With a sense of dread working its way from the very depths of his gut, Detective Greg Rush stood just inside the crime scene tape and observed the building mass of humanity.
The crowd of onlookers stood quietly, reverently, as though each of them knew that either Rush or his partner had just been sentenced to death.
And one of them probably had. Although not yet confirmed, there was no doubt in Rush's mind that the body lying forty yards away was that of a doctor. Then, over the next month, a lawyer would be gunned down, followed by a judge, and finally one of the homicide detectives assigned to investigate the first three shootings. Which meant him, probably. Or Rick Chinbroski, who stood beside him, face tight with stress, sweat running in rivulets out of his flattop.
If this was a Billy Ray Jackson shooting.
Billy Ray Jackson. Evil, intelligent enough to elude the entirety of American law enforcement for nearly three years, and without human compassion. Here, Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb and developer's dreamland, a virtual paradise of shopping malls and suburban excess. Headquarters for a half-dozen world-renowned corporations on the far west side of Interstate 75, and horse farms, rolling prairies, and thick woods covering large chunks of unincorporated land on the far east.
The hospital sat on the west side of the interstate, in what was probably the exact east/west center of the city. It had been the primary medical center for the city of 240,000 for close to thirty years, and Rush didn't relish the potential for chaos.
He closed his eyes briefly and shook off his increasing discomfort.
The growing crowd occupied most of the empty parking spaces at the apartment complex across the street and had begun to clog all six lanes of Coit Road, both north and south. People seemed to be rising out of the very cracks in the sidewalk, so swiftly were they gathering against the crime scene tape strung across the physicians' parking lot.
More Dallas area media were arriving every second, and the patrol guys were having a tough time keeping them far enough away from what was already a national story.
"Think it's him?" Chinbroski asked Rush. "Jackson?"
Rush tried to swallow the knot in his throat. The date was right. The location. "Let's hope not."
The crowd was silent. Eyes staring. An old woman on crutches, head down, eyes closed, appeared to be in silent prayer.
Chinbroski shifted his large frame, his shoulders stretching the seams of his sports jacket. Chinbroski often reminded Rush of an ancient Viking, minus the beard and flowing locks. His power-lifting frame had been honed by decades of sweat in the gym. So unlike Rush, who more resembled the ninety-eight-pound weakling pictured in so many of the before-and-after bodybuilding photos during the sixties.
But standing here outside the hospital, with the prospect of a Billy Ray Jackson shooting awaiting investigation, Chinbroski appeared weakened somehow, deflated. "Ain't been here five minutes and I already don't like the looks of this," Chinbroski said. "Everything's pointing to it." His voice fluttered just a little and Rush looked at him. "You know what it means if it is?"
Rush knew. Only a man living in a cave wouldn't. He started to answer when Chinbroski cut him off.
"Means either me or you is in for a load of trouble." Chinbroski looked away and rubbed his forehead. Then looked back. He started to say something else but didn't.
At least a dozen police cars had sealed the scene. Fire engines and ambulances ringed the outer edge of the hospital, although they were moving out now, having learned that the only shooting victim was long past saving. Rush pulled a small notepad from his pocket and turned toward the body.
Chinbroski grabbed his arm and whispered. "Listen, you know me. I ain't one to back out of–"
Rush held up a hand, cutting him off. "You're worried about your wedding in three weeks. You think I'd let you take this on?"
Chinbroski dropped his head. "Feel like a coward. Like I'm backing out."
"Don't worry about it." Rush glanced at the crowd again, still staring, several meeting his gaze.
The body was sprawled across the pavement near the outer edge of the physicians' parking area. With the heat waves rising from the pavement, Rush knew the sun was about to play havoc with the crime scene. The ninety-two degree temperature, climbing hourly, was expected to top out at 104.
Two nurses stood nearby, huddled together, holding hands, mascara smeared across their cheeks. A patrolman near the body looked ill. A pad and pen dangled in his limp grip. The officer looked like Rush was beginning to feel.
Slapping Chinbroski on the back as he passed, Rush rubbed the sweat off his own forehead and made his way over.
The patrolman stood a few feet from the corpse, looking anywhere but there, tapping a pen against his leg. Sweat soaked his hair, darkened his collar, and invaded his armpits. His face sagged; his drinker's nose glowed.
"Hey, Owen," Rush said.
The officer nodded. "Rush."
"Got anything for us?" Rush jerked his head at Chinbroski and pointed to the nurses standing by Owen's police cruiser. His partner headed that way.
"Got nothing," Owen said, wiping his face. "I mean as far as the shooting goes. Got ID on the victim. The names of the nurses over there." His head was in constant movement, quick jerks from side to side, snatches of looks behind him.
No officer in any of the other cities over the last three years had been shot after responding to the murder of the doctor. It wasn't Jackson's way. He'd always shot the doctor and disappeared. Then he repeated his pattern for the lawyer, judge, and homicide cop. Still, Rush couldn't blame Owen for being nervous. "That's it? Names?"
"No time for much more," Owen said. "Got units across the street trying to find witnesses." He lowered his voice, took a small step toward Rush. His breath smelled like stale beer, residue from a hard night. "Is this that Jackson fella? The guy on the news?"
Rush kept his voice steady. "Don't know yet." He motioned toward the body. "A doctor?"
Owen leaned in closer, misting Rush with his stale Budweiser. "Thayer. That's his name. Gynecologist. Ain't that what the others were?"
The body lay on its belly, ten feet beyond Owen. Splatters of blood dotted the pavement several feet closer. "Yeah," Rush said. "That's what the others were."
Owen wiped the back of his neck and swallowed hard. "In Plano." He started to walk away, making room for Rush to inspect the body. Then he stopped. "You or Chinbroski."
Rush looked at him and said nothing.
Owen backed away. "I mean, you know -"
"Go stand by your car." Rush cursed under his breath and turned away from Owen. He circled the blood splatter, made a wide arc around the doctor. Then he pulled out a phone and called his captain. "You need to get out here. Bring every detective you can round up. And the media boys. More uniforms. This crowd is growing as we speak."
"I'm trying to arrange things here to prepare for the onslaught," Greer said. "You thinking what everyone's saying?"
The same question three times in three minutes. Rush turned away, glanced across the street, lowered his voice. "Yes."
Greer didn't respond immediately. But when he did, Rush's breath caught in his throat.
"You and Chinbroski have this one. Do it right. Hold on."
The FBI had been chasing Jackson for over two years and they had nothing. The most hunted criminal in the country, and either he or Chinbroski would soon be on his short list.
Rush heard sirens in the background, traffic on Coit Road behind him, Chinbroski in quiet conversation with the nurses. But no crowd noise. He turned and looked at the growing mass once again.
"We're sending out the media team," Greer said. "I've gotta go. And Rush?"
"Every eye in America is on this."
"Right." Rush pocketed the phone, took a cleansing breath, and approached the body. Doctor Thayer's legs were sprawled, one knee cocked toward his right arm, the other twisted inward. A box of pamphlets, AIDS prevention, lay crumpled beneath him. The blood on the pavement had already turned black. The coppery smell was faint, overpowered by the human waste released when his sphincter muscles relaxed at death. Blood-matted hair encircled a quarter-inch hole centered in the back of his head.
Rush placed his toes near where Thayer must have been standing before the force of the bullet thrust him forward. He turned and looked behind him, noting the probable origin of the shot.
The apartment complex across the street had close to a hundred people milling about, gawking, taking pictures. He pulled his radio out, tuned it to the west side patrol frequency, and called for the day-shift watch commander, advising him to use as many units as necessary to clear the crowd.
Chinbroski walked up just as Rush slid his radio into a pocket. "What'd the nurses say?" Rush asked him.
"Nothing important. He was walking across the lot and just collapsed. No sound, no nothing. Fell in a heap." Chinbroski lowered his voice. "Just like the others. Everybody might as well be deaf and blind."
"I've got patrol clearing the apartments across the street. That has to be where the shot came from." Rush turned and faced his partner head on. "You're in charge of directing the other investigators over there. Greer's sending everybody he can find. I want those nurses gone before the media broadcasts their faces all over the country. Knock on every door in that complex. Stay with it until you talk to everybody who was there an hour ago." Rush swiped sweat from his brow and looked up. The sun would bake them yet. "Maybe we'll get lucky. And we're gonna need it because Greer just gave it to us."
Chinbroski nodded and glanced at the body. "Okay, I'll handle across the street." Before he walked away, he gripped Rush's arm. "The media don't gotta know which team has the case," he whispered. "Maybe Jackson won't find out." His expression said otherwise.
"Yeah," Rush said. "Maybe."
His partner gone, Rush scanned the crowd and noticed a hospital employee standing just on the other side of the tape. He walked over. "You work inside?"
The young woman leaned back, appeared surprised that a cop would address her. "Yes, housekeeping."
"Perfect." Rush raised the tape and nodded for her to stoop under. He led her several feet inside the perimeter. "Go grab several sheets. Clean. Bring them to me. And hurry."
The woman trotted off toward the hospital. Rush rubbed the back of his neck; his hand came away soaked.
Then he shivered, despite the heat.
He saw a patrolman lift the tape to admit the Plano PD crime-scene van. Once parked, Randy McBride, Plano's primary forensic expert, wasted no time. He jumped from the driver's seat and onto the ground. Ichabod Crane came to mind every time Rush laid eyes on the ex-FBI crime-lab tech. No chin, wiry arms, and pants that always hung crooked. McBride shaved his head every summer, and the stark, white fuzz was beginning to grow back.
Struggling with his ID kit, McBride made it over to Rush at the same time the young woman returned, carrying five neatly-folded bed sheets.
"Thank you," Rush said, taking them from her. "Would you mind stepping back under the tape?"
Breathing hard, she nodded. "Did that black man do this?" she asked, eyes eager. "That B.J. guy?"
"We'll have to see. Please, behind the tape."
"Just look at this place," McBride said, glancing around after the woman was gone. "Madhouse in less than an hour. It's on all the radio stations. TV." He looked at the sheets Rush held. "What's with those?"
"To shield the body while you take your close-ups. Then to cover it when you're through."
McBride nodded. "Good thought. It's not like we have to worry about fiber transfer." He reached down and opened his collection kit, grabbed his camera. "How many camcorders you think are pointed at us right now?"
"Another reason for the sheets," Rush said. "Let's get started." He recruited two uniformed officers to hold the sheets while McBride did his work.
Within twenty minutes, several patrol units had cleared the apartment complex across the street, and Chinbroski was leading a team of detectives to knock on doors. A patrol lieutenant told Rush that local television trucks were being held at bay around the corner, but that dozens of newspaper reporters were pushing up against the crime scene tape, demanding some kind of statement. The department PIO was huddled with the chief somewhere inside the hospital, figuring out how vague they could be to the press.
It took McBride twenty more minutes to finish his photos and cover the body. Then he started the task of gathering the shreds of Doctor Thayer's face.
The scene was secure, Rush believed, as he made an appraisal, mentally clicking off what else needed to be done. He needed to send officers around to all the camcorder-wielding citizens and collect their tapes. Since this probably was a Jackson shooting, they'd need everything they could get their hands on, and it wouldn't surprise him if the shooter were in the crowd somewhere. Rush strolled over to a couple of Burglary detectives and gave them the responsibility of collecting the tapes.
Then his radio crackled. "Rush, you there?"
"Ops Two. Got something."
Rush keyed his radio. "Go ahead."
"Apartment number 1065B. Downstairs."
# # #
Rush smelled the apartment before he reached the door.
Burning marijuana. Recent. The door stood open, revealing a time capsule straight from the sixties. Beads, flop cushions, black lights, Grateful Dead posters, and Rolling Stones music playing in the background. Chinbroski stood just inside the door, next to a wheelchair-bound hippie wearing a Woodstock tee shirt. His legs were strapped to the chair, his stringy hair pulled back into a ponytail.
"Larry Winston," Chinbroski said, as Rush stopped just inside the door.
The hippie grinned, exposing a row of West Texas, hardwater green teeth. "Ain't had this much attention since a Bouncing Betty shot me in the spine in ‘Nam." He rolled his chair forward and stuck out a leather-gloved fist.
Rush shook his hand and nodded. "You see something this morning?"
"Yep." Rush waited, fighting the urge to cough in the thick air. "Motor home. Parked right outside my window."
Chinbroski grinned and Rush figured something good was coming. "Why is this motor home important?"
Winston rolled his chair over to the only window in the room. He pointed. "See right there, that Dumpster?"
Rush walked over, took a look. "Yeah."
"It's where I dump my trash every Wednesday. What's today?"
"That's right, man. Wednesday." The hippie nodded toward the window. "I don't work. Can't. Living off disability. And I got a routine." He rolled his chair back and spun it around, facing Rush. "Every morning I get up and roll me a doobie before breakfast." He held up his hands. "Now I know it's against the law, and I know it was stupid letting you boys in here, but I'm an American, and what that boy's been getting away with every July 24th makes my stomach turn."
Rush backed up toward fresh air, leaned against the front door jamb, and waited patiently for Winston to get to the point.
Winston pointed at Chinbroski. "So when this big cop told me that Jackson might've been in my complex, I had to do my duty."
"And... what about the motor home?"
"I seen it. Rolled right by it dumping my trash. I think it was where he shot from."
Rush's pulse quickened. "Why do you think that?"
"‘Cause I think I heard it. A suppressed shot." Winston rolled his chair into the small dining area, grabbed several magazines from the table: Guns and Ammo, American Rifleman, American Hunter, Shotgun News. "Being in ‘Nam, getting crippled by a Bouncing Betty, being a gun-show junkie all my life makes me good at one thing: guns and what they sound like. And I'm telling you, boys, that was a silenced shot that came out of that motor home."
"All right," Rush said. "Where were you when you heard it?"
"Just outside my door. I'd just come back from the Dumpster, just opened the door, was about to roll in when I heard it. I looked over but I didn't see anything, you know, like gun smoke or nothing."
Rush stepped deeper into the apartment. He hardly smelled the marijuana anymore. "But you didn't call it in as soon as you heard it?"
Winston shrugged. "Just one of those things. You know, noticed it at the time, but didn't think nothing of it. Till this big cop came knocking. Don't make a lot of difference. I know what I heard."
"Had you seen the motor home before this morning?"
"Yes. Last Friday I saw it. Then on Monday and Tuesday. Now this morning."
Rush glanced at his watch. "The shot was between noon and one. You eat breakfast that late?"
Winston grinned. His green teeth had food crammed in the cracks. "I'm a night owl. Got some great stuff on VH-1 after midnight. Get up about noon every day."
Chinbroski pulled a small pad from his pocket. "Mr. Winston says the motor home could have been a Road King. Beige, brown stripes. Didn't look for a tag. But..." He held up a finger. "He says the rear window was open a couple inches and that window was facing the hospital."
The media reports from the last couple of years had nothing about a motor home. This might be a major break.
"Okay, Chin. Let's have a look. Mr. Winston, come outside, show us where."
The hippie led the way, rolling his chair with powerful pushes, his chest stuck out, his chin raised. "Right here," he said, stopping halfway between his apartment and the Dumpster. "I rolled around the back. It's probably a thirty-five footer, so I was way below the bottom of the window."
Rush looked across the parking lot, across Coit Road, over to where McBride was hunched near the body more than 200 yards away. It'd be a clear shot, nothing for a rifleman with any level of skill. The only hitch would be timing the shot across six lanes of noon traffic.
Behind him was the back wall of the complex. The motor home must have been parked with its front bumper within inches of that wall.
"This might be it," Rush said to Chinbroski.
His partner nodded, his eyes hinting excitement.
Winston glanced around. "Look, boys," he said, his voice low. "It ain't like I'm chicken. But I don't want my name getting out. Know what I mean? Not if this is Jackson. I had enough guns aimed at me in ‘Nam."
"Don't worry." Rush turned to Chinbroski. "Let's get Mr. Winston to the station. I want a videotaped interview, a notarized statement. If anyone asks, we're arresting him for outstanding warrants."
Winston winked and shot Rush a peace sign, then rolled his chair toward his apartment.
Rush grabbed Chinbroski's arm and waited until the hippie was out of earshot. "Promise me something."
Chinbroski frowned. "Sure."
"Stick by me until you go on vacation. Prop me up." He paused. "I need you to make sure I don't skip town myself."
# # #
The wooden sign dangled from rusty chains and squeaked as the early summer breeze blew in from the south. B.J. set his tattered suitcase at his feet and pulled a rumpled map from the back pocket of his jeans.
Holding the map out in front of him, he carefully located where he was standing, looked up and found a couple of landmarks, then plotted his course. The group of cabins called Apache was on the west side of Camp Indian Hill, just past the dining hall. Thirteen-year-olds were in Apache, fourteen in Cherokee and fifteen in Shawnee. He was jostled and bumped by other boys as he memorized the route to cabin 24.
Four long weeks, a whole month of fun. He couldn't believe he was finally here. Archery, swimming, canoeing, hiking, camping in real teepees... he'd saved his money for a year to help his mom pay the two hundred dollars.
Stuffing the map back in his pocket, he grabbed his suitcase and hurried along, wanting to get a top bunk with a window that overlooked the rifle range. It was the rifle shooting that he was most excited about. Real rifles. Real bullets. No BB or pellet gun crap like in most camps. Although only .22s, the rifle competition would give him a chance to compete against older boys and actually win something. B.J. knew he wouldn't win anything else: he was too small, too weak, too slow. But he could shoot like no other person on earth.
He had used his shooting skills to convince his mom to let him come. He'd dragged her out behind the barn over a dozen times and forced her to watch him target practice. B.J. explained every shooting point to his mom. Used the same words his dad had used when teaching him. Twice, after B.J. fired two incredible groups, he'd caught his mom crying quietly. It was the final link to his dad and B.J. knew his mom understood that rifle shooting was the strongest thread between father and son, the legacy that he'd left for his only child. It had kept him talking during the final weeks of his cancer.
B.J. slowed to wipe his eyes. Mom would've never allowed him to travel all the way to Oklahoma for a month if Dad hadn't made her promise. Number 24 sat at the edge of the shooting range. He'd hardly believed his luck when the camp mailed him his cabin number and map. The information sheet said there were eight boys to a unit, and two sets of bunk beds on each side of a single large room. The picture in the brochure showed the layout, and B.J. noticed that the windows were high off the ground.
Desperately wanting a window bunk, he broke into a run, the suitcase slapping against his leg. He smiled at the smell, a kind of cedar, pine, wild animal mixture – so different from his grandfather's farmhouse he and his mom had moved into after his father's death. The trees were so tall, towering above the buildings, blocking out the summer sun, creating acres of shade. And the mountains. They had taken his breath away during the final miles in the car. His mom said it reminded her of the Ozarks in Southern Missouri. He'd just nodded and grinned, with her warning him not to hang too far out the window.
He ran past Shawnee with fifteen-year-olds milling about like they owned the place, several of them veterans of Camp Indian Hill, no doubt. Then across a wooden bridge, around home plate on the baseball field, finally circling the expansive dining hall. Stopping to catch his breath, he hadn't realized how big the camp was. The buildings looked kind of rundown, with their faded brown walls and rusty tin roofs. A few were boarded-up. But he didn't care about any of that. He'd live in a tent if he had to.
Studying the small plaques mounted above each cabin door, he headed toward the trees at the end of the dirt lane directly behind the dining hall. Twenty-four was the last one on the right, the closest to the looming mountain woods.
The door was ajar, no boys hanging around outside, no sounds from inside. Hope soaring that he'd have his pick of bunks, he pushed through the door and stopped to examine the layout. Eight bunks, four on each side, like in the picture, but only one window. High off the floor, the window was long and narrow with a small hand crank on one end. The two sets of bunk beds on that side sat end-to-end, meeting in the middle of the only view of the rifle range. And one of the top bunks was taken already. A blonde boy, much bigger than B.J., a boy who looked every bit of fourteen, was sprawled across the bunk on the right, his back to the door, staring out the window. No one else had arrived yet. B.J. scrambled across the room and tossed his suitcase on the top left bunk, sighing. He'd made it.
The boy turned and sat up. He had a plain face, a sort of country-boy look. And he was bigger up close.
B.J. smiled. "This bunk taken yet?"
"Not that I know of. But I've only been here for a few minutes."
"Great!" B.J. rubbed his tired arm.
"My name's Stubs," the boy said.
"B.J.'s mine. I'm from Texas. Where're you from?"
"Dallas." The boy pushed a lock of blond hair off his forehead. He crossed his legs Indian style, leaned his elbows on his knees. "You from Dallas?"
"Naw," B.J. said, climbing the bunk. "Trenton. I've never even been to Dallas."
"A long way away. More'n a hundred miles."
Stubs laughed. "A hundred miles ain't far. Dallas is over a hundred and fifty."
Pushing his suitcase toward the head of the bed, B.J. looked out the window. The rifle range was there, right there, with shooting benches and everything! "Well," B.J. said, "I've never been a hundred miles from home before. And it sure seemed far, as slow as my mom was driving."
Stubs laughed again. "My foster mom drives slow, too. She said gas is too expensive to drive fast. It's almost thirty-five cents a gallon in Dallas."
B.J. nodded and wondered if he should ask about the boy's name. He did. "Stubs ain't your real name, is it?"
"Heck no! Who'd have a nutty name like that? Unless your parents were crazy or something."
"So how come you go by that?"
He sat silent for a moment, turned his face away, and stared out the window. B.J. thought he might start crying, but he didn't. He just sat there like he was thinking about his answer. "My real mom started calling me that when I was little," he said finally. "I used to think it was dumb... but now I don't." He scooted his body around and grabbed the window crank. "Think I'll open this."
B.J. noticed for the first time how hot it was. In the center of the room a single ceiling fan turned slowly, but didn't move the air much. A slight breeze blew across them once Stubs had the window cranked all the way open. B.J. could fit through, he thought, and walk right over.
The range was fifty yards long, and the target frames loomed like skeletons without the paper targets attached. B.J. nodded toward the window. "You shoot?"
"Oh, man, that's what I do best. That's why I got here early. I wanted to get a bunk with a window."
"Hey, me too!" B.J. said, gathering strength to make his bold prediction to the bigger boy. "I'm going to win the shooting competition. I'm the best shot in Trenton."
Stubs' eyes narrowed. Then he cracked a smile. "Well, you ain't in Trenton anymore. And you're talking to the best shot in Dallas."