Mr. Morolto wore a black suit and a red tie and sat at the head of the plastic-coated executive conference table in the Dunes Room of the Best Western on the Strip. The twenty chairs around the table were packed with his best and brightest men. Around the four walls stood more of his trusted troops. Though they were thick-necked killers who did their deeds efficiently and without remorse, they looked like clowns in their colorful shirts and wild shorts and amazing potpourri of straw hats. He would have smiled at their silliness, but the urgency of the moment prevented smiling. He was listening.
On his immediate right was Lou Lazarov, and on his immediate left was DeVasher, and every ear in the small room listened as the two played tag team back and forth across the table.
"They're here. I know they're here," DeVasher said dramatically, slapping both palms on the table with each syllable. The man had rhythm.
Lazarov's turn: "I agree. They're here. Two came in a car, one came in a truck. We've found both vehicles abandoned, covered with fingerprints. Yes, they're here."
DeVasher: "But why Panama City Beach? It makes no sense."
Lazarov: "For one, he's been here before. Came here Christmas, remember? He's familiar with this place, so he figures with all these cheap motels on the beach it's a great place to hide for a while. Not a bad idea, really. But he's had some bad luck. For a man on the run, he's carrying too much baggage, like a brother who everybody wants. And a wife. And a truckload of documents, we presume. Typical schoolboy mentality. If I gotta run, I'm taking everybody who loves me. Then his brother rapes a girl, they think, and suddenly every cop in Alabama and Florida is looking for them. Some pretty bad luck, really."
"What about his mother?" Mr. Morolto asked.
Lazarov and DeVasher nodded at the great man and acknowledged this very intelligent question.
Lazarov: "No, purely coincidental. She's a very simple woman who serves waffles and knows nothing. We've watched her since we got here."
DeVasher: "I agree. There's been no contact."
Morolto nodded intelligently and lit a cigarette.
Lazarov: "So if they're here, and we know they're here, then the feds and the cops also know they're here. We've got sixty people here, and they got hundreds. Odds are on them."
"You're sure they're all three together?" Mr. Morolto asked.
DeVasher: "Absolutely. We know the woman and the convict checked in the same night at Perdido, that they left and three hours later she checked in here at the Holiday Inn and paid cash for two rooms and that she rented the car and his fingerprints were on it. No doubt. We know Mitch rented a U-Haul Wednesday in Nashville, that he wired ten million bucks of our money into a bank in Nashville Thursday morning and then evidently hauled ass. The U-Haul was found here four hours ago. Yes, sir, they are together."
Lazarov: "If he left Nashville immediately after the money was wired, he would have arrived here around dark. The U-Haul was found empty, so they had to unload it somewhere around here, then hide it. That was probably sometime late last night, Thursday. Now, you gotta figure they need to sleep sometime. I figure they stayed here last night with plans of moving on today. But they woke up this morning and their faces were in the paper, cops running around bumping into each other, and suddenly the roads were blocked. So they're trapped here."
DeVasher: "To get out, they've got to borrow, rent or steal a car. No rental records anywhere around here. She rented a car in Mobile in her name. Mitch rented a U-Haul in Nashville in his name. Real proper ID. So you gotta figure they ain't that damned smart after all."
Lazarov: "Evidently they don't have fake IDs. If they rented a car around here for the escape, the rental records would be in the real name. No such records exist."
Mr. Morolto waved his hand in frustration. "All right, all right. So they're here. You guys are geniuses. I'm so proud of you. Now what?"
DeVasher's turn: "The Fibbies are in the way. They're in control of the search, and we can't do nothing but sit and watch."
Lazarov: "I've called Memphis. Every senior associate in is on the way down here. They know McDeere and his wife real well, so we'll put them on the beach and in restaurants and hotels. Maybe they'll see something."
DeVasher: "I figure they're in one of the little motels. They can give fake names, pay in cash and nobody'll be suspicious. Fewer people too. Less likelihood of being seen. They checked in at the Holiday Inn but didn't stay long. I bet they moved on down the Strip."
Lazarov: "First, we'll get rid of the feds and the cops. They don't know it yet, but they're about to move their show on down the road. Then, early in the morning, we start door to door at the small motels. Most of these dumps have less than fifty rooms. I figure two of our men can search one in thirty minutes. I know it'll be slow, but we can't just sit here. Maybe when the cops pull out, the McDeeres will breathe a little and make a mistake."
"You mean you want our men to start searching hotel rooms?" Mr. Morolto asked.
DeVasher: "There's no way we can hit every door, but we gotta try."
Mr. Morolto stood and glanced around the room. "So what about the water?" he asked in the direction of Lazarov and DeVasher.
They stared at each other, thoroughly confused by the question.
"The water!" Mr. Morolto screamed. "What about the water?"
All eyes shot desperately around the table and quickly landed upon Lazarov. "I'm sorry, sir, I'm confused."
Mr. Morolto leaned into Lazarov's face. "What about the water, Lou? We're on a beach, right? There's land and highways and railroads and airports on one side, and there's water and boats on the other. Now, if the roads are blocked and the airports and railroads are out of the question, where do you think they might go? It seems obvious to me they would try to find a boat and ease out in the dark. Makes sense, don't it, boys?"
Every head in the room nodded quickly. DeVasher spoke first. "Makes a hell of a lot of sense to me."
"Wonderful," said Mr. Morolto. "Then where are our boats?"
Lazarov jumped from his seat, turned to the wall and began barking orders at his lieutenants. "Go down to the docks! Rent every fishing boat you can find for tonight and all day tomorrow. Pay them whatever they want. Don't answer any questions, just pay 'em the money. Get our men on those boats and start patrolling as soon as possible. Stay within a mile of shore."
* * *
Shortly before eleven, Friday night, Aaron Rimmer stood at the checkout counter at an all-night Texaco in Tallahassee and paid for a root beer and twelve gallons of gas. He needed change for the call. Outside, next to the car wash, he flipped through the blue pages and called the Tallahassee Police Department. It was an emergency. He explained himself, and the dispatcher connected him with a shift captain.
"Listen!" Rimmer yelled urgently, "I'm here at this Texaco, and five minutes ago I saw these convicts everybody is looking for! I know it was them!"
"Which convicts?" asked the captain.
"The McDeeres. Two men and a woman. I left Panama City Beach not two hours ago, and I saw their pictures in the paper. Then I stopped here and filled up, and I saw them."
Rimmer gave his location and waited thirty seconds for the first patrol car to arrive with blue lights flashing. It was quickly followed by a second, third and fourth. They loaded Rimmer in a front seat and raced him to the South Precinct. The captain and a small crowd waited anxiously. Rimmer was escorted like a celebrity into the captain's office, where the three composites and mug shot were waiting on the desk.
"That's them!" he shouted. "I just saw them, not ten minutes ago. They were in a green Ford pickup with Tennessee plates, and it was pulling a long double-axle U-Haul trailer."
"Exactly where were you?" asked the captain. The cops hung on every word.
"I was pumping gas, pump number four, regular unleaded, and they eased into the parking lot, real suspicious like. They parked away from the pumps, and the woman got out and went inside." He picked up Abby's composite and studied it. "Yep. That's her. No doubt. Her hair's a lot shorter, but it's dark. She came right back out, didn't buy a thing. She seemed nervous and in a hurry to get back to the truck. I was finished pumping, so I walked inside. Right when I opened the door, they drove within two feet of me. I saw all three of them."
"Who was driving?" asked the captain. Rimmer stared at Ray's mug shot. "Not him. The other one." He pointed at Mitch's composite.
"Could I see your driver's license," a sergeant said.
Rimmer carried three sets of identification. He handed the sergeant an Illinois driver's license with his picture and the name Frank Temple.
"Which direction were they headed?" the captain asked.
At the same moment, about four miles away, Tony Verkler hung up the pay phone, smiled to himself and returned to the Burger King.
The captain was on the phone. The sergeant was copying information from Rimmer/Temple's driver's license and a dozen cops chatted excitedly when a patrolman rushed into the office "Just got a call! Another sighting, at a Burger King east of town. Same info! All three of them in a green Ford pickup pulling a U-Haul. Guy wouldn't leave a name, but said he saw their pictures in the paper. Said they pulled through the carry-out window, bought three sacks of food and took off."
"It's gotta be them!" the captain said with a huge smile.
* * *
The Bay County sheriff sipped thick black coffee from a Styrofoam cup and rested his black boots on the executive conference table in the Caribbean Room at the Holiday Inn. FBI agents were in and out, fixing coffee, whispering and updating each other on the latest. His hero, the big man himself, Director F. Denton Voyles, sat across the table and studied a street map with three of his underlings. Imagine, Denton Voyles in Bay County. The room was a beehive of police activity. Florida state troopers filtered in and out. Radios and telephones rang and squawked on a makeshift command post in a corner. Sheriff's deputies and city policemen from three counties loitered about, thrilled with the chase and suspense and presence of all those FBI agents. And Voyles.
A deputy burst through the door with a wild-eyed glow of sheer excitement. "Just got a call from Tallahassee! They've got two positive IDs in the last fifteen minutes! All three of them in a green Ford pickup with Tennessee tags!"
Voyles dropped his street map and walked over to the deputy. "Where were the sightings?" The room was silent, except for the radios.
"First one was at a Texaco Quick Shop. Second one was four miles away at a Burger King. They drove through the drive-in window. Both witnesses were positive and gave identical IDs."
Voyles turned to the sheriff. "Sheriff, call Tallahassee and confirm. How far away is it?"
The black boots hit the floor. "Hour and a half. Straight down Interstate 10."
Voyles pointed at Tarrance, and they stepped into a small room used as the bar. The quiet roar returned to mission control.
"If the sightings are real," Voyles said quietly in Tarranee's face, "we're wasting our time here."
"Yes, sir. They sound legitimate. A single sighting could be a fluke or a prank, but two that close together sound awfully legitimate."
"How the hell did they get out of here?"
"It's gotta be that woman, Chief. She's been helping him for a month. I don't know who she is, or where he found her, but she's on the outside watching us and feeding him whatever he needs."
"Do you think she's with them?"
"Doubt it. She's probably just following closely, away from the action, and taking directions from him."
"He's brilliant, Wayne. He's been planning this for months."
"You mentioned the Bahamas once."
"Yes, sir. The million bucks we paid him was wired to a bank in Freeport. He later told me it didn't stay there long."
"You think, maybe, he's headed there?"
"Who knows. Obviously he has to get out of the country. I talked to the warden today. He told me Ray McDeere can speak five or six languages fluently. They could be going anywhere."
"I think we should pull out," Voyles said.
"Let's get the roadblocks set up around Tallahassee. They won't last long if we've got a good description of the vehicle. We should have them by morning."
"I want every cop in central Florida on the highways in an hour. Roadblocks everywhere. Every Ford pickup is automatically searched, okay? Our men will wait here until daybreak, then we'll pull up stakes."
"Yes, sir," Tarrance answered with a weary grin.
* * *
Word of the Tallahassee sightings spread instantly along the Emerald Coast. Panama City Beach relaxed. The McDeeres were gone. For reasons unknown only to them, their flight had moved inland. Sighted and positively identified, not once but twice, they were now somewhere else speeding desperately toward the inevitable confrontation on the side of a dark highway.
The cops along the coast went home. A few roadblocks remained through the night in Bay County and Gulf County; the predawn hours of Saturday were almost normal. Both ends of the Strip remained blocked, with cops making cursory exams of driver's licenses. The roads north of town were free and clear. The search had moved east.
* * *
On the outskirts of Ocala, Florida, near Silver Springs on Highway 40, Tony Verkler lumbered from a 7-Eleven and stuck a quarter in a pay phone. He called the Ocala Police Department with the urgent report that he had just seen those three convicts everybody was looking for up around Panama City Beach. The McDeeres! Said he saw their pictures in the paper the day before when he was driving through Pensacola, and now he had just seen them. The dispatcher informed him all patrolmen were on the scene of a bad accident and asked if he would mind driving over to the police station so they could file a report. Tony said he was in a hurry, but since it was somewhat important, he would be there in a minute.
When he arrived, the chief of police was waiting in a T-shirt and blue jeans. His eyes were swollen and red, and his hair was not in place. He led Tony into his office and thanked him for coming by. He took notes as Tony explained how he was pumping gas in front of the 7-Eleven and a green Ford pickup with a U-Haul trailer behind it pulled up next to the store and a woman got out and used the phone. Tony was in the process, he explained, of driving from Mobile to Miami and had driven through the manhunt up around Panama City. He had seen the newspapers and had been listening to his radio and knew all about the three McDeeres. Anyway, he went in and paid for the gas and thought that he had seen the woman somewhere before. Then he remembered the papers. He walked over to a magazine rack in the front window and got a good look at the men. No doubt in his mind. She hung up, got back in the truck between the men, and they left. Green Ford with Tennessee plates.
The chief thanked him and called the Marion County Sheriff's Department. Tony said goodbye and returned to his car, where Aaron Rimmer was asleep in the back seat.
They headed north, in the direction of Panama City Beach.