While he waited for the Huntsville police to pick him up, he tried calling Celia once again. Only the machine answered. He called Chat’s cell phone, putting a finger in one ear to reduce the noise from the highway.
“Aldo, you ok?”
“Yeah, this time I really am.” As he strolled to a shady spot from where he could see any arriving police car, he briefly explained where he was. “But Mattingly and his girlfriend are still being held by the other two.”
“I wondered about that,” Chat said. “I smelled something wrong in your first call. That’s why I talked the state guys into putting a couple of cars by the road to that compound.”
“Good. Just keep them out there until we can figure out what to do. Maybe now that the big guy is gone, we can talk them down. Have you heard from Celia?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” Chat smiled audibly. “As a matter of fact, she called me, she was so worried about your old white butt, and that reinforced my hunch. She gave me the directions to the bad guys’ hole.”
“Do you know where she is now?”
“Not really. She said something about checking on Mattingly’s girlfriend.”
“Uh-oh. Do you have a cell number for her? I don’t know why I don’t.”
“Yeah. Guess she didn’t think I’d harass her.”
“If you don’t give it to me in the next second, I’ll strangle you the next time I see you.” Chat gave him the number, which he quickly called. This time she answered.
“Where are you?” Branch asked, relieved to hear her, her voice making a lump in his throat.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Huntsville, waiting for a cop. “
“Long story. Please answer me.”
“Keeping an eye on Teresa’s place.”
“Get away from there, right now. Where’s Colin?”
“At my brother’s. What’s going on?”
“I don’t hear your car starting. Get moving.”
“Don’t be so bossy.”
“Sorry. I’ll explain everything after you get going.” Branch thought he heard her engine start.
“Ok, I’m going.”
He began his explanation, which she interrupted at several points with questions, and once with an “Oh no” when he told her that Teresa was now a hostage. She was sympathetic and horrified when he told of his ordeal in the car with Boomer. “I’m glad I didn’t know that was going on, though I was worried when I didn’t hear from you.” At the end of his tale, she said, “Well, if the state troopers have them blocked in, I should be ok, right?”
“Yes, if the bad guys were still there when the troopers arrived.”
“Go to your brother’s. I’ll keep you posted, and you do the same. Here’s my ride.”
He waved at the police car that just pulled into the rest stop. After showing his shield and introducing himself to the two uniforms, he climbed into the car.
“I don’t guess any of you guys want to taxi me up to the woods near Phalba.”
“Don’t think the chief would let us,” the young cop driving said.
“Well, maybe you could take me to a rental lot.”
“Why don’t we take you to the impound lot and give you your old car?” the other cop said with a grin over his shoulder.
“We caught the big guy about two minutes ago. Just heard it on the squawker.”
“Wow, you guys are good. Any trouble?”
“Doesn’t sound like there was. We’ll get the full story later.” Branch had a moment of worry for Boomer. He was a violent man, and shouldn’t be running loose, but he was a victim himself, and might have been better if he had been dealt a better hand.
They got to the impound lot before Branch’s car did. It was a large area surrounded by chain-link fence and filled with dozens of cars of every make, year, and state of repair. Branch and the uniforms found shelter from the heat in a concrete block building with noisy air conditioners sticking out of the walls. Branch had done most of the talking on the ride over, explaining the situation yet again, and urging everyone to hurry. In the back of his mind, he was worrying about what Doc and Bledsoe might be doing or thinking. He checked the time. Maybe he should risk another report pretending to be Boomer. It might buy them some more time. He explained what he was about to do, found a spot in a relatively quiet corner, and punched the number.
“Yes?” Bledsoe answered.
“Twenty-three. ‘Bout to go get the film.”
“Be careful. Everything ok? You sound different.”
“Just a little nervous,” he said, truthfully. “It’ll be ok.”
“Call when you get it and get out.”
Branch realized that they must be still in the compound, since the phone number was not to a cell phone. He called Celia.
“You can relax a little. They’re still in the woods. And the cops caught Boomer.”
“The big guy. The one who probably shot out my window.”
“Good. Thanks for letting me know. I think we might stay at my brother’s for a while anyway.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’ll get back up there as soon as I can. I’ll see if a Dallas hostage negotiator can get out there before they realize Boomer’s been caught.”
“I always am. That’s why I’m an old cop.” He took a breath. “Can I see you when this is over?”
She hesitated. “Call me and let me know what happens. And do be careful.”
“Got to go. Colin—”
“Sure. I’ll call.” Branch frowned. Celia’s hesitation made him think of the distance he felt when they met to look at the burnt bows and cases. He thought of Allegra. And his ex-wife.
He didn’t have time to brood. He called the compound again, speaking in Boomer’s hoarse voice.
“Twenty-three. Got it. We’re on the way.”
Doc was on the line this time. “Good. Everything ok?”
“Ok. Listen. Get rid of Branch on the way. We don’t need him anymore. Dump him in the woods. Or better, tie a rock on him and throw him in Fairfield Lake or the Cedar Creek reservoir. Then you can take care of the others when you get here with the film.”
“Ok.” Branch hung up, and felt the hair on his arm rise. Mattingly and Teresa were safe only as long as they were useful.
He called his friend in the Dallas department, “Smoky” Stover, and brought him up to date. “Can you or the state boys get a hostage negotiator out there soon?”
“I’ll do my best. I think our man, Tom Bustamonte, is pretty good, but I expect the staties will claim jurisdiction. Their man is ok; maybe they’ll let Tom assist.”
“Good. I’d like to be there, if possible. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep them calm with my Boomer imitation. Keep me posted.”
After what seemed to Branch a very long wait, his car appeared in the lot, driven by one of the cops who stopped Boomer. A kindly officer at the impound lot retaped the plastic over the window while they hurried through the inevitable paperwork and Branch heard the story of Boomer’s capture.
The officer introduced himself as Daryl Higgins. He was red in the face and soft in the belly—he clearly enjoyed the occasional doughnut, and tended to use jolliness to cope with life on the force. He must be a twenty-year man, Branch thought.
“Yeah, we saw him right after we got word. We had set up a roadblock around a bend just after you went under a bridge, so you couldn’t see us until it was too late to do much, and the bridge abutment kept him from going around us.” He smiled and winked. “He had to stop. We had him by the short hairs—it just took him a while to realize it. He got out with an ol’ long-barreled revolver, and waved it around until he saw we had a rifle and shotgun on him. Then he threw it away and put up his hands. He was redder than me. I thought he was going to cry.”
Branch was relieved. Boomer had not killed anyone else, and didn’t get himself killed. “You done good. And thanks for not shooting up my car.”
“Looks like somebody already took care of that.”
“Speaking of guns, you got one I could borrow?”
“Sure. Take my spare.” He reached down and unbuckled an ankle holster with a short .38.
The young cop who had driven him came out with a paper to sign. “You need some glass. Maybe you’d better go get that rental.”
“No thanks. I’ll take this one on up the road. Thank you all for your help.”
Branch shook hands all around and roared up the road he had recently driven down, this time considerably faster.
As he drove, he talked to Stover and learned that the negotiator had been delayed. He got the cell number of one of the state troopers guarding the road to the compound, and got a report from him.
“I don’t know if there’s another road out,” Branch said. “Did you check a map or ask a local?”
“Both,” the trooper said. “No other road. Those guys should have taken lessons from the critters. Groundhogs and prairie dogs always have a back door.”
“I hope I can get there before they make a move or anything. I hear the hostage negotiator may be late.”
“I hope he’s good. I took a course, but I wouldn’t feel very confident about trying it.”
“Well, let’s hope neither one of us has to.”
As Branch sped by Fairfield, he saw flashing lights in the rearview mirror. Must be the sheriff. He tried to raise him on the radio, but failed, and reluctantly pulled over. He stepped out holding his shield up in one hand, the other in the air.
“Get back in your vehicle, sir,” came a voice from a loudspeaker in the car.
Great, thought Branch. A by the numbers guy.
“Get your license and registration out, sir, and keep your hands visible.”
Branch did as he was told. He waited and waited. Finally, the voice from the sheriff’s car told him to get out of the car, holding both hands in the air. Branch complied. The young man in the car got out, gun at the ready. A deputy, Branch thought, new uniform, sharp creases.
“Hands on the car,” he said much less politely.
“I’m a police officer,” Branch said, “and I’m in a hurry. There’s an emergency.”
“This police car was reported stolen.”
“Yes, it was, and now it’s been recovered. It’s my car. Please go call the Huntsville police. Officer Higgins will confirm my story. Or you could call Lieutenant Stover in Dallas. Or Sergeant Billings of the State Police.”
“All right. Put that shield and your papers on the trunk and get back in the car.”
The deputy picked up Branch’s things and returned to his car. After another wait, he came back, handed Branch’s shield and papers back, and apologized. “How about an escort to the county line?”
So Branch enjoyed a few miles at top speed, a sheriff’s car blazing with lights ahead of him. He was able to go the rest of the way without legal interference.
On the road he had time to think about several things besides getting Mattingly and Teresa out of danger. He replayed his recent conversations with Celia, flashing back to their night in her hotel room. Maybe he shouldn’t hope too much for the future. Maybe she was just taking advantage of a moment without the responsibility of a child, a moment with a man she liked and could trust, but who wouldn’t need to be in her life afterwards. That thought saddened him, for he had hoped for more.
Music helped. Haydn quartets kept him thinking that even with surprises, things could work out. The cheerfulness of the music faded, however, when he realized that the group on the recording was the late Kyoto Quartet.
When he drew near the big reservoir between Corsicana and Athens, Branch called the compound. He focused on trying to sound like Boomer. He had to keep Doc from getting nervous and killing his hostages. “Twenty-three. Took care of ol’ Charlie.”
“Good,” Doc said. “No witnesses, I hope. Use a big rock?”
“Better. Found an old truck wheel.”
“Good. We can put these two in our lake.”
“Think we ought to keep ‘em around in case we need to bargain?”
“What for? Since we have the film and are rid of Branch, nobody knows they’re here. We never saw them, never heard of them.”
“Well, I thought—”
“You aren’t paid to think, Boomer.”
“I ain’t got paid in a damn long time.”
“What’s the matter with you, Boomer? Don’t you trust us?”
“’Bout as far as I can spit. Remember, I got your damn film. Maybe I’ll keep it until I get paid.” There’s a riff, a change of key. Let’s see where that leads. Got to keep Teresa and Mattingly alive.
“Hold on there, Boomer. Don’t forget those Japs. You make me angry enough, I’ll drop a dime on you and tell the cops where to find you. And don’t forget that Austin business.” Branch thought he heard a note of fear under the anger in Doc’s voice. “Remember we have Mattingly. He can get us some money.”
“Not if he’s dead. I don’t get paid, I don’t get laid. I need to get laid pretty soon, Doc.”
“All right, all right. How about the girlfriend?”
“Don’t like fucking dead women.”
“Ok, don’t worry, just bring that film and we’ll get you paid up. And you can have a go at Teresa.”
“Maybe I’ll just keep the film until I see your money.” Branch hung up, a little relieved. They would stay alive a while longer.