CHAPTER 81

Burch and Gage stared at the flames consuming oak logs in the fireplace of Gage’s cabin. Burch’s walker stood next to the rocking chair where he sat with a glass of bourbon in his hand and with his legs covered by a plaid wool blanket. Gage reclined on the couch, feet up on the coffee table.

The midnight forest was finally quiet except for an owl hooting in the distance.

“Matson is absolutely certain that Gravilov was behind all the violence,” Gage said, after recounting his surrender of Matson to Peterson.

“That explains Fitzhugh. It must’ve been that fellow Razor. But what about me and Granger?”

“Matson said he had nightmares starting the moment he met that monster Kovalenko at Northstead Securities.”

Burch caught his breath. “Kovalenko? It was Kovalenko?”

Gage shook his head. “Not him. He doesn’t match the description. He probably brought in some East Coast enforcer from his Goldstake days. But we’ll find the guy. It’s just a matter of time.”

Gage rose, then grabbed the poker and repositioned the logs, buying time to think. In saying those words he grasped that he’d adjusted to Burch’s fragility in the two years since Courtney’s cancer, accepted it, maybe even contributed to it-and he’d just done it again.

Gage turned to face him. “Sorry, champ, that’s not true. We’ll never get past Kovalenko to catch the guy who shot you. The Kovalenkos of the world don’t break, and they don’t make deals.” He paused. “I was just trying-”

“To protect me.”

Gage shrugged.

“I know. It took a couple of slugs to help me figure that out.” Burch looked past Gage toward the fire. “I’ve had a lot of time to think.” Then back at Gage. “You know what I realized? That I’ve misunderstood myself all my life. I thought I was like you, but I’m not. I should’ve learned that lesson in Afghanistan. I spent the two weeks terrified and bewildered. You didn’t need me there at all.” Burch set down his glass. “In all the things I do. Sailing. Skiing. Even work. I’ve always oriented myself against a predictable kind of resistance. Ocean breezes, gravity. Then, whenever I felt constrained, I became reckless.”

Gage nodded. He hadn’t thought about it that way, but Burch was right.

“But when Courtney was diagnosed, the wind just stopped. I felt completely helpless. Adrift. After I got shot, lying there in the hospital, I realized that you had always been protecting me, insulating me. Even when we were in Moscow. I sat in that conference room, forehanding contract provisions back and forth in a contained little space for gentlemen who accepted all the rules. I even saw you going out to meet Slava Akimov and the others as just one more step in an orderly process-risky, but constrained by rational people pursuing their long-term self-interest.”

“Does that mean you would’ve done it differently?” Gage asked, dropping back onto the couch.

Burch shook his head. “I just would’ve understood it differently. Truthfully.” He fell silent and slowly rocked back and forth in his chair. “That’s what I’ve needed all my life.”

Gage stared at the fire. There was no reason to say anything more. Burch had arrived where he needed to go.

They sat silent for a few minutes. Then Burch looked over.

“I don’t understand how Matson got involved in selling those devices to Ukraine in the first place,” Burch said. “Arms trafficking just doesn’t seem like something he’d do. When he first came to see me, he seemed like no more than an earnest salesman.”

“It didn’t happen all at once. Gravilov led him along. First they tried to slip high-power devices into Ukraine labeled as low-power. A woman at SatTek named Katie Palan found out about it. I talked to her parents while you were in the hospital. She’d written an anonymous letter to the FBI, but-”

The word caught in his throat.

Burch squinted toward Gage. “But what?”

Gage pulled his feet off the coffee table and then sat up.

“But SatTek self-disclosed…claimed it was a mistake.”

“What’s wrong?”

Gage rose and paced in front of the fireplace, trying to order the images and sequences clashing in his head.

“Something doesn’t make sense. The timing isn’t right.”

He stopped pacing, then turned toward Burch. “Katie Palan’s car accident was more than a year before the grand jury started hearing the case. Right in the middle of the scam.”

“You lost me.”

“I thought the leak was from the grand jury. So did Peterson. He sent Zink to investigate it. Somebody was tipping off Gravilov. Your name came up, you got shot. Then Fitzhugh. And when Granger decided to cooperate, he got hit.”

Gage walked to the kitchen counter and picked up the telephone. “Maybe I underestimated the guy. Maybe everybody did.”

He called information, then dialed an Oakland number.

A woman answered, “North County Jail.”

“I’d like to know if you have a federal prisoner there, Stuart Matson.”

“You have a DOB?”

“No. But he’s mid-forties.”

Gage heard keystrokes against the background of light jazz.

“There’s no Stuart Matson in custody.”

“Maybe he just came in.”

“Hold on.”

Gage heard the clerk set down the phone, then the sound of footsteps followed by distant voices. “Vernice, is there a Stuart Matson waiting to be booked?… What’s the name?…Matson… You got somebody calling?…Yeah… The name’s familiar but it’s not in my paperwork…”

Gage heard footsteps approaching the phone.

“No. He’s not here…hold on…Matson, yeah…That was him?…You still there?”

“Yes.”

“He’s a runner. It was on the radio.”

“He escaped?”

“Five or six hours ago. From an FBI agent driving him over from San Francisco. Hijacked right at the bottom of the first Oakland off-ramp. A stockbroker or something, right?”

“Sort of. Thanks.”

Gage set the phone back into its cradle and turned toward Burch.

“Gravilov had someone snatch Matson.”

A squeak of a porch board broke the forest silence, followed by four hard raps on the front door. Gage peeked through the curtain, then opened the door. Zink was standing on the bottom step, his badge extended in his right hand toward the light emerging from the cabin, while the other rested on his gun.

“I tried to call,” Zink said, “but there’s no cell service out here and the cabin phone is unlisted.”

“Come on in.”

Zink climbed the last three steps, then crossed the threshold.

“Aren’t you supposed to be chasing down Matson?” Gage asked.

“I am. Him and the guys who jacked me.” Zink offered a weak smile. “I feel like a fucking idiot.”

“Tough break. What can we help you with?”

“I need to talk to you two.” Zink remained standing near the door as if hesitant to approach Burch. “See if you have any ideas about where Matson might go, where he might’ve stashed money. He’ll need some cash to live on. And I gotta go through you to speak to Alla, see what she knows.”

“Matson turned out to be a lot smarter than any of us figured,” Gage said.

“Sure was.”

“Well, I’m sure as bloody hell not talking to you,” Burch said. “And I have no apologies.”

“I know you’ve got hard feelings, but I was just doing my job.”

Burch’s face darkened. “Not very well, I’d say.”

“Matson was just so believable,” Zink said. “He fooled us, me and Peterson.”

“Jack’ll calm down in a minute,” Gage said. Then he felt his heart thump as his mind flashed back on Zink poised on the stairs, but kept his voice steady. “Why don’t you take a seat. Maybe we can figure out where he went.”

Gage glanced backward, as if looking for a chair, then spun back at the sound of a ripping Velcro holster strap. His right cross hit Zink in the jaw-

“Graham!” Burch yelled. “What’re you doing?”

A left jab to the nose brought up Zink’s hands, and a right uppercut just below the ribs dropped him to the floor. Gage then knelt down and yanked Zink’s gun from his holster, a battered Ruger. 357.

“What’d you do, Zink? Buy this on the street? Steal it from the evidence room?”

Zink curled up next to the threshold, covering his head as if expecting the next sound to be the gun butt against his skull.

Gage pulled up Zink’s left pant leg, then tore off his ankle holster.

“What’s going on? Graham, he’s a federal agent.”

Gage looked over at Burch, then held up his left hand, trigger finger curled. “The man who shot you now has a face.”

Burch’s mouth dropped. “But he’s…”

Gage glared down at Zink as a nightmarish image sent a tremor through him: Katie Palan’s car spinning out of control and tumbling down the hillside.

“It was the letters.” Gage glanced at Burch. “First Katie sent an anonymous letter about the illegal sale of video amplifiers to Ukraine, and Zink covered it up. Then she sent a signed one about the stock fraud, so he had to get rid of her.”

Instant confirmation appeared in Zink’s rodentlike eyes darting around the room. He reached for a table leg and tried to pull himself to his feet.

Gage pointed down, his finger an inch from Zink’s bleeding nose. “Don’t.”

Zink fell back, grimacing as his shoulder hit the floor.

Bending toward Zink, Gage asked, “Why? Why’d you do it?”

A montage of facts, until then shadowed behind the flash of Zink’s badge or submerged in the chaos of events, turned stark and sharp-edged in Gage’s mind: the sexual harassment complaint that derailed Zink’s career, his compulsive cruising for street prostitutes, the arrests he’d slithered out of.

“Blackmail,” Gage said, as much to himself as to Zink and Burch. “First it was blackmail…then what?…I’ll tell you. They kept you from getting into trouble, even restored you to being a perfect FBI agent, by keeping your sexual addiction satisfied.”

Gage rose, then took a step backward and sat on the edge of the coffee table.

“You knew I’d figure out that they’d gotten to you, but you didn’t know when.” Gage stared at Zink, nodding his head slowly. “And you guessed wrong. Not by much, but you guessed wrong.” He stopped nodding. “What did you stop for? Gas? Burger and fries? Coffee? Take a leak on the side of the road?”

Zink’s eyes just barely widened.

Gage answered the question himself. “Lack of bladder control.” He kept looking at Zink, but spoke to Burch. “He was there when Peterson and me were talking to Matson, him blaming Gravilov and Kovalenko for the killings, for shooting you. He knew we believed Matson and thought we’d wrapped it up. He figured he had all the time in the world.”

Gage finally turned toward Burch. “If he’d gotten here thirty seconds earlier, we’d be dead.”

He then spun back, grabbed Zink by his shirtfront, and yanked him a foot above the floor. “What did you do with our little friend Scoob?”

Zink stared back without answering.

Gage jammed the Ruger muzzle under Zink’s chin, hard against his windpipe. “I said, where’s Matson?”

“Car.”

“And where’s the car?”

“Dirt road.”

Gage lowered him and retrieved an extension cord from the kitchen. He hogtied Zink and removed his car keys.

“You have my permission to blow off his head if he moves.” Gage handed Burch the revolver, then paused and looked around. “Maybe not his head.” He dragged a small table away from Zink’s right and pushed a couple of fly rods farther toward the corner. “Shoot him in the stomach. Brain matter is a helluva mess to clean up.”

Gage found Zink’s car a hundred yards up the road, then slid into the driver’s seat. He made no effort to avoid the bumps and potholes on the drive back to the cabin, under the theory that if Matson was dead, he couldn’t feel it, and if he was alive, he deserved it. Gage parked in front, then popped the trunk. Matson cowered inside, his bound hands covering his face as if flesh could stop lead.

“You want to ride down the mountain in here?” Gage asked. “Or do you want to climb out?”

Matson peeked upward, eyes widening at the sight of Gage.

Gage untied Matson’s feet, then swung them over the lip of the trunk and pulled him out. He reached to untape Matson’s mouth, then stopped.

“I really don’t want to hear another word out of you.”

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