A Minute to Midnight (Atlee Pine #2) by David Baldacci
ONCE MORE SHE RODE into the Valley of Death.
Only this “valley” was in Colorado, at ADX Florence, America’s only federal supermax prison. The “death” reference was spot-on, though; the place reeked of it by virtue of the crimes committed by the inmates housed there.
FBI Special Agent Atlee Pine had driven pedal-to-the-metal to get here in her modern-day version of a horse: a turquoise 1967 Mustang with a parchment convertible top. She had spent two years restoring it with the original owner, a veteran FBI agent who had been an informal mentor to her shortly after she’d finished her training at Quantico. When he died, he left it to her. Pine couldn’t imagine being without it.
Now, after her swift journey, she sat in the prison parking lot gathering both her nerve and her courage to see one particular monster who resided here among many other human abominations. They were, to a man, the stuff of nightmares. Collectively, they had slaughtered thousands of people, without a smidgen of remorse.
Pine was dressed all in black except for her white blouse. Her shiny FBI shield was clipped to her jacket lapel. It took ten minutes to clear security, where she had to forfeit both her weapons: the Glock 23, her main gun, and an eight-shot Beretta Nano, the backup she kept in an ankle holster. She felt a little naked without the twin pistols, but prisons had rules. And, for obvious reasons, “no guns carried by visitors” was one of the biggies.
She sat on the hard stool in a cubicle in the visitors’ room, her long legs curled around the stool’s metal supports. Across from her was a thick glass barrier. On the other side of the glass, the man she had come to see would soon appear. A few minutes later, six burly guards escorted a heavily shackled Daniel James Tor into the room and chained him to a bolt in the floor before departing, leaving the law and the lawless sitting across from each other separated by polycarbonate glass that could withstand most bullet strikes.
Tor was an impressive physical specimen, standing six-four and tipping the scales at 280 sculpted pounds. His physique, even now in his fifties, looked NFL ready. She knew that his body was covered in tats, many of them inked on his skin by some of his victims. Tor apparently had such confidence in his control over his prey that he would allow them a sharp instrument with which they could have ended their nightmares. Not a single one had ever attempted it.
He was a freak of nature both physically and emotionally. He was a narcissistic sociopath, or so all the consulted experts had proclaimed. That was arguably the deadliest combination nature could bestow on a human being. It wasn’t that he killed with malice; it was actually worse. He could feel no empathy whatsoever toward others. His thirst was solely for self-pleasure. And the only way he could quench that desire was in the absolute destruction of others. He had done this at least thirty times; these were only his known victims. Pine and others in law enforcement suspected the real number might be double or even triple that.
His head was shaved, his chin and jaw the same. His cold, antiseptic eyes flitted over Pine like those of a curious serpent before striking its prey. They were the pupils of a predatory wild animal; the only thought behind them was to kill. Pine also knew that Tor, the consummate con man, could play any role demanded of him in order to lure his victims to their doom, including appearing to be a normal person. And that in itself was terrifying enough.
“You again?” he said, his tone intentionally patronizing.
“Third time’s the charm,” she replied evenly.
“You’re starting to bore me. So make it count.”
“I showed you Mercy’s picture during the last visit.”
“And I said I needed more information.” Despite his words about being bored, Pine knew he needed someone to try to dominate. He required attention to justify his very existence. She intended to use that to her advantage.
“I’ve given you all I have.”
“All that you think you have. I mentioned that last time. I called it homework. Have you done it? Or are you going to disappoint me?”
Pine was treading a delicate line here. She knew it—and, more important, so did Tor. She wanted to keep him engaged without allowing him to completely overwhelm her. That was what bored the man. “Maybe you have some ideas that might help me.”
He looked at her moodily. “You said your twin sister was six when she was taken.”
“From her bedroom in the middle of the night near Andersonville, Georgia. With you in the room?”
“And you think I struck you but didn’t kill you?”
“You actually cracked my skull.”
“And I performed a nursery rhyme to decide which one of you to take?”
“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
“So whomever the rhyme started on, it would end on the other because of the even number of words.”
She leaned forward. “So why did you pick me to start the rhyme with? Because then you knew Mercy would be the loser.”
“You’re going too fast, Agent Pine. You must slow down if we’re to get anywhere.”
Pine instinctively decided to punch back. “I don’t feel like wasting any more time.”
He smiled and rattled his shackles as he responded, “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
“Why did you choose to let me live and not Mercy? Was it just random? A coincidence?”
“Don’t let your survivor’s guilt run away with you. And I don’t have time for whiners.” He abruptly smiled and added, “Even with over thirty life sentences to my name.” He acted proud of his legal punishment, and she knew he was.
“Okay, but it’s important for me to know,” she said calmly.
“I cracked your skull, so you said. You could have easily died.”
“Could have but didn’t. And you always liked to make sure with your victims.”
“And you do realize that you’re now refuting your own argument that I was the attacker that night?”
“I don’t see it that way.”
“Let me press the point then. Do you know of any other time when I took a six-year-old from her bedroom and left a witness alive?”
She sat back. “No.”
“So why think I did so in your case? Because your hypnotherapist elicited that memory from you? You told me about that the last visit. Curious thing, hypnotherapy. It’s wrong as often as it’s right, maybe more so. But you would have studied me at the FBI. All of you did because I was required reading,” he added casually, though she could detect a glint of pride in his words. “You said you knew I was operating in Georgia around that time. So you know what I think? The hypnosis didn’t produce an actual memory, it merely gave you the basis to form a conclusion at which you had already arrived based on extraneous information.” He shook his head. “That would never stand up in court. You put me there because you wanted to put me there, and you didn’t have the real person to fill in the blanks in your memories. You wanted closure so badly, you’re willing to accept an untruth.”
She said nothing because the man could be right about that. As she sat mulling this over, he said, “Agent Pine, have I lost you?” He rattled his chains. “Hello, FBI, my interest meter is plummeting by the second.”
“You changed your MO over the years. Not all your attacks were alike. They evolved.”
“Of course they evolved. Like any occupation, the longer you do it, the better you get at it. I am no exception. I am, in fact, the rule for my…particular specialty.”
She kept the bile in her stomach from leaching into her throat at this comment. She knew he was waiting to see the revulsion on her face at his comparing murderous activity to an occupation. But she would not give him the satisfaction.
“Granted. But now you’re reinforcing my conclusion. Just because you hadn’t done it before doesn’t mean you would never do it. You got better, as you said. Your MO evolved.”
“Had you known me to do it since that time?”
Pine was ready for that one. “We don’t know all of your victims, do we? So I can’t answer that with any certainty.”
He sat back and gave her a grudging smile at this slickly played rejoinder. “You want an answer now, don’t you? Did I or didn’t I, simple as that?”
“Again, it would cost you nothing. They won’t execute you for it.”
“I could lie and say you’re right. Would that be enough for you?”
“I’m an FBI agent.”
“Meaning I need—”
“You need the body—or skeleton, rather—after all this time, is that right?”
“I need corroboration,” she said simply.
He shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know where all the bodies are buried.”
“Then they were wrong about your photographic memory?”
“Not at all. But I’ve intentionally forgotten some of them.”
He leaned forward. “Because they weren’t all memorable, Agent Pine. And I don’t want to provide closure to every whimpering family member who comes begging to me. That’s not exactly my thing, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“Do you remember where you buried Mercy?”
“You’ll have to come back and have another chat with me. I’m tired now.”
“But we just started talking,” she replied, a note of urgency in her voice.
“Call me Dan.”
She looked at him blankly. She had not been expecting that request. “What?”
“It’s our third date. It’s time to use real names, Atlee.”
“And if I don’t want to?”
He clapped his hands silently together. “Then poor, sweet, and probably dead Mercy Pine remains an enigma forever. Poof.”
“When do you want to meet again?”
“A month from today…Atlee. I’m a busy man. So say it, or we’re done. Forever.”
Pine walked out, got her guns—and had to force herself to not charge back into the prison and blow Dan’s fucking head off.
She climbed into her car and headed back to Shattered Rock, Arizona, where she was the sole FBI agent for huge swaths of thinly populated land. An hour into her drive she got an Amber Alert on her phone. A little girl had been abducted. The suspect was driving a gray Nissan pickup very near Pine’s current location.
Under the lustrous glow of a hunter’s moon, the god of law and order smiled on her that night, because five minutes later the truck flew past Pine going in the opposite direction.
She did a one-eighty, the Mustang’s custom rubber smoking and squealing in protest before regaining purchase on the asphalt. Pine hit the blue grille lights she’d installed, laid the fancy chrome gas pedal to the floorboard, and roared off to save a little girl’s life.
Pine swore to herself that this time she would not fail