Michael Prescott: Next Victim

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Michael Prescott Next Victim
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Michael Prescott

Next Victim

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.

— Hosea 8:7


The standoff was in its fourth hour.

Mason Howard, sheriff of Valencia County, stood under the noonday sun in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson’s Motor Inn fifty miles west of Albuquerque. Not far away, traffic rushed past on Route 66-truckers on long hauls, locals running errands, families taking road trips. And maybe, every once in a while, somebody in flight from the law.

Somebody like the woman whose Buick Grand Sport was parked outside room 24 of the HoJo, the woman who had locked and barricaded herself in her room and was holding a gun.

Howard lifted the bullhorn in his left hand-he was keeping his right hand free in case he had to draw his sidearm in a hurry-and tried again to get through to her.

"Mrs. Beckett." His amplified voice rippled across the hot macadam. "There’s no need for anyone to get hurt, ma’am. We can settle things nice and reasonable if you’ll just come on out here."

The window of room 24 was open, although the drapes were drawn. Music played inside the room-the same damn song, over and over.

Above the music rose a high, quavering reply: "Leave me alone!"

Howard lowered the megaphone. He glanced at Deputy Trilling, standing beside him against the open door of a department cruiser. Never having been in a shoot-out, Trilling seemed to believe that the door would offer cover if the lady opened fire. He was wrong. Bullets could cut through a car door as easy as a knife through cheese.

Howard decided not to disabuse him of the notion. All he said was, "She’s losing it."

Lloyd Trilling made a snorting sound, his nearest approach to laughter. "I’d say she lost it a long time ago. ’Round the time she amscrayed with the kid and went on the lam."

The kid. Right there was the nub of the problem. If Melinda Beckett had been alone in the motel room, Howard would have been content to wait her out indefinitely.

But there was the kid, Melinda’s eight-year-old boy, trapped with his suicidal mom. Yesterday she’d abducted the boy from her estranged hubby, a Mr. Harrison Beckett of Casper, Wyoming, and driven six hundred miles while an APB was put out across all the western states.

At seven-thirty this morning Deputy Trilling had spotted the gold Grand Sport convertible with the flashy red stripe in the HoJo’s parking lot. After confirming the license number, he’d radioed for backup. Howard had hoped to take the woman by surprise when she checked out, but one of the arriving deputies had made the mistake of driving past the window. Melinda had seen the squad car and figured out what was going on.

Now she was holed up inside with a gun and a kid and a bunch of psychotic thoughts racing through her head. And she was playing that stupid record again and again.

"What the hell is that song, anyway?" he muttered.

"The one she’s hooked on?" Trilling was a pop music buff. "It’s the Surfaris, Mason. God, weren’t you ever young?"

"If I was, I don’t recall it now. What or who are the Safaris?"

" Surf aris," Trilling corrected. "Rock ’n’ roll band out of California. Like the Beach Boys. You heard of them, haven’t you?"

"I may have. You still didn’t tell me the name of the song."

"‘Wipe Out.’ That’s what they call it."

"Great. ‘Wipe Out.’ That sounds mighty encouraging."

There was a pause, and then Trilling asked, "So what the hell we gonna do, Mason?" He kept his voice low so the other deputies positioned around the parking lot, eight in all, couldn’t hear him address the sheriff by his first name. It was an informality Howard permitted no one else while on duty. He and Lloyd went back a ways, and besides, Lloyd had married Howard’s sister.

"We keep talking," Howard said stolidly.

"I don’t know. She’s losing it, like you said. She might just go ahead and pop that little munchkin of hers."

"She loves the boy. That’s why she snatched him."

"Love makes a woman do crazy things."

Howard couldn’t argue with that. He’d been through two wives and was working on his third, and as far as he was concerned, all three had been as nutty as a pecan pie when love got hold of them.

"If she gets the idea that we’re gonna take the kid away from her," Trilling went on, "she could shoot him just out of plain spite."

"Well, what do you propose we do, Lloyd?" Howard meant the question to be rhetorical or sarcastic or whatever the word was, but Trilling was ready with an answer.

"I say we go in through that open window."

"There’s a lady on the other side of that window with a firearm that may be loaded."

"Here’s how I see it. You talk on the bullhorn, right? She has to get near the window in order to shout back and be heard over that song. Me and Thompson and Donnigan, we’re waiting, crouched down, right outside. When she yells to you, we’ll know pretty much exactly where she is. We go in through the drapes, and I tackle her just like Dick Butkus bringing down Bart Starr."

"That’s great, Lloyd. Then while you’re rolling around on the floor with her, she snaps off a round and plugs you in the chest."

"Hell, she’s a woman. I’ll pin her to the mat before she can do a damn thing."

"Forget it. I’m not making Barbara a widow."

"We got to do something."

"We are doing something. We’re keeping her contained. We’re wearing her down."

"You might wanna think twice about that, Sheriff."

The voice belonged to Deputy Arnold, who was supposed to be minding the station house and was instead creeping up behind Howard’s cruiser.

Howard reminded the deputy that he had left his post, in a tone that strongly suggested he’d better have a good reason.

He did. "Two pieces of news for you, and neither one of ’em ought to go out over the squawk box. First off, Darnell over at the Trib has got wind of this and he’s coming over. And if Darnell’s in on it, you know Lucy can’t be far behind."

"Damn." Lucy Pigeon was a reporter for Albuquerque radio station KKOB, and she and Tom Darnell of the Albuquerque Tribune were engaged to be married. "So we’ll have two reporters on the scene, one of ’em broadcasting live."

"It gets worse."

"How can it?"

"The husband of Ma Barker in there"-Arnold jerked a thumb at the motel-"called me from the Texaco in Alcomita. He’s coming to the station house. Been on the road ever since the cops in Casper told him we’d located his wife and kid."

Howard shook his head. This was a pickle. The press, a radio reporter-and Harrison Beckett, the hostage’s dad. The town of Alcomita was only a few miles from the sheriff’s station in Grants. Mr. Beckett would be there in no time. And once Lucy began airing the story, every radio and TV station from here to Flagstaff would be sending a crew. Things would get ugly in a hurry.

"See, Mason?" Trilling blurted. "We got to make our move."

"Don’t call me Mason, Deputy," Howard snapped for Arnold’s benefit.

"Sorry, sir. But we can’t wait her out. It’ll be a circus soon. We’ll lose control of the situation."

We never had control, Howard wanted to say. It was just like that mess they had going over there in Vietnam. There was the illusion of control, of a strategy, but all the time circumstances were conspiring to shoot the generals’ careful plans all to shit.

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