The goddamned idiot. Why does he always do this? How can any man be so self-effacing and so goddamned arrogant at the same time?
Pete told me years ago that if I could learn to handle Mac, the rest would be easy. I pounced on him for that – he’d finally admitted that MacGyver was all but impossible to deal with, right? Right? Well, wrong. He wasn’t admitting that at all. He just meant that if I could learn to deal with Mac – something he found perfectly natural and easy – then I’d have achieved some shiny golden citation, some damned merit badge in personnel management. Or self-discipline. Or cat-herding. Something.
I’m still working on it.
Nikki watched Mac turn his back again and stride away, and let him cross halfway back to the cabin before she called after him. It took that long to get her temper under control so she could call after him instead of yelling.
“MacGyver, didn’t you hear me? I’m telling you it’s Murdoc. It has to be Murdoc.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Mac slowed, half turned, finally stopped and looked over his shoulder. His face wore a shadow of a smirk. “Nikki, I never thought you’d need sensitivity training.”
“What part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?”
Nikki gave him a sour look, then turned her back on him, facing the meadow, and raised an arm in a signal. Lupe hadn’t yet shut down the helicopter’s engines; now the rotor resumed its brisk chopping. She was about to lift off.
“Hey.” Mac protested.
Nikki barely looked at him. “She’s got another job this afternoon – some band of tourists over at Leavenworth want the usual sky tour of the Cascade Mountains. She said she could squeeze in a quick stop here on the way, and she’d give me three minutes to decide whether I was staying or not.” She hefted her briefcase and started towards the cabin, glancing over her shoulder. “Oh, come on, MacGyver. You don’t have to look as if your mother-in-law dropped in and was staying for a week. Lupe will be back before dark. Or I can always radio Wenatchee for an earlier pick-up, if you simply can’t stand having me around for a few hours.”
Mac trailed after her, muttering, as she strode off. His mother had been dead for almost fifty years, but swearing still didn’t come naturally. Sometimes he wished it did.
Inside the cabin, Nikki glanced around with unfeigned interest, and Mac remembered that she’d never been there before. She knew the place only by its designation in the Phoenix budget: research outpost W-407, Ongoing Remote Residential Project in Indefinite Sustainable Living Off-Grid. She’d signed off on the original acquisition of the acreage where the cabin stood, land donated by a hard-core environmentalist who didn’t trust the Nature Conservancy to keep it safe from commercial development. She’d watched Pete slip the original building plans past the Board – they’d had a worse concentration of fuddy-duddies than usual that year – and three years later she’d been the one in the hot seat, securing the funds to keep the project going. It hadn’t needed a lot. Willis and MacGyver had adopted it as their own almost from the start, and the biggest cost – flying supplies in by chopper – had remained low even with Mac living up there full-time. He simply didn’t need much to keep going.
Now she looked around at the reality behind the reports. It looked a lot like MacGyver’s other homes: most of the living space was one large room, with a small kitchen area at one end, dishes and cookware easily reached on open shelves. The furniture was comfortable and unpretentious, some of it handcrafted; a fireplace, a few throw rugs, the inevitable couch. A large table at the near end of the main room served as a desk, papers and periodicals scattered around a computer monitor and keyboard, the glow of the computer itself winking from the shadows underneath the table and an odd-looking panel of coloured lights hanging over it. A hockey stick leaned in a corner, and skates hung above it from a nail pounded into the rough wood.
Rows of shelves on the walls were crammed with an unimaginable variety of random objects: books propped up between rocks for bookends, magazines in stacks that threatened to tip over into small landslides, tools and unidentifiable electronic widgets, scattered knickknacks and framed photos. Lumpish clay or plasticine figures dotted the shelves – presumably more of the girls’ attempts at sculpture, or possibly voodoo charms intended to frighten away evil spirits. On the mantel stood a line of photos of Sam and Lisa, the girls, Willis and his family, more pictures of Sam, more pictures of the girls.
A few beautifully matted and framed photos hung on the rough log walls: Nikki recognized some of Sam’s best work, including the shot of the Three Gorges that had made the cover of National Geographic, and the picture of a desolate Inuit child surveying the ragged springtime edges of the Arctic ice cap up near Prudhoe Bay that had won the Pulitzer back in 2006.
There weren’t any photos of Pete. Nikki guessed that they were still packed away – possibly still in storage back in LA, over a thousand miles away and probably not far enough. She wasn’t surprised. She’d buried her own pictures of Pete Thornton in a back drawer of her massive desk in the Director’s office they once shared, and had only pulled them out again a few weeks ago.
Nikki turned towards Mac, blinking back the sudden hotness in her eyes, wishing she could simply reach out to him. He wasn’t even looking at her; he was stooped down, picking up a plastic rainbow of scattered Lego blocks from the floor in front of the couch.
“I don’t usually let them bring a lot of toys up here . . . we spend most of our time outdoors anyway.” He sounded sheepish.
“Even in the rain?”
Mac chuckled. “Oh, they don’t mind gettin’ wet. Not since they found out that the wetter they get, the more mud sticks to them. You’d think it’d slide off, but they’re real good at keeping it in place.”
Nikki drew a deep breath and set her briefcase on the scarred wood surface of the table, and booted up her laptop. She was keenly aware of when Mac’s focus shifted from the strewn playthings to her own hands on the keyboard. She’d been mentally rehearsing this conversation since the previous evening, right up through the helicopter ride up into the Cascades, but no amount of rehearsal or advance preparation ever really counted when Mac was involved.
Mac tried not to be intrigued, but he couldn’t help watching Nikki run through her logon. Willis still picked his brain regularly to find what new creative approaches they could come up with for computer security, and more of their ideas had been adopted since Nikki’s original promotion to Deputy Director. She’d succeeded Pete as Operations Director over five years ago, and immediately overhauled the entire computer system again.
Pete had found plenty to value in the computer revolution – any system that would deliver more information to him, faster, in more detail, and correlate it better, gave him an edge that fed his already extraordinary natural talents. But he’d never really adjusted to the growing vulnerability of those same computer systems. Mac felt his throat begin to tighten up at the memory of Pete glaring impotently at a frozen screen – man, he hated Windows, we all did – grabbed the mental thread and snapped it before it could drag him down under the ice.
He concentrated on Nikki again instead. Whatever she’d brought with her on that laptop, it was taking an extra pass of the fingerprint scanner and an extra set of passwords to access it. And she’d long since mastered the trick of typing the password with one hand while automatically holding the other over the keyboard, obscuring the keystrokes from any observation. He grinned inwardly. He’d taught her that trick himself.
Her voice was as cool and dispassionately brisk as ever as she started to speak. “Just as a formal reminder, Mr. Quasi-Retired Personnel, you’re still under contract and you still have your top-level security clearance.”
“And I’m still under a pledge of confidentiality, for cryin’ out loud, Nikki, it’s not like I need a reminder to keep an official secret – ”
“Mac, I know that,” Nikki snapped. MacGyver was startled; there was an edge to her voice that was different from the one he expected, the edge he was used to. “I wasn’t about to remind you. You’ve never needed reminding.” Mac blinked; he wasn’t used to hearing Nikki express confidence in him. “I only need to verbally confirm that you’ve got the clearance for everything I’m about to show you. We got it from some top-level sources, and, well . . . ”
“Not all those sources were official?”
“You can say that again. But you’d better not say it at all. When the previous administration dissolved the DXS, most of the personnel were absorbed by Homeland Security, although some of them shifted laterally to the CIA. And a few gave up the government sector in disgust, of course.”
“Only a few?”
“Okay, maybe more than a few.”
“And I suppose Phoenix wasn’t in there, commiserating with old friends and colleagues and cherry-picking the best of the veterans?”
To her surprise, Nikki found herself sharing a smug grin with Mac. “We finally got Craig Bannister. And a few others. High time, too – the Phoenix Ops department needed some fresh blood.”
“Man, I thought Craig retired ages ago.”
“He was going to. I talked him out of it.”
“I’ll just bet.”
Nikki turned back to the screen. “He was the one who originally spotted the pattern – you remember, he’d worked with Pete back when Pete was first trying to track Murdoc down. Back before you came into the picture.” She turned the laptop so MacGyver could read the information on the screen. “It’s collated mostly from Interpol – Bannister said nobody stateside would listen to him, so he started chatting up some of his overseas contacts – but it’s all been cross-checked and confirmed. We got the most recent intel from a – well, an old acquaintance – in the CIA, yesterday evening. This isn’t a pack of rumors, Mac. It’s a collection of facts.” She drew a deep breath and turned the screen to face him.
“Nine assassinations in the last eighteen months – three civil figures, four political, two criminal. No relationship or connection between the victims whatsoever. Timing in line with a single perpetrator, allowing time for payoff and new assignments to be made between each successful kill.” She drew another deep breath. She had to convince him.
“It’s Murdoc, Mac.”
Nikki caught at her temper, reined it in as if it were a physical thing. She never expected actual cooperation from MacGyver, but the last thing she’d expected was that her briefing would be given in the face of a wall of such blank, unbending dismissal.
“The MO is pure Murdoc; not only that; it’s ‘old school’ Murdoc. You know Pete was originally put on his case in 1975 – but he accumulated a file that went all the way back to 1969, by collecting details of older, unsolved murders that fit the profile.”
“Yeah, Murdoc musta started real young.” Mac’s voice dripped with disgust.
“Well, I’ve been studying the files of the early days. This is the old pattern – a quick, clean kill, no witnesses left alive – usually no witnesses, period. No fancy traps; the entrapment component consists of perfect timing and execution, with the victim caught in a situation with no possibility of escape.”
“That’s a switch.” The reply was a harsh rasp.
“Not really. It was the elaborate traps that were the switch – Murdoc’s original reputation wasn’t built on idiotic games and risky charades. He didn’t start on that until 1980. We’re not sure just when it happened, but he apparently became aware that Pete was chasing him, and turned it into a cat-and-mouse game. Pete thought Murdoc must have been, well,” Nikki shrugged, “bored.”
“Yes. Pete and I used to speculate about it . . . ”
Mac heard a hollow note in her voice. Pete had personally groomed her to take over the Director’s position from him – they had worked together for years, sharing the same office. She missed him too. His own voice sounded hoarse when he answered. “You did?”
“Well, we could hardly discuss it with you. You weren’t reasonable about it.”
MacGyver had been sitting at the table, clicking through the details in the files on the laptop. Now he pushed it away from himself as if the keys had stung his fingers, got up and glanced out the window to where the late afternoon sun had begun to slide behind the peaks. He walked over to the hearth, squatted down and started to lay a fire.
Fine, MacGyver. Turn your back on me. Turn your back on what I’m telling you. That won’t make it go away. The act actually touched Nikki with relief. He’d been sitting too still, for too long – she’d never seen him be inactive for long. Almost never. She continued to talk to his back as if he weren’t trying to ignore her.
“Murdoc had gotten too good at what he did – in his own mind, anyway. Simply killing people had become too easy. Baiting Pete was more interesting . . . a little more risky, but he was confident – arrogant. Certain he had the upper hand.” She looked steadily at Mac’s back – stiff, uncommunicative, listening.
“And then you entered the picture.”
There it was: a ripple of tension across the broad shoulders, a moment of stillness. Then Mac visibly shook himself and reached for the stack of kindling beside the fireplace.
“Anything else come out of all your speculating?” he asked gruffly.
“A fair amount. At the time, it was all hypothetical, of course.”
“And you’re sayin’ Pete actually talked all this over with you?”
“Well, he didn’t really talk a lot. But he listened.” Nikki pulled her laptop back towards her and tapped a fingernail on the screen as if she could pin down the will-o’-the-wisp. “You remember the last official sighting we had of Murdoc, back in ’91 – ”
“It’s not like I’d be able to forget it.”
“Well, no, of course not.” Her voice was gentle instead of sharp, and Mac glanced over his shoulder at her in some surprise. “But if it was unsatisfying from our point of view, it wasn’t a good outcome for Murdoc either. Getting tangled up in South American politics and landing on the bad side of both sides of one of their wars – they aren’t exactly known for forgiveness down there. But there’s always someone on another side who’s got another axe to grind.”
Mac’s hands had grown still again, and Nikki pressed on. Finally. He’s listening now.
“And it wasn’t long afterwards that Sam turned up, and after that you were off on the road with him. Did Pete ever mention that we had some reports later that year?”
Mac turned back to the hearth. “Yeah, he told me. We got one reliable sighting in Colombia – someone fingered him doin’ enforcement for the Cali cartel. There were a couple more rumors after that, but nothing solid. The last one was in Ecuador in 1992, and that was unconfirmed.” Mac gathered a handful of the dry, shredded bark and dead leaves he used for fire-starter. His fingers were deft as he built a loose cage of kindling around it and arranged the larger wood to catch fire quickly and smoothly: he’d performed the same task so often it came as naturally as breathing. On some occasions, building a fire had been second only to breathing when it came to survival. The task provided no distraction, although he wished it would.
“MacGyver, the new reports started in South America. In Ecuador and Venezuela, to be precise. The activity spread out from there. I don’t know where Murdoc’s been hiding all this time, or why he stayed quiet for so long – although he’s dropped out of sight before, sometimes for years. I think that now that he’s active again, he’s being more cautious – he’s getting himself reestablished, so he’s fallen back on his original practices, from before he got so reckless.”
“You mean before he got all obsessed about wantin’ to get me.” MacGyver stood up from the hearth abruptly and walked over to the table, planting both hands and leaning over her. “This really has you spooked, doesn’t it? You really think it’s him.” He studied her face intently, his dark eyes unreadable. “Spill it, Nikki. There’s something you haven’t told me.”
He saw her bite her lip and glance at the laptop screen, and his eyes narrowed.
“You’ve started getting pictures, haven’t you? Photos of the moment of the kill?”
“How did you know?”
“Easy guess.” He straightened up again, gesturing in disgust, his fingers flickering as if he were trying to shake off some clinging filth. “It was the one unique signature touch that no one else was crazy or sick enough to get into.” His voice was a bitter, sarcastic drawl. His eyes hadn’t left Nikki’s face.
She nodded. Her hands flickered over the keyboard, releasing the security lock on another file. “Take a look.”
MacGyver glanced at the laptop screen, then looked away, biting his lip.
“The first photos appeared last summer – July 2008. The wire services received an email with a set of digital photos attached, showing the victim and the hit – a single shot to the head, close range. They . . . they weren’t nice photos. The wire services didn’t use the pictures, of course – they couldn’t – but word got around.”
“Did they send ‘em to the authorities?”
“Well, of course. And the same email had already been sent to Interpol and the CIA. The DXS didn’t exist any more, so Murdoc couldn’t send it to his old buddies. He picked the next best alternative.”
Mac spoke very softly. “He couldn’t send it to Pete.”
“That’s right.” Nikki studied Mac with concern. “I don’t know why he didn’t try to send it to you. Although you were never a target for that part of his bragging . . . ”
“No, I was a different kinda target for him.” MacGyver touched the screen lightly, as if trying to reach out to the assassinated man. “When did you learn all this?”
“Don’t you mean, ‘Why didn’t I tell you about it sooner?’ ”
“Because I didn’t know. Bannister talked to me last fall about the assassinations and the suspicions he had, but he didn’t know about the photos – there aren’t a lot of people left who remember Murdoc, and nobody else had made the connection. You know how uncooperative the CIA’s been for the last several years; I can’t even get them to return calls offering golf dates. Craig finally learned about the photos last week, when he asked his Interpol contact in Lyons the right questions. He flew back from Paris and dumped the nightmare in my lap yesterday afternoon.”
“Nice of him.”
“I told him last year that if he turned up anything concrete, he’d better break the sound barrier getting it to me.”
“And then you came racing up here to share the bad news.”
Nikki frowned at him. “ ‘Bad news?’ Is that all you can call it? MacGyver, Murdoc’s back! You could be in terrible danger! And not just you . . . ” She glanced around the cabin, looking at the scattered Lego blocks, the family photos on the mantel. Her eyes were pleading and desperate. “Don’t you get it?”
“Oh, I get the message, all right. Anyway, I can see the message he’s tryin’ to send – a really, really loud one. ‘Murdoc’s back’.” Mac set on hand on the laptop lid and pushed it closed, shaking his head. “Except he isn’t, Nikki. Murdoc isn’t back. I don’t know what else might be goin’ on, but there’s one thing I do know.” His voice was soft and even, cool and absolute. “Whoever you’re dealing with, it’s not Murdoc.”
“MacGyver, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. After years of listening to you harp on about how Murdoc isn’t dead, can’t be dead – ”
“And it’s been years since you heard me, as you put it, ‘harp on’ about that particular topic.”
“Well, yes. And I still can’t believe it. After everything you went through . . . I can’t believe that you’d ever be able to say that he’s dead. Not unless you watched him die yourself, and then buried the body. And maybe not even then.”
MacGyver merely looked at her, a steady blank look that made his eyes seem like dark caverns that went on forever. Whatever might be going on inside, there was no light showing at the end of that tunnel. He turned away from her and knelt by the hearth again.
“And . . . and what about his file?” Nikki checked and shook her head. “I can’t believe I said that. He didn’t have a file, he had a whole damned filing cabinet. Back when we actually had filing cabinets. But you know what I mean. His file was never closed.”
Mac struck a match and held the tiny flame to the kindling. The crowding chill of the approaching spring evening would begin to make itself felt soon. He didn’t respond, but something in the set of his shoulders – a sudden added stiffness – seemed suddenly eloquent. Nikki studied him thoughtfully.
“Mac . . . ?”
MacGyver sat back on his haunches to watch the small blob of orange light crawl and spread along the dry leaves and shredded bark, and ran a hand through his already wild hair. Finally he half-turned to look at Nikki over his shoulder.
“Pete and I closed the file. Back in ’96. We didn’t tell anybody is all.”
“You need me to repeat it?” Mac snapped.
“No! I mean, what . . . I mean, why? How?”
“We had our reasons.” Mac turned back to the fireplace.
“Well, don’t you think it’s about time you shared a little?” Nikki got up from the table and walked over to the hearth, standing with her hands on her hips and looking down at him. After a moment, Mac glanced up, expecting to meet her glare, but she wasn’t scowling. She was studying him with puzzled concern. She squatted down next to him and laid a hand on his rigid shoulder. “Mac . . . ?”
Her calf muscle spasmed, and she clutched at her leg and sat down heavily on the hearth. “Oh, god damn it . . . my knee . . . when did I start getting old? Hell. So much for the dignified concern of an old friend.” She straightened her leg out with both hands, glared at it, and then met Mac’s eyes with a self-deprecating shrug. “Okay, now that I’m completely embarrassed, how about telling me what the hell you’re talking about?”