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The Never Game, Page 2

Jeffery Deaver

  Shaw was now only ten yards behind the man, who was scanning the area—looking into the trailer park as well as up and down the road and at several abandoned buildings across it.

  The man was trim, white, with a clean-shaven face. He was about five-eight, Shaw estimated. The man’s facial skin was pocked. Under the cap, his brown hair seemed to be cut short. There was a rodent-like quality to his appearance and his movements. In the man’s posture Shaw read ex-military. Shaw himself was not, though he had friends and acquaintances who were, and he had spent a portion of his youth in quasi-military training, quizzed regularly on the updated U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76.

  And the man was indeed holding a Molotov cocktail. The napkin was stuffed into the neck of the bottle and Shaw could smell gasoline.

  Shaw was familiar with revolver, semiautomatic pistol, semiautomatic rifle, bolt-action rifle, shotgun, bow and arrow and slingshot. And he had more than a passing interest in blades. He now withdrew from his pocket the weapon he used most frequently: his mobile, presently an iPhone. He punched some keys and, when the police and fire emergency dispatcher answered, whispered his location and what he was looking at. Then he hung up. He typed a few more commands and slipped the cell into the breast pocket of his dark plaid sport coat. He thought, with chagrin, about his transgression yesterday and wondered if the call would somehow allow the authorities to identify and collar him. This seemed unlikely.

  Shaw had decided to wait for the arrival of the pros. Which is when a cigarette lighter appeared in the man’s hand with no cigarette to accompany it.

  That settled the matter.

  Shaw stepped from the bushes and closed the distance. “Morning.”

  The man turned quickly, crouching. Shaw noted that he didn’t reach for his belt or inside pocket. This might have been because he didn’t want to drop the gas bomb—or because he wasn’t armed. Or because he was a pro and knew exactly where his gun was and how many seconds it would take to draw and aim and fire.

  Narrow eyes, set in a narrow face, looked Shaw over for guns and then for less weaponly threats. He took in the black jeans, black Ecco shoes, gray-striped shirt and the jacket. Short-cut blond hair lying close to his head. Rodent would have thought “cop,” yet the moment for a badge to appear and an official voice to ask for ID or some such had come and gone. He had concluded that Shaw was civilian. And not one to be taken lightly. Shaw was about one-eighty, just shy of six feet, and broad, with strappy muscle. A small scar on cheek, a larger one on neck. He didn’t run as a hobby but he rock-climbed and had been a champion wrestler in college. He was in scrapping shape. His eyes held Rodent’s, as if tethered.

  “Hey there.” A tenor voice, taut like a stretched fence wire. Midwest, maybe from Minnesota.

  Shaw glanced down at the bottle.

  “Could be pee, not gas, don’tcha know.” The man’s smile was as tight as the timbre of his voice. And it was a lie.

  Wondering if this’d turn into a fight. Last thing Shaw wanted. He hadn’t hit anybody for a long time. Didn’t like it. Liked getting hit even less.

  “What’s that about?” Shaw nodded at the bottle in the man’s hand.

  “Who are you?”

  “A tourist.”

  “Tourist.” The man debated, eyes rising and falling. “I live up the street. There’s some rats in an abandoned lot next to me. I was going to burn them out.”

  “California? The driest June in ten years?”

  Shaw had made that up but who’d know?

  Not that it mattered. There was no lot and there were no rats, though the fact that the man had brought it up suggested he might have burned rats alive in the past. This was where dislike joined caution.

  Never let an animal suffer . . .

  Then Shaw was looking over the man’s shoulder—toward the spot he’d been headed for. A vacant lot, true, though it was next to an old commercial building. Not the imaginary vacant lot next to the man’s imaginary home.

  The man’s eyes narrowed further, reacting to the bleat of the approaching police car.

  “Really?” Rodent grimaced, meaning: You had to call it in? He muttered something else too.

  Shaw said, “Set it down. Now.”

  The man didn’t. He calmly lit the gasoline-soaked rag, which churned with fire, and like a pitcher aiming for a strike, eyed Shaw keenly and flung the bomb his way.


  Molotov cocktails don’t blow up—there’s not enough oxygen inside a sealed bottle. The burning rag fuse ignites the spreading gas when the glass shatters.

  Which this one did, efficiently and with modest spectacle.

  A silent fireball rose about four feet in the air.

  Shaw dodged the risk of singe and Carole ran, screaming, to her cabin. Shaw debated pursuit, but the crescent of grass on the shoulder was burning crisply and getting slowly closer to tall shrubs. He vaulted the chain-link, sprinted to his RV and retrieved one of the extinguishers. He returned, pulled the pin and blasted a whoosh of white chemical on the fire, taming it.

  “Oh my God. Are you okay, Mr. Shaw?” Carole was plodding up, carrying an extinguisher of her own, a smaller, one-hand canister. Hers wasn’t really necessary, yet she too pulled the grenade pin and let fly, because, of course, it’s always fun. Especially when the blaze is nearly out.

  After a minute or two, Shaw bent down and, with his palm, touched every square inch of the scorch, as he’d learned years ago.

  Never leave a campfire without patting the ash.

  A pointless glance after Rodent. He’d vanished.

  A patrol car braked to a stop. Oakland PD. A large black officer, with a glistening, shaved head, climbed out, holding a fire extinguisher of his own. Of the three, his was the smallest. He surveyed the embers and the char and replaced the red tank under his front passenger seat.

  Officer L. Addison, according to the name badge, turned to Shaw. The six-foot-five cop might get confessions just by walking up to a suspect and leaning down.

  “You were the one called?” Addison asked.

  “I did.” Shaw explained that the person who’d thrown the cocktail had just run off. “That way.” He gestured down the weedy street, handfuls of trash every few yards. “He’s probably not too far away.”

  The cop asked what had happened.

  Shaw told him. Carole supplemented, with the somewhat gratuitous addendum about the difficulty of being a widow running a business by herself. “People take advantage. I push back. I have to. You would. Sometimes they threaten you.” Shaw noted she’d glanced at Addison’s left hand, where no jewelry resided.

  Addison cocked his head toward the Motorola mounted on his shoulder and gave Central a summary, with the description from Shaw. It had been quite detailed but he’d left out the rodent-like aspect, that being largely a matter of opinion.

  Addison’s eyes turned back to Shaw. “Could I see some ID?”

  There are conflicting theories about what to do when the law asks for ID and you’re not a suspect. This was a question Shaw often confronted, since he frequently found himself at crime scenes and places where investigations were under way. You generally didn’t have to show anybody anything. In that case, you’d have to be prepared to endure the consequences of your lack of cooperation. Time is one of the world’s most valuable commodities, and being pissy with cops guarantees you’re going to lose big chunks of it.

  His hesitation at the moment, though, was not on principle but because he was worried that his motorbike’s license had been spotted at the site of yesterday’s transgression. His name might therefore be in the system.

  Then he recalled that they’d know him already; he’d called 911 from his personal phone, not a burner. So Shaw handed over the license.

  Addison took a picture of it with his phone and uploaded the details somewhere.

  Shaw noted that he didn�
��t do the same with Carole, even though it was her trailer court that had tangentially been involved. Some minor profiling there, Shaw reflected: stranger in town versus a local. This he kept to himself.

  Addison looked at the results. He eyed Shaw closely.

  A reckoning for yesterday’s transgression? Shaw now chose to call it what it was: theft. There’s no escape in euphemism.

  Apparently the gods of justice were not a posse after him today. Addison handed the license back. “Did you recognize him?” he asked Carole.

  “No, sir, but it’s hard to keep track. We get a lot of people here. Lowest rates in the area.”

  “Did he throw the bottle at you, Mr. Shaw?”

  “Toward. A diversion, not assault. So he could get away.”

  This gave the officer a moment’s pause.

  Carole blurted: “I looked it up online. Molotov secretly worked for Putin.”

  Both men looked at her quizzically. Then Shaw continued with the officer: “And to burn the evidence. Prints and DNA on the glass.”

  Addison remained thoughtful. He was the sort, common among police, whose lack of body language speaks volumes. He’d be processing why Shaw had considered forensics.

  The officer said, “If he wasn’t here to cause you any problem, ma’am, what was he here about, you think?”

  Before Carole answered, Shaw said, “That.” He pointed across the street to the vacant lot he’d noted earlier.

  The trio walked toward it.

  The trailer camp was in a scruffy commercial neighborhood, off Route 24, where tourists could stage before a trip to steep Grizzly Peak or neighboring Berkeley. This trash-filled, weedy lot was separated from the property behind it by an old wooden fence about eight feet tall. Local artists had used it as a canvas for some very talented artwork: portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and two other men Shaw didn’t recognize. As the three got closer, Shaw saw the names printed below the pictures: Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, who’d been connected with the Black Panther Party. Shaw remembered cold nights in his television-free childhood home. Ashton would read to Colter and his siblings, mostly American history. Much of it about alternative forms of governance. The Black Panthers had figured in several lectures.

  “So,” Carole said, her mouth twisted in distaste. “A hate crime. Terrible.” She added, with a nod to the paintings, “I called the city, told them they should preserve it somehow. They never called back.”

  Addison’s radio crackled. Shaw could hear the transmission: a unit had cruised the streets nearby and seen no one fitting the description of the arsonist.

  Shaw said, “I got a video.”

  “You did?”

  “After I called nine-one-one I put the phone in my pocket.” He touched the breast pocket, on the left side of his jacket. “It was recording the whole time.”

  “Is it recording now?”

  “It is.”

  “Would you shut it off?” Addison asked this in a way that really meant: Shut it off. Without a question mark.

  Shaw did. Then: “I’ll send you a screenshot.”


  Shaw clicked the shot, got Addison’s mobile number and sent the image his way. The men were four feet apart but Shaw imagined the electrons’ journey took them halfway around the world.

  The officer’s phone chimed; he didn’t bother to look at the screenshot. He gave Carole his card, one to Shaw as well. Shaw had quite the collection of cops’ cards; he thought it amusing that police had business cards like advertising executives and hedge fund managers.

  After Addison left, Carole said, “They’re not going to do winkety, are they?”


  “Well, thanks for looking into it, Mr. Shaw. I’d’ve felt purely horrid you’d gotten burned.”

  “Not a worry.”

  Carole returned to the cabin and Shaw to his Winnebago. He was reflecting on one aspect of the encounter he hadn’t shared with Officer Addison. After the exasperated “Really?” in reference to the 911 call, Rodent’s comment might have been “Why’d you do that shit?”

  It was also possible—more than fifty percent—that he’d said, “Why’d you do that, Shaw?”

  Which, if that had in fact happened, meant Rodent knew him or knew about him.

  And that, of course, would put a whole new spin on the matter.


  Inside the Winnebago, Shaw hung his sport coat on a hook and walked to a small cupboard in the kitchen. He opened it and removed two things. The first was his compact Glock .380 pistol, which he kept hidden behind a row of spices, largely McCormick brand. The weapon was in a gray plastic Blackhawk holster. This he clipped inside his belt.

  The second thing he removed was a thick 11-by-14-inch envelope, secreted on the shelf below where he kept the gun, behind condiment bottles. Worcestershire, teriyaki and a half dozen vinegars ranging from Heinz to the exotic.

  He glanced outside.

  No sign of Rodent. As he’d expected. Still, sometimes being armed never hurt.

  He walked to the stove and boiled water and brewed a ceramic mug of coffee with a single-cup filter cone. He’d selected one of his favorites. Daterra, from Brazil. He shocked the beverage with a splash of milk.

  Sitting at the banquette, he looked at the envelope, on which were the words Graded Exams 5/25, in perfect, scripty handwriting, smaller even than Shaw’s.

  The flap was not sealed, just affixed with a flexible metal flange, which he bent open, and then he extracted from the envelope a rubber band–bound stack of sheets, close to four hundred of them.

  Noting that his heart thudded from double time to triple as he stared at the pile.

  These pages were the spoils of the theft Shaw had committed yesterday.

  What he hoped they contained was the answer to the question that had dogged him for a decade and a half.

  A sip of coffee. He began to flip through the contents.

  The sheets seemed to be a random collection of musings historical, philosophical, medical and scientific, maps, photos, copies of receipts. The author’s script was the same as on the front of the envelope: precise and perfectly even, as if a ruler had been used as a guide. The words were formed in a delicate combination of cursive and block printing.

  Similar to how Colter Shaw wrote.

  He opened to a page at random. Began to read.

  Fifteen miles northwest of Macon on Squirrel Level Road, Holy Brethren Church. Should have a talk with minister. Good man. Rev. Harley Combs. Smart and keeps quiet when he should.

  Shaw read more passages, then stopped. A couple sips of coffee, thoughts of breakfast. Then: Go on, he chided himself. You started this, prepared to accept where it would lead. So keep going.

  His mobile hummed. He glanced at the caller ID, shamefully pleased that the distraction took him away from the stolen documents.


  “Colt. Where am I finding you?” A baritone grumble.

  “Still the Bay Area.”

  “Any luck?”

  “Some. Maybe. Everything okay at home?” The Bruins were watching his property in Florida, which abutted theirs.

  “Peachy.” Not a word you hear often from a career Marine officer. Teddy Bruin and his wife, Velma, also a veteran, wore their contradictions proudly. He could picture them clearly, most likely sitting at that moment where they often sat, on the porch facing the hundred-acre lake in northern Florida. Teddy was six-two, two hundred and fifty pounds. His reddish hair was a darker version of his freckled, ruddy skin. He’d be in khaki slacks or shorts because he owned no other shade. The shirt would have flowers on it. Velma was less than half his weight, though tall herself. She’d be in jeans and work shirt, and of the two she had the cleverer tattoos.

  A dog barked in the background. That would be Chase, their Rottweiler.
Shaw had spent many afternoons on hikes with the solid, good-natured animal.

  “We found a job close to you. Don’t know if you’re interested. Vel’s got the details. She’s coming. Ah, here.”

  “Colter.” Unlike Teddy’s, Velma’s voice was softly pouring water. Shaw had told her she should record audiobooks for kids. Her voice would be like Ambien, send them right to sleep.

  “Algo found a hit. That girl sniffs like a bluetick hound. What a nose.”

  Velma had decided that the computer bot she used (Algo, as in “algorithm”) searching the internet for potential jobs for Shaw was a female. And canine as well, it seemed.

  “Missing girl in Silicon Valley,” she added.


  Phone numbers were often set up by law enforcement or by private groups, like Crime Stoppers, so that someone, usually with inside knowledge, could call anonymously with information that might lead to a suspect. Tiplines were also called dime lines, as in “diming out the perp,” or snitch lines.

  Shaw had pursued tipline jobs from time to time over the years—if the crime was particularly heinous or the victims’ families particularly upset. He generally avoided them because of the bureaucracy and formalities involved. Tiplines also tended to attract the troublesome.

  “No. Offeror’s her father.” Velma added, “Ten thousand. Not much. But his notice was . . . heartfelt. He’s one desperate fellow.”

  Teddy and Velma had been helping Shaw in his reward operation for years; they knew desperate by instinct.

  “How old’s the daughter?”

  “Nineteen. Student.”

  The phone in Florida was on SPEAKER, and Teddy’s raspy voice said, “We checked the news. No stories about police involvement. Her name didn’t show up at all, except for the reward. So, no foul play.”