As she hung up the phone, Anna already regretted calling Nick. She wasn't sure why she thought she needed a gun. She certainly had no business with one. Anna had heard story after story in the doctors' lounge of homeowners who'd confronted a criminal, only to have their own guns turned on them. No, she was being foolish, letting her emotions overcome her common sense.
She wasn't a detective; she was a doctor. And even if she did manage to discover the person who had compromised her credit, stolen her DEA number, and indirectly caused Eric Hatley's death, what would she do with the knowledge? She couldn't very well call the police and say, "You need to come here right away. I think this person is a criminal."
The thing to do was call Ross Donovan, tell him about her theory, and see if his investigator could find out anything that would help her. In her heart, she knew that was the proper course of action. It kept running through her head, even as she dressed carefully in jeans, a dark sweatshirt, and scuffed sneakers. She kept repeating, "This is crazy," as she shoved her wallet in one side pocket, her keys in the other, and clipped her cell phone to the waistband of her jeans. Her mind told her, "You have no business doing this," as she climbed into her car and placed the scrap of paper with a scribbled address on the seat beside her. Finally, as she backed out into the street, she murmured, "God, I know this is crazy. But I have to do it. Please go with me. Protect me. Help me. Please."
She found the street and began cruising along it. This was a typical suburban neighborhood, populated with single-family homes set comfortably back from the street, front yards just large enough for a game of catch, backyards—most of them enclosed with chain-link fence—where dogs and children could romp. The house she wanted was in the middle of a short block, a one-story brick. The flowers and shrubs in the front bed were dead or dying, the grass was brown, and the "For Sale" sign in the yard told Anna why. She looked at the slip of paper once more. Yes, this was the place. But why would someone open a charge account and use the address of a vacant house?
She circled the block, went by again, did a U-turn and came back from the other direction. The blinds were drawn in the house. No car in the drive. No bikes or toys in the yard. No sign of life anywhere.
On this street, the driveways were in front of the houses, meaning the homes backed up to each other without an intervening alley. Unless someone crawled over the back fence, if Anna watched the front of the house she should be able to see anyone coming in and out.
Three houses down from the house in question, Anna tucked her car between two others and slouched down in her seat until she could barely see over the steering wheel. She wished she'd covered her hair with a dark baseball cap, but she was new at this spying thing. Maybe no one would notice her. Anna started to turn on her car radio, but thought better of it. Much as she'd like something to combat boredom, she didn't want any noise. She planned to listen, as well as watch. She fidgeted until she achieved the best compromise between comfort and hiding. Then she settled down to wait.
Almost an hour passed before Anna saw activity. She eased up a bit in the seat. A man in a gray-blue uniform walked toward her. As he came nearer, she could see a brown pouch hanging offhis shoulder, resting against his hip. Just a mail carrier.
The mailman continued toward her, stopping at some houses, not at others. When he did stop, his body blocked Anna from seeing what he did. Then he turned in at the vacant house. Here she had a clear view of the man's actions. He opened the flap of the mailbox, reached in and pulled out a handful of envelopes. He thumbed through them, selected three to shove into his leather pouch, and replaced the rest. Then he closed the box and walked away, going back the way he came. She watched him until he got to the end of the block, where he climbed into a nondescript gray sedan and headed right toward her.
Anna ducked down until the mailman passed, then started her car, did a careful K-turn, and dropped in behind him. Her education in tailing another car came from detective novels and TV programs. The only thing she recalled was that you should drop back and try to get other cars between yours and the subject vehicle. The problem was that this was a quiet suburban street, and there was no other traffic. Well, Anna knew the neighborhood. Maybe she could use that knowledge to her advantage.
At the first intersection, the driver of the gray sedan went through after barely tapping his brakes. Anna turned right, then immediately left at the next intersection. She sped up to reach the cross street first, where she looked to her left. The gray car went straight, so she did as well. Her quarry turned right at the next cross street. She pulled a map from the glove compartment and pretended to study it until he passed in front of her. Then she tossed the map on the seat and made a right turn, falling in a hundred yards behind him.
After two blocks, she watched the gray car turn into a strip mall. When she got there, the car was nowhere in sight. She aimed at a row of vacant parking places in front of an out-of business cleaners, backing in so she had a view of most of the parking lot. She was scanning the cars, straining to see the gray sedan, when the passenger door of her car opened, and the man in the postal uniform climbed in.
He pulled a gun from his postal pouch and leveled it at her."Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Don't make a move. Don't make a sound. Understand?"
Anna managed a weak nod and felt her stomach drop like an elevator in free fall. Why had she tried this? The man had spotted her easily. And she hadn't even had the presence of mind to lock her car doors. Why hadn't she left the investigation to the professionals?
"Okay, start the car. Both hands on the wheel, just like they taught you in driver's ed. We're going back to that house you were so interested in."
"Park here in the driveway." The mailman, as Anna had come to think of him, waved the gun for emphasis. "Folks will just think there's someone looking at the house. Fat chance! It's been vacant for six months, with no takers."
Anna put the car in park and turned offthe ignition. She started to pocket the keys, but her captor said, "No. I'll take those. When we leave here, I'll be driving."
"I can drive you," Anna said.
When the man stopped laughing, he said, "You're not going to be in any shape to drive. I just hope the trunk of this car is big enough to hold you." He chuckled again. "Not that you're going to complain about being cramped."
He waved her out of the car. "I'm right behind you. I'll put the gun back in the pouch, but remember that I can pull it out and pull the trigger a lot faster than you can run."
"You don't want to do that," Anna said. "A shot would bring the neighbors running."
"Dream on. First of all, a shot from this pistol would sound about like someone bursting a balloon. And besides that, nobody is going to stick their nose outside if they think there's trouble. That's the American way. Don't get involved." The mailman pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the front door. He shoved Anna through and followed on her heels. "Sit over there," he said, waving toward a couch against the far wall. "The previous owners left us a little bit of furniture, so we have all the comforts of home."
Anna eased down onto the couch, edging to the left side to avoid a sharp spring coming through the cushion, while putting as much distance as possible between her captor and herself. "Can you tell me what's going on here? I was just waiting for a friend when you—"
"Shut up! I saw you following me. I'm not stupid." He held out his hand. "Gimme your wallet."
"Is that what this is? A robbery?" She dug her wallet out of her pocket and handed it over.
The man opened it to her driver's license and Anna could see recognition cross his face. "Dr. McIntyre. The name is familiar, and now I have a face to go with it. You're one of my best customers." He shoved the wallet into his pocket. "You won't need this anymore."
Anna's mind ran a mile a minute. Could she get the gun away from him? Not a chance. Maybe she could bolt and knock him down. And outrun a bullet? No, he'd been right about that. She had to let someone know she was here. But who? And how?
"Okay, I was following you," she said. "I wondered why you were picking up mail instead of leaving it." As she spoke, she shrugged her shoulders, moved around on the couch, grasping the sides of the cushion and adjusting it beneath her, making a show of trying to get comfortable. As she did so, her hand palmed her cell phone offits clip and dropped it between the cushions.
"You might as well know, since you're not going to be telling anyone about it. What you've stumbled on is a sweet little racket that provides my unemployment income."
Anna raised her eyebrows, inviting him to keep talking, while her finger searched for the right button on her phone. She knew she'd only have one chance. As soon as the mailman began speaking, she pressed the button . . . and prayed.
"Yeah. I was a mailman. When too many government checks turned up missing, the Postal Inspectors started investigating. That's when I got fired. Actually, they didn't fire me—they didn't have enough evidence. They let me resign, which kept me out of federal prison. Unfortunately, it also kept me from drawing unemployment. So I figured, since I've still got the uniform, I'll set up my own unemployment fund."
Anna heard a few muffled noises from the sofa cushion. She tried to cover them with her next question. "So what are you doing? What does that have to do with this house on Shady Lane? And why are you holding me here?"
She made a move as though to stand, causing her captor to say loudly, "Sit down. Remember, I've got a gun and I'm not afraid to use it."
"Take it easy. I'm not going anywhere. You're the one with the gun. How did you pull offstealing my identity?" "Simple. I knew this route, so why not stay with it? I'd choose a different street every day, walking it after the regular mailman made his delivery. I knew the places where nobody was home during the day, and I'd check those boxes for things I could use: checks, credit card information, stufflike that. I hit the jackpot at your house. Not only did I get your credit card statements, I got the form for your narcotics license renewal. That's when I knew I'd moved into the big-time."
"I can see how you'd use the checks and the credit card information, but how did you figure out how to use my DEA number?"
"Oh, didn't I mention it?" the mailman said. "I took in a partner. Somebody who had an inside track on narcotics prescriptions and knew all about that stuff." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. "Guess I'd better call him. I may need some help cleaning this up."
Anna could only hear one side of the conversation, but it was enough to make her heart pound. "It's me. I'm at the house on Shady Lane with our lady doctor. I need help getting rid of her."
The man's expression hardened as he listened for a moment."I don't care. Drop whatever you're doing. I need you here. Half an hour, no more. Remember, you're in this as deep as I am."
He shoved the phone in his pocket, seemed to consider something, and reached into his mail pouch.
Anna expected to see the barrel of his gun come out and spit its fatal missile at her. "Don't—" The mailman's hand emerged holding a small roll of duct tape. "Shut up and stick your hands out. I don't want to have to watch you every minute."
With her wrists bound with silver tape that might as well have been handcuffs, Anna leaned back on the couch. She took a deep breath and opened her mouth, but her captor read the signs.
"Nobody's going to hear you scream. I told you, I know this neighborhood. The people on both sides of this house are at work right now. By the time they get home, I'll have shut you up permanently. Then I'll wait until dark, tidy up here, put your body in the trunk of your car and drive it someplace where it won't be found for a while. My partner will pick me up and that's the end of it."
The mailman started to drop the roll of duct tape back into his bag, then seemed to think better of it. "You know, I'm tired of hearing you ask questions." He ripped a strip of tape from the roll and slapped it across Anna's mouth, then grinned with satisfaction as he dropped the tape back into his bag.
Anna slumped into the cushion, totally defeated. Her hands were secured in front of her, palms together in an attitude of prayer. Prayer seemed to be all that was left for her right now. At least when the final moment came, she'd be talking with God.
Anna wasn't sure how long she sat with her eyes closed, sending up earnest petitions to heaven, before she heard footsteps on the porch followed by a firm rapping. She opened her eyes and looked up in time to see the mailman stride toward the door and open it.
At least she would finally see the person behind the scheme before she died. Anna fixed her gaze on the door, wondering who would come through.
She shuffled through the possibilities. Neil Fowler? He certainly knew about narcotics prescriptions and had access to blank forms. But why would Fowler do such a thing? Was it a need for money, or had his position of chairman left him thinking that rules didn't apply to him?
Was it one of the DEA agents, Kramer or Hale? Or the detectives, Green or Dowling? Each of them would have the contacts, the specialized knowledge to make use of her DEA number. What better cover for criminal activity than carrying a badge?
Could it be her attorney? His story of a beating could have been faked to divert suspicion from him. And surely Ross would know the right people, either among the criminals he'd represented or those he'd encountered in his struggle to overcome addiction. Didn't Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous sometimes meet together?
Was Nick involved? Ever since Hatley's death, he'd been after her to let him help. Was that so he could keep tabs on her activities? Had his apparent affection for her merely been an excuse to be around, to keep an eye on her? Had she been that badly fooled?
Or was it someone she hadn't considered? There were so many possibilities. And soon she'd have her answer. She'd know the identity of the person who'd betrayed her and ruined her personal and professional life. It was a pity she wouldn't be able to use the knowledge.
She pictured her last moments: a bullet in the head would bring total darkness and oblivion. Her lifeless body would be bundled in a blanket and dumped in the trunk of her car for its last ride.
Would her captor deliver the coup de grace himself or would he leave that to his partner, who was apparently the man in charge? She wondered who it would be and decided that it didn't make any difference. Dead is dead.
The mailman looked back at her. Apparently, assured that Anna posed no threat, he turned the knob and opened the door.
Anna craned her neck to see past her captor's form. The light was behind the man who stood in the door, silhouetting him and hiding his face. Then Nick Valentine stepped forward.