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Authors: John Katzenbach

The Traveller

BOOK: The Traveller
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John Katzenbach

The Traveller

Pan Books

in association with Macmillan

First published in the UK 1987 by Macmillan London Ltd

This edition published 1988 by Pan Books Ltd,

Cavaye Place, London SW10 9PG

in association with Macmillan

987654321

1 The reasons behind

Detective Barren’s obsession

l

She dreamt uneasily.

She could see a boat adrift, first in the distance, then suddenly closer until she realized that she was on the boat and surrounded by water. Her first thought was panic, to search about her and find someone to tell the important news that she was unable to swim. But each time she turned to look, her perch on the edge of the boat grew more precarious, and the wave action would sweep the small craft upward, balancing momentarily on wave edge, then falling away, sickeningly, bouncing her about, out of control. In her dream she looked for something solid to hold on to. As she seized the mast of the boat and clutched it with all the strength she could muster, an alarm went off, ringing, horrible, and she knew that it was the sound made when the boat sprung a leak and that she was moments from finding seawater lapping at her feet, tickling her with terror. The alarm continued to blare and she opened her mouth wide, ready to call or shout in fear for help, struggling as the boat rocked around her. In the dream the deck pitched abruptly and she cried out, as if to her sleeping self, Wake up! Wake up! Save yourself!

And she did.

She gasped wildly, spinning from sleep-state to wakeful-ness, sitting up suddenly in her bed, her right arm shooting out and seizing the bedstand, something solid amidst the vaporous fears of the dream. She realized then the telephone was ringing.

She cursed to herself, rubbed her eyes, and found the

telephone on the floor by the bed. She cleared her throat as she answered:

“Detective Barren here. What is it?’

She had not had time to assess the situation. She lived alone, without husband, without children, her own parents long since passed away, and so the idea that her telephone would ring in the midst of the night did not hold any particular terror for her, as it would have for so many people who are unaccustomed to late-night calls and who instantly would have foreseen the telephone ringing in the darkness for precisely what it was: terrible news. And, being a detective by trade, it was not unusual for her to be summoned at night, police work by necessity often taking place beyond banking hours. That was what she fully expected, that for some procedural reason her capabilities as a crime-scene technician were needed.

‘Merce? Are you awake?’

‘Yes. I’m fine. Who is it?’

‘Merce, it’s Robert Wills in homicide, I …’ He let his voice trail off. Detective Barren waited.

‘How can I help you?’ she asked.

‘Merce, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this …’

She had a sudden mind’s eye picture of Bob Wills sitting at his desk at the homicide office. It was a hard, harsh, open office, illuminated with unforgiving fluorescent light that was always on, filled with metal file cabinets and desks that were colored orange and to her mind seemed stained with all the horrors that had passed so casually in confession and conversation over the desktops.

‘What?’

For an instant she felt a rush of excitement, a kind of

delicious fear, far different from the dream-panic in which

she had been immersed. Then, as her caller paused, an

emptiness formed in her stomach, a kind of vacuum

sensation, that was instantly replaced by a rush of anxiety.

‘What is it?’ she asked, aware that there was a touch of

this new sense in her voice.

‘Merce. vou have a niece …’

‘Yes, dammit. Her name is Susan Lewis. She’s a student at the university. What is it? Has she been in an accident?’

But then the realization struck her: Bob Wills in homicide. Homicide. Homicide. And she knew then what the nature of the call was.

‘I’m sorry,’ he was saying, but his voice seemed very distant and for an instant she wished she were back in her dream.

Detective Mercedes Barren dressed swiftly and headed across Miami’s licorice late summer night toward the address she’d written in a hand she thought was possessed with someone else’s emotions; she’d felt her own heart racing, but seen her hand steady, scratching numbers and words on a pad. It had seemed to her that it was someone else who had finished the conversation with the homicide detective. She had heard her own voice hard and flat requesting available information, current status, names of officers in charge, facts about the crime already known, options being pursued by detectives. Witnesses. Evidence. Statements. She persisted, trying not to be put off by Detective Wills’ evasions and excuses, recognizing that he wasn’t in charge, but knew what she wanted to know, and all the time thinking that she was screaming inside, filled to explosion with some beast emotion that wanted to twist her into a single sob-shout of agony.

She would not allow herself to think of her niece.

Once, as she steered the car up on to the interstate that cuts through the center of the city, blinded for an instant by the headlights of a semi-tractor trailer truck that had pulled in horrifyingly close, air horn sounding raucously, she had fought off the sudden fear of a crash and discovered that she’d replaced the sensation with a picture of herself and her niece some two weeks beforehand. They had been sunning by the pool in the small beachside apartment building where Detective Barren lived and Susan had spotted her service revolver sticking awkwardly out of a beach bag, silly and incongruous amidst towels, suntan lotion, a frisbee, and a paperback novel. Detective Barren

thought of the teenager’s response: she’d called the revolver ‘gross’, which was, to the detective’s mind, an absolutely apt description.

‘Why do you have to carry it, anyway?’

‘Because technically we’re never off duty. If I were to spot a crime, I would have to react like a policewoman.’

‘But I didn’t think you had to do that anymore, not since …’

‘Right. Not since the shooting. No, I’m a pretty tame policewoman now. By the time I get to a crime everything is pretty much over.’

‘Yuck. Dead bodies, right?’

‘Right. Yuck is right, too.’

They’d laughed.

‘It would be funny,’ Susan had said.

‘What would be funny?’

‘To get arrested by a policeperson wearing a bikini.’

They’d laughed again. Detective Barren had watched her niece rise and dive into the opaque blue pool water. She’d watched as Susan had effortlessly swum submerged to the far end, then, without rising for air, pivoted and snaked back to the edge. For one instant Detective Barren had felt a twinge of lost youth jealousy, then let it pass, thinking, Well, you’re not in such bad shape yourself.

The younger woman hung on the edge and asked her aunt: ‘Merce, why is it that you live next to the ocean and can’t swim a lick?’

‘Part of my mystery,’ she replied.

‘Seems silly to me,’ Susan had said, slipping from the pool, the water glistening, flooding from her thin body. She continued: ‘Did I tell you I’ve decided to major this fall in oceanographic studies? Slimy fish for sure.’ She’d laughed. ‘Spiny crustaceans. Massive mammals. Jacques Cousteau, move over.’

That’s excellent,’ said the detective. ‘You’ve always loved the water.’

Right.’ She sang, ‘Oh for a life of the sun, the sand, the deep blue sea and fish guts for me.’

They’d laughed again.

She was always laughing, thought the detective, and she accelerated through the night. The explosive whiteness of the downtown night lights burst beside her, illuminating the edges of the great buildings as they rose up in the Southern sky. Then Detective Barren felt a great rush of heat in her heart, choking her, and she forced herself to concentrate on her driving, trying to wipe her mind free of memory, thinking, Let’s see, let’s find out, trying not to connect the scene she was heading toward with the memories in her brain.

Detective Barren turned off Route 1 and drove through a residential area. It was late, well past midnight and closing rapidly on dawn; there was little traffic and she had hurried, filled with the emergency sense of speed that accompanies any violent death. But a few miles short of her destination she slowed precipitously, until her nondescript sedan was barely crawling down the empty streets. She searched the rows of trim, upper-class houses for signs of life. The streets were dark, as were the homes. She tried to envision the lives that slept behind the ordered suburban darkness. Occasionally she would spot a light burning in one room and she wondered what book or television show or argument or worry kept the occupant up. She had an overwhelming urge to stop, to knock on the door to one of these houses with their meager sign of life, to stop and say, Is there some trouble that keeps you awake? Something that probes at the memory and heart and prevents sleep? Let me share.

She turned the car onto Old Cutler Road and knew the distance to the park’s entrance was only a few hundred yards ahead. The nighttime seemed to permeate the foliage; great melaleuca trees and willows hid blackness in their leaves and branches, stretching over the road like enveloping arms. She had the eerie sense that she was entirely alone in the world, that she was a sole survivor heading nowhere in the midst of an endless night. She could barely make out the faded white lettering on the small park entrance sign. She was startled when an opposum ran in

front of the wheels of her car, and she slammed on her brakes, shuddering with fear for an instant, breathing out harshly when she realized that the animal had avoided the tires. She rolled down the window and could smell the salt air; the trees around her had shrunk in stature, the giant palms that rode the edge of the highway replaced by the tangled and gnarled branches of waterfront mangroves. The road curved sharply, and she knew she would be able to see the wide expanse of Biscayne Bay when she emerged.

She thought at first that it was moonlight glistening on the bay waters.

It was not.

She stopped the car suddenly, and stared out at the scene before her. She became aware first of the mechanical noise of powerful generators. Their steady rhythmic thumping powered three banks of high-intensity lights. The floodlights delineated a stage cut from the darkness at the edge of the park’s parking lot, peopled with dozens of uniformed police officers and detectives, moving gingerly through the unnatural brightness. A row of police cruisers, an ambulance, white and green crime-scene search wagons were lined up on the fringe of the stage, their blue and red emergency lights throwing sudden strobes of color onto the people working within the parameters of the floodlights.

She took a deep breath and headed toward the light.

She parked her car on the rim of activity and started to walk to the center, where she spotted a group of men gathered. They were staring down at something that was obscured from her vision. She knew what it was, but this was an appreciation of experience, not of emotion. The entire area had been encircled with a three-inch-wide strip of yellow tape. Every ten feet or so a small white sign had been hung from the tape: police crime scene do not enter. She lifted die barrier and slipped underneath. The motion caught the eye of a uniformed officer, who swiftly moved to intersect her path, holding out his hands.

‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Ma’am, you can’t go in there.’

She stared at him and he stopped. His hands dropped.

Exaggerating her movement by pacing it slowly, she

opened her purse and produced her gold shield. He glanced quickly at it, then backed off rapidly, muttering an apology. But her arrival had been noted by the men in the center of the scene, and one of them quickly broke from the crowd and moved to block her.

‘Merce, for Christ’s sake. Didn’t Wills tell you not to come down here?’

‘Yes,’ she replied.

‘There’s nothing here for you.’

‘How the hell would you know?’

‘Merce, I’m sorry. This must be …”

She interrupted him furiously.

‘Must be what? Hard? Sad? Difficult? Tragic? What do you think it must be!’

‘Calm down. Look, you know what’s going on here, can you just hang on for a couple of minutes? Here, let me get you a cup of coffee.’ He tried to take her by the elbow and lead her away. She shrugged off his grip swiftly.

‘Don’t try to steer me away, goddammit!’

‘Just a couple of minutes, then I’ll give you a complete briefing …”

‘I don’t want a goddamn briefing. I want to see for myself.’

‘Merce …’ The detective spread his arms wide, still blocking her vision. ‘Give me a break.’

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She spoke in a clipped, deliberate fashion.

‘Peter. Lieutenant Burns. Two things. One, that is my niece lying there. Two, I am a professional policewoman. I want to see for myself. Myself!’

The lieutenant stopped. He looked at her.

‘All right. It will only be a few minutes now before the medical examiner completes his initial inspection. When they put her on a stretcher, you can come over. You can perform the official identification then if you want.’

BOOK: The Traveller
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