June 11, 2 p.m.
Seconds to decide.
Swerve left? Swerve right?
A steep drop into brush? Or a narrow shoulder that ends in a cliff wall?
Colter Shaw spun the wheel of the rental Kia sedan hard, braking intermittently-he couldn't afford a skid. The vehicle, which had been doing forty along this stretch in high mountains, plunged into foliage, narrowly missing a collision with the boulder that had tumbled down a steep hillside and rolled into the middle of the road before him. Shaw thought the sound of a two-hundred-pound piece of rock rolling through brush and over gravel would be more dramatic; the transit was virtually silent.
Left was the correct choice.
Had he gone right, the car would have slammed into a granite outcropping hidden by tall, beige grass.
Shaw, who spent much time assessing the percentage likelihood of harm when making professional decisions, nonetheless knew that sometimes you simply had to roll the dice, and see what happened.
No air bags, no injury. He was, however, trapped inside the Kia. To his left was a sea of mahonia, otherwise known as Oregon grape, benign names both, belying the plant's needle-sharp spikes that can penetrate cloth on their effortless way into skin. Not an option for an exit. The passenger side was better, blocked only by insubstantial cinquefoil, in cheerful June bloom, yellow, and a tangle of forsythia.
Shaw shoved the right-side door open again and again, pushing back the viney plants. As he did this, he noted that the attacker's timing had been good. Had the weapon fallen sooner, Shaw could easily have braked. Any later, he'd have been past it and still on his way.
And a weapon it must have been.
Washington State certainly was home to earthquakes and seismic activity of all sorts but there'd been no recent shivering in the vicinity. And rocks that are this big usually stay put unless they're leveraged off intentionally-in front of, or onto, cars driven by men in pursuit of an armed fleeing felon.
After doffing his brown plaid sport coat, Shaw began to leverage himself through the gap between door and frame. He was in trim fit, as one who climbs mountainsides for recreation will be. Still, the opening was only fourteen or so inches, and he was caught. He would shove the door open, retreat, then shove once more. The gap slowly grew wider.
He heard a rustling in the brush across the road. The man who'd tipped the rock into Shaw's path was now scrabbling down the hillside and pressing through the dense growth toward Shaw, who struggled further to free himself. He saw a glint in the man's hand. A pistol.
The son of a survivalist and in a manner of speaking a survivalist himself, Shaw knew myriad ways of cheating death. On the other hand, he was a rock climber, a dirt bike fanatic, a man with a profession that set him against killers and escaped prisoners who'd stop at nothing to stay free. The smoke of death wafted everywhere around him, constantly. But it wasn't that finality that troubled him. In death, you had no reckoning. Far worse would be a catastrophic injury to the spine, to the eyes, the ears. Crippling his body, darkening the world or muting it forever.
In his youth, Shaw was called "the restless one" among his siblings. Now, having grown into a self-professed Restless Man, he knew that such incapacity would be pure hell.
He continued to squeeze.
Come on, come on . . .
Just as he was about to break free, his wallet, in the left rear pocket of his black jeans, caught.
The attacker stopped, leaning through the brush, and lifted the pistol. Shaw heard it cock. A revolver.
And a big one. When it fired, the muzzle blast blew green leaves from branches.
The bullet went wide, kicking up dust near Shaw.
The man fired again.
This bullet hit its mark.
June 11, 8 a.m., six hours earlier
Shaw was piloting his thirty-foot Winnebago camper through the winding streets of Gig Harbor, Washington State.
With about seven thousand inhabitants, the place was both charming and scuffed around the edges. It was, to be sure, a harbor, well protected, connected to Puget Sound via a narrow channel through which pleasure and fishing craft now glided. The Winnebago motored past working and long-abandoned factories devoted to manufacturing vessels and the countless parts and accessories with which ships were outfitted. To Colter Shaw, never a sailor, it seemed like you could spend every minute of every day maintaining, repairing, polishing and organizing a boat without ever going out to sea.
A sign announced the Blessing of the Fleet in the middle of the harbor, the dates indicating that it had taken place earlier in the month.
Pleasure craft now welcome!
Perhaps the industry was now less robust than in the past, and the organizers of the event wanted to beef up its image by letting lawyers and doctors and salesmen edge their cabin cruisers up to the circle of the commercial craft-if that geometry was in fact the configuration for fleet blessing.
Shaw, a professional reward seeker, was here on a job-the word he used to describe what he did. Cases were what law enforcement investigated and what prosecutors prosecuted. Although after years of pursuing any number of criminals Shaw might have made a fine detective, he wanted none of the regimen and regulation that went with full-time employment. He was free to take on, or reject, any job he wished to. He could choose to abandon the quest at any time.
Freedom meant a lot to Colter Shaw.
He was presently considering the hate crime that had brought him here. In the first page of the notebook he was devoting to the investigation, he'd written down the details that had been provided by one of his business managers:
Location: Gig Harbor, Pierce County, Washington State.
Reward offered for: Information leading to the arrest and conviction of two individuals:
-Adam Harper, 27, resident of Tacoma.
-Erick Young, 20, resident of Gig Harbor.
Incident: There have been a series of hate crimes in the county, including graffiti of swastikas, the number 88 (Nazi symbol) and the number 666 (sign for the devil) painted on synagogues and a half-dozen churches, primarily those with largely black congregations. On June 7, Brethren Baptist Church of Gig Harbor was defaced and a cross burned in the front yard. Original news story was that the church itself was set on fire but that was found to be inaccurate. A janitor and a lay preacher (William DuBois and Robinson Estes) ran outside to confront the two suspects. Harper opened fire with a handgun, wounding both men. The preacher has been released from the hospital. The janitor remains in the intensive care unit. The perpetrators fled in a red Toyota pickup, registered to Adam Harper.
Law enforcement agencies running case: Pierce County Public Safety Office, liaising with U.S. Justice Department, which will investigate to determine if the incident is a federal hate crime.
Offerors and amount of reward:
-Reward one: $50,000, offered by Pierce County, underwritten by the Western Washington Ecumenical Council (with much of that sum donated by MicroEnterprises NA founder Ed Jasper).
-Reward two: $900 offered by Erick Young's parents and family.
To be aware of: Dalton Crowe is actively pursuing the reward.
This last bit of intelligence wasn't good.
Crowe was an unpleasant man in his forties. Former military, he opened a security business on the East Coast, though it wasn't successful and he shut it down. His career now was freelance security consultant, mercenary and, from time to time, reward seeker. Shaw's and Crowe's paths had crossed several times, on occasion violently. They approached the profession differently. Crowe rarely went after missing persons; he sought only wanted criminals and escapees. If you shot a fugitive while you were using a legal weapon in self-defense, you still got the reward and could usually avoid jail. This was Crowe's approach, the antithesis of Shaw's.
Shaw had not been sure he wanted to take this job. The other day, as he'd sat in a lawn chair in Silicon Valley, he had been planning on pursuing another matter. That second mission was personal, and it involved his father and a secret from the past-a secret that had nearly gotten Shaw shot in the elbows and kneecaps by a hitman with the unlikely name of Ebbitt Droon.
Risk of bodily harm-reasonable risk-didn't deter Shaw, though, and he truly wanted to pursue his search for his father's hidden treasure.
He'd decided, however, that the capture of two apparent neo-Nazis, armed and willing to kill, took priority.
GPS now directed him through the hilly, winding streets of Gig Harbor until he came to the address he sought, a pleasant single-story home, painted cheerful yellow, a stark contrast to the gray overcast. He glanced in the mirror and brushed smooth his short blond hair, which lay close to his head. It was mussed from a twenty-minute nap, his only rest on the ten-hour drive here from the San Francisco area.
Slinging his computer bag over his shoulder, he climbed from the van and walked to the front door, rang the bell.
Larry and Emma Young admitted him, and he followed the couple into the living room. He assessed their ages to be mid-forties. Erick's father sported sparse gray-brown hair and wore beige slacks and a short-sleeved T-shirt, immaculately white. He was clean-shaven. Emma wore a concealing, A-line dress in pink. She had put on fresh makeup for the visitor, Shaw sensed. Missing children disrupt much, and showers and personal details are often neglected. Not so here.
Two pole lamps cast disks of homey light around the room, whose walls were papered with yellow and russet flowers, and whose floors were covered in dark green carpet, over which sat some Lowe's or Home Depot oriental rugs. A nice home. Modest.
A brown uniform jacket sat on a coat rack near the door. It was thick and stained and had larry stitched on the breast. Shaw guessed the man was a mechanic.
They were doing their assessment of Shaw as well: the sport coat, the black jeans, the gray button-down shirt. Black slip-ons. This, or a variation, was his own uniform.
"Sit down, sir," Larry said.
Shaw took a comfortable overstuffed armchair of bold red leather and the couple sat across from him. "Have you heard anything about Erick since we talked?"
"No, sir," Emma Young told him.
"What's the latest from the police?"
Larry said, "He and that other man, Adam. They're still around the area. The detective, he thinks they're scraping together money, borrowing it, maybe stealing it-"
"He wouldn't," said Emma.
"What the police said," Larry explained. "I'm just telling him what they said."
The mother swallowed. "He's . . . never. I mean, I . . ." She began to cry-again. Her eyes had been dry but red and swollen when Shaw arrived.
He removed a notebook from his computer bag, as well as a Delta Titanio Galassia fountain pen, black with three orange rings toward the nib. Writing with the instrument was neither pretense nor luxury. Colter Shaw took voluminous notes during the course of his reward jobs; the pen meant less wear and tear on his writing hand. It also was simply a small pleasure to use.
He now wrote the date and the names of the couple. He looked up and asked for details about their son's life: In college and working part-time. On summer break now. Lived at home.
"Does Erick have a history of being involved in neo-Nazi or any extremist groups?"
"My God, no," Larry muttered as if exhausted by the familiar question.
"This is all just crazy," said Emma. "He's a good boy. Oh, he's had a little trouble like everybody. Some drugs-I mean, after, well, after what happened, it's understandable. Just tried 'em is all. The school called. No police. They were good about that."
Larry grimaced. "Pierce County? The meth and drug capital of the state. You should read the stories in the paper. Forty percent of all the meth in Washington is produced here."
Shaw nodded. "Was that what Erick did?"
"No, some of that Oxy stuff. Just for a while. He took anti-depressants too. Still does."
"You said, 'after what happened.' After what?"
They looked at each other. "We lost our younger boy sixteen months ago."
Emma's hand, resting on her thigh, closed into a fist, bundling the cloth below her fingers. "No. Was on his bike, run into by somebody who was drunk. My, it was hard. So hard. But it hit Erick in particular. It changed him. They were real close."
Brothers, Shaw thought, understanding quite well the complex feelings the relationship generated.
Larry said, "But he wouldn't do anything hurtful. Never anything bad. He never has. 'Cepting for the church."
His wife snapped, "Which he didn't do. You know he didn't."
Shaw said, "The witnesses said it was Adam did the shooting. I haven't heard where the gun came from. Does Erick own one? Have access to one?"
"So it would be his friend's."
Larry: "Friend? Adam wasn't a friend. We never heard of him."
Emma's ruddy fingers twined the dress hem. A habit. "He's the one did the cross thing too, burning it. And the graffiti. Everything! Adam kidnapped Erick. I'm sure that's what happened. He had a gun and made Erick come with him. Hijack his car, rob him."
"They took Adam's truck, though, not Erick's."
"I was thinking about that," the mother blurted. "Erick did the brave thing and threw his keys away."
"He had his own bank account?"
The boy's father said, "Yes."
So they wouldn't know about withdrawals. The police could get that information, what branches he'd been to. Probably already had.
"You know how much money he has? Enough to get very far?"
"Couple thousand, maybe."
Shaw had been examining the room, observing mostly the pictures of the Youngs' two boys. Erick was handsome with bushy brown hair and an easy smile. Shaw had also seen pictures of Adam Harper, posted as part of the reward announcement. There were no mug shots, though in both of the photos in the press he was looking into the camera with caution. The young man, whose crew cut was blond with blue highlights, was gaunt.
"I'm going to pursue this, try to find your son."
Larry said, "Oh, sure. Please. You're nothing like that big guy."
"Didn't like him one bit," Emma muttered.
"That was his name. I told him to leave. I wasn't going to pay him any reward. He laughed and said I could stuff it. He was going after the bigger one anyway, you know-the fifty thousand the county offered."