The Missing and the Dead

By: Jack Lynch

PROLOGUE



For the first time in his life he had to figure out what he was going to do with a body. He didn't have much time for it, either. And it had to be very nearly foolproof if he wanted to preserve his identity and, perhaps, his wife's sanity. She had said that to him the last time they'd had to pack up and dash off, leaving no trace, assuming new roles.

"One more time and I'll lose my mind."

No hysterics. His wife wasn't that way. In fact, she had been the one to hold him together during the rockier times of his long career. She was firm and strong. She understated things. If she told him she was afraid of going to pieces, so be it. And it had been their last slapdash move. Into retirement for John Roper—his most recent identity—and the Hobo, the name by which he was known in certain police and prison circles. Retirement also for the reclusive painter, Pavel, who conjured portraits of his victims to curb the blinding headaches. Good-bye, all. Retirement time. Ta-ta. They traveled abroad for the better part of a year. In style and comfort. God knows he'd earned it over the years, along with enough money to do it.

He opened the hood to his Land Rover and stood staring bleakly at the engine. His mind was on other things. Nearly thirty years. God Almighty, that was a long time to have gotten away with it all. Not a serious miscue, either. Not one mistaken victim. Never an arrest. Probably stalked at one time or another by more lawmen than in the history of crime and punishment. His wife, poor girl, who could blame her? Moving here and there and then off someplace else. The new identities. A career of role-playing, that's what it had been, long before the term had become jargon. The ever more clever and involved arrangements for solicitation and payoff, all those codes and maps, the letter drops and midnight phone calls...

It was intricate mental work. He felt sure that was what led to the headaches. Anybody burns out after a while. An outsider, he knew, would suspect some form of guilt or remorse for his victims, but such was not the case. He and his wife used to talk those things through, long into the night. His work was no more demeaning than that of the heroic young warrior. And certainly more noble than that of the vivisectionist with his tortured animals. He never consciously hurt anybody. Something quick and sure, for the most part, a rap on the head followed by a needleful of arsenic. Quick and very nearly painless.

And there were, he knew with utter certainty, a lot of miserable bastards out there who he'd gotten rid of. Not that he ever let such judgments influence his work. But it was a fact and he knew it, and knew as well that many of the police who pursued him would equally have clapped him on the back for having helped purge some of the world's scum.

But back then, as the Hobo, he hadn't thought about such things. And as the name suggested, he was a moral tramp in those matters. If the price was right, if he could set it up to guarantee execution and escape, he would do it, be the victim saint or scamp. He couldn't let those things gnaw at him.

There, of course, had been those who paid society's price for the work that the Hobo did. Among the hundreds who had hired him over the years, there had been plenty whose boasting, stupidity, drunkenness or conscience had led to their own arrest or confession. But none of them ever knew enough about the Hobo to identify or describe him, which was only fitting. The Hobo was but a smoking gun. Let the twisted or jealous or hate-filled or greedy minds that conceived the act in the first place pay the price of it.

Pavel, a different, creative side of his nature, had emerged late in his career, after the onset of the crippling headaches. One of his victims, a young man in Oklahoma, had realized at the last moment what was about to befall him, and had exhibited a stark, terror-filled expression. It had been unsettling, to say the least. Back home, he told his wife about it. And in one of those quantum leaps the mind is capable of, she had urged him to try to capture the expression on canvas. He'd been doubtful at first. He'd never been more than a half-hearted painter at best. It was a challenging discipline and he'd seldom used it for anything else, working his mind the same way he worked his muscles, in order to meet the demands of his profession.

But he'd tried it. He'd painted the young man's face, as best he could recall it, and the headaches had receded to little more than an annoyance.

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