***SPOILER WARNING! This excerpt contains spoilers for The Poet.
I think maybe I only know one thing in this world. One thing for sure. And that is that the truth does not set you free. Not like I have heard it said and not like I have said myself the countless times I sat in small rooms and jail cells and urged ragged men to confess their sins to me. I lied to them, tricked them. The truth does not salvage you or make you whole again. It does not allow you to rise above the burden of lies and secrets and wounds to the heart. The truths I have learned hold me down like chains in a dark room, an underworld of ghosts and victims that slither around me like snakes. It is a place where the truth is not something to look at or behold. It is the place where evil waits. Where it blows its breath, every breath, into your mouth and nose until you cannot escape from it. This is what I know. The only thing.
I knew this going in on the day I took the case that would take me into the narrows. I knew that my life’s mission would always take me to the places where evil waits, to the places where the truth that I might find would be an ugly and horrible thing. And still I went without pause. And still I went not being ready for the moment when evil would come from its waiting place. When it would grab at me like an animal and take me down into the black water.
She was in darkness, floating on a black sea, a starless sky above. She could hear nothing and see nothing. It was a perfect black moment but then Rachel Walling opened her eyes from the dream.
She stared up at the ceiling. She listened to the wind outside and heard the branches of the azaleas scratching against the window. She wondered if it had been the scratching on glass or some other noise from within the house that had awakened her. Then her cell phone rang. She wasn’t startled. She calmly reached to the bed table. She brought the phone to her ear and was fully alert when she answered, her voice showing no indication of sleep.
“Agent Walling,” she said.
“Rachel? It’s Cherie Dei.”
Rachel knew right away that this would not be a Rez call. Cherie Dei meant Quantico. It had been four years since the last time. Rachel had been waiting.
“Where are you, Rachel?”
“I’m at home. Where do you think I’d be?”
“I know you cover a lot of territory now. I thought maybe you—”
“I’m in Rapid City, Cherie. What is it?”
She answered after a long moment of silence. “He’s resurfaced. He’s back.”
Rachel felt an invisible fist punch into her chest and then hold there. Her mind conjured memories and images. Bad ones. She closed her eyes. Cherie Dei didn’t have to use a name. Rachel knew it was Backus. The Poet had resurfaced. Just as they knew he would. Like a virulent infection that moves through the body, hidden from the outside for years, then breaking the skin as a reminder of its ugliness.
“Three days ago we got something in Quantico. A package in the mail. It contained—”
“Three days? You sat on it for three—”
“We didn’t sit on anything. We took our time with it. It was addressed to you. At Behavioral Sciences. The mailroom brought it down to us and we had it X-rayed and then we opened it. Carefully.”
“What was in it?”
“A GPS reader. Do you know what that is, Rachel?”
A global positioning system reader. Rachel had encountered one on a case the previous year. An abduction out in the Badlands where the missing camper had marked her trail with a handheld GPS. They found it in her pack and traced her steps back to a camp where she had encountered a man and he had followed her. They got there too late to save her but they would have never gotten there at all if it hadn’t been for the GPS.
“Yes, I know what it is. Longitude and latitude coordinates. What was on it?”
Rachel sat up and brought her legs over the side of the bed. She brought her free hand to her stomach and closed it like a dead flower. She waited and soon Cherie Dei continued. Rachel remembered her as once being so green, just an observer and learner on the go team, assigned to her under the bureau’s mentoring program. Ten years later and the cases, all the cases, had etched deep grooves into her voice. Cherie Dei wasn’t green anymore and she needed no mentor.
“The device had one waypoint in its record. The Mojave. Just inside the California border at Nevada. We flew out yesterday and we went to the marker. We’ve been using gas probes in the sand. Late yesterday we found the first body, Rachel.”
“Who is it?”
“We don’t know yet. It’s old. It had been there a long time. We’re just starting with it. The excavation work is slow.”
“You said the first body. How many more are there?”
“As of when I left the scene last we were up to four. We think there’s more.”
“Cause of death?”
Rachel was silent as she thought about this. The first questions that ran through her filters were why there and why now.
“Rachel, I’m not calling just to tell you. The point is the Poet is back in play and we want you out here.”
Rachel nodded. It was a given that she would go there.
“Why do you think he was the one who sent the package?”
“We don’t think it. We know it. We got a match a little while ago on a fingerprint from the GPS. He replaced the batteries on it and we got a thumb off one of them. Robert Backus. It’s him. He’s back.”
Rachel slowly opened her fist and studied her hand. It was as still as a statue’s. The dread she had felt just a moment before was changing. She could admit it to herself but no one else. She could feel the juice begin moving in her blood again, turning it a darker red. Almost black. She had been waiting for this call. She slept every night with the cell phone near her ear. Yes, it was part of the job. The call outs. But this was the only call she had truly been waiting for.
“You can name the waypoints,” Dei said in the silence. “On the GPS. Up to twelve characters and spaces. He named this point ‘Hello Rachel.’ An exact fit. I guess he still has something for you. It’s like he’s calling you out, has some sort of plan.”
Rachel’s memory dredged up an image of a man falling backward through glass and into darkness. Disappearing into the dark void.
“I’m on my way,” she said.
“We’re running it out of the Vegas field office. It will be easier to keep a blanket on it. Just be careful, Rachel. We don’t know what he has in mind with this, you know? Watch your back.”
“I will. I always do.”
“Call me with the details and I’ll pick you up.”
“I will,” she repeated.
Then she pushed the button that disconnected the call. She reached to the bed table and turned on the light. For a moment she remembered the dream, the stillness of the black water and the sky above, like black mirrors facing each other. And her in the middle, just floating.
Backus stayed at least a hundred feet behind her. Even in the crowded Chicago airport he knew she would be on what they always called “Six Alert” when he had been with the bureau. Watching her back — her six — and always checking for a trailer. It had been tricky enough traveling with her so far. The plane from South Dakota had been small and less than 40 people had been on board. The random assignment of seats had put him only two rows from her. So close he thought he could actually smell her scent—the one beneath the perfume and the makeup. The one the dogs could pick up.
It was intoxicating, to be so close and still such a long distance apart. He wanted the whole time to turn and look back at her, maybe catch a glimpse of her face between the seats, see what she was doing. But he didn’t dare. He had to bide his time. He knew that good things came to those who plan carefully and then wait. That was the thing, the secret. Darkness waits. All things come to the dark.
He followed her through half of the American Airlines terminal until she took a seat at gate K9. It was empty. No travelers were waiting here. No American employees were behind the gate counter waiting and ready to work the computers and check tickets. But Backus knew that this was only because she was early. They both were early. The flight to Las Vegas would not leave from Gate K9 for another two hours. He knew this because he was on the flight as well. In a way he was Rachel Walling’s guardian angel, a silent escort who would be with her until she reached her final destination.
He walked on by the gate, careful not to be obvious about glancing at her but curious to see how she was going to pass the time waiting for the next flight. He hooked the strap of his large cowhide carry-on bag over his right shoulder so that if she happened to look up her eyes might be drawn to it instead of his face. He wasn’t worried about her recognizing him for who he was. All the pain and the surgeries had taken care of that. But she might recognize him from the flight from Rapid City. And he didn’t want that. He didn’t want her to get suspicious.
His heart jumped in his chest like a baby kicking under a blanket as he made the one furtive glance while passing by. She had her head down and was reading a book. It was old and worn from many readings. There was a profusion of yellow Post-its poking out from its pages. But he recognized the cover design and the title. The Poet. She was reading about him!
He hurried on by before she could sense she had a watcher and looked up. He went down two more gates and into the restroom. He went into a stall and carefully locked the door. He hung his bag on the door hook and quickly went to work. Off came the cowboy hat and the vest. He sat down on the toilet and took off the boots, too.
In five minutes Backus transformed himself from a South Dakota cowboy to a Las Vegas gambler. He put on the silk clothes. He put on the gold. He put on the earring and the shades. He clipped the gaudy chrome cell phone to his belt even though there was no one who would call him and no one he would call. From the bag he took out another bag, much smaller and with the figure of the MGM lion emblazoned on it.
The components of his first skin were pushed into the new bag and he stepped out of the stall, the strap of the MGM bag over his shoulder. Backus admired himself for the preparation he had taken. It was the planning and attention to the small details like that that made him who he was, that made him a success at his craft.
He checked his look in the mirror as he walked toward the restroom’s exit door. He smiled. He was a new man. Rachel would not recognize him. Nobody would. Feeling confident, he unzipped the MGM bag and checked on his digital camera. It was there and ready to go. He decided he would take the risk and shoot some photos of Rachel. Just some keepsakes, a few secret shots he could admire and enjoy after she was gone and this was all over.