Her name is Atlee Pine, the latest creation from bestselling author David Baldacci. She has unstoppable tenacity, always a fighter who is unwilling to cede any ground. She has endured real nightmares and she has the emotional and physical scars to show for it. And she got those long before she became an adult.
She is an FBI Special Agent assigned to the wilds of the western US. She has to cover, often solo, vast tracts of area: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona. Small towns, impossibly long distances in between isolation like most on the East Coast have never experienced, and an environment where anything can and does happen.
Working with the locals who respect and also sometimes fear her, and have never really been allowed to know her, Atlee Pine turns her vast investigative skills and unmatched drive to find out the truth. Along the way she will revisit painful memories of her own, come to grips with who she is and who she might one day aspire to be. But in the end, she will have to confront not only a new monster, but also the old one of her nightmares.
Release date: November 13, 2018
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 416
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Long Road to Mercy
EENY, MEENY, MINY, MOE.
FBI Special Agent Atlee Pine stared up at the grim facade of the prison complex that housed some of the most dangerous human predators on earth.
She had come to see one of them tonight.
ADX Florence, about a hundred miles south of Denver, was the only supermax prison in the federal system. The supermax component was one of four separate encampments that made up the Federal Correctional Complex located here. In total, more than nine hundred inmates were incarcerated on this parcel of dirt.
From the sky, with the prison lights on, Florence might resemble a set of diamonds on black felt. The men here, guards and inmates, were as hardened as precious stone. It was not a place for the faint-hearted, or the easily intimidated, though the deeply demented were obviously welcome.
The supermax currently held, among others, the Unabomber, the Boston Marathon bomber, 9/11 terrorists, serial killers, an Oklahoma City bombing conspirator, spies, white supremacist leaders, and assorted cartel and mafia bosses. Many of the inmates here would die in federal prison under the official weight of multiple life sentences.
The prison was in the middle of nowhere. No one had ever escaped, but if anyone did, there would be no place to hide. The topography around the prison was flat and open. Not a blade of grass, or a single tree or bush, grew around the complex. The prison was encircled by twelve-foot-high perimeter walls topped with razor wire and interlaced with pressure pads. These spaces were patrolled 24/7 by armed guards and attack dogs. Any prisoner reaching this spot would almost certainly be killed by either fangs or bullets. And few would care about a serial murderer, terrorist, or spy face-planting in the Colorado soil for the final time.
Inside, the cell windows were four inches wide and four feet long, cut in thick concrete, through which only the sky and roof of the facility could be seen. Florence had been designed so that no prisoner could even tell where in the structure he was located. The cells were seven-by-twelve and virtually everything in them, other than each inmate, was made from poured concrete. The showers automatically cut off, the toilets could not be stopped up, the walls were insulated so no inmate could communicate with another, the double steel doors slid open and closed on powered hydraulics, and meals came through a slot in the metal. Outside communication was forbidden except in the visiting room. For unruly prisoners, or in the case of a crisis, there was the Z-Unit, also known as the Black Hole. Its cells were kept completely dark, and restraints were built into each concrete bed.
Solitary confinement was the rule rather than the exception here. The supermax was not designed for prisoners to make new friends.
Atlee Pine’s truck had been scoped and searched, and her name and ID checked against the visitors list. After that she was escorted to the front entrance and showed the guards stationed there her FBI special agent credentials. She was thirty-five, and the last twelve years of her life had been spent with a shiny badge riding on her hip. The gold shield was topped by an open-winged eagle, and below that was Justitia, holding her scales and sword. It was fitting, Pine thought, that a female was depicted on the badge of the preeminent law enforcement agency in the world.
She had relinquished her Glock 23 pistol to the guards. Pine had left in her truck the Beretta Nano that normally rode in an ankle holster. This was the only time she could remember voluntarily handing over her weapon. But America’s only federal supermax had its own set of rules by which she had to abide if she wanted to get inside, and she very much did.
She was tall; over five eleven in her bare feet. Her height had come from her mother, who was an even six feet. Despite her stature, Pine was hardly lithe or willowy. She would never grace a runway or magazine cover as a stick-thin model. She was solid and muscular, which had come from pumping iron religiously. Her thighs, calves, and glutes were rocks, her shoulders and delts sculpted, her arms ropy with long cords of muscle, and her core was iron. She also had competed in MMA and kickboxing and had learned pretty much every way that a smaller person could take on and subdue a larger one.
All of these skills had been learned and enhanced with one aim in mind: survival, while toiling in what was largely a man’s world. And physical strength, and the toughness and confidence that came with it, was a necessity. Her features were angular and came together in a particularly attractive, almost bewitching, manner. She had dark hair that fell to shoulder length and murky blue eyes that gave the impression of great depth.
She had never been to Florence before, and as she was escorted down the hall by two burly guards who hadn’t uttered a word to her, the first thing that struck Pine was the almost eerie calm and quiet. As a federal agent, she had visited many prisons before. They were normally a cacophony of noise, screams, catcalls, curses, trash talk, insults and threats, with fingers curled around bars, and menacing looks coming out of the cells’ darkness. If you weren’t an animal before you went to a max prison, you would be one by the time you got out. Or else, you’d be dead.
It was Lord of the Flies.
With steel doors and flush toilets.
Yet here, it was as if she was in a library. Pine was impressed. It was no small feat for a facility housing men who, collectively, had slaughtered thousands of their fellow humans using bombs, guns, knives, poisons, or simply their fists. Or, in the case of the spies, with their treasonous acts.
Catch a tiger by its toe.
Pine had driven over from St. George, Utah, where she used to live and work. In doing so she’d motored across the entire state of Utah and half of Colorado. Her navigation device had told her it would take a little more than eleven hours to traverse the 650 miles. She had done it in under ten, having the benefit of a lead foot, a big-ass engine in her SUV, and a radar detector to get through the inevitable speed traps.
She’d stopped once to use a restroom and to grab something to eat for the road. Other than that, it had been pedal to the floor mat.
She could have flown into Denver and driven down from there, but she had some time off and she wanted to think about what she would do when she got to her destination. And a long drive through vast and empty stretches of America allowed her to do just that.
Having grown up in the East, she’d spent the majority of her professional life in the open plains of the American Southwest. She hoped to spend the rest of it there because she loved the outdoor lifestyle and the wide-open spaces.
After a few years at the Bureau, Pine had had her pick of assignments. This had been the case for only one reason: She was willing to go where no other agent wanted to. Most agents were desperate to be assigned to one of the FBI’s fifty-six field offices. Some liked it hot, so they aimed for Miami, Houston, or Phoenix. Some aimed for higher office in the FBI bureaucracy, so they fought to get to New York or DC. Los Angeles was popular for myriad reasons, Boston the same. Yet Pine had no interest in any of those places. She liked the relative isolation of the RA, or resident agency, in the middle of nothing. And so long as she got results and was willing to pull the duty, people left her alone.
And in the wide-open spaces, she was often the only federal law enforcement for hundreds of miles. She liked that, too. Some would call her aloof, a control freak, or antisocial, but she wasn’t. She actually got along well with people. Indeed, you couldn’t be an effective FBI agent without having strong people skills. But she did like her privacy.
Pine had taken a position at the RA in St. George, Utah. It was a two-person outfit and Pine had been there for two years. When the opportunity arose, she had transferred to a one-agent office in a tiny town called Shattered Rock. It was a recently established RA due west of Tuba City, and about as close to Grand Canyon National Park as it was possible to be without actually being in the park. There, she enjoyed the support of one secretary, Carol Blum. She was around sixty and had been at the Bureau for decades. Blum claimed former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as her hero, though he’d died long before she joined up.
Pine didn’t know whether to believe the woman or not.
Visiting hours were long since over at Florence, but the Bureau of Prisons had accommodated a request from a fellow fed. It was actually twelve a.m. on the dot, a fitting time, Pine felt, because didn’t monsters come out only at the stroke of midnight?
She was escorted into the visiting room and sat on a metal stool on one side of a sheet of thick polycarbonate glass. In lieu of a phone, a round metal conduit built into the glass provided the only means to verbally communicate. On the other side of the glass, the inmate would sit on a similar metal stool bolted into the floor. The seat was uncomfortable; it was meant to be.
If he hollers let him go.
She sat awaiting him, her hands clasped and resting on the flat, laminated surface in front of her. She had pinned her FBI shield to her lapel, because she wanted him to see it. She kept her gaze on the door through which he would be led. He knew she was coming. He had approved her visit, one of the few rights he possessed in here.
Pine tensed slightly when she heard multiple footsteps approaching. The door was buzzed open, and the first person she saw was a beefy guard with no neck and wide shoulders that nearly spanned the door opening. Behind him came another guard, and then a third; both were equally large and imposing.
She briefly wondered if there was a minimum heft requirement for a guard here. There probably should be. Along with a tetanus shot.
She dropped this thought as quickly as she had acquired it, because behind them appeared a shackled Daniel James Tor, all six feet four inches of him. He was followed in by a trio of other guards. They effectively filled the small enclosure. The rule of thumb here, Pine had learned, was that no prisoner was moved from one place to another with fewer than three guards.
Apparently, Tor warranted double that number. She could understand why.
Tor had not a hair on his head. His eyes stared blankly forward as the guards seated him on his stool and locked his chains into a steel ring set into the floor. This was also not typical of the visiting policy here, Pine knew.
But it was obviously typical for fifty-seven-year-old Tor. He had on a white jumpsuit with black rubber-soled shoes with no laces. Black-framed glasses covered his eyes. They were one piece and made of soft rubber with no metal pins at juncture points. The lenses were flimsy plastic. It would be difficult to turn them into a weapon.
In prisons, one had to sweat the small details, because inmates had all day and night to think of ways to harm themselves and others.
She knew Tor’s entire body under the jumpsuit was virtually covered in largely self-inked tats. The ones that he hadn’t done himself had been inked on by some of his victims, forced into becoming tattoo artists before Tor had dispatched them into the hereafter. It was said that each tat told a story about a victim.
Tor weighed about 280 pounds, and Pine calculated that only about 10 percent of that would qualify as fat. The veins rippled in his forearms and neck. There wasn’t much to do in here except work out and sleep, she assumed. And he had been an athlete in high school, a sports star, really, born with a genetically gifted physique. It was unfortunate that the superb body had been paired with a deranged, though brilliant, mind.
The guards, satisfied that Tor was securely restrained, left the way they had come. But Pine could hear them right outside the door. She was sure Tor could as well.
She imagined him somehow breaking through the glass. Could she hold her own against him? It was an intriguing hypothetical. And part of her wanted him to try.
His gaze finally fell upon her and held.
Atlee Pine had stared through the width of glass or in between cell bars at many monsters, a number of whom she had brought to justice.
Yet Daniel James Tor was different. He was perhaps the most sadistic and prolific serial murderer of his, or perhaps any, generation.
He rested his shackled hands on the laminated surface, and tilted his thick neck to the right until a kink popped. Then he resettled his gaze on her after flicking a glance at the badge.
His lips curled momentarily at the symbol for law and order.
“Well?” he asked, his voice low and monotone. “You called this meeting.”
The moment, an eternity in the making, had finally come.
Atlee Pine leaned forward, her lips an inch from the thick glass.
“Where’s my sister?”
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
THE DEAD-EYE STARE from Tor didn’t change in the face of Pine’s question. On the other side of the door where the guards lurked, Pine could hear murmurings, the shuffling of feet, the occasional smack of palm against a metal baton. Just for practice in case it needed to be wrapped around Tor’s head at a moment’s notice.
From Tor’s expression, she knew he could hear it, too. He apparently missed nothing here, though he had eventually been caught because he had missed something.
Pine leaned slightly back on her stool, folded her arms across her chest, and waited for his answer. He could go nowhere, and she had nowhere to go that was more important than this.
Tor looked her up and down in a way that perhaps he had used in sizing up all his victims. There were thirty-four of them confirmed. Confirmed, not total. The actual number was feared to be triple the official count. She was here about an unconfirmed one. She was here about a single victim not even in the running to be added to the tally of this man’s zealous depravity.
Tor had escaped a death sentence due solely to his cooperating with authorities, revealing the locations of three victims’ remains. This revelation had provided a trio of families some closure. And it had allowed Tor to live, albeit in a cage, for the rest of his life. In her mind, Pine could see him easily, perhaps smugly, striking that bargain, knowing that he had gotten the better end of the deal.
His victims were dead. He wasn’t. And this man was all about the death of others.
He’d been arrested, convicted, and sentenced in the midnineties. He’d killed two guards and another inmate at a prison in 1998. The state where this occurred did not have the death penalty, otherwise Tor would have been on death row or already executed. That had led to his being transferred to ADX Florence. He was currently serving nearly forty consecutive life terms. Unless he pulled a Methuselah, he would die right here.
None of this seemed to faze the man.
“Name?” he asked, as though he were a clerk at a counter checking on an order.
“Place and time?”
He was screwing with her now, but she needed to play along.
“Andersonville, Georgia, June 7, 1989.”
He popped his neck once more, this time to the other side. He stretched out his long fingers, cracking the joints. The huge man seemed one enormous jumble of pressure points.
“Andersonville, Georgia,” he mused. “Lots of deaths there. Confederate prison during the Civil War. The commandant, Henry Wirz, was executed for war crimes. Did you know that? Executed for doing his job.” He smiled. “He was Swiss. Totally neutral. And they hanged him. Some weird justice.”
The smile disappeared as quickly as it had emerged, like a spent match.
She said, “Mercy Pine. Six years old. She disappeared on June 7, 1989. Andersonville, southwestern Macon County, Georgia. Do you need me to describe the house? I heard your memory for your victims is photographic, but maybe you need some help. It’s been a while.”
“What color was her hair?” asked Tor, his lips parted, revealing wide, straight teeth.
In answer, Pine pointed to her own. “Same as mine. We were twins.”
This statement seemed to spark an interest in Tor that had not been present before. She had expected this. She knew everything about this man except for one thing.
That one thing was why she was here tonight.
He sat forward, his shackles clinking in his excitement.
He glanced at her badge once more.
He said eagerly, “Twins. FBI. It’s starting to make sense. Go on.”
“You were known to be operating in the area in 1989. Atlanta, Columbus, Albany, downtown Macon.” Using a tube of ruby red lipstick taken from her pocket, she drew a dot on the glass representing each of the aforementioned localities. Then, she connected these dots, and formed a familiar figure.
“You were a math prodigy. You like geometric shapes.” She pointed to what she had drawn. “Here, a diamond shape. That’s how they eventually caught you.”
This was the something Tor had missed. A pattern of his own creation.
His lips pressed together. She knew that no serial murderer would ever admit to being outwitted. The man was clearly a sociopath and a narcissist. People often discounted narcissism as relatively harmless because the term sometimes conjured the clichéd image of a vain man staring longingly at his reflection in a pool of water or a mirror.
However, Pine knew that narcissism was probably one of the most dangerous traits someone could possess for one critical reason: The narcissist could not feel empathy toward others. Which meant that the lives of others held no value to a narcissist. Killing could even be like a hit of fentanyl: instant euphoria from the domination and destruction of another.
That was why virtually every serial murderer was also a narcissist.
She said, “But Andersonville was not part of that pattern. Was it a one-off? Were you freelancing? What made you come to my house?”
“It was a rhombus, not a diamond,” replied Tor.
Pine didn’t respond to this.
He continued, as though lecturing to a class. “My pattern was a rhombus, a lozenge, if you prefer, a quadrilateral, a four-sided figure with four equal-length sides, and unequal-length diagonals. For example, a kite is a parallelogram only when it’s a rhombus.” He gave a patronizing glance at what she had drawn. “A diamond is not a true or precise mathematical term. So don’t make that mistake again. It’s embarrassing. And unprofessional. Did you even prepare for this meeting?” With his manacled hands, he gave a dismissive wave and disgusted look to the figure she’d drawn on the glass, as though she had imprinted something foul there.
“Thank you, that makes it perfectly clear,” said Pine, who couldn’t give a shit about parallelograms specifically, or math in general. “So why the one-off? You’d never broken a pattern before.”
“You presume my pattern was broken. You presume I was in Andersonville on the night of June 7, 1989.”
“I never said it was at night.”
The smile flickered back. “Doesn’t the boogeyman only come out at night?”
Pine reflected for a moment on her earlier thought about monsters only striking at midnight. To catch these killers, she had to think like them. It was and always had been a profoundly disturbing thought to her.
Before she could respond, he said, “Six years old? A twin? Where exactly did it take place?”
“In our bedroom. You came in through the window. You taped our mouths shut so we couldn’t call out. You held us down with your hands.”
She took out a piece of paper from her pocket and held it up to the glass, so he could see the writing on that side.
His gaze drifted down the page, his features unreadable, even to an experienced agent like Pine.
“A four-line nursery rhyme?” he said, tacking on a yawn. “What next? Will you break into song?”
“You thumped our foreheads as you recited it,” noted Pine, who leaned forward a notch. “Each word, a different forehead. You started with me and ended on Mercy. Then you took her, and you did this to me.”
She swept back her hair to reveal a scar behind her left temple. “Not sure what you used. It was a blur. Maybe just your fist. You cracked my skull.” She added, “But you’re a big man and I was just a little kid.” She paused. “I’m not a little kid anymore.”
“No, you’re not. What, about five eleven?”
“My sister was tall, too, at age six, but skinny. Big guy like you, you could have carried her easily. Where did you take her?”
“Presumption again. As you said, I’d never broken a pattern before. Why would you think that I had then?”
Pine leaned even closer to the glass. “Thing is, I remember seeing you.” She looked him over. “You’re pretty unforgettable.”
The lip curled again, like the string on a bow being pulled back. About to let loose a fatal arrow. “You remember seeing me? And you only show up now? Twenty-nine years later?”
“I knew you weren’t going anywhere.”
“A weak quip, and hardly an answer.” He glanced at her badge again. “FBI. Where are you assigned? Somewhere near here?” he added a bit eagerly.
“Where did you take her? How did my sister die? Where are her remains?”
These queries were rapidly fired off, because Pine had practiced them on the long drive here.
Tor simply continued his line of thought. “I assume not a field office. You don’t strike me as a main-office type. Your dress is casual and you’re here outside visiting hours, hardly by the Bureau book. And there’s only one of you. Your kind likes to travel in pairs if it’s official business. Add to that the personal equation.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, meeting his gaze.
“You lose a twin, you become a loner, like you lost half of yourself. You can’t rely on or trust anyone else once that emotional cord is broken. You’re not married,” he added, glancing at her bare ring finger. “So you have no one to interrupt your lifelong sense of loss until one day you kick off, alone, frustrated, unhappy.” He paused, looking mildly interested. “Yet something happened to lead you here after nearly three decades. Did it take you that long to work up the courage to face me? An FBI agent? It does give one pause.”
“You have no reason not to tell me. They can take off another life sentence, it won’t matter. Florence is it for you.”
His next response was surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been.
“You’ve tracked down and arrested at least a half-dozen people like me. The least talented among them had killed four, the most talented had disposed of ten.”
“Talented? Not the way I would describe it.”
“But surely talent does come into play. It’s not an easy business, regardless of what society thinks about it. The ones you arrested weren’t in my league, of course, but you have to start somewhere. Now, you seem to have made a specialty of it. Of going toe-to-toe with the likes of me. It’s nice to aim high, but one can grow too ambitious, or become overconfident. Flying too close to the sun with the wax betwixt the wings, that sort of thing. Death so often results. Now, it can be a divine look, but not, I think, on you. However, I’d love to try.”
Pine shrugged off this deranged soliloquy ending with the threat against her. If he was thinking of killing her, that meant she had his attention.
She said, “They were all operating in the West. Here, you have wide-open spaces without a policeman on every block. People coming and going, lots of runaways, folks looking for something new, long strips of isolated highways. A billion places to toss the remains. It encourages…talent like yours.”
He spread his hands as wide as he could with the restraints. “Now see, that’s better.”
“It would be far better if you answered my question.”
“I also understand that you came within one pound of making the U.S. Olympic team as a weightlifter when you were in college.” When she didn’t respond he said, “Google has even reached Florence, Special Agent Atlee Pine from Andersonville, Georgia. I requested some background information on you as a condition for this meeting. You’ve also earned your own Wikipedia page. It’s not nearly as long as mine, but then again, it’s early days for you. But long careers are not guaranteed.”
“It was one kilo, not one pound. The snatch did me in, never my best pull. I’m more of a clean-and-jerk girl.”
“Kilos, yes. My mistake. So actually, you’re a bit weaker than I thought. And, of course, a failure.”
“You have no reason not to tell me,” she repeated. “None.”
“You want closure, like the rest of them?” he said in a bored tone.
Pine nodded, but only because she was afraid of the words that might come out of her mouth at that moment. Contrary to Tor’s assertions, she had prepared for this meeting. Only, one could never fully prepare for a confrontation with this man.
“You know what I really, really like?” said Tor.
Pine kept staring at him but didn’t react.
“I really, really like that I have defined your entire, pathetic life.”
Tor suddenly leaned forward. His wide shoulders and massive bald head seemed to fill the glass, like a man coming in through a little girl’s bedroom window. For one terrifying moment, Pine was six again and this demon was thumping her forehead with each word of the rhyme, with death to the one last touched.
Mercy. Not her.
Then she let out a barely audible breath and involuntarily touched the badge on her jacket.
Her touchstone. Her lodestone. No, her rosary.
The movement did not go unnoticed by Tor. He didn’t smile in triumph; his look was not one of anger but of disappointment. And then, a moment later, disinterest. His eyes hollowed out and his features relaxed as he sat back. He slumped down, his energy, and with it his animation, gone.
Pine felt every cell in her body start to shut down. She’d totally just screwed this up. He’d tested her, and Pine had not risen to the challenge. The boogeyman had come at midnight and found her lacking.
“Guards,” he bellowed. “I’m ready. We’re done here.” As soon as he finished speaking, his lips spread into a malicious grin and Pine knew precisely why.
This was the only time he could order them around.
As they came in, unhooked him from the ring, and began to lead him away, Pine rose.
“You have no reason not to tell me.”
He didn’t deign to look at her.
“The meek shall never inherit the earth, Atlee Pine of Andersonville, twin of Mercy. Get used to it. But if you want to vent again, you know where to find me. And now that I’ve met you—” he suddenly looked back at her, a surge of ferocious desire flashing across his features, probably the last thing his victims ever saw “—I will never forget you.”
The metal portal shut and locked behind him. She listened to the march of feet taking Tor back to his seven-by-twelve poured-concrete cage.
Pine stared at the door a moment longer, then wiped the lipstick off the glass, the color of blood transferred to her palm, retraced her footsteps, retrieved her gun, and left ADX Florence, breathing in crisp air at exactly one mile above sea level.
She would not cry. She hadn’t shed a tear since Mercy had vanished. Yet she wanted to feel something. But it just wasn’t there. She was weightless, like being on the moon, nothing, empty. He had drained whatever she had left right out of her. No, not drained.
And, worst of all, what had happened to her sister was still unknown.
She drove a hundred miles west to Salida and found the cheapest motel she could, since this trip was all on her dime.
Right before she fell asleep, she thought back to the question Tor had asked.
And you only show up now? Twenty-nine years later?
There was a good reason for this, at least in Pine’s mind. But maybe it was also a flawed one.
She didn’t dream about Tor that night. She didn’t dream of her sister, gone nearly three decades now. The only visual her subconscious held up was herself at six years old trudging to school for the first time without Mercy’s hand inside hers. A bereaved little girl in pigtails who had lost her other half, as Tor himself had intimated.
The better half of her, thought Pine, because she had been the one constantly in trouble, while her ten-minute-older “big” sister had habitually stood up for her, or covered for her, in equal measure. Unfailing loyalty and love.
Pine had never felt that again, not in her entire life.
Maybe Tor was right about her future.
And then his other jab, the one that had gotten through her defenses, and nailed her right in the gut.
You define me?
When she felt her lips begin to tremble, she rose, stumbled to the bathroom, and stuck her head under the shower. She left it there until the cold was so unbearable she nearly screamed out in pain. Yet not a single tear mingled with the freezing tap water.
She rose at the crack of dawn, showered, dressed, and headed home. Halfway there she stopped to get something to eat. As she got back into her SUV the text landed in her phone.
She sent off a reply, closed the truck door, fired up the engine, and floored it.
THE GRAND CANYON was one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and the only one located in America. It was the second largest canyon on earth, behind Tsangpo Canyon in Tibet, which was a bit longer but much deeper. The Grand Canyon was visited by five million people from around the globe every year. However, n
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