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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

The dream overtook Joanna hours later. The sky overhead was deceptively blue as she walked across a grassy field. Far away, under a tree, stood a group of boys. "What are you doing?" she called to them. "What are you up to?"

They didn't answer, but even without being told, Joanna somehow knew. They had captured a frog from a nearby stream, and she hurried forward, determined to rescue the creature. In order to save it, she had to move faster, but her feet and legs seemed mired in mud or deep, river-bottom sand.

"You stop that now!" she shouted. "You shouldn't do that. It's not nice."

One of the boys turned and peered at her over his shoulder. Then his mouth twisted into an ugly, gargoylelike smile. He laughed and pointed, and the other boys looked, too, while Joanna churned forward, propelled by a terrible sense of urgency mixed with an equal amount of dread.

She reached the outside of the tightly knit circle. "Let me in," she shouted. "What are you doing?" As she tried to see over one boy's shoulder, he seemed to swell before her very eyes, growing upward and upward until he towered over her. She went to the next boy, and the same thing happened. One at a time, the boys transformed themselves into huge, thick-limbed giants. They closed ranks and shouldered her out of the way, but now there was a sound coming from inside the circle-a terrible whimpering.

"Please stop now," Joanna pleaded. "Please. Didn't your mothers teach you any better than this?"

One of the giants whirled around and glared down at her. "Mothers?" he said. "Mothers? We don't need no stinkin' mothers." He laughed. Then, with a shrug, he turned and walked away. One by one, the others followed. Joanna watched them leave. Only when the last one had disappeared beyond the crest of a hill did Joanna turn her attention to the bloodied form of the unfortunate creature they had left behind.

At first she couldn't tell what it was. But when she stepped closer she realized it was a child: Jenny. A Jenny with no arms or legs, lying helpless and screaming in the gore-covered grass.

The horrifying dream dissolved as suddenly as if someone had flicked a switch. In the nightmare's absence, the keening; awful scream remained.

"Joanna," Butch said, gently shaking her naked shoulder, "wake up. You're having a bad dream." He reached over and flipped on the bedside lamp. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," she said, "I'm okay," but her heart was hammering inside her chest. Sweat-soaked bedclothes clung to her naked body. Unbidden tears filled her eyes while a sob choked off her ability to speak.

Butch encircled her with both arms and held her against his chest. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Joanna took a deep breath. "He disables his victims," she said. "He cripples them and then he leaves them to bleed to death. After they're dead, he mutilates the bodies."

"Someone in your dream did this?" Butch asked. His warm breath lingered on her ear.

"No," she said. "The serial killer we're tracking. The real one. I talked to an FBI profiler named Monty Brainard. He says we're dealing with a spree killer."

"But the killer was in your dream?"

"No, there were boys in my dream. I thought they were pulling the legs off frogs. But when I got close enough to see, it turned out they had Jenny."

"Boys had Jenny, not the killer," Butch mumbled. He sounded half asleep. "I don't understand."

"I do," Joanna replied determinedly. "Frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails, that's what little boys are made of. The profiler is right. The killer's a boy, and we've got to find him before he kills somebody else."

"Don't worry," Butch said, sounding now as though lie was more than half asleep. "It was only a dream. We'll talk about it in the morning." With that he reached across and switched the light back off.

Joanna could tell by the way Butch had spoken that he was already drifting off. She waited until he was snoring softly before she eased her way out of his grasp, pulled on a robe, and crept out of the room. The clock in the kitchen said 4:15 as she turned on the kitchen light. After starting coffee, she slid into the breakfast nook to wait.

In the familiar confines of her kitchen, with the lights on and with coffee slowly bubbling into the pot, the dream receded from her consciousness, but it left behind a strange sense of both uneasiness and comprehension. Monty Brainard and her subconscious mind had dealt with the same problem and arrived at the same answer. The killer was a young man, little more than a boy. A man/boy with no sense of right or wrong, and with a video-game player's concept. of life and death.

Intuitively, Joanna suspected that whatever his name, he was most likely the person Sarah Holcomb had identified as Frankie Ramos' loutish friend. With Frankie dead and unable to tell them who the friend was, Joanna knew they would have to come up with some other way of finding him.

There was always a chance that the evidence techs would discover a usable fingerprint. In the old days, latent finger-prints could help convict a known perpetrator, but they had been virtually useless in identifying unknown criminals. Now, though, with the help of AFIS-the Automated Finger-print Identification System-that had changed. By using computers, it was possible to compare points of similarity on unidentified prints to those of millions of prints, often booking prints, that had already been loaded into the system. With the computer searching for similarities, it was sometimes possible for a crime-scene fingerprint to lead directly to a named suspect.

AFIS made the odds of that happening better, but it wasn't foolproof. For one thing, assuming Monty Brainard's assessments were right about the killer's previous run-ins with law enforcement, his prints were likely to be in the system. The problem was, he was also being extremely cagey about not leaving prints behind. Even if a usable print existed at one of the crime scenes, Joanna knew her people were utterly overwhelmed by the avalanche of crime-scene evidence that had come in over the past few days. It might take weeks or months to sort through it all. In the meantime, how many more victims would die?

So how do we do this in a timely manner? Joanna asked herself. How do we sort through masses of crime-scene evidence to identify the killer?

When the coffee finished brewing, she poured a cup.

Then after donning a warm jacket over her robe, she tools her coffee cup out to the porch. There, sitting on the swing and soothed by the companionable presence of both dogs, Joanna considered the problem.

Monty Brainard claimed the killer was a loner. Maybe Frankie Ramos had been his one real friend-a fatal offense which had also qualified him as victim. But were there other acquaintances, other people who ran in the same crowd? They might not have been as close to the killer, but that didn't mean they didn't know him. Whoever those people were, they might very well suspect what the killer had done. They'd be scared now, worrying that perhaps they, too, had moved from the role of pal to potential victim.

The answer, when it came, seemed to materialize directly out of the steam wafting from Joanna's cup of coffee-Deputy Eddy Sandoval. Quietly easing the door open so as not to disturb Butch, she retrieved the portable phone from the living room and went back outside. Sitting on the swing, she dialed the department's number. Stu Farmer, the night watch commander, took the call.

"You're up bright and early this morning, Sheriff Brady," Stu told her.

"Funniest thing," she said. "I can't seem to sleep."

"Wonder why," Stu replied. "Now, what can I do for you?"

"What time does Eddy Sandoval come on duty today?"

"Hang on," Stu said. "Let me check the roster." Joanna listened to several minutes of clattering computer keyboard keys. "Here it is. He works three to eleven today. Want me to have him check in with you as soon as he comes on shift?"

Joanna didn't want Eddy Sandoval to have any kind of advance warning that she was about to land on him. "No," she said. "That's all right. I may be stuck in a meeting about then. It wouldn't do to have him waiting around to hook up with me. I'll contact him once I'm free."

"Anything else I can do?"

"Actually, there is. I want you to run a check on Clyde Philips."

"Philips? The guy who's dead?"

"That's the one," Joanna said. "I want to know what, if anything, is on his sheet."

"Will do. After I run it, want me to call right back with the information?"

"No, that's okay. Just put it in an envelope and leave it on Kristin's desk. She'll give it to me as soon as I come in tomorrow morning."

"Begging your pardon, Sheriff," Stu Farmer said, "it's almost five. That's this morning."

"Right," Joanna said. "This morning."

She put down the phone and sat waiting for the sun to come creeping up over the Chiricahuas and for the mourning doves to send their sweet daytime greetings across the waking desert. The tops of the mountains were just turning gold when the screen door squeaked open behind her. With wagging tails, both dogs went to greet Butch.

"Do you always get up this ungodly early?" he asked, easing himself down beside her. Barefoot and wearing jeans but no shirt, he had already poured himself a cup of coffee.

"You bet," Joanna said. "My folks always told me that the early bird gets the worm."

Butch groaned. "I suppose it'll wreck the analogy if I point out that the poor dead worm is also an early riser. How are you feeling?"

"Okay."

He reached over and ran his index finger along the rim of Joanna's ear. "I was hoping for something a little more effusive than that. Something on the order of 'wonderful' or 'fantastic.' " He paused. "Not feeling any regrets, are you?" he added. "I mean, you're not sorry I stayed over, are you'?"

Joanna thought about that before she answered. She hadn't ever really contemplated the possibility that someone besides Andy might share the bed that had once been theirs. The likelihood of that had seemed so remote, she had succeeded in ignoring it entirely. When long-buried urges had overcome her the night before, they had taken her by surprise and created such blinding abandon that there had been no room for either guilt or regret.

She smiled at Butch and rested one hand on his knee. "I believe my heart is remarkably guilt-free."

"Whew," he sighed in obvious relief. "Am I ever glad to hear that! When I woke up and found you gone, I was afraid you were out here brooding and wishing some of what happened hadn't."

"No," Joanna said, "not at all. But be advised, we won't be able to pull stunts like this once Jenny gets home. To say nothing of my mother. Eleanor is going to take one look at my face and know I've been up to no good, although as far as I'm concerned, she and George don't have much room to talk. And then I'm worried about what my in-laws might think-that somehow I'm not honoring their son's memory. I wouldn't want to hurt Jim Bob's and Eva Lou's feelings."

"Me, either," Butch agreed. "What that means, then, is that as soon as all these people show up on the horizon, you and I are going to have to be the very souls of discretion. Absolutely above reproach. Over and above the people you've already named, are there any others we need to worry about offending?"

"I don't know about offending," Joanna said. "But there might be spies."

"Who?"

"Marliss Shackleford, for one."

"You mean she might have a paid informant on top at the Copper Queen who could provide nightly bed checks to make sure I'm properly locked in at night and staying in my designated room?"

Joanna giggled. "Maybe not, but only because she hasn't thought of it yet. If she did, I wouldn't put it past her. It sounds just like her."

"Great. Big Sister is watching." Butch stood up. "How's your coffee?" he asked.

"It's fine."

"No, it's not fine. It's almost empty. Let me get you some more."

Butch disappeared into the house. He returned a few minutes later, wearing a shirt, carrying both cups filled to the brim. They sat quietly for a while, letting the morning age around them, watching the sky turn from lavender to orange to blue.

"Bartenders don't see many sunrises," he said. "It's pretty, but it still seems like an odd time of day to be up."

"Early morning is when I do my best thinking," Joanna told him. "It's my most creative time."

"Really. Well, there may be a lesson in that. Our new friend F. W. should sit up, take notice, and start setting his alarm." He looked off across the valley. "Not a cloud in the sky," he noted. "Does that mean the rains are over? Have the monsoons come and gone for the summer?"

"I don't know. Before the end of August, they could come back and take another crack at us."

"Let's hope," Butch returned.

Joanna took one of his hands in hers. "There are other things we should probably be talking about," she ventured quietly. "Other things that need discussion besides the weather."

"Like what, for instance?" he asked.

"Like why you got divorced," she answered. "Like why you got divorced twice."

He winced and made a face. "Just lucky, maybe?"

She squeezed his hand. "No jokes, please."

"It wasn't really two divorces," he said. "The first one was an annulment. Debbie's parents got that one on religious grounds. We weren't much more than kids, either one of us. Looking back, I'm sure it was just as well."

"And the second one?"

"That one was ugly. Faith-I always liked the irony in that name-left me for my best friend," he said. "Worked me over real good in the process-mentally, financially, you name it. She managed to convince all concerned, including most of my relatives, that the whole deal was my fault. That I had somehow caused my wife to fall in love with some body else."

"No wonder you took Jorge Grijalva's part," Joanna remarked, referring to a man who had been the prime suspect in the murder of his estranged wife, Serena. It was during the course of that investigation that she had first encountered Butch Dixon.

"Right," he said. "No wonder."

"And are they still together?" Joanna asked.

"Who?"

"Your former friend and your former wife."

Butch shrugged. "Beats me, although I suppose so. There weren't any kids, so Faith and I don't exactly stay in touch. I could probably ask my mother, though. The two of them are still thick as thieves. I'm sure my mother would be more than happy to give you an update."

"I'll pass," Joanna said with a smile. "But even with that had experience," she added, "you're still willing to give romance another try?"

Butch looked at her. "You mean with you?"

Joanna nodded.

"I didn't have a choice," Butch told her. "You walked into the Roundhouse. I'm a sucker for redheads. As soon as I saw you, I was smitten. That's why they call it love at first sight."

"Come on," Joanna said. "Don't give me a line…"

"It's no line," Butch insisted. "The moment I saw you, my goose was cooked. 'Butch, old boy,' I told myself, 'here's the one you'd better not let slip away.' And nothing that's happened since has changed my mind."

He swallowed the last of his coffee. "So how about letting me whip you up a little breakfast?"

"You'll spoil me."

He grinned. "That's the whole idea."

"Well, Jenny's been gone for a week now. I doubt there are any groceries left in the house."

"Not to worry. I know there's still some of my bread left over from last night. And I believe I saw both milk and eggs in the fridge. With bread and milk and eggs, I can make dynamite French toast. What time do you have to be at work?"

"Eight."

He glanced at his watch. "Hey," he said, "as far as I'm concerned, eight is still a very long time from now." "What's that supposed to mean?"

Butch put one arm around her shoulder and pulled her close to him. "Guess," he said.

Hand in hand, they rose and, with no further discussion, made their way back into the bedroom. Afterward, with time growing short, Joanna disappeared into the bathroom while Butch went to start breakfast. By the time Joanna was dressed, the homey fragrance of frying bacon filled the house.

Out in the kitchen, Butch was standing watch over the stove as Joanna attempted to slip by him to collect another cup of coffee. He turned and touched her cheek with a glancing kiss as she went past. "Nice perfume," he said.

Joanna took her coffee and ducked into the breakfast nook. She had barely seated herself when Butch set a plate of food in front of her. "See there?" He beamed. "Admit it. There are some definite advantages to becoming involved with a man who's run a restaurant most of his adult life. I make a hell of a short-order cook."

"I notice you have one or two other talents," she said. "I can see why a girl might want to keep you around."

Joanna had managed barely two bites of French toast when the telephone rang. Realizing she'd left it on the counter in the bathroom, Joanna hurried to answer it.

"By the way," Butch called after her, "it drives me crazy when I cook food for people and they let it get cold. Did I ever tell you that?"

Coming back with the still ringing phone, Joanna held a finger to her lips to silence him before she answered. "Hello."

"Joanna?"

"Yes, Jeff, it's me. How are you? You sound awful."

"We've had a pretty rough night here," Jeff Daniels told her. "Esther's come down with pneumonia."

"Oh, no!" Joanna managed.

"The doctors don't know whether they'll be able to save her," Jeff continued. "Because of the transplant, they've pumped her full of immune suppressants. But now…" His voice trailed off.

Joanna took a deep breath. "How is Marianne doing in the face of all this?" she asked.

"Not that well. Right now she's down in the room with Esther. She didn't want me to call you, Joanna, but I thought I'd better. It's bad, real bad. I tried calling her folks. I talked to her dad on the phone, but not her mother. Even after all these years, Evangeline is still so pissed at Marianne that she wouldn't talk to me. I know she won't come, not even if Marianne needs her."

"Well, I will," Joanna said at once. "I'll be there as soon as I can."

She put down the phone and looked across the kitchen at Butch, who was still flipping French toast on the griddle.

"Esther has pneumonia," she heard herself say. "She might not make it. I've got to go to Tucson."

Butch took the last two pieces of French toast off the griddle and turned off the heat. "I'll go with you," he offered.

"No," Joanna said. "You don't have to do that."

"Yes, I do," he insisted. "I want to. Your car or mine, or do we have to take both?"

Joanna Brady knew she was tough, knew she was a survivor. But she also knew that this was one trip she shouldn't make alone.

"Let's go in mine," she decided. "That way, if I have to be in touch with the department, I can use either the radio or the phone. And the siren," she added. "If need be."

Butch's eyes met hers across the kitchen, then he nodded. "Right," he agreed. "The siren."


CHAPTER TWENTY | Rattlesnake Crossing | CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO







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