On The Road

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Wolf took the driver's seat. Mitch sat beside him in front and Rose took the back seat. It was Wolf who said the thing that all of them were thinking. "Anybody got a clue where we're going?"

"I don't," said Mitch. "You, Rose?"

Rose looked uncomfortable. "My car's not good enough to be the kind of shelter I need for sleeping. The only person I could go to for that kind of shelter is Sonia. That's back in the city."

Wolf nodded, pulled the car out of the driveway, and turned right.

"Rose?" said Mitch, holding up the jewelry box. "What's this?"

Rose shuddered visibly. "It's evidence, it's -- ugh. It's a ring that Laura Houang thought was the most important thing in the universe. Because the Hook made her think so."

"Laura Houang?" Wolf looked up. "That was the girl in the truck crash on California street? The one who's been all over the news?"

"Yeah," Mitch said. "My partner and I were in the other car."

"And I was ... there with her." Rose said. "I was ... feeling what she felt."

"Damn," Wolf said. "Sorry to hear it. I just read about it."

"So tell me about this ring," Mitch said.

"Houang knew that she had to obey whoever had the ring. She'd helped to ... flay herself ... because when the Hook told her to, he was wearing the ring. She was doing ... what she did in the truck ... because the Hook had the ring and he'd told her to."

"Wait. Our boy needs a ring to put his whammy on somebody?" said Mitch.

Rose shook her head. "No. If he can get into somebody's ..." She groped for a way to express it, finally finding it in Wolf's head. "... crap thinking, then he can build it into just about anything he wants, but what he put on Laura Houang wasn't about obeying him, it was about obeying whoever had this ring. As it happens there was no difference, because he's the one who had the ring."

"Do you think," said Mitch, "That there might be fingerprints on this ring?"

"Indra said she found the ring in the trash can on the corner where the crash happened," said Rose. "So her prints are probably on it. But nobody else's. Nobody else
at the Randoms' place would touch that thing with a ten-foot pole."

"God Damnit," Mitch swore. "Could you have mentioned that before you got her pissed-off at us, before we left the place where she is, and before we got on the goddamn road? First physical evidence I see in this case, first witness who found any, and every minute I don't interrogate her, she could be forgetting something! Turn this car around, Wolf!"

Wolf kept driving. "She's not going to talk to you right now, Mitch. She's too busy puking her guts out and falling apart." He tapped his nose. "She's angry, but her anger covers hurt, and she's all twisted up and sick inside about it."

Rose nodded solemnly. "Yeah," she said. "I ... touched her mind, I shared some of my... well, your ... memories with her. I wasn't ready for the way she hurts." She spread her hands. "I ... I shouldn't have done that," she said. "It was ... well, mean, I guess."

Wolf rolled down the window and hung his arm out into the night. Cold air and mist blew across them. With a jerk of his chin, he indicated the general direction of San Francisco. "I want to talk about the Hook," he said. "He's back there. He's got your partner and the case file and we don't know how many more cops, and he's going to be hunting your butt. And mine. And Rose's. The sonofabitch knows where all of us live, and we all have to sleep sometime."

Mitch was silent. Damnit, the son-of-a-bitch had David.

Wolf pursed his lips and shrugged. "You were right when you told me outside that camera place that we can't just walk in and beat it," Wolf continued. "But the ring means this is a structure. There's a way we can take it apart if we find the right way and the right place to hit it."

"What are you thinkin' about here, Wolf?" said Mitch.

Wolf looked at him speculatively. "What kind of sense does it make that he lays into someone's mind that she has to obey whoever has the ring, instead of that she has to
obey him?"

Light dawned in Mitch's face. "It means he has to sleep too, doesn't it? He's got some kind of power, but he's one guy. He can't pay attention to everybody at once, all the time."

"Bingo," said Wolf. "Too many people, too many places, too much to do. When the son-of-a-bitch gets something big and complicated going, he needs an organization. And when he's not around, or when he's asleep, or in places where he isn't, he has to leave other people running it. But other people don't have his power. So he makes the pawns believe in these rings, then he leaves his toadies in charge with the rings and the pawns obey them."

Mitch thought it over. "Okay," he said. "I think I believe it. And if it's true, we can take bits and pieces off his organization if we hit it where he's not. But how do we get them out from under his whammy?"

Rose leaned forward between them. "I can show you a dozen places in the city where people can break loose," she said. "Not as good as the Jade Pagoda, but good."

"Jade Pagoda?" said Wolf.

"It'll still be open," Mitch said. "You gotta see this. Get on San Pablo street and head south. On Oak street, down by Jack London Square, there's the Oakland Museum. Head for that. Check me if I'm wrong, Rose, but this is all about things that people have paid a lot of attention to, right? Get close enough to a bunch of things
like that and the connection gets lost?"

Rose nodded. "The connection gets lost... but I don't know if just breaking the connection is going to be enough. Remember, he's gone further than just making them follow orders. What he's done is change the shape of their thinking, change who they are. That goes way beyond just contact."

Wolf turned the car south. "Rose," he said quietly. "You say it's all about the crap thinking people do? That's where he gets his hold - gets his hooks in - to start pulling and change who people are?"

"I don't really know," said Rose "but I think that has to be it. I never ever ... felt ... it before, until ... until Laura Houang."

Wolf nodded, thinking about how much her scent was like the killer's, and gave her a speculative look. Rose suddenly looked like there was a knife in her gut.

"What the hell was that about?" Mitch said.

"Give her a little time and a chance to rest," Wolf replied. "She's going to need it."

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