eyebrows were like moss; and when he’d seen snapshots, he’d noticed a certain haunted look around his eyes. And his hair, well, he didn’t have to wonder about that. Every time he came home from college, his mother greeted him: “Vivien Bradley Tchernak, look at your hair. It’s too long, too wiry. And that mustache!” He honestly didn’t know what women saw in him. But
c’est la vie,
right? He let himself in the Henry door.
The room was huge, the walls dark oak (faux, of course), the arched ceiling two stories at its apex. Two overstuffed couches covered in some thick maroon flowered stuff faced each other in front of the giant stone hearth. And over the mantel where the moose head should have been, there was a publicity photo of a glitzy redhead, mike in hand.
“Hang on,” she called. “You’re early. If I had all of pharaoh’s laborers I couldn’t get myself put together in less than an hour. Go ahead and set up. I’ll be there in a minute.”
He followed her voice through an archway into a hall.
“I got these boots, real rhinestone cowboy boots. I’m thinking, maybe they’d work with the dress, you think?”
“Wow!” Tchernak stopped dead at the bathroom door. The bathroom was the size of a two-car garage, so big the sunken black tub, wall of mirrored cabinets, three sinks, and sauna left room for a sofa across from one of the two toilets. The woman standing in front of the mirror was the one over the mantel. In the picture she looked fresh, natural, eager, and just a bit naughty. Here he could see the faux that went into the picture. The woman looked like a fever victim—cheeks too red, eyes too wide, skin too slick. She had big hair, red, the kind that would draw a comment from his mother. And her hands never stopped moving, grabbing facial brushes, tiny ones, big ones, spreading brown on her cheeks, white over her eyes, stopping, looking, dabbing. Her green sequined dress came to the floor with a slit that sent his eyes right back up nearly to her crotch.
Now it all fell into place. “I wondered who you thought I was. Brad Tchernak here. You do look spectacular.” Tchernak smiled.
She stopped an instant in her ministrations, started to smile, then changed her mind. “What the hell are you doing in my bathroom?”
“You said come in.” He grinned. “I’m a friend of your neighbor, Grady.”
She considered, shrugged, and turned back to the makeup counter, fingering through four large shiny sacks as if he were a regular visitor to her bathroom.