Walk the Wire – David Baldacci

HAL PARKER WAS RESOLUTELY closing in on his prey, and he felt his blood pressure amp up with every firm step he placed into the dirt. He could tell he was nearing his target by the frequency and volume of blood that had fallen onto the darkened ground, like dulled rubies scattered in the rich soil. He had obviously wounded rather than killed his quarry. A carcass delivered was part of the deal if he was to earn his fee. He was heartened by the blood loss. It evidenced the inevitable, especially in an unforgiving climate like this. He moved slowly and methodically forward. Fall was nearly here, but summer was still hanging on, dragging its heat-flamed and moisture-rich knuckles across the stark tundra. Right now, he felt like an egg in a heated skillet. If it were winter, he would be encased in special clothing, and Parker would never, under any circumstances, start to run after his prey. If you ran when it was fifty degrees below zero, your lungs would hemorrhage and you’d drown in your own engorged corpuscles. Yet when it was this hot and humid, dehydration could kill you just as quickly, and you’d never feel it coming until it was too late. Parker wore a bright tactical headlamp that literally turned night into day, at least on his narrow path. He figured he might be the only living person within many square miles. Clouds scudded across the sky, all bloated with moisture and surrounded by unsettled air.

He was hoping the rain would hold off just long enough for him to finish the job. He looked to his left, where Canada sat not too far away. Over an hour south was the town of Williston, which was the very center of the fracking universe here in North Dakota. But the Bakken shale region was so enormous that the land under Parker’s feet held hundreds of millions of barrels of oil along with hundreds of billions of cubic feet of natural gas. Maybe more, he thought, because who the hell could really know the extent of it? Parker squatted as he assessed his next move. He gazed ahead, rotating a hundred and eighty degrees on the compass, calculating time and distance based on the size of the blood splotches. He rose and moved forward, picking up his pace slightly. He wore a hydration pack with a large camel bladder and a feed line next to his mouth. His clothing was lightweight, yet sturdy, constructed from self-wicking material. But he was still hot and sweaty at eleven o’clock at night.

And each intake of air felt like he was popping habaneros. Mother Nature always had the upper hand over man, he knew, no matter how much fancy equipment they put on. He wasn’t certain how his quarry, a wolf that had already killed two cows from his employer’s herd, had even gotten away. He’d had a decent sight line on it from about four hundred yards away. The thing had just been sitting there, still as a deer sensing trouble. His rifle round had entered the upper torso, he was sure of that. It had barely moved with the violent impact, so he was sure it had been a kill shot. But when he’d gotten to that spot, it was gone and the blood trail he was now following had commenced. He cleared a slight rise in the ground. The area he was in was known as the Great Plains, which was somewhat of a misnomer, since the land could be quite hilly.

But then the bumpy fringes of the northern Badlands crept up here, like the trickles of river water forming finger coves. But drab buttes and flat grasslands coexisted just fine for the most part. A night fog was sweeping in, eroding his visuals. He frowned, and though he was a veteran at this, he felt his adrenaline spike. He heard the far-off rumble and then the whistle of a train probably carrying a column of tanker cars loaded with oil, and also with natural gas, which after being pulled out of the earth was then liquified for transport. The whistle sounded sad and hopeful to him at the same time. Then another rumble came. This time it was from up in the sky. A storm was racing in, as storms often did around here. He had to pick up the pace.

He gripped his Winchester rifle tightly, ready to raise the night scope to his eye in an instant and to deliver, he hoped, the true kill shot this time. The next moment Parker saw something. Fifty feet and to his left. A shadow, a shade darker than its surroundings. He looked down at the ground, shining his light there. Now he was surprised and then puzzled. The bloody marks distinctly went off to the right. How could that be? His quarry hadn’t suddenly developed the ability to fly. Yet maybe it had sharply changed direction up ahead, wobbling on weakened legs before collapsing. He trudged forward, wary of a trap.

He drew within fifteen feet of the spot and stopped. He squatted down again, and under the brilliant beam of his tac light, he took a long look around at the vast space in front of him. He even gave a behind-the-back look just in case his quarry had managed to outflank him and was sneaking up from the rear. Parker had fought in the first Gulf War. He had seen the crazy shit that sometimes took place when living things were trying to kill each other. He wondered if this was one of those times. Still squatting, he crab-walked forward to within ten feet of the spot. Then five. He felt his gut tighten. He must be seeing things.

He sucked on his water line to increase his hydration. But the thing was still there. It was no mirage. It was . He gingerly rose and carefully treaded the final few feet to the spot and looked down, his powerful light illuminating every detail of the nightmare he had just discovered. It was a woman. At least he thought it was. Yes, as he leaned closer, he saw the plump breasts. She was naked, and she had also been butchered. Yet there wasn’t a drop of blood to mar the pristine ground around her.

The skin covering her face had been cut from the back and then pulled down, coming to rest on the exposed bone of her chin. Her skull had been sawed open and the top part removed and laid to the side of her head. The revealed cavity was empty. Where the hell was her brain? And her chest. It had been apparently cut open and then sewn back together. He glanced at the compact dirt around the body. His brow screwed up when he saw the distinct marks on the ground there. They seemed familiar to him. Next moment he forgot about these traces and slowly sank to his knees as it occurred to him where he had seen such suture patterns on a human chest before. It was called a Y-incision.

He had seen it in numerous TV cop shows and movies. It was the proverbial cut-up body on the slab in the morgue, only he wasn’t in a morgue. He was in the middle of expansive, unblemished North Dakota without a coroner or TV show in sight. A postmortem had been performed on this unfortunate woman. Hal Parker turned to the side and threw up mostly bile. The soil was no longer pristine as the skies opened up and the rain began to pour down. “NORTH DAKOTA,” murmured Amos Decker. He was sitting next to Alex Jamison on a small Embraer regional jet. They had taken a jumbo 787 to Denver, where they’d had an hour layover before boarding the far smaller aircraft. It was like going from a stretch limo to a clown car.

Decker, who was six-foot-five and weighed nearly three hundred pounds, had groaned when he’d watched the small jet maneuvering to their gate, and groaned even more when he’d glimpsed the tiny seats inside. He’d had to wedge into his allotted space so tightly that he doubted he would need his lap belt to keep him safe in case of turbulence. “Ever been there?” asked Jamison. She was in her early thirties, tall, superbly fit, with long brown hair, and pretty enough to be repeatedly stared at by men. A former journalist, she was now an FBI special agent. She and Decker were assigned to a task force at the Bureau. “No, but we played North Dakota State in football once while I was at Ohio State. They came to Columbus for the game.” Decker had played college ball for the Buckeyes and then had an abbreviated professional career with the Cleveland Browns before a devastating injury on the field had left him with two conditions: hyperthymesia, or perfect recall, and synesthesia, meaning his sensory pathways had comingled. Now he could forget nothing and saw things such as numbers in certain colors and, far more dramatically, dead bodies in an unsettling shade of electric blue.

“Who won?” asked Jamison. Decker gave her a heavy-lidded glance. “You trying to be funny?” “No.” He shifted about a millimeter in his seat. “It used to be called D-I and D-II when I played. Now it’s FBS and FCS.” When Jamison looked puzzled he added, “Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision. Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, LSU, they’re all FBS schools, the top tier, the big boys. Schools like North Dakota State, James Madison, Grambling, Florida A&M, they’re FCS schools, or the second tier. Now, North Dakota State has gotten really good as of late.

But usually, when they play each other it’s a rout for the FBS schools.” “So why schedule them?” “It’s an easy win for the top tier and a big payday and TV exposure for the other squad.” “But it’s not a particularly good game to watch?” “It’s always a good game when you win. And if the score is a runaway, the starters get to sit the bench after the third quarter or maybe even the first half. When I was a freshman that’s how I got to play. When I was a starter, I appreciated the extra rest a blow-out got me.” “Doesn’t make sense to me. One team slaughtering another for money.” “It really only made sense to the school boosters and the NCAA bean counters.” Jamison shook her head and gazed out the window as they descended beneath the dark, thick clouds.

“Looks stormy down there.” “It’s basically hot with humidity through the roof for the next couple of days, with a bad thunderstorm, falling temps, and wicked wind pretty much guaranteed every evening. But then it won’t be long before the blizzard season sets in and this place looks like Antarctica.” “Great,” said Jamison sarcastically. “But look on the bright side.” “What’s that?” “You won’t have to do your daily workout for the next couple days. You’ll lose two pounds of water just walking to the car. But after that you’ll have to fatten up for the winter.” The plane shed more altitude. Working against heavy headwinds and unruly patches of air, the jet felt like it was a pebble skipping across rough water.

Jamison gripped her armrests and tried to breathe deeply as her stomach lurched up and down. When the plane’s tires finally hit the asphalt and bounced to a landing on the runway, she slowly released her grip and pressed a hand against her belly. A jagged spear of lightning appeared off in the distance. “Okay, that was fun,” she said breathlessly before eyeing Decker, who looked, if anything, sleepy. “That didn’t bother you?” she asked. “What?” “The turbulence!” “It wasn’t a big deal,” he said offhandedly. “What’s your secret then? Because it looked like everyone else on the plane was praying, flight attendants included.” “I survived a crash landing when I was in college. Engine went out on takeoff. Pilot circled back around, dumped some fuel, then the other engine died and he had to go in for an immediate landing.

Found out later it was a twin bird strike. We hit hard enough to take out the landing gear and crack the fuselage. Everybody got off before the jet fuel ignited and fire ate the plane. I did lose my duffel of clothes,” he added casually. “My God,” said a pale Jamison. “Then I’m surprised you’re not more nervous than I am.” “I looked up the odds. They’re about a billion to one for my having a second incident. I feel like I’m golden now.” They deplaned, signed the documents for their rental SUV, and headed out from Williston Basin International Airport.

“Wow,” said Jamison when they got outside and the wind slammed into them. Even the giant Decker was buffeted. “I don’t think I packed the right clothes,” she noted miserably. “I should have brought more layers.” “What more do you need than pants and a shirt and a badge and gun?” “It’s different for women, Decker.” Jamison drove while Decker punched the directions into his phone navigation. Then he settled back and watched the road zip by. It was six o’clock in the evening and they were headed right into a gathering storm. Nasty black cumulus clouds reared up ahead of them like a towering serpent about to do some serious business over this patch of the upper Midwest. “Irene Cramer,” said Decker softly as they drove along.

Jamison nodded and her features turned grim. “Found dead in the middle of nowhere by a guy tracking a wolf.” “Most notably she was apparently autopsied,” added Decker. “That’s a first, at least for me. How about you?” “I’ve seen cut-up bodies, but not like the photos I saw. The crime scene was pretty clean except for the guy’s vomit.” “Serial murderer? Is that why we got the call? Bogart didn’t really say.” Ross Bogart was the head of their small task force. He was the one who had ordered the pair to North Dakota after the briefest of briefings. “Maybe.

” “Did Ross sound strange when he talked to you?” asked Jamison. “He did to me.” Decker nodded. “He couldn’t tell us something that he wanted to tell us.” “How do you know that?” “He’s a straight shooter who has to answer to political types.” “I don’t like mysteries at both ends of a case,” groused Jamison. “I don’t think this is necessarily a serial murderer.” “Why not?” “I could find nothing to match it in the databases. I checked before we flew out.” “Could be a new player.

” “New players aren’t usually this sophisticated.” “He might be trying to make a name for himself,” pointed out Jamison. “They’re all trying to make a name for themselves,” replied Decker. “But they don’t call the Bureau in for a local murder.” “I think we need to look at the victim and not the killer for that reason.” “You believe Irene Cramer was important to the Feds for some reason?” “And it may also explain Bogart’s reticence.” “Regardless, we’re clearly looking at a killer with forensic skills.” “That could apply to quite a few people, including people on our side of the field.” “An ME gone bad, maybe?” suggested Jamison. Decker looked uncertain.

“You can probably find a YouTube video of someone cutting up a mannequin. But the report said the cuts were professionally done.” “You think this guy has had . what, practice?” “I don’t think anything, at least right now.” “Did you notice the highway here is all concrete?” said Jamison, glancing out the window. “Asphalt apparently doesn’t hold up well in the extreme elements they have up here,” noted Decker. “Although I’m not sure how durable the concrete is, either.” “Well, aren’t you a wealth of information.” “I can Google stuff just like anybody else.” “How much longer do we have to go?” asked Jamison.

Decker glanced at his phone screen. “Says forty-five minutes, nearly to the Canadian border.” “So I guess that was the closest airport back there.” “I think that was the only airport back there.” “This has already been a long, exhausting day.” “And it promises to be a longer night.” “You’re going to start the investigation tonight?” she said, a little incredulously. Decker gave her a stern look. “Never hurts to hit the ground running, Alex. Particularly when someone is dead who shouldn’t be.

.

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