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The Program Excerpt

Chapter One
Almost Fat Tuesday

"Remember this. Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two."

     The man was a good target.
     Tall, six-five. Wavy blond hair that shined almost red in the filtered February sunlight. Ivory skin that refused to tan. Green eyes that danced to the beat of every melody that radiated from every tavern on every street corner in the always-tawdry Quarter.  Even during a crowded lunch hour in the most congested part of New Orleans, you could spot him a block away, his head bobbing above the masses. On the eve of Fat Tuesday, the Quarter was flush with tourists, and each of them was flush with anticipation of the debauched revelry that would only accelerate as the Monday before stretched into the Tuesday of, as almost-here became Mardi Gras.
     The other man, the one with the gun, knew that in a crowd like this he would have made a rotten target. He was five-eight with his sneakers on.  What hair remained on his head was on the dark side of brown. His creeping baldness didn't matter much to him, though, because the Saints cap he was wearing shielded his scalp from the sun as effectively as the distinctive steel-rimmed Ray-Bans shaded his eyes.  The khakis and navy-striped sweater he was wearing had been chosen because they comprised the de facto uniform-of-the-day among the male revelers wandering to join the crowds on Bourbon Street.
     The late morning had turned mild, and the man's windbreaker was draped over his right hand and arm, totally disguising the barrel of his Ruger Mark II as well as the additional length of the stubby suppressor. His left hand was shoved deep in the pocket of his khakis. He had been briefed on the tall man's destination in advance and kept his distance as he followed him.  At the intersection where Bienville crossed Royal, the man with the silenced .22 would begin to close the gap on the man without one.  That would give the assassin a little over a block to get close enough to do his job.
     The tall, blond man had come from his office near City Hall.  His wife had wanted to meet him downtown and accompany him to the restaurant. But he'd declined her offer. He'd made prior arrangements to stop on his way to their lunch date at an antique store on Royal to pick up a nineteenth-century cameo he knew his wife had been coveting. The cameo was a surprise for their anniversary.
     The errand on Royal hadn't taken the man long, though, and he was turning the corner from Bienville onto Bourbon ten minutes before he was scheduled to rendezvous with his wife.  With an athletes grace and a large man's strides, he dodged slothful tourists with their to-go cup hurricanes and quickly covered the territory to the entrance of Galatoire's. Briefly he scanned the sidewalk and the teeming street in front of the restaurant.  His wife wasn't there. He didn't even consider looking for her inside: Kirsten had a thing about sitting alone in restaurants.  He hoped she wouldn't be too late; the line for lunch at one of New Orleans legendary eateries was already growing.
     They had been in New Orleans for six years, and this would mark the sixth time that they had celebrated their anniversary at Galatoire's.  He was the one who insisted on returning year after year. She would have preferred going to a restaurant that actually took reservations.  But he prevailed.  He was the keeper of the traditions in the family.  He was the romantic.
     The man with the windbreaker on his arm window-shopped two doors down from Galatoire's, using the storefront glass to reflect the position of his prey.  He didn't worry about being spotted.  There was no reason that anyone would focus on him.  He was a middle-aged guy loitering on Bourbon Street just before lunch hour on the eve of Mardi Gras.  One, literally, of thousands.  Finally, the beeper in his pocket vibrated.  With his fingertip he stilled it and began to scan the street for Kirsten's arrival.  His partner up the street had paged him from a cell phone.  The page was his signal that she was approaching.
     She, too, would have been a good target.  Like her husband, Kirsten was tall.  And she flaunted it.  Two-inch heels took her above six feet, and the skirt of her suit was cut narrowly to accentuate her height.  The jacket was tailored to pinch her waist and highlight her hips.  Her hair was every bit as blond as her husband's although the sunlight reflected no red.  Kirsten was golden from head to toe.
     She carried a small gift box, elaborately wrapped.  In it was a key to a suite at the nearby Windsor Court Hotel and a scroll with a wonderfully detailed list that spelled out all the erotic things she planned to do to her husband's lean body between check-in that evening and dawn the next day.  She'd had the list drawn on parchment by a friend who was a calligrapher.
     The man with the windbreaker spotted Kirsten down the block.  As he had been told to expect, she was approaching down Bourbon from Canal.  A moment later her husband spotted her, too, but he was reluctant to leave his place in line at Galatoire's.  He waved.  She waved back.  Her smile was electric. 
     The man with the windbreaker on his arm moved closer to the tall blond man, simultaneously lifting his left hand from his pocket and placing it below his jacket.  His right hand was now free.  He stuffed it into the pocket of his trousers at the same moment he spotted his partner moving into position behind the woman.
     Timing was everything.  That's what he'd been told.  This wasn't just about the hit; it was about the timing.  Timing was everything.
     Kirsten Lord was about fifty feet away when the man with the windbreaker stepped into position no more than two yards to the left of her husband, Robert.  The position the man took was slightly back from Robert's left shoulder.  Kirsten dodged tourists and closed the distance between herself and her husband to twenty feet.  Impossibly, her smile seemed to grow brighter.
     The man raised his left arm, the one shielded by the windbreaker so that it extended across his chest.  Below the jacket, the barrel of the sound suppressor was now pointing up at a forty-five degree angle toward his right shoulder.
     Kirsten's eyes left her husband's for only an instant, just barely long enough for her to notice the small man with his oddly held windbreaker.  She met the man's eyes as they danced from her to Robert and back.  She noticed the awkward way her was holding his arm, perceived the evil in his grin, and in a flash, she processed the peril that the man presented.  The bright smile she was wearing for her husband left her face as though she'd been slapped.  The gaily-decorated box flew from her hand.  Instinctively, her tongue found the roof of her mouth and the beginnings of the horrified "No" left her lips just as the man in the Saints cap pivoted his hand and wrist at the elbow so that his silenced weapon emerged from below his jacket.
     Out toward Robert Lord's head.
     With the voices from the throngs on the street mixing with the music coming from the myriad clubs mixing with the rest of Kirsten Lord's plaintive "NOOOOO," the hushed shots from the silenced pistol were barely discernible, even to Kirsten.  She thought they sounded more like arrows than bullets.  Another witness later described them as drumbeats.
     Both shots found their marks.  The first slug entered Robert's head just below his ear, the second higher in his cranium.  The load in the Ruger was .22 caliber.  The slugs possessed neither the mass nor the velocity to find their way back out of Robert Lord's head after they pierced his skull.  No grisly hunks of cranial bone cascaded against the plate glass of Galatoire's front window.  No bloody gray matter fouled the clothes of the locals and tourists standing in line for lunch.  Instead, the two slugs banged around inside Robert Lord's head, mixing the contents of his skull the way a ball bearing blends the contents of a can of spray paint. 
     The hit was suppose to be clean.  And it was.
     The timing was suppose to be perfect.  And it was.
 

     Kirsten fell to her knees at Robert's side just as his legs were collapsing below him.  One of the two shell casings was still dancing on the concrete, finally coming to rest near the crook of Robert's neck.  Kirsten seemed oblivious to any danger she might be in.   No one around her seemed to be aware that her husband had just been shot.  She no longer recalls what she said to the strangers who stared down at her with shock and pity on their faces.
     When she looked up to identify the shooter, to confront the shooter, to accept the next bullet, he was gone.  There was no way she would have known it, but by then his Saints cap was off his head, his pager was down a sewer, his sunglasses were off his eyes and he was around the corner, walking placidly down Bienville toward Dauphine.  That's where the third member of the team was waiting with a car.
     The band in the bar on the corner was playing some better-than-average Zydeco, and he decided that the longer he was in New Orleans the more he liked it.
     His instructions had to been to make sure that the lady saw the hit. He knew he'd done well.
     She'd seen the hit. No doubt about it.
 

     "Remember this, " he said, pointing at me over the defense table. "Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two."

     Less than a month after they slid my husband Robert's body into the only empty slot left in his family's tomb in the Garden District's Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans, I packed up my daughter and moved what remained of our life north to a little town called Slaughter, which was bisected by Highway 19 about halfway between Baton Rouge and the Arkansas state line.
     We made the move in the middle of the night. In homage to my paranoia, I'd driven all the way to Picayune, Mississippi, before I backtracked into Louisiana and charged north to Slaughter. My old boss in New Orleans, the district attorney, had arranged for a Louisiana State Trooper to tail my car all the way to Picayune and then all the way back as far as Baton Rouge. I bought the trooper a cup of coffee at a truck stop outside Baton Rouge, and he finished two pieces of pie, one apple, one lemon meringue, before I allowed myself to be convinced that we had not been followed.
     Somewhere between the outskirts of Baton Rouge and the town limits of Slaughter, I stopped calling myself Kirsten Lord and started calling myself Katherine Shaw. I chose the name at my husband's funeral. The inspiration? The name was written in pencil inside the prayer book that was in front of me in the pew at the church. "Katherine Shaw" it read. The name was written in a child's hand, neatly, in pencil, and I prayed that the Katherine Shaw who'd sat in that pew and sung the hymns in that church and who had spoken the prayers wouldn't mind that we now shared her name as we had shared that holy book.
     Trying to make the urgent move to a new town a game to my ever-cool daughter, I'd allowed her to choose her own new name, too. Her class in school had been studying the Olympic Games in Sydney, so my daughter was now Matilda. I wasn't fond of the name but consoled myself with my glee that her class hadn't been studying the Nagano Games or Salt Lake City.
     Together, Matilda and I danced off to Slaughter. "...You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me..."
 

     When I agreed to go into what I told myself was temporary hiding under the protection of the State of Louisiana, one of the reasons I'd chosen to move to Slaughter for our new home was because it was the kind of town where strangers were noticed. Where unfamiliar cars earned a second glance. Despite my still raw grief over Robert's death, I did everything I could to befriend our neighbors, and I quickly became known as the mother who watched her daughter enter school each morning and who was waiting outside the door ten minutes before the end of classes each afternoon. The routine I followed didn't vary despite the fact that the upstairs window of the house that I was renting had a pretty good view of the front door of the school. For my state of mind those days, a pretty good view wasn't good enough. A half-block away was a half-block too far.
 

     School ended for Matilda on a much-too-sultry- for-early-June day.  But the kids didn't notice the heat. They were energized and intoxicated by the prospect of their upcoming summer of freedom.
     Matilda was planning to go home from school with a friend, the first social invitation she'd received since becoming the new kid in class so late in the school year. Upon learning of her plans, I invited the new friend's mother over for coffee and sprinkled the conversation with a manufactured concern that my estranged husband might try to abduct Matilda. A custody dispute, I implied. The new friend's mother said not-to-worry, she'd keep a close eye on the kids. She pressed for some dirt about my estranged husband, and as I struggled to invent details to satiate her, I wished I'd come up with a different story.
     Eight, almost nine-year-old Matilda sensed my apprehension about her visit to her new friend's house and informed me that she could walk all the way there without a chaperone. 
     "Really," I said, feigning surprise, though I'd expected to hear words a lot like those from my much-too-independent daughter.
     "You won't wait for me outside school?"
     I raised a hand in honor and stated, "I promise."
     "Mom, you promise!" There was a time in the not-too-distant-past that she stomped a foot every time she used that tone of voice.
     I asked, "Will you call me when you two get to your friend's house?"
     "Do I have to?"
     "Yes, you do."
     "Then I will."
     "Matilda, you promise?"
     "Mom."
 

     The phone rang at eighteen minutes past three on that last day of school. "Hi, Mom," said Matilda. "We're having lemonade and those little cookies just like the ones that Grandma used to make. With the jam in the middle?" "Grandma" was my mother. She'd died the previous April. My unfinished grief over her death had already been trampled over by the brutal pain I felt trying to absorb the responsibility and loss I felt over Robert's murder.
     So. Matilda was enjoying an after-school snack in a home that was three and a half blocks from our rented home, yet I couldn't bring myself to sit down and rest until I'd heard my daughter's voice on the phone. Once I did hear the sweet melody of her call, I lowered myself to the Adirondack chair on the front porch and resumed my daily afternoon vigil. What was it, my vigil? I sat on the porch and watched for strange cars driven by small men wearing chinos and carrying windbreakers.
     Or I watched for anything else that might feel out of the ordinary. I told myself that my task was like that Supreme Court justice's assessment of obscenity—I couldn't quite define what I was looking for, but I was positive that I'd know it when I saw it.
     As I sipped my tall glass of sweet tea and the ice jiggled in the glass, the sound I actually heard was the tinkling of the spent .22 shells as they danced on the concrete near my husband Robert's head.
     That, by the way, is a killer whale.
 

     I felt the distance to my daughter deep in my chest as though it could be measured in light years and not small-town blocks and imagined what my life would be like with just one more loss, and I couldn't imagine that it could still be called living.
     I caressed the cameo that hung around my neck—Robert had given it to me for our last anniversary—and I thought about justice.  The concept was distant and imaginary, as full of promise as the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, and just as elusive.
     That's what I was doing when the portable phone rang on the table beside the chair.
     I said, "Hello," my attention momentarily diverted from my emptiness and my vigil on the street.
     Matilda's friend's mother said, "Is this Katherine? Katherine, this is Libby Larsen. Now tell me once again, what does your ex-husband look like, exactly! I think there's a—"
     "There's a what?"
     "It's one of those big SUVs," she said, drawing out the last letter, the V, as though its agent had succeeded in negotiating top billing.  "It's a black one. Big and shiny."
     "Where?"
     "Under the magnolia in front of Mrs. Marter's house. It's—"
     "Are the girls okay Libby?" I was trying hard not to let my fear ignite panic in my voice.
     "They're right here on the living room floor playing with—"
     "I'll be right there," I said and threw down the phone. Once inside the house, I wasted ten steps running to get my keys from the hook in the kitchen before deciding it would be faster to walk—no!—run, then thinking twice and backtracking for my keys after all because I might need the car to chase that SUV.
     I was fumbling to get the key into the ignition when I remembered to run back inside and get my gun. Arriving at the locked case in which I kept it, I realized I'd left my keys in the car's ignition and had to retrace my steps all over again. I was losing minutes when I didn't even have seconds to spare.
 

     "Remember this, " he'd said, pointing at me over the defense table. "Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two."

     The man's words had chilled me for a minute that day in court, but I'd shrugged off his threat. It certainly wasn't the first threat I'd ever heard from a desperate con that I was prosecuting.
     I figured that it wouldn't be the last.
     But then the man in court had sent the man in the chinos to New Orleans, and he'd killed Robert right in front of my eyes on the sidewalk in front of Galatoire's.
     And now there was a big black SUV parked under Mrs. Marter's magnolia tree, and I was sure it was driven by a small man wearing chinos, but I kept thinking it's way too warm for him to be wearing a windbreaker.
     The entire three-block drive I wondered what he would be draping over his arm instead.
 

     Here's a beluga:
     Before we were lovers, or even friends, even before I knew I wanted him to be my lover, Robert and I shared our first long weekend away at a mutual friend's cabin in the mountains of North Carolina. Robert and I arrived separately and we were two of ten people sharing the spacious vacation home. The second night of our holiday, after an evening of revelry that included a sojourn in a steaming hot tub on the edge of the adjacent woods, Robert pulled me away from the group and, with the softest amber eyes in the world, told me that I had the most lovely back he had ever seen.
     That's right. He was talking about my back. His first heartfelt complement to me was about my back.
     If the man had been paying attention that night, and I assumed that he was, he'd had the fleeting opportunity to see my breasts, to gaze at the full length of my legs, and to study the then still-youthful contours of my ass, yet the man I would soon choose to marry wanted to reflect on the beauty of my back.
     These are the types of things I remember now. Even at moments when I'm careening around comers and speeding three blocks to save my daughter from assassination.
     I don't understand.
     It's just a beluga.
 

     The natural route to Matilda's friend's house caused me to approach the big SUV—it was one of those obscenely immense Ford things—from the front. I screeched my Audi to a stop halfway between the stubborn-looking snout of the monstrosity and the front door of the house that held my daughter, and I parked on the wrong side of the road, something that just isn't done in Slaughter.
     Two men sat in the front seat of the huge vehicle. One wore a ball cap, and both shaded their eyes with sunglasses. Beyond that, I couldn't tell how tall they were or what clothes they were wearing.
     Libby Larsen stood on the edge of the large, tidy lawn in front of her house, shading her eyes with the hand that wasn't supporting the toddler perched on her outstretched hip. I turned to face her and watched her mouth. "Is that him?" she was asking.
     I shrugged my shoulders as I walked toward her. She tried not to move her lips as she said, "Don't look, but they're getting out of the car, now."
     I barely understood her words but knew what to do next. "Why don't you go back inside with the girls, Libby?  Do you have a cellar?  Pretend there's a tornado drill or something, will you do that?  Take them down to your cellar. You hear anything out of the ordinary, you don't hesitate to call 911."
     She didn't know me well enough to know my determination about things, but she attended to my words as though I were a preacher who knew the path to eternal bliss, and she skipped away to find the girls and squirrel them into the cellar.
     The two men who got out of the SUV weren't anywhere nearly as tall as it was. They both walked my way. There was no hurry in their steps. Neither of them was carrying a jacket or anything that could be used to shield a silenced handgun, though the one who was wearing the ball cap seemed to have his left hand tucked back behind his buttocks.
     I watched that one, the one with the ball cap, as I fingered the trigger of my pistol, which weighed heavily inside the front pouch of my sleeveless sweatshirt. The sweatshirt had been Robert's. I'd cut the sleeves off for him. On the front it was embroidered LSU, his alma mater.
     The man I was watching closely raised his free hand, the right one, and tipped the ball cap my way, saying, "Ma'am."
     I nodded, trying not to be distracted from the hand that was still hidden behind his back.
     He said, "We'd be looking for Missus Marter," while tilting his head back in the direction of the magnolia tree.
     "Yes," I said.
     The other man, the one without the cap, said, "We tried but she's not answering her bell."
     I replied without allowing my attention to waver from the man with the ball cap.  "Then I imagine she must not be home. Is she expecting you?"
     "Indeed. Our appointment was a while ago."  He tapped his watch.
     "Appointment for?"
     "Air-conditioning.  She wants a bid to install air-conditioning."
     "I'll tell her you came by.  Do you have a card?"
     The man with the ball cap moved, his hidden hand thrust forward with a suddenness that caused me to jerk my hand and tangle the pistol in the fabric of the pouch of my sweatshirt.  I couldn't extricate the darn gun.  It took too many seconds for my eyes to recognize that the hidden hand, now extended my way, held nothing more than a business card.
     Leaving the pistol tangled in the pouch of my sweatshirt, I reached out and took the card from him and read it.  "You're with Buster's?" I asked.  Buster's Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning.  I thought I remembered seeing a sign on a ramshackle building over by the supermarket.
     "Yes."
     "Missus Marter will be sorry she missed you, especially on a day as wicked as this one.  The summer will be a long one, don't you think?"
     "Fierce," he agreed.
     You betcha.
 

     Matilda's new friend in Slaughter was named Jennifer.  The two of them became buddies the way only little girls can.  That end-of-the-school- year visit at Jennifer's house led to another at ours, which led to a sleepover at Jennifer's—"Mom, don't call her Jenny"—and to the required reciprocation. Soon, there were long nightly phone calls between the two girls and loud protests of eternal devotion that I couldn't help from overhearing.
     Believe me, I tried.
     By the time June was ending they'd been best friends for a fortnight and had already endured at least two spats that, in much of the animal kingdom, would have left one of their carcasses rotting in the sun.
     As far as I could tell, my little girl never faltered in her quest to reinvent herself and become this child named Matilda. She fell into her ever-evolving encyclopedia of lies with an affinity that frightened me.  The child could piece together the strands of her fictitious life with the facility of a master weaver. Not once did I hear her lose her place as she recounted details of her new story to her new friend. Often, I worried what bruises her fantasies were screening from my view, or of greater concern, from her own.
     I was terrified that I didn't know how to measure her pain.
     My own? I felt that my own bruises were invisible to others but that they were potentially crippling to me. In my mind they were like subdural hematomas. But in my heart I knew that it wasn't my brain that the swollen clots were pressuring.
     It was my soul.
 

     At bedtime each night Matilda listened with feigned patience to my litany of concerns and my admonitions about how important it was that she understand how to react around strangers. Before long she was able to recite the rules to me the same way she had learned to recite the lines of Goodnight Moon as I turned each page for her when she was two years old. When she was small, no matter which book we read first, or second, or third each night, she always insisted that the last book we read was Goodnight Moon.
     That meant that the final words before dark, the last words before "I love you" were always, "Good night noises everywhere."
     After we resettled in Slaughter, we talked most nights at bedtime about Robert, her daddy, and at least once or twice a week she asked questions about the bad man who had killed him. "Did he do something to make him mad?" she'd want to know, and I told her that her daddy was the sweetest man on the planet, she knew that. "What does he look like?" she'd ask, but I wouldn't tell her about the chinos because I didn't want her to grow phobic about khakis. "Is he big?" she would wonder, but I never told her that by the time she was twelve I was sure she would be taller than the bad man who had killed her daddy.
     Right from the start, though, she seemed to understand that the bad man who was responsible hadn't been caught and that we were going to hide in Slaughter until he was behind prison bars. But her grief over Robert's death was as immature as she was, and I remained worried that she hadn't shed as many tears over her dead father as I felt were required.
 

     Almost a full month passed without another sighting of the two men in the big SUV from Buster's Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning. I had checked them out, of course. The business was legitimate. Buster's was. And the two men worked there. I'd watched them show up for work the very next morning after I'd met them outside Mrs. Marter's house. And a simple phone call confirmed that Mrs. Marter was indeed considering air-conditioning her home, but the prices had taken her breath away as surely as had the July humidity.
     Slowly, as the days passed, I began to feel some renewed safety and insulation in the security provided by the routines of Slaughter, Louisiana. The call that finally shook me from that false security and stiffened my spine came from an old colleague in the district attorney's office in New Orleans.
 

     The man who'd threatened me that day in court, the man I was sure had arranged to assassinate my husband, the man whom I'd sent to prison for more years than even a Galapagos tortoise could hope to survive—that man—had just suffered a major personal tragedy.
     The man's name was Ernesto Castro. He had been a big shot in the cocaine trade, a local boss for the Colombian drug cartels, running an operation that delivered major quantities of cocaine from Miami all the way up to D.C. and Baltimore.
     When I met him, he was residing in the Mississippi River town of Welcome, halfway between Louisiana and Baton Rouge. He'd been arrested for suspicion of committing a brutal rape on a wheelchair bound forty-six-year-old woman in the elevator of the office building where she worked as a legal secretary. The New Orleans police quickly concluded that Ernesto was responsible for at least two additional recent rapes, equally depraved, equally vicious.
     Fortunately for the legal justice system, Ernesto was much more brutal than he was clever. I was assigned to prosecute him, and I had no trouble winning convictions on each and every count. I felt confident that Castro would never again see the light of the Louisiana sun as a free man.
     It was the day of his sentencing that he threatened me in open court.
     A day in court that began like a hundred others.
     As I approached the bench at the judge's request, Castro unexpectedly stood up behind me at the defense table and raised his shackled hands. He lifted the fat index finger of his left hand, and he pointed it right at me. "You! Bitch! Hey!'' he called.
     I turned my head. Not even my whole body. Just my head. I wasn't even certain that I was the bitch he was talking to.
     The judge pounded her gavel. I could tell that she didn't know if she was the bitch he was talking to, either. The bailiffs awoke from their revelry and moved toward the convict.
     "Remember this," Ernesto Castro said before the burly bailiffs could restrain him. Thees. "Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two." Doo.
     I don't even recall the look on his face as he spoke those words to me. Despite the melodrama of the moment, the threat felt relatively inconsequential, as though it were just one of too many interactions during which I'd felt soiled by the vermin I prosecuted. In my journal, on those rare days when I had the time and emotional awareness to reflect on some way I'd been treated particularly badly in court, I would note that I had been slimed that day.
     That was my word for it. Slimed.
     Do you remember Ghostbusters? No? It's not important. Trust me, I was slimed that day.
     So what was Mr. Castro's more recent tragedy, the one my friend in the DA's office was telling me about as I hid out in Slaughter? Castro's mother had been on her way to visit him in prison when her car was hit head-on by a bread truck full of snack cakes. The driver of the bakery truck had fallen asleep at the wheel and crossed the highway median. Mrs. Castro had died in a veritable sea of Twinkies.
     "Every precious thing I lose," were the words he'd spoken to me. His mother was a precious thing, right? To him? Certainly.
     He could hold me responsible, right? Of course he could.
     From the moment I heard the news of Castro's mother's death, I lost more sleep wondering if Senora Castro's death meant that I now owed Ernesto Castro one more loss of my own, or three more losses of my own?
     My Robert, did he really only count for one?
     Matilda, dear God, she would count for dozens.
     If Castro got to Matilda, I knew I'd go all by myself to the prison where he lived and I would cut out his organs, one by one, until he died. I'd flay him open and first remove the organs that wouldn't kill him quickly, his appendix and his gall bladder and his spleen, and I'd stuff them in his mouth and I'd force them down his throat until he began to choke on his own evil.
     Images like that never became part of my pod of whales. No, they never dived, they never ran deep. They became my daydreams, the thoughts that filled my head while I sipped sweet tea on the porch in the heat of the afternoon and watched the road for small men in chinos.
 

     She was a soccer player, my Matilda. And so was her new friend, Jennifer. The Larsens had a front yard that was large enough to kick a ball around in, and we didn't. The girls spent hours that summer working on their game, which meant that they were at the Larsens's house more often than they were at ours. Mr. Larsen had constructed a makeshift goal out of PVC pipe and fishing net that he set up between some flowering bushes on the north side of the big lawn.
     If Robert had been alive, he would have offered to help Mr. Larsen with the net, and he probably would have managed to totally screw up the project. Robert wasn't exactly what you would call handy. But, then, if Robert had been alive, Matilda and I wouldn't have been in Slaughter.
     I'm embarrassed to admit it, but—even though I'm the one who got him killed—I occasionally cursed Robert for dying.
 

     By the weekend before the Fourth of July, I was complacent enough about Matilda's visits to Jennifer's house that I was able to sit and read or clean the house during her absences. But I wasn't so complacent that I would run an errand away from the house and maybe risk missing the phone call from Libby Larsen informing me that the short man with the ball cap and the chinos was back in my life.
 

     The phone call, when it did come, was brief, even cryptic. Libby said, "Katherine? I think you should come over. Right away."
     "Is she okay'" I said. "Is Matilda okay?"
     "The police are on the way," Libby said, her voice admonishing, not reassuring. "She isn't Matilda. And it wasn't your ex-husband."
     I threw down the damn phone, grabbed my purse—which I knew already contained my keys and my gun—and drove the three blocks to the Larsens's like the mad woman I was.
     A policewoman from the Slaughter force met me at the curb and was almost strong enough to restrain me from my sprint to the front porch of the Larsen home. Almost. Once I was past her, though, she was nowhere nearly fast enough to keep up with me. I paid no heed to her verbal protests that I stop, and I didn't knock at the front door but instead just threw open the screen and called, "Baby! Matilda! Matilda!"
     Libby Larsen walked into the toy-strewn entryway of her home wiping her hands on a kitchen towel that was decorated with blue pineapples. "Maltilda?" she scoffed. "How could you?" she demanded. She tossed the towel over her shoulder and moved her clean hands to her ample hips in the international sign of housewifely indignation. "How could you lie to me? To us? How could you even think about putting all the other children in danger like that?"
     Her outrage deflected off of me like X rays off of lead. No penetration whatsoever. She didn't even know what danger was. I had a daughter to protect.
     "Matilda!" I yelled.
     I don't believe that I was always so callous. Perhaps I was. Maybe it was the work I did. Or having my husband murdered. I just don't know.
     Libby said, "She's in the kitchen with the police." She pronounced it poe-lease. "I'll tell you, ma'am, but you have some explaining to do. To them. And when they're done with you, you have some explaining to do to me." She was acting as though someone usually gave pause when she used that tone of voice. Must have been her children. Couldn't imagine that it caused her husband to cower. But I didn't really know Bud Larsen. Maybe Libby was married to a wimp.
     I ran past her toward the kitchen.
     Matilda was sitting at the big oak breakfast table and was flanked on each side by a police officer. One was black, one was white. Neither of the two men weighed less than two hundred pounds. Their uniform hats sat before them on the table and looked large enough to act as toaster caddies. My gangly daughter was dwarfed by the scale of it all.
     "Honey," I said, my voice full of tenderness now that I knew she was alive and breathing. I held out my arms.
     "Mommy," she said and immediately slithered down on her chair, disappearing below the edge of the tabletop before the two big cops could figure out what to do to stop her. She was between their legs and up in my arms in seconds. "Mommy," she said again. "Mommy."
     "Shhh," I whispered into her golden hair.
     "They made me tell them about Daddy."
     "Shhh."
     "And that my name isn't Matilda."
     "Shhh."
     "And that your name isn't Katherine Shaw."
     "Shhh."
     "The bad man came just like you said he would. But it wasn't a man, Mommy. The bad man wasn't a man."
     "Shhh."
     "What are we gonna do, Mommy? What are we gonna do?"
     "Oh my baby," I murmured.
 

     What had happened was that Matilda was playing defense—it was her nature—and Jennifer had kicked the soccer ball toward the net with all the might of her surprisingly strong left leg. Matilda managed to get up high and deflect the ball so that it sailed above the goal.  Robert used to say proudly that his daughter had coiled springs in her legs, not femurs. Matilda chased the ball through the bushes into the next-door-neighbor's yard.
     That's when she met the woman in the green halter-top and cargo shorts. "She looked just like the pictures of the girls from the Abercrombie catalog," was how my suddenly fashion-conscious preteen described the woman who was lurking on the other side of the bushes.
     "Was she young or old?" I asked.
     "Young. Twenty." Matilda pronounced her conclusion with a degree of confidence that I didn't share. I'd interviewed hundred of witnesses in the past few years, and Matilda was approaching her rendition of events with an assurance that made me wary. But that, too, was her nature.
     "And?"
     "And she walked over to me and asked me if I'd seen her dog."
     "Damn," I said.
     "Mom," she scolded me· "Don't cuss. Anyway, I remembered. You told me that the bad guys might say something about losing a dog or a cat and needing my help to find them, so I was ready. When she grabbed me, I was already running, I swear."
     "Don't swear.  You were already running?"
     "Well, not totally running running.  But I was starting to run when she grabbed me on my arm, right here."  My daughter fingered the biceps of her left arm.  "See? That's where she grabbed me."  The hard red outlines of the woman's fingers were clearly visible below the mahogany of Matilda's summer tan.
     "Go on, Sweetie.  I'm proud of you."
     "Okay.  It's like … then she reached out and grabbed me as hard as she could.  But I was too sweaty and her hand was too sweaty, and I was too quick for her and I got away, and I ran and I ran and I screamed and I yelled just like you taught me to do, and I cut back through the bushes toward the Larsens' and when I turned around to look, she'd stopped coming after me and she'd started running the other way, and there was a car waiting for her and that was it."
     But of course, that wasn't it.
     Not even close.

Chapter Two
Epidural

     Alan Gregory raised the pillows from the carpeted floor and helped his pregnant wife to her feet. He asked, "So what do you think?" Lauren smiled her gratitude for his assistance and said, "What do I think? You mean about this?" She punched one of the pillows against his chest and said, "Here's what I think: Can you spell epidural?"
     He laughed and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Is it safe for me to assume you're not completely sold on huffing and puffing your way through the bliss of childbirth?"
     She wanted to make sure he knew she wasn't kidding. When he leaned over to kiss her, one hand on her swollen belly, she was almost convinced.  But not quite. With emphasis, she said, "e-p-i-"
     "All right, I hear you. We'll get some names of anesthesiologists from Adrienne. But we'll finish the class, right?"
     "Yeah, we'll finish the class. Jody wants us to finish the class." Jody was Lauren's OB. Lauren tilted her head toward the front of the conference room where they'd just attended their initial Lamaze class—First Child after Thirty—and whispered, "Do you know anybody in our group? None of your patients, I hope. That would be awkward."
     "No, no patients. But I do know the woman who was sitting over by the door." He looked over in that direction but the woman had already left the room. "She's a psychiatrist from Denver. I wasn't aware she lived close to us. Her name's Teri Grady. I've worked with her a few times over the years. I like her. She's funny. I take it there was no one in here with us that you've prosecuted?" Lauren was a deputy district attorney for Boulder County.
     "God forbid. No, no one I've prosecuted."
     "You want to stop on the way home, get something to eat? I promised I'd take you to Dandelion if you behaved yourself during class."
     "Did I behave myself?" she asked with attractive petulance.
     "You did fine. You made a couple of gratuitous faces. But you did fine."
     "What faces? I didn't make any faces, did I?"
     He smiled. She knew she'd made some faces.
     She said, "I think I'll take a rain check on Dandelion. I told Adrienne that she could start teaching me some yoga tonight. You don't mind?"
     "Mind? Of course not. May I watch?"
     She socked him on the arm. "Not on your life."
     "Darn. She's really into it, isn't she? The yoga thing?"
     "I think she looks great. Don't you think she looks great? You have to have noticed what yoga's done for her butt."
     He glanced at his wife with a sideways glance. "We're talking Adrienne's butt, right? No, I hate to disappoint you, but I haven't noticed what yoga's done for Adrienne's butt."
     "Well, I have, and I'm hoping it'll do the same for mine."
     "Your butt, beautiful wife, doesn't need the same."
     "And you're sweet."
     He slid his hand perilously close to that butt as they walked from the hospital toward the car. "Don't worry about tonight—I have some calls to make. I'll make dinner while you and Adrienne do whatever it is you're going to do."
 

     Alan and Lauren lived in a recently renovated ranch house on the eastern side of the Boulder Valley, in the shadows of the scenic overlook that adorned the high point on Highway 36 as it threaded into Boulder from Denver's northwestern suburbs. Adrienne, their urologist friend, and Jonas, her son, were their only close neighbors on the dirt lane that dead-ended in the clearing between their homes.
     That night was a preview of midsummer's attractions. The sun was descending toward the craggy cradle of the Rockies in a fashion that was peculiarly languid, and the evening air was more warm than cool for the first time all season. The sky was lit in the dusty pastels of Necco wafers. From one of the decks on the western side of their house, Lauren and Alan could see the lights of the parallel snakes of liquid traffic slithering slowly east and west on the Boulder Turnpike.
     When Alan had first moved into an earlier incarnation of this house in the seventies, Boulder knew no rush hour. When he first met Lauren in the early nineties, the turnpike was only crowded outbound in the morning and inbound in the evening. Now? Boulder had its own suburbs. Now? Boulder had too much traffic, too much of the time. Now? The Boulder Turnpike was a pipe corroded from too many vehicles.
 

     They said good-bye in the garage and Lauren started across the lane to Adrienne's house while Alan walked to the front door to greet Emily, their Bouvier. The dog offered him a cursory hello—a dip of her head and a little hop on all fours—before she spotted Lauren meandering across the lane and darted past Alan's legs to catch up with her. Alan called a warning to his wife, who prepared herself to dart out of the way of the dog's likely over exuberant greeting.
     Across the lane Jonas opened the front door of his house and squealed, "Em-i-ly! Come here! Emily!" Alan knew that their easily distracted dog wasn't going to be coming home right away. He called to Lauren, "Have Jonas bring her home when she's ready for dinner." She waved that she'd heard him.
 

     The house was lit with the light show from the western sky. A last sliver of yellow sun was crowning the peaks of the central Rockies like a thick pat of butter melting on oatmeal. Alan poured himself a glass of water that had come from nearby Eldorado Springs and grabbed a beer that had come from a brewery on nearby Canyon Boulevard. He planned to give himself a few minutes to enjoy the metamorphoses—day into night, pseudosummer into summer—before he started to make dinner.
     He picked up the phone to check messages, first at home—two, both for Lauren—and then at work—two more, neither urgent. He was relieved about the work news and began to relax. One of the patients in his clinical psychology practice had been on the verge of deteriorating for almost two weeks. Today's dual stressors—her annual performance review at Celestial Seasonings, where she worked, and the final dissolution of her marriage by the Boulder County Court—threatened to take her over the edge. That she hadn't left him a choppy message in her flat monotone meant that it was likely she had survived her day.
     For her, and for Alan, that was good.
     The moment he finished listening to his other message, yet another in a string of cancellations from a thirty-six-year-old man whose wife thought he needed therapy much more than he did, the phone rang. Alan took a long pull of beer before he answered, "Hello."
     "Alan? It's Teri Grady."
     He was surprised. "Teri? Hi. It was fun seeing you tonight. I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to talk. I didn't know you were pregnant. When are you due?"
     "That was my fault. Crawford needed to run right after class. He's my husband—I don't think you two have met. And I'm due in eight weeks."
     "Maybe I can meet him next week at class. Or we could all get some dinner after class. You can meet Lauren, too."
     "That sounds nice, but listen, I'm actually calling about something else. Seeing you tonight sparked an idea. I want to make you an offer."
     "Okay."
     "It's likely to sound strange."
     "Then it will fit right into my life."
     "There's no reason you would know it, but one of the things I do—professionally, I mean—is that I'm the regional psychiatric consultant to the U.S. Marshals Service and to the Secret Service."
     "No, I didn't know it. That sounds like interesting work," Alan said, as he tried to anticipate where the conversation was going.
     "You know, surprisingly enough, it's one of the few things I do that is as interesting as it sounds. Anyway, I'm looking for someone to cover some of my responsibilities while I'm on maternity leave. I wondered whether you have some time and whether you'd be interested."
     "I'm flattered, Teri. I do have some time, a few hours, anyway. I guess it depends on exactly what you're looking for. I don't think I could squeeze in regular trips to Denver, if that's what it would take."
     "All I think it's going to involve is seeing one of my ongoing therapy patients, a guy currently in WITSEC, the Witness Security Program that's run by the marshals office. You probably think of it as the Witness Protection Program. And possibly picking up a second therapy case, someone who's being processed into the same program right now and who has already requested a referral for psychotherapy. She'll be relocated to this region soon. Maybe as soon as next week. You wouldn't have to see them in Denver; both of these people could come to your Boulder office."
     "That's it?"
     "Probably. The local WITSEC census is as large as the Marshals Service is comfortable with right now. There's always the possibility that there will be fresh transfers in and out of the region, but most of the people in the program don't get any mental health support. So it's probably just going to be these two."
     "How long is your maternity leave?"
     "I'm planning on six months after the delivery. My OB is concerned about some spotting I've had, though, and he's threatened me with bed rest if it gets any worse. That's why I'm looking for coverage already."
     "What about meds, Teri?"
     "My guy is stable on Zoloft. John Connor—you know him from the medical school, right?—he's the psychiatrist I inherited all this federal work from. He's agreed to cover any medication issues that might come up during my leave. I don't see any real challenges on the horizon pharmaceutically, but if you need some support, he'll be available to you."
     "I know John. What's the Secret Service piece?"
     "John's going to handle that unless the workload gets too tough, then I imagine he would call you to do some consultation. It's sporadic work. During presidential and vice-presidential visits to the region, and during some visits by members of Congress and foreign leaders, the Secret Service has to assess risks on people in the region who they've identified as potential security threats. When the agents have a specific concern, they call and present material for consultation. Sometimes it's on the phone, sometimes they want a face-to-face."
     "But it's rare?"
     "Yeah. As I said, John will cover that. You probably wouldn't do any during the whole six months."
     Alan watched as the last drop of the buttery sun melted into the highest valleys of the Rockies. "I have to admit that I'm intrigued, Teri. I'm always looking for ways to make my work seem more interesting, and this looks like it will do just that. But I'm curious, why me? Why not one of your psychiatric colleagues?"
     "It's a fair question. First, I think you're a good match for my current patient. He's, uh, an interesting guy. But from what I recall about your style, I think it will fit him well. Second, you're flexible, and I've discovered that psychotherapy with this...population requires some therapeutic gymnastics. And last? I like this work a lot— a lot —and I don't especially want to create competition for myself within the psychiatric community. You're a safer bet for me. The Marshals Service prefers to have physicians, not psychologists, as their consultants."
     Alan gave Teri points for honesty. But then, it was one of the things he always liked about her.
     "I'm more than intrigued, Teri. As I said, I'm always looking for opportunities to break the routine of what I do. Let me sleep on it and I'll give you a call sometime tomorrow. Is that okay?"
     "Sure, but there's one more piece to all this. You've never been in the military, have you?"
     "No, why?"
     "Wishful thinking. So I guess there's no reason you would happen to already have a security clearance, is there?"
     "Sorry. Does that disqualify me?"
     "Not at all. But no skeletons, right? No disqualifiers? Nothing that would prevent you from getting one, a security clearance? Sorry, but I have to ask."
     "No problem, Teri. Actually, I did some informal consulting for some FBI types a few months back. You may have heard about it—a couple of old murders up near Steamboat Springs. The people I worked with told me that they checked into my background before they approached me, and they acted comfortable enough with what they found. I think I can pass muster."
     "Good. You should be fine then. I'll look forward to hearing from you tomorrow. I hope you say yes. You have my home number?"
     He said he didn't have it, and she dictated it before hanging up.
     He finished the beer. By the time he swallowed the last drop, he'd already decided that he was going to say "Yes."
 

     Lauren walked in the door around eight-thirty to a meal of shrimp lo mein. She complained of not being very limber during her initial yoga session. "I couldn't hold any of the balance poses that she tried to show me."
     "Was it your MS?"
     "I think so. That and being out of shape."
     He said, "I'm sorry."
     She gave him a "that's life" look, warning him she wasn't in the mood to feel disabled.
     He told her about the call he'd received from Teri Grady.
     "That's great.  You're going to do it, aren't you?" was her immediate response to hearing the details of Teri's offer.
     "I think so," he said.
     "You don't sound too certain.  Why wouldn't you do it?  If I had the opportunity for that kind of variety in my work, I'd do it in a second."
     "You would?  Despite the fact that your new clients would be…I don't know…criminals?"
     "My clients are criminals.  I'm a prosecutor."
     "You represent the people, not the criminals, and you know what I mean.  You don't have to advocate for the people you prosecute."
     "I don't care.  It sounds like a fascinating opportunity.  I think you should do it.  It will help take your mind off the baby."
     "I don't want to take my mind off the baby."
     "Good dinner," she said, ignoring his protest.  "Anyway, you know you are going to do it. You're just playing reluctant so I'll feel good that you included me in your decision."
     "That's not true."
     "Alan."
     "Well, not totally," he said.

 

The Program (USA)

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