CHAPTER 82

Just after sunrise Gage returned from the FBI’s Northern California office in Redding, where he had delivered Matson and Zink. The strands of tulle fog he’d followed from the Central Valley into the mountains interwove the pines and oaks and had thickened into mist, but at least Zink’s road to corruption was now clear.

Gage found Burch sitting in a rocker on the porch, Gage’s first off-duty weapon, a snub-nosed Colt. 38, in his right hand, resting on the blanket covering his lap.

“What’s that for?” Gage asked, as he climbed the steps.

“I’ve had one too many surprises.”

“I can understand that.” Gage peered at the gun. “Is it cocked?”

“No.”

“Keep it that way.”

Gage leaned back against the porch railing. “It turns out that while Zink was spying on local gangsters as part of the Organized Crime Task Force, they were spying on him. They figured out his obsession and fed him a sixteen-year-old prostitute, and he wasn’t willing to trade his FBI ID for a Bureau of Prisons number. A couple of years ago, they sold him to Gravilov.”

“And that cost Katie Palan her life.”

Gage nodded.

Burch closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “That poor woman. I should’ve seen what these people were up to.” His face reddened in self-reproach. “There must’ve been something I could have done.”

Gage shook his head. “There’s no way you could’ve figured it out. Matson didn’t even know where this thing was headed in those days, and he was in the middle of it.”

Burch scanned the pines and oaks surrounding the cabin, then looked up at Gage. “But why try to kill me? I didn’t have a clue.”

“Gravilov was afraid you’d start putting together your pieces of the puzzle and they were still a couple of months away from the missile sale.”

“I didn’t even know there was any connection between Gravilov and SatTek.”

“Gravilov couldn’t count on that. Or that Zink was smart enough to contain everything.”

“But that doesn’t explain Fitzhugh. I thought he was one of them.”

“Only at the beginning.” Gage exhaled as a wave of fatigue shuddered through him. Two nights without sleep, debriefing first Matson, and then Zink, had pushed his body close to its limit. “Granger had Fitzhugh ingratiate himself with you months before he even met Matson. Granger was looking to run an offshore scam even before he’d heard of SatTek.”

“But why kill him?”

“Zink showed up in London two days before he contacted the Metropolitan Police. He met Fitzhugh and decided he’d melt when British cops applied the heat. Razor took care of him while Zink cleaned out his files.”

A chill breeze swept through the property and swirled fine raindrops around them. Burch pulled up the blanket to cover his chest.

“And when Granger decided to cooperate with Peterson,” Burch added, “I guess he had to go, too.”

Gage nodded.

Burch glanced back toward the living room as if Zink was still lying there on the floor. “What did Zink plan to do with Matson?”

“Pretend Matson came up here and killed us, kill him, and then go back to San Francisco and play hero.”

“Seems like it would’ve been smarter to do away with Matson before he got here.”

“He needed the fresh blood spatter to make the crime scene look real.”

Burch stopped rocking. “He really thought it through like that?”

“He started as a street cop. He knew what homicide detectives would look for.”

Burch sat silently for a moment, then said, “I’m still worried about Kovalenko, and now about the gangsters who first got to Zink. Don’t they usually clean up the kind of mess that Matson created?”

Before Gage could answer, a low rumble and a crunching of tread on gravel sounded in the distance.

“What now?” Burch threw aside the blanket and struggled to his feet.

Gage raised his hand toward Burch. “What are you doing?”

“What do you think?”

Burch hobbled over to a porch support, then leaned against it, his left palm bracing his gun hand. He glanced at Gage, then jerked his head backward. “Don’t just stand there, get behind me.”

Gage shook his head. “Let me have the gun.”

“Don’t you understand? I have to stand up to these guys. I can’t spend my life hiding.”

Burch lowered himself into a crouch and aimed the barrel dead center on the spot where the road entered the clearing.

As the car approached the last turn and its headlights haloed through the mist-choked trees, Gage slid his hand under Burch’s and raised the gun skyward, then pulled it away from him seconds before Faith’s car emerged into the clearing.

Burch’s whole body sighed. He then slowly pulled himself up using the porch support, and steadied himself against the railing.

While Faith parked the car and Courtney came running toward them, Gage slipped the gun into his back pocket and reached around Burch’s shoulders.

“Not today, champ,” Gage said. “The bad guys aren’t getting you today.”

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