A Minute to Midnight – David Baldacci

ONCE MORE SHE RODE into the Valley of Death. Only this “valley” was in Colorado, at ADX Florence, America’s only federal supermax prison. The “death” reference was spot-on, though; the place reeked of it by virtue of the crimes committed by the inmates housed there. FBI Special Agent Atlee Pine had driven pedal-to-the-metal to get here in her modern-day version of a horse: a turquoise 1967 Mustang with a parchment convertible top. She had spent two years restoring it with the original owner, a veteran FBI agent who had been an informal mentor to her shortly after she’d finished her training at Quantico. When he died, he left it to her. Pine couldn’t imagine being without it. Now, after her swift journey, she sat in the prison parking lot gathering both her nerve and her courage to see one particular monster who resided here among many other human abominations. They were, to a man, the stuff of nightmares. Collectively, they had slaughtered thousands of people, without a smidgen of remorse. Pine was dressed all in black except for her white blouse. Her shiny FBI shield was clipped to her jacket lapel. It took ten minutes to clear security, where she had to forfeit both her weapons: the Glock 23, her main gun, and an eight-shot Beretta Nano, the backup she kept in an ankle holster. She felt a little naked without the twin pistols, but prisons had rules. And, for obvious reasons, “no guns carried by visitors” was one of the biggies.

She sat on the hard stool in a cubicle in the visitors’ room, her long legs curled around the stool’s metal supports. Across from her was a thick glass barrier. On the other side of the glass, the man she had come to see would soon appear. A few minutes later, six burly guards escorted a heavily shackled Daniel James Tor into the room and chained him to a bolt in the floor before departing, leaving the law and the lawless sitting across from each other separated by polycarbonate glass that could withstand most bullet strikes. Tor was an impressive physical specimen, standing six-four and tipping the scales at 280 sculpted pounds. His physique, even now in his fifties, looked NFL ready. She knew that his body was covered in tats, many of them inked on his skin by some of his victims. Tor apparently had such confidence in his control over his prey that he would allow them a sharp instrument with which they could have ended their nightmares. Not a single one had ever attempted it. He was a freak of nature both physically and emotionally.

He was a narcissistic sociopath, or so all the consulted experts had proclaimed. That was arguably the deadliest combination nature could bestow on a human being. It wasn’t that he killed with malice; it was actually worse. He could feel no empathy whatsoever toward others. His thirst was solely for self-pleasure. And the only way he could quench that desire was in the absolute destruction of others. He had done this at least thirty times; these were only his known victims. Pine and others in law enforcement suspected the real number might be double or even triple that. His head was shaved, his chin and jaw the same. His cold, antiseptic eyes flitted over Pine like those of a curious serpent before striking its prey.

They were the pupils of a predatory wild animal; the only thought behind them was to kill. Pine also knew that Tor, the consummate con man, could play any role demanded of him in order to lure his victims to their doom, including appearing to be a normal person. And that in itself was terrifying enough. “You again?” he said, his tone intentionally patronizing. “Third time’s the charm,” she replied evenly. “You’re starting to bore me. So make it count.” “I showed you Mercy’s picture during the last visit.” “And I said I needed more information.” Despite his words about being bored, Pine knew he needed someone to try to dominate.

He required attention to justify his very existence. She intended to use that to her advantage. “I’ve given you all I have.” “All that you think you have. I mentioned that last time. I called it homework. Have you done it? Or are you going to disappoint me?” Pine was treading a delicate line here. She knew it—and, more important, so did Tor. She wanted to keep him engaged without allowing him to completely overwhelm her. That was what bored the man.

“Maybe you have some ideas that might help me.” He looked at her moodily. “You said your twin sister was six when she was taken.” “That’s right.” “From her bedroom in the middle of the night near Andersonville, Georgia. With you in the room?” “Yes.” “And you think I struck you but didn’t kill you?” “You actually cracked my skull.” “And I performed a nursery rhyme to decide which one of you to take?” “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” “So whomever the rhyme started on, it would end on the other because of the even number of words.” She leaned forward.

“So why did you pick me to start the rhyme with? Because then you knew Mercy would be the loser.” “You’re going too fast, Agent Pine. You must slow down if we’re to get anywhere.” Pine instinctively decided to punch back. “I don’t feel like wasting any more time.” He smiled and rattled his shackles as he responded, “I’ve got all the time in the world.” “Why did you choose to let me live and not Mercy? Was it just random? A coincidence?” “Don’t let your survivor’s guilt run away with you. And I don’t have time for whiners.” He abruptly smiled and added, “Even with over thirty life sentences to my name.” He acted proud of his legal punishment, and she knew he was.

“Okay, but it’s important for me to know,” she said calmly. “I cracked your skull, so you said. You could have easily died.” “Could have but didn’t. And you always liked to make sure with your victims.” “And you do realize that you’re now refuting your own argument that I was the attacker that night?” “I don’t see it that way.” “Let me press the point then. Do you know of any other time when I took a six-year-old from her bedroom and left a witness alive?” She sat back. “No.” “So why think I did so in your case? Because your hypnotherapist elicited that memory from you? You told me about that the last visit.

Curious thing, hypnotherapy. It’s wrong as often as it’s right, maybe more so. But you would have studied me at the FBI. All of you did because I was required reading,” he added casually, though she could detect a glint of pride in his words. “You said you knew I was operating in Georgia around that time. So you know what I think? The hypnosis didn’t produce an actual memory, it merely gave you the basis to form a conclusion at which you had already arrived based on extraneous information.” He shook his head. “That would never stand up in court. You put me there because you wanted to put me there, and you didn’t have the real person to fill in the blanks in your memories. You wanted closure so badly, you’re willing to accept an untruth.

” She said nothing because the man could be right about that. As she sat mulling this over, he said, “Agent Pine, have I lost you?” He rattled his chains. “Hello, FBI, my interest meter is plummeting by the second.” “You changed your MO over the years. Not all your attacks were alike. They evolved.” “Of course they evolved. Like any occupation, the longer you do it, the better you get at it. I am no exception. I am, in fact, the rule for my…particular specialty.

” She kept the bile in her stomach from leaching into her throat at this comment. She knew he was waiting to see the revulsion on her face at his comparing murderous activity to an occupation. But she would not give him the satisfaction. “Granted. But now you’re reinforcing my conclusion. Just because you hadn’t done it before doesn’t mean you would never do it. You got better, as you said. Your MO evolved.” “Had you known me to do it since that time?” Pine was ready for that one. “We don’t know all of your victims, do we? So I can’t answer that with any certainty.

” He sat back and gave her a grudging smile at this slickly played rejoinder. “You want an answer now, don’t you? Did I or didn’t I, simple as that?” “Again, it would cost you nothing. They won’t execute you for it.” “I could lie and say you’re right. Would that be enough for you?” “I’m an FBI agent.” “Meaning?” “Meaning I need—” “You need the body—or skeleton, rather—after all this time, is that right?” “I need corroboration,” she said simply. He shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know where all the bodies are buried.” “Then they were wrong about your photographic memory?” “Not at all. But I’ve intentionally forgotten some of them.

” “Why?” He leaned forward. “Because they weren’t all memorable, Agent Pine. And I don’t want to provide closure to every whimpering family member who comes begging to me. That’s not exactly my thing, or hadn’t you noticed?” “Do you remember where you buried Mercy?” “You’ll have to come back and have another chat with me. I’m tired now.” “But we just started talking,” she replied, a note of urgency in her voice. “Call me Dan.” She looked at him blankly. She had not been expecting that request. “What?” “It’s our third date.

It’s time to use real names, Atlee.” “And if I don’t want to?” He clapped his hands silently together. “Then poor, sweet, and probably dead Mercy Pine remains an enigma forever. Poof.” “When do you want to meet again?” “A month from today…Atlee. I’m a busy man. So say it, or we’re done. Forever.” “Okay…Dan.” Pine walked out, got her guns—and had to force herself to not charge back into the prison and blow Dan’s fucking head off.

She climbed into her car and headed back to Shattered Rock, Arizona, where she was the sole FBI agent for huge swaths of thinly populated land. An hour into her drive she got an Amber Alert on her phone. A little girl had been abducted. The suspect was driving a gray Nissan pickup very near Pine’s current location. Under the lustrous glow of a hunter’s moon, the god of law and order smiled on her that night, because five minutes later the truck flew past Pine going in the opposite direction. She did a one-eighty, the Mustang’s custom rubber smoking and squealing in protest before regaining purchase on the asphalt. Pine hit the blue grille lights she’d installed, laid the fancy chrome gas pedal to the floorboard, and roared off to save a little girl’s life. Pine swore to herself that this time she would not fail. Chapter 2 THERE WAS A SINGULARLY CRITICAL RULE with Amber Alerts for law enforcement: You got to the victim and the abductor as quickly as possible and walled off any means of escape. After that, you could work the situation any number of ways.

Brute force, or talking the suspect out of any violence to the hostage, if that was a possibility. When the man turned off the main road after seeing the flashing blue lights coming up fast on his butt, Pine knew she would have to read the situation and make that choice soon. At least she knew the terrain. Pine had taken a detour down this very road to let her head clear after her second session with Tor. Thus she knew this was a box canyon, with the road she was on the only way out. She called in her location to the local police along with her identity and pursuit status. She knew they would deploy a response immediately. But they were in isolated territory here. The cops would not be showing up in a couple of minutes. For now, it was just Pine, her twin guns, wits, training, and experience—adding up to the best hope the child had to survive.

Dusk was fading to darkness as they wound higher and higher on the switchback road. The lane was growing narrower and the drop-off higher with each passing turn of the wheels. She tried to see the man and the girl in the truck cab but couldn’t make out more than vague silhouettes. But the plate number in the Amber Alert was correct, and the guy was clearly trying to get away. Whether he realized the road was going to run out on him at some point, Pine didn’t know. But she did know this was going to get complicated. Yet Pine had been rigorously trained in complicated. A half mile later the point of no return was reached. Pine positioned her Mustang sideways in the middle of the narrow road, blocking the way back out, with the passenger side facing the truck. If he tried to ram her, she would shoot him through the windshield.

She took out her trusty Glock and drew a bead through the open passenger window. The Nissan made a loop and pointed its hood back the way it had come. The man stopped and put the truck in park, the engine idling. Pine could almost see the wheels turning in the guy’s head: Do I try it or not? When he turned on his high beams, probably to blind her, she shot them out. Now, Pine figured, she had his full and undivided attention. After she once again reported in their current location to the local cops, Pine sat there with one hand wrapped around her gun grip and the other on the door lever. For a while, they just sat there. Then, ten minutes later, the driver’s-side door of the Nissan opened. The guy had apparently made up his mind. And the chess match began.

Pine mirrored this move with her door. Four feet hit the dirt from the Nissan. Pine swung her long legs out and stood, her boots smacking the asphalt. As the man and little girl stepped out from behind the cover of the truck door, Pine leveled her pistol at his broad chest. “FBI. This is the end of the line. Step away from the girl. Lie facedown on the ground, legs spread, fingers interlocked behind your head. Do it now or I will open fire.” The man didn’t obey a single one of her commands.

Instead he squatted down and placed the girl squarely in front of him. Okay, she thought, this sack of shit was going to play it the hard way and use a kid as a shield. Why am I surprised? Under the illumination thrown from the truck’s interior light, Pine had observed that he looked to be in his early fifties. He was medium height, thick and muscled, with a bald head and a thin line of graying, unkempt hair creeping ivy-like around this dome. His features were weathered, ugly, and demented. He was a walking stereotype of an aging pedophile. He wore a dirty T-shirt that showed off his bulging barbell biceps and dusty corduroy pants with worn boots. The girl was about ten or eleven, tall for her age, with a lean, athletic build. Her twin blond braids dangled on either side of her head. She wore soccer shorts with grass stains on them and a matching jersey.

Her knees were dirty, as were the long socks and her Adidas soccer shoes. She looked scared, of course, but there was also a resolute spirit that Pine could see in the girl’s eyes. Pine didn’t know if this was a stranger-danger scenario or a family snatch case. He looked too old to be her father, but who knew these days? “Cops are on the way. Do what I said, and you walk away still breathing.” The man stared at her without answering. “Habla ingles?” she asked. “I’m American, bitch,” he barked. “Do I look like a Mexie to you?” “Then you have no reason not to follow my instructions.” He pulled a Sig pistol from his waistband and pressed the muzzle against the girl’s head.

“This is my way out. Throw down your piece or the princess’s brains get scrambled.” “You drop your gun, you get a lawyer, and you do your prison time.” “I’ve been down that road. I didn’t much like it.” “What’s your name?” “Don’t try that good-cop crap with me.” “I’m sure we can work this out.” “Shit, you think we’re doing a deal here?” the man said incredulously. “Let her go and we can try to solve what’s bothering you.” “You believe I’m falling for that mumbo-jumbo?” They could now hear sirens in the background.

“It’s not mumbo-jumbo if it’s true.” “I’m not dealing.” “Then how do you see this playing out?” “With you moving your car and letting me outta here. I got stuff I want to do with this little beauty. And I’m itching to get started.” He put his other arm around the girl’s windpipe. Pine’s finger moved closer to the trigger of the Glock. Should she chance taking a shot? “And what about the cops coming?” “You talk to them.” “I’ve got no jurisdiction over them.” “Look, you dumb bitch, I’ve got the girl.

That means I’ve got the leverage. You do what I say, not the other way around.” “You’re not leaving here with her.” “Then you got one big problem, bitch.” Pine decided to change tactics. She glanced at the girl. “Do you know this guy?” The girl slowly shook her head. “What’s your name?” “I’m—” “Shut up,” the man cried out, pushing the gun against the girl’s head. “And you shut up too!” he barked at Pine. “I want all three of us to walk away from this thing.

” “You mean two of you. You could give a shit about me.” “I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if you force my hand.” “You shoot me, she’s dead.” Pine looked at the girl once more, quickly sizing her up. She reminded Pine of herself at that age. Tall, rangy. But she was once more struck by the girl’s calm eyes. She ran her gaze over the uniform, the grass-stained shorts and dirty knees. This girl was a scrapper.

So maybe, just maybe, this might work. It was risky, but Pine had no options that weren’t. “You play soccer?” Pine asked. The girl slowly nodded. The man pulled her back toward the edge. Ten feet more and it was a thousand-foot drop. “Do not move another inch to that edge,” ordered Pine as she moved forward. The man halted. And so did Pine. The sirens were growing closer.

But if Pine didn’t finish this soon, things might escalate when the uniforms did arrive. “I’m running out of patience here,” the man barked. “I gave you an option. The only one I can give. Prison’s not great, but it’s a lot better than a grave. You don’t get released or paroled from six feet under.” The man started toward the edge again, dragging the girl with him. “Stop!” bellowed Pine, trying to line up her target through the tritium night sight installed on her Glock. Her rear sight ring held twin glowing tritium inserts, while her front post held a tritium insert surrounded by nonluminous white paint. It was very accurate, but she couldn’t fire.

She might hit the girl. Or the guy’s trigger finger might jerk when Pine’s round struck him. The man smiled triumphantly as he read Pine’s dilemma in her features. “You won’t shoot. Now that’s leverage, lady.” Pine glanced at the girl. Okay, it’s do-or-die time. “I played soccer. Only goal I ever scored was on a back kick. Hit it right between the goalie’s legs.

Bet you’re a much better player than I was.” Pine held the girl’s gaze, communicating with her eyes what she couldn’t do with her words. The man barked: “Shut the hell up about soccer. Now, for the last time, put down—” The girl’s foot kicked backward and up and struck the squatting man right in the crotch. He let her go and doubled over, his face scrunched in pain, and the Sig fell out of his hand. “Y-you l-little b-bit —” he moaned, his face turning beet red. He dropped to his knees, gasping for air. Pine raced forward, kicked the man’s weapon behind her, grabbed the girl’s arm, and pulled her to safety. That should have been the end of it. Pine had her gun, and he didn’t have his.

Or his hostage. She was home free. It was over. But it wasn’t over. Because when the man finally stood and straightened, he looked at Pine and spat out, “You think you got me? I got nine lives!” He glanced ferociously at the girl, who was staring back at him with revulsion. “I can’t remember how many like her I’ve done and then cut up and left for the animals. And I’ll be out again to do more. You hear me, FBI bitch?” Pine stared at him for a long moment. In the man’s taunting face, she saw someone else. Pine knew full well she shouldn’t take the bait.

But she was going to do it anyway. She looked to the sky, where the moon burned a dull yellow and red. The hunter’s moon, she knew, also known as the blood moon. More accurately the predator’s moon, and right now I’m the predator. She holstered her gun and stepped forward. In her mind’s eye the giant Daniel James Tor stared back at her. Pine’s nemesis, the stuff of nightmares. She was about to make it all go away. The man grinned in triumph. “You just made a damn big mistake.

” “How’s that?” But she already knew what his answer would be. “In case you hadn’t noticed, lady, I’m a man.” He charged her in a bull rush. A moment later he staggered backward, dazed, his face bloodied by the devastating blow delivered by the size eleven boot at the end of her long right leg. He bent over, groaning. “In case you hadn’t noticed,” said Pine. “I’m now going to kick the shit out of you.” She slammed her foot into his chin, lifting him straight up. A palm-out blow delivered directly to the bridge of the nose made the man howl in pain, and he collapsed on his back like he’d been struck with a sledgehammer. The battle really should have ended there, but Pine jumped astride him and clamped the muscular legs of her nearly six-foot frame around the man’s arms, easily pinning them to his sides.

Then she proceeded to rain blow after blow down on him, fist, elbow, forearm, open palm, using every technique she had learned from years of MMA and close-quarter battle training. It was as though nearly thirty years of pent-up anger had just been unleashed. She felt cartilage and bone in his face give way at the same time she heard the FBI angel on her shoulder screaming at her that this was against every rule the Bureau had. And still Pine could not stop what she was doing. At first the man had struggled against her, but then he had fallen limply into unconsciousness, his face quickly dissolving into a bloody, pulpy mass. She could smell the stink of him rise to her nostrils, mixed with her own sweat. It was both sickening and exhilarating. Finally, exhausted from the effort, Pine slowly rose off him, her features pale and her limbs shaky. Her mind was suddenly aghast at what she had just done, as the FBI shoulder angel reasserted itself. Pine let out a gush of breath, looked down at her bloody hands and jacket sleeves, and wiped them on her pants.

She walked over to the girl, who drew back at her approach. Pine stopped, feeling ashamed at the girl being afraid of her. “Are you okay? Did he hurt you? Did…did he do anything to you?” She shook her head. As the sirens grew closer, the little girl looked over at the man. “Is he…is he dead?” “No. Just…unconscious.” Pine wasn’t actually sure of that. She squatted down on her haunches. “What’s your name?” “Holly.” “Holly, it was so brave what you did.

And you understood exactly what I wanted you to do. It was amazing.” “I have three older brothers.” Holly smiled weakly. “When they pick on me, I can kick really hard.” Pine put out a hand and squeezed the girl’s shoulder. “I’m so glad that you’re okay.” “Are you really an FBI agent?” “I am.” “I didn’t know girls could do that. I thought that was like, you know, just on TV.

” “Girls can do anything we want. Never doubt that. ” Pine stood as the cop cars screeched to a stop a few feet away. She looked over at the bloody man lying motionless on the ground. Pine took out her creds and headed over to explain what had happened, including the reason why she had nearly beaten a man to death. This just might be the end of the actually not-so-very-Special Agent Atlee Pine.

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