KIP’S VIDEOTAPE WAS PLAYING SIMULTANEOUSLY on two monitors in the van, with everyone inside clustered around to view them. One of the FBI agents was manning the control panel, standing by to freeze the picture at Galloway’s command.
“Where’s my daughter? I don’t see Sabra.”
Galloway detected liquor on Dendy’s breath. Periodically he had been stepping outside “to get some fresh air.”
It seemed he was taking in more than oxygen.
“Patience, Mr. Dendy. We’re anxious to see all of it. I need to know where people are positioned. Once I have an overview, we’ll restart the tape and pause it on the segments that warrant closer study.”
“Maybe Sabra tried to send me a private message. Like a signal.”
“Maybe,” was the senior agent’s noncommittal reply.
His nose was no farther than ten inches from the color monitor as he listened to Tiel McCoy’s opening remarks.
She was poised, he’d give her that. Unruffled. She looked a little worse for wear in her Texas flag T-shirt, but she was as composed and articulate as she would have been in a television studio, safely behind a sleek news desk.
“That son of a bitch,” Dendy snarled when Ronnie appeared on the screen.
“If you can’t keep your mouth shut, Dendy, I’ll be happy to shut it for you.” Cole Davison issued the threat in a soft voice, but there was muscle behind it.
“Gentlemen,” Galloway said.
No one else spoke while Ronnie was delivering his speech. But the silence became even heavier when the camera moved to Sabra and her newborn. The images were poignant, heart-rending. The dialogue was disturbing.
No new mother cradling her infant should be threatening to take her own life.
For several seconds after the tape ended, no one spoke.
Finally Gully had the courage to say out loud what everyone else was thinking. “Guess that settles the question as to who’s responsible for all this.”
Galloway held up his hand, discouraging any further unsolicited editorial comments on Russell Dendy’s culpability.
He turned to Cole Davison. “What about Ronnie?
How does he seem to you?”
“No, sir,” Davison replied briskly. “I told you, he’s a good boy. He doesn’t do drugs. Maybe a beer now and then. That’s the extent of it.”
“My daughter certainly isn’t a druggie,” Dendy remarked.
Galloway remained centered on Davison. “Did you see anything unusual that should alert us to an unstable state of mind?”
“My eighteen-year-old son is talking about killing himself, Mr. Galloway. I think that sums up his state of mind.”
While Galloway sympathized with the man-he had teenagers of his own-he pressured him for more information.
“You know him, Mr. Davison. Do you think Ronnie is bluffing? Does he sound sincere to you? Do you believe he would go through with it?”
The man wrestled with his answer. Then he lowered his head dejectedly. “No, I don’t think so. Truly, I don’t.
“But?” Galloway pounced on the qualifier. “But what?
Has Ronnie ever shown suicidal tendencies?”
“A violent streak? Uncontrollable temper?”
“No,” he replied shortly. However, he appeared uncomfortable with his preemptive answer. Nervously his eyes shifted from Galloway to the others, then back to the agent. “Well, only one time. It was an isolated incident.
And he was just a kid.”
Inwardly Galloway groaned. He was very sure he didn’t want to hear about the one time Ronnie Davison had lost it. “It may not be relevant-probably isn’t-but maybe you’d better tell me about it.”
After a long, uneasy silence, Davison began. “Ronnie was staying with me during his summer vacation. It hadn’t been long since his mother and I had divorced. Ronnie was having trouble adjusting to the split. Anyway,” he said, shifting his feet self-consciously, “he took a shine to this dog that lived a few blocks over. He told me her owner was mean to her, didn’t always feed her, never bathed her.
Stuff like that.
“I knew the owner. He was a mean ol’ bastard, drunk most of the time, so I knew Ronnie was telling the truth.
But it was none of our business. I told Ronnie to stay away from the dog. But, as I said, he’d formed a real attachment to the mangy thing. I guess he needed a companion.
Or maybe he liked the animal because it was as miserable as he was that summer. I don’t know. I’m no child psychologist.”
Dendy interrupted. “Is this sad story going anywhere?”
Galloway shot him a look and came close to telling him to shut up before turning back to the other man. “What happened, Cole?”
“One day Ronnie unchained the dog and brought her to our house. I told him to return her to the neighbor’s backyard immediately. He started crying and refused to.
Said he’d rather see her dead than living like that. I scolded him and went to get my keys, meaning to drive the dog home in my pickup.
“But when I came back through the kitchen, Ronnie was gone and so was the dog. Long story short, I searched for them all night. Had neighbors and friends out looking for him, too. Early the next morning a rancher spotted him and the dog hiding behind his barn and called the sheriff.
“As we converged on the barn, I called out to Ronnie, telling him that it was time to take the dog back to her owner and go home. He shouted back that he wasn’t going to give the dog up, that he wouldn’t let her be mistreated the way she’d been.”
He stopped speaking and stared at the brim of his hat as he slowly threaded it through his fingers. “When we came around to the back to the barn, he was crying his heart out. He was patting the dog where it was lying right there beside him. Dead. He’d hit it in the head with a rock and killed it.”
The eyes he raised to Galloway were red with threatened tears. “Mr. Galloway, I asked my boy how he could have done such a horrible thing. He told me he’d done it because he loved the dog so much.” His wide chest shuddered when he deeply inhaled. “Sorry I got so longwinded.
But you asked if I thought he could possibly do what he says he’ll do. That’s the best way I know to answer you.”
Galloway curbed the unprofessional impulse to press the man’s shoulder. Instead he said tersely, “Thank you for the insight.”
“So he’s a head case,” Dendy muttered. ‘Just like I said all along.”
Although Dendy’s remark was unnecessarily cruel, Galloway couldn’t entirely disagree with the connotation.
This incident from Ronnie’s childhood dangerously paralleled the present circumstances. Cole Davison’s story added another factor to the situation, and it wasn’t a positive one. In fact, none of the factors had been positive since this standoff began. Not one.
He turned to Gully. “What about Ms. McCoy? Did you see any signs that suggest she’s under duress? Is she trying to get across more than she’s saying? Any double meanings to her words?”
“Not that I could tell. And I grilled Kip here real good.”
The FBI agent turned to the video cameraman. “Everything was as they’ve told us? Nobody hurt?”
“No, sir. The FBI guy is tied up-taped, rather-but he’s shooting off his mouth, so I guess he’s all right.” He glanced at Dendy apprehensively, as though remembering what happens to the bearers of bad news. “But the… the girl?”
“Sabra? What about her?”
“There were a lot of bloody disposable diapers around.
They were wadded up and pushed aside. But I remember seeing them and thinking, Jeez.”
Dendy strangled on an anguished exclamation.
Galloway continued with Kip. “Did you notice anything in your co-worker’s manner or delivery that was out of the ordinary?”
“Tiel was same as always. Well, except for looking like hell. She was cool as a cucumber, though.”
Finally the senior agent turned to Dendy, who had skipped the trip outside and was openly drinking from a silver pocket flask. “You mentioned the possibility of Sabra sending you a secret message. Did you see or hear anything to suggest one?”
“How could I tell by seeing the tape only that one time?”
The fact that the tyrannical entrepreneur was uneasy and indirect with his answer was in itself telling. Dendy finally had been confronted with the ugly truth: His mishandling of the original predicament had prompted Sabra and Ronnie to take desperate measures, which had gone terribly awry.
“Rewind it,” Galloway instructed the agent at the control panel. “Let’s watch the tape again. Anybody notice anything, call out.” The tape began again.
“Tiel picked that spot so we could see the people behind her,” Gully remarked.
“That’s the refrigerator where the door was shattered,” one of the other agents said, pointing to a spot on the screen.
“Pause it there.”
Leaning forward, Galloway focused not on the newswoman but on the group of people in the background.
“The woman leaning against the counter must be the cashier.”
Sheriff Montez said, “That’s Donna, all right. No mistaking that hairdo.”
“And that’s Agent Cain, right, Kip?” Galloway pointed to a pair of legs, which he could see only from the knees down.
“Right. He’s sitting with his back to the counter.”
“Silver duct tape sure shows up good against his black pants, doesn’t it?”
Gully’s sly gibe went unacknowledged. Galloway was studying the elderly couple sitting close together on the floor near Cain. “How about the old folks? Are they all right?”
“Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed from what I could tell.”
“What about the other two men?”
“Mexican fellows. I heard one of them say something to the other in Spanish, but he was talking under his breath, and I wouldn’t’ve understood it anyhow.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Galloway sprang far forward in his chair so quickly the casters sent it rolling from beneath him.
The other agents, responding to their superior’s apparent alarm, pushed the others aside and crowded around him. “This one.” Galloway tapped the monitor screen.
“Take a good look and tell me if he looks familiar. Can you bring him in any closer?”
Using the technology available, the agent manning the controls isolated the Mexican man’s face. He was able to enlarge the image, but doing so sacrificed quality and focus. The agents squinted at the grainy picture, then one of them snapped his head around and exclaimed, “Ah, shit!”
“What?” Dendy demanded.
Davison jumped in. “What’s the matter?”
Galloway shoved them aside and began issuing orders to his subordinates. “Call the office. Get everyone mobilized.
Put out an APB-Montez, your men can help.”
“Sure. But help what?” The sheriff raised his arms at his sides in a helpless shrug. “Yall have lost me.”
“Round up all your deputies. Notify neighboring counties as well. Tell them to start looking for an abandoned truck. Railroad car. Moving van.”
“Truck? Moving van? What the hell is going on?” Dendy had to shout to make himself heard above the confusion that Galloway’s galvanizing orders had created in the cramped van. “What about my daughter?”
“Sabra, all of them, are in more danger than we thought.”
As though to underscore Galloway’s distressing words, they heard the unmistakable crack of gunfire.
Donna’s blood-curdling scream brought Tiel to her feet. “What now?”
Ronnie was brandishing his pistol and shouting, “Get back! Get back! I’ll shoot you!”
Two, the taller of the Mexicans, had charged him. Ronnie had halted him at gunpoint. “Where’s the other one?” he shouted frantically. “Where’s your buddy?”
Sabra screamed. “No! No!”
Tiel whirled around in time to see Juan snatch Katherine from Sabra’s arms. He clutched the newborn tightly- too tightly-against his chest. The infant began squalling, but Sabra was shrieking as only a mother whose child is in danger can shriek. She was struggling to stand, clawing at Juan’s pants legs, as though to climb them.
“Sabra!” Ronnie cried. “What’s wrong?”
“He has the baby! Give me my baby! Don’t hurt her!”
Tiel lunged forward, but Juan thrust out his hand and the heel of it caught her in the sternum, forcing her back.
She cried out in pain and fear for the newborn.
Doc shouted a wordless protest, but Tiel reasoned that he was afraid to charge Juan because of what he might do to the infant in retaliation.
“Tell him to give her the baby!” Ronnie was clutching the pistol in both hands, aiming it directly at Two’s chest and yelling at the top of his lungs, as though volume could conquer the language barrier. “Tell your friend to give her the baby, or I’ll kill you!”
Perhaps to see just how earnest Ronnie’s threat was, Juan made the mistake of glancing toward the front of the store where the two were facing off.
Doc used that split second to make a lunge for him.
But the Mexican reacted instantly. He executed a practiced uppercut that made a significant dent in Doc’s belly.
Doc bent in half at the waist, then collapsed to the floor in front of the freezer.
“Tell him to give her the baby!” Ronnie repeated in a shrill voice that splintered like thin ice.
Donna wailed, “We’re all gonna die.”
Tiel was begging Juan not to harm Katherine. “Don’t hurt her. She’s no threat to you. Give the baby to her mother. Please. Please, don’t do this.”
Sabra was practically helpless. Nevertheless, maternal instinct propelled her to her feet. She was so weak she could barely stand. Swaying slightly, hand outstretched, she implored the man to return her baby to her.
Juan and Two were shouting back and forth to one another, trying to communicate above the other voices, including those of Vern and Gladys, who was cursing a blue streak. Donna was caterwauling. Agent Cain was shouting accusations at Ronnie, saying that if he had surrendered earlier this wouldn’t have happened, that if the standoff resulted in tragedy it was no one’s fault but his own.
The gunshot rendered everyone speechless.
Tiel, who had been appealing to Juan, witnessed his gri mace when the bullet struck. Reflexively, he pitched forward and grabbed his thigh. He would have dropped Katherine if Tiel hadn’t been there to catch her.
Holding the baby close, she spun around, wondering how Ronnie had managed to get off such a clear and accurate shot, one so well placed that it had disabled Juan but hadn’t endangered the baby.
But Ronnie still had the bore of his pistol trained on Two’s chest and seemed as surprised as anyone that a gun had been fired.
Doc had been the marksman. He was lying on his back on the floor, a small revolver in his hand. Tiel recognized Agent Cain’s weapon, the one she had kicked beneath the freezer and forgotten. Thank God Doc had remembered it.
He took advantage of the momentary silence. “Gladys, get over here.”
The old lady came scurrying around the Frito-Lay display.
“Did you kill him?”
“Take the baby so Tiel can tend to Sabra. I’ll take care of him,” he said, referring to Juan. “Ronnie, relax. Everything’s under control. No need to panic.”
“Is the baby okay?”
“She’s fine.” Gladys carried the crying infant over to where Ronnie could see her for himself. “She’s mad as hell, and I can’t say as I blame her.” Glaring back at Juan where he now sat on the floor gripping his bleeding thigh, she snarled with contempt.
Several jabs of Ronnie’s pistol sent Two skulking back to his original spot. His expression was meaner and more agitated than before.
Doc placed Cain’s revolver high on a grocery shelf, well out of Juan’s reach, and knelt down to cut open his trouser leg with the scissors. “You’ll live,” he said laconically after assessing the damage and stuffing gauze pads into the wound. “Lucky for you the bullet missed the femoral artery.”
Juan’s eyes blazed with resentment.
“Doc?” Tiel had got Sabra to lie back down, but fresh blood was making the floor around her slick. The girl was ghastly pale.
“I know,” Doc said soberly, picking up on Tiel’s unspoken alarm. “I’m sure she reopened the tear in the perineum.
Make her as comfortable as you can. I’ll be right back.”
He had hurriedly bandaged Juan’s wound and fashioned a tourniquet with another of the souvenir T-shirts.
Evidently in excruciating pain, Juan was sweating profusely, and his straight, white teeth were clenched. But, to his credit, he didn’t cry out when Doc unceremoniously and none too gently hoisted him to his feet and supported him as he hopped on one foot.
As they went past Cain, the agent addressed the gunshot man. “You goddamn fool. You could’ve got us all killed. What were you-“
Quicker than a striking rattlesnake, Juan, using the foot of his injured leg, kicked Cain viciously in the head. The sudden move cost him dearly. He grunted with pain. Even so, his boot heel had connected solidly with bone, and the snapping sound was almost as loud as the pistol shot. Cain went silent and unconscious in the same instant. His chin dropped forward onto his chest.
Doc pushed Juan to the floor, propping him against the refrigerator well away from his confederate. “He’s not going anywhere. But just to be safe, better bind his hands, Ronnie. His too,” he added, motioning toward Two.
Ronnie instructed Vern to tape the two men’s hands and feet like Cain’s. He held the pistol on them while the old man went about the task. Juan was too involved with his injured leg to waste energy on invectives, but Two was under no such constraints. He kept up a litany of what was presumed to be Spanish vulgarities until Ronnie threatened to gag him if he didn’t shut up.
The ringing telephone had gone unanswered and largely ignored. Tiel, who had snapped on a pair of gloves with an alacrity that amazed her, was working frantically to replace the blood-soaked diaper beneath Sabra, when the phone suddenly stopped ringing and she heard Ronnie shout, “Not now, we’re busy!” before slamming the receiver back into the cradle. Then he called, “How’s Sabra?”
Tiel addressed him over her shoulder. “Not good.” She was vastly relieved to see Doc returning. “What’s going on?” ‘Juan kicked Cain in the head. He’s unconscious.”
“I never thought I’d be thanking that man for anything.”
“Vern is binding them. I’m glad they’re… contained.”
She noticed the intensity in his face, and knew that Sabra’s worsening condition wasn’t the only reason for it.
“Because they’re loose cannons? They really had nothing to lose by trying to seize control of the situation.”
“True. But what did they have to gain?”
Did Ronnie Davison really represent a threat to tough-looking hombres like them?
After thinking about it, she said, “Nothing that I can see.”
“Nothing that you can see. That’s what bothers me.
There’s more,” he continued in a lower voice. “Men with rifles have taken up position outside. Probably a SWAT team.”
“I saw them moving into place and taking cover.”
“Has Ronnie seen them?”
“I don’t think so. That shot I fired must’ve got everyone nervous. They’re probably thinking the worst. They might storm the building, try coming in through the roof or something.”
“He would freak.”
“That’s my point.”
The telephone rang again. “Ronnie, answer it,” Doc called to him. “Explain to them what happened.”
“Not until I know Sabra’s all right.”
Although Tiel wasn’t a medical expert by any means, Sabra’s condition appeared critical to her. But, like Doc, she didn’t want Ronnie any more frazzled than he already was.
“Where’s Katherine?” the girl asked weakly.
Doc, who had done his best to stem the flow of fresh blood, peeled off his glove and smoothed her hair away from her forehead. “Gladys is taking good care of her.
She’s rocked her to sleep. Seems to me that baby girl is as brave as her mother.”
Even a smile seemed too much of an effort for her.
“We’re not going to get out of here, are we?”
“Don’t say that, Sabra,” Tiel whispered fiercely, watching Doc’s face as he read the blood-pressure gauge.
“Don’t even think it.”
“Daddy’s not going to give up. Neither am I. And neither is Ronnie. He can’t now anyway. If he did, they’d just put him in jail.”
She divided a glassy, hollow-eyed gaze between Tiel and Doc. “Tell Ronnie to come over here. I want to talk to him. Now. I don’t want to wait any longer.”
Although she didn’t specifically mention their suicide pact, her meaning was clear. Tiel’s chest grew tight with anxiety and despair. “We can’t let you do it, Sabra. You know it’s wrong. It’s not the answer.”
“Please help us. It’s what we want.”
Then, of their own volition and against her will, her eyes closed. She was too weak to reopen them and lapsed into a doze.
Tiel looked across at Doc. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Very. Blood pressure’s dropping. Pulse is high. She’s going to bleed out.”
“What are we going to do?”
Sternly staring into the girl’s pale, still face, he thought on it a moment, then said, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.”
He stood up, retrieved the pistol from the shelf, stepped around the Frito-Lay display, and approached Ronnie, who was waiting for an update on Sabra’s condition.