She was now dodging two messages from Smith, asking for a check-in. She was determined to report a success, not an incomplete, and sure as hell not a failure.
It was after two a.m., and she was speeding down the highway, practically inviting trouble from an ambitious drunk driving patrol. The way she was feeling right now, she’d run them off the road, or just shoot them and keep going.
WWBD? He’d die like a dog in the fucking road is what Baxter would do.
A few sodium lights illuminated a series of short driveways and small cabins on the highway side of the river. He pulled the boat over, dug out his cache, consolidated his equipment quickly, bumped a few numbers into a keypad on the dash, and jumped out of the boat.
A small tool or two from his go-bag and a SOG knife was all he needed to hotwire a ten-year-old Jeep Cherokee sitting between two quiet vacation cabins. A light popped on as soon as the engine started, however, and he tore out of the drive, onto the silent, gently winding highway. The river flowed to his right. Trees and occasional flashes of houses were on his left. He set the cruise as high as he dared and focused on keeping the top-heavy vehicle stable.
He took a deep breath and realized that he was breathing normally. Slowly, even. It took him another moment to realize he was grinning like a fool. Then, in the distance, there was a low thump that he felt more than saw, and a flash of light. His grin grew.
She was following the river now, on the skinny highway that ran east into the mountains and the country and the forests. Her mind was racing, it was nothing but improvisation now, the helicopter support was gone, Ops could only do some much out in the sticks, she was alone now. The way she usually worked. The way Baxter had taught her to operate.
She tried not to think about him, but it was impossible when he was the target. She had to think like him to anticipate what was coming, think of how to get those two steps ahead of him. She didn’t think he was ahead, she thought they were neck and neck, winging it as they went along. But he was better at that, and she told herself to shut up. What she had to do--
Her eye caught a flash of light behind her and for a moment there was a crawl of dread in her gut, and she imagined actually killing cops, taking lives just because they were between her and Baxter and she was instantly much less glib about it.
But then the vehicles were catching up, and she saw it was a cop car clearing the way for a fire engine, no, two.
The sound of the sirens drowned out her infuriated scream as they blasted past her, the sedan buffeted by the larger vehicles.
She caught up eventually, confident that if emergency services was ahead of her, no one was would be looking for speeders in their wake. When she came around a gentle curve, she saw flares on the shoulder and slowed. Ahead there was drifting smoke, highlighted by flares and strobing emergency lights. She pulled to a stop at a cop who was setting out some cones with a sawhorse to finish an emergency roadblock. Behind him, the two fire engines blocked the road in a loose chevron formation. Firemen were dragging hoses down to the river.
He shook his head at her and walked up to the car.
“Well, you were certainly in a hurry. We passed you, what, eight miles back and it’s been all of...” he looked dramatically at his watch, “wow,” he finished.
“Please,” she said, and on command her voice trembled, her lip quivered, and her eyes shone in the flashing lights. “My son was on vacation when he tripped over a bee nest, he’s in the hospital. He’s in XXXX,” she said, improvising based on what she remembered of the map. Another part of her brain was thanking Baxter for his excellent training. Another, even smaller part of her brain was outraged that Baxter would get credit for anything. An even smaller, observant part of her mind commented that she hadn’t been this angry in maybe ever and what was up with that?
“I’m really sorry to hear that, ma’am, we’ll clear things up as fast as we can, but it’ll be a while before we can let you pass.”
“Can’t you help me?”
“Ma’am, this is a crime scene. Near as we can tell someone set a boat on fire and stole a car just a few minutes ago, so no, even if it is an emergency, I can’t let you pass until we make sure that we’ve collected evidence and that there’s no danger. I’m really sorry, we’ll let you through as soon as we can.”
“There’s no way around, is there?”
The cop moved away and she seethed. The tiny observant part continued to poke at her, so she took deep breaths. She had no reason to be angry at Baxter, she had been overconfident and he had been better than she’d assumed. She didn’t know that he’d done anything wrong, surely if he’d gone rogue they’d have heard something about intelligent leaks. Why was she so pissed off, because it didn’t seem like it was just because he got away. She refused to dwell on what she could have done better, so she touched base with Ops to see if there were any alternatives. He said a satellite was coming into range soon, so he might be able to track the mark that way. Surely there weren’t many vehicles on the road at this hour, and there certainly wouldn’t be any more because of this goddamn road block.
She focused on her breathing. She got out and walked down to the river, watching the boat smolder, half crumpled up on the shore. She had an impulse to dive in, swim past the wreck, and steal another vacationer’s car. Of course she wouldn’t, the risks were obscene, it was preposterous, but she felt like she would explode if she didn’t do something. What was wrong with her?
Another memory scratched at the movie screen of her mind. They were standing side by side at a shooting range.
“How do you do that,” she demanded, looking at her poor scatter of shots.
“The question isn’t how do I get under your skin, but why do you let me?”
She grit her teeth and shook her head.
“I grew up with older siblings,” he said, “I can annoy anyone.”
“But why do you?”
“It’s an edge. Take every edge you can get. Always.”
She sighed and started to reload her clip. Then she paused. It was the first time she asked this question directly, but she would ask it many, many more times.
“Can you teach me?”
He looked like he wanted to smile, but he didn’t. Instead he winked at her, and it made her feel the same way it did when his smile said “That’s my smart girl.”
“I thought you’d never ask. See the chunky guy over there?”
Sweat beaded his forehead, making his hair stringy as he worked to sight in a rifle.
“You’re attractive, so you can approach him very easily, and then it wouldn’t be much work at all to rattle him. But if I wanted to annoy him, really get under his skin, I’d ask questions. I’d walk up and say, hey, can I ask you a question? Then I’d keep asking them, find a hole in his knowledge, push it open, walk on through, and walk away with him doubting himself. And I’d do it all just because I wanted to learn and hoped he would impart some wisdom. He’ll have the conversation because he wants to show off, but when it’s over he’ll be an insecure wreck.”
“But what about me?”
“Well, you can get under his skin in a lot of ways, like I said, you can rattle him just because he’ll get nervous around a pretty girl (she used a trick he’d already taught her to force herself not to blush), but if you wanted to really annoy him, I’d stand behind him and just watch him. He’ll notice you, ask you what you want, you say nothing, look away, and then as soon as he goes back to his gun, stare at him again. It’ll drive him nuts. And that gives you an edge. He won’t be able to shoot for shit, if nothing else.”
“Okay, so that’s how you do it. How do you defend against it?”
“Once you get good at it, you can see annoyance coming a mile off. You can do pre-emptive strikes, or you can just recognize it and step out of the way.”
She nodded, then glanced past Baxter at the sweating rifleman.
“You wanna try it, don’t you?” Baxter asked.
She nodded again.
“Be my guest.”
Five minutes later they were leaving the range. Well, she’d been thrown off the range for disrupting the shooters, and he just followed. It turned out that her annoying the rifleman had, in turn, annoyed another shooter, and the two of them were laughing so hard it hurt as they reached the car.
Falconer leaned against her car now, at the side of the river, and finally let herself laugh. Sometimes the best tricks were the old ones. Yes, he’d caused a disruption of her pursuit by bringing in emergency services and cutting off the road. It didn’t mean she couldn’t catch up, of course it didn’t. The bigger victory was that she’d let him get under her skin, he’d gotten to her just as easily as he ever did, even when she knew it was coming. This she hadn’t prepared for, she remembered what it was like to use these tricks on others, but not to have them used on her. She wondered if she’d ever been at a disadvantage in her entire career. And now, here she was, practically having a schizophrenic episode by the river, her white hot anger melting into amusement at just how easily he played her, how even this many years later he was still the same old Baxter. She shook her head.
She turned to see the cop. State trooper, she corrected herself, his Smokey Bear hat in his hands. He was looking at her questioningly. Had she been talking to herself? No, just laughing.
“We’re gonna be opening up the road again in just a few minutes. One lane only, o’course, but you can get past.”
“You heard anything about your boy?”
She shook her head, lying easily. “No signal.”
“Oh. Well would you like us to call someone?”
“No, doesn’t matter what the news is, I still have to get there. I’ll call as soon as I get a signal. Thank you.”
He nodded at her, put his hat back on, and turned away.
As promised, a few minutes later he kicked the flares into a tidy line that pointed to the left lane as one of the fire trucks began a laborious seven-point turn to head back the way it had come.
Then the sawhorse came off the road, and the state trooper waved her into the open lane. She waited until she was around a bend before she put her foot down.