What Would You Do for Love?
A man begins dying at the moment of his birth. Most people live in denial of Death’s patient courtship until, late in life and deep in sickness, they become aware of him sitting bedside.
Eventually, Mitchell Rafferty would be able to cite the minute that he began to recognize the inevitability of his death: Monday, May 14,11:43 in the morning—three weeks short of his twenty-eighth birthday.
Until then, he had rarely thought of dying. A born optimist, charmed by nature’s beauty and amused by humanity, he had no cause or inclination to wonder when and how his mortality would be proven.
When the call came, he was on his knees.
Thirty flats of red and purple impatiens remained to be planted. The flowers produced no fragrance, but the fertile smell of the soil pleased him.
His clients, these particular homeowners, liked saturated colors: red, purple, deep yellow, hot pink. They would not accept white blooms or pastels.
Mitch understood them. Raised poor, they had built a successful business by working hard and taking risks. To them, life was intense, and saturated colors reflected the truth of nature’s vehemence.
This apparently ordinary but in fact momentous morning, the California sun was a buttery ball. The sky had a basted sheen.
Pleasantly warm, not searing, the day nevertheless left a greasy sweat on Ignatius Barnes. His brow glistened. His chin dripped.
At work in the same bed of flowers, ten feet from Mitch, Iggy looked boiled. From May until July, his skin responded to the sun not with melanin but with a fierce blush. For one-sixth of the year, before he finally tanned, he appeared to be perpetually embarrassed.
Iggy did not possess an understanding of symmetry and harmony in landscape design, and he couldn’t be trusted to trim roses properly He was a hard worker, however, and good if not intellectually bracing company.
“You hear what happened to Ralph Gandhi?” Iggy asked.
“Who’s Ralph Gandhi?”
“Mickey Gandhi? I don’t know him, either.”
“Sure you do,” Iggy said. “Mickey, he hangs out sometimes at Rolling Thunder.”
Rolling Thunder was a surfers’ bar.
“I haven’t been there in years,” Mitch said.
“Years? Are you serious?”
“I thought you still dropped in sometimes.”
“So I’ve really been missed, huh?”
“I’ll admit, nobody’s named a bar stool after you. What—did you find someplace better than Rolling Thunder?”
“Remember coming to my wedding three years ago?” Mitch asked.
“Sure. You had great seafood tacos, but the band was woofy.”
“They weren’t woofy.”
“Man, they had tambourines.”
“We were on a budget. At least they didn’t have an accordion.”
“Because playing an accordion exceeded their skill level.”
Mitch troweled a cavity in the loose soil. “They didn’t have finger bells, either.”
Wiping his brow with one forearm, Iggy complained: “I must have Eskimo genes. I break a sweat at fifty degrees.”
Mitch said, “I don’t do bars anymore. I do marriage.”
“Yeah, but can’t you do marriage and Rolling Thunder?”
“I’d just rather be home than anywhere else.”
“Oh, boss, that’s sad,” said Iggy.
“It’s not sad. It’s the best.”
“If you put a lion in a zoo three years, six years, he never forgets what freedom was like.”
Planting purple impatiens, Mitch said, “How would you know? You ever asked a lion?”
“I don’t have to ask one. lama lion.”
“You’re a hopeless boardhead.”
“And proud of it. I’m glad you found Holly. She’s a great lady. But I’ve got my freedom.”
“Good for you, Iggy. And what do you do with it?”
“Do with what?”
“Your freedom. What do you do with your freedom?”
“Anything I want.”
“Like, for example?”
“Anything. Like, if I want sausage pizza for dinner, I don’t have to ask anyone what she wants.”
“If I want to go to Rolling Thunder for a few beers, there’s nobody to bitch at me.”
“Holly doesn’t bitch.”
“I can get beer-slammed every night if I want, and nobody’s gonna be calling to ask when am I coming home.”
Mitch began to whistle “Born Free.”
“Some wahine comes on to me,” Iggy said, “I’m free to rock and roll.”
“They’re coming on to you all the time—are they?—those sexy wahines?”
“Women are bold these days, boss. They see what they want, they just take it.”
Mitch said, “Iggy, the last time you got laid, John Kerry thought he was going to be president.”
“That’s not so long ago.”
“So what happened to Ralph?”
“Mickey Gandhi’s brother.”
“Oh, yeah. An iguana bit off his nose.”
“Some fully macking ten-footers were breaking, so Ralph and some guys went night-riding at the Wedge.”
The Wedge was a famous surfing spot at the end of the Balboa Peninsula, in Newport Beach.
Iggy said, “They packed coolers full of submarine sandwiches and beer, and one of them brought Ming.”
“That’s the iguana.”
“So it was a pet?”
“Ming, he’d always been sweet before.”
“I’d Expect iguanas to be moody.”
“No, they’re affectionate. What happened was some wanker, not even a surfer, just a wannabe tag-along, slipped Ming a quarter-dose of meth in a piece of salami.”
“Reptiles on speed,” Mitch said, “is a bad idea.”
“Meth Ming was a whole different animal from clean-and-sober Ming,” Iggy confirmed.
Putting down his trowel, sitting back on the heels of his work shoes, Mitch said, “So now Ralph Gandhi is noseless?”
“Ming didn’t eat the nose. He just bit it off and spit it out.”
“Maybe he didn’t like Indian food.”
“They had a big cooler full of ice water and beer. They put the nose in the cooler and rushed it to the hospital.”
“Did they take Ralph, too?”
“They had to take Ralph. It was his nose.”
“Well,” Mitch said, “we are talking about boardheads.”
“They said it was kinda blue when they fished it out of the ice water, but a plastic surgeon sewed it back on, and now it’s not blue anymore.”
“What happened to Ming?”
“He crashed. He was totally amped-out for a day. Now he’s his old self.”
“That’s good. It’s probably hard to find a clinic that’ll do iguana rehab.”
Mitch got to his feet and retrieved three dozen empty plastic plant pots. He carried them to his extended-bed pickup.
The truck stood at the curb, in the shade of an Indian laurel. Although the neighborhood had been built-out only five years earlier, the big tree had already lifted the sidewalk. Eventually the insistent roots would block lawn drains and invade the sewer system.
The developer’s decision to save one hundred dollars by not installing a root barrier would produce tens of thousands in repair work for plumbers, landscapers, and concrete contractors.
When Mitch planted an Indian laurel, he always used a root barrier. He didn’t need to make future work for himself. Green growing Nature would keep him busy.
The street lay silent, without traffic. Not the barest breath of a breeze stirred the trees.
From a block away, on the farther side of the street, a man and a dog approached. The dog, a retriever, spent less time walking than it did sniffing messages left by others of its kind.
The stillness pooled so deep that Mitch almost believed he could hear the panting of the distant canine.
Golden: the sun and the dog, the air and the promise of the day, the beautiful houses behind deep lawns.
Mitch Rafferty could not afford a home in this neighborhood. He was satisfied just to be able to work here.
You could love great art but have no desire to live in a museum.
He noticed a damaged sprinkler head where lawn met sidewalk. He got his tools from the truck and knelt on the grass, taking a break from the impatiens.
His cell phone rang. He undipped it from his belt, flipped it open. The time was displayed—11:43—but no caller’s number showed on the screen. He took the call anyway.
“Big Green,” he said, which was the name he’d given his two-man business nine years ago, though he no longer remembered why.
“Mitch, I love you,” Holly said.
“Whatever happens, I love you.”
She cried out in pain. A clatter and crash suggested a struggle.
Alarmed, Mitch rose to his feet. “Holly?”
Some guy said something, some guy who now had the phone. Mitch didn’t hear the words because he was focused on the background noise.
Holly squealed. He’d never heard such a sound from her, such fear.
“Sonofabitch,” she said, and was silenced by a sharp crack, as though she’d been slapped.
The stranger on the phone said, “”You hear me, Rafferty?”
“Holly? Where’s Holly?”
Now the guy was talking away from the phone, not to Mitch: “Don’t be stupid. Stay on the floor.”
Another man spoke in the background, his words unclear.
The one with the phone said, “She gets up, punch her. You want to lose some teeth, honey?”
She was with two men. One of them had hit her. Hit her.
Mitch couldn’t get his mind around the situation. Reality suddenly seemed as slippery as the narrative of a nightmare.
A meth-crazed iguana was more real than this.
Near the house, Iggy planted impatiens. Sweating, red from the sun, as solid as ever.
“That’s better, honey. That’s a good girl.”
Mitch couldn’t draw breath. A great weight pressed on his lungs. He tried to speak but couldn’t find his voice, didn’t know what to say. Here in bright sun, he felt casketed, buried alive.
“We have your wife,” said the guy on the phone.
Mitch heard himself ask, “Why?”
“Why do you think, as**ole?”
Mitch didn’t know why. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to reason through to an answer because every possible answer would be a horror.
“I’m planting flowers.”
“What’s wrong with you, Rafferty?”
“That’s what I do. Plant flowers. Repair sprinklers.”
“Are you buzzed or something?”
“I’m just a gardener.”
“So we have your wife. You get her back for two million cash.”
Mitch knew it wasn’t a joke. If it were a joke, Holly would have to be in on it, but her sense of humor was not cruel.
“You’ve made a mistake.”
“You hear what I said? Two million.”
“Man, you aren’t listening. I’m a. gardener.”
“I have like eleven thousand bucks in the bank.”
Brimming with fear and confusion, Mitch had no room for anger. Compelled to clarify, perhaps more for himself than for the caller, he said, “I just run a little two-man operation.”
“You’ve got until midnight Wednesday. Sixty hours. We’ll be in touch about the details.”
Mitch was sweating. “This is nuts. Where would I get two million bucks?”
“You’ll find a way.”
The stranger’s voice was hard, implacable. In a movie, Death might sound like this.
“It isn’t possible,” Mitch said.
“You want to hear her scream again?”
“Do you love her?”
“Really love her?”
“She’s everything to me.”
How peculiar, that he should be sweating yet feel so cold.
“If she’s everything to you,” said the stranger, “then you’ll find a way.”
“There isn’t a way.”
“If you go to the cops, we’ll cut her fingers off one by one, and cauterize them as we go. We’ll cut her tongue out. And her eyes. Then we’ll leave her alone to die as fast or slow as she wants.”
The stranger spoke without menace, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if he were not making a threat but were instead merely explaining the details of his business model.
Mitchell Rafferty had no experience of such men. He might as well have been talking to a visitor from the far end of the galaxy.
He could not speak because suddenly it seemed that he might so easily, unwittingly say the wrong thing and ensure Holly’s death sooner rather than later.
The kidnapper said, “Just so you’ll know we’re serious…”
After a silence, Mitch asked, “What?”
“See that guy across the street?”
Mitch turned and saw a single pedestrian, the man walking the slow dog. They had progressed half a block.
The sunny day had a porcelain glaze. Rifle fire shattered the stillness, and the dogwalker went down, shot in the head.
“Midnight Wednesday,” said the man on the phone. “We’re damn serious.”
The dog stood as if on point: one forepaw raised, tail extended but motionless, nose lifted to seek a scent.
In truth, the golden retriever had not spotted the shooter. It halted in midstep, startled by its master’s collapse, frozen by confusion.
Directly across the street from the dog, Mitch likewise stood paralyzed. The kidnapper terminated the call, but Mitch still held the cell phone to his ear.
Superstition promised that as long as the street remained still, as long as neither he nor the dog moved, the violence might be undone and time rewound, the bullet recalled to the barrel.
Reason trumped magical thinking. He crossed the street, first haltingly, then at a run.
If the fallen man was wounded, something might be done to save him.
As Mitch approached, the dog favored him with a single wag of its tail.
A glance at the victim dispelled any hope that first aid might sustain him until paramedics arrived. A significant portion of his skull was gone.
Having no familiarity with real violence, only with the edited-analyzed-excused-and-defanged variety provided by TV news, and with the cartoon violence in movies, Mitch was rendered impotent by this horror. More than fear, shock immobilized him.
More than shock, a sudden awareness of previously unsensed dimensions transfixed him. He was akin to a rat in a sealed maze, for the first time looking up from the familiar passageways and seeing a world beyond the glass lid, forms and figures, mysterious movement.
Lying on the sidewalk near its master, the golden retriever trembled, whimpered.
Mitch sensed that he was in the company of someone other than the dog, and felt watched, but more than watched. Studied. Attended. Pursued.
His heart was a thundering herd, hooves on stone.
He surveyed the day but saw no gunman. The rifle could have been fired from any house, from any rooftop or window, or from behind a parked car.
Anyway, the presence he sensed was not that of the shooter. He did not feel watched from a distance, but from an intimate vantage point. He felt as if someone loomed over him.
Hardly more than half a minute had passed since the dog-walker had been killed.
The crack of the rifle had not brought anyone out of any of the beautiful houses. In this neighborhood, a gunshot would be perceived as a slammed door, dismissed even as it echoed.
Across the street, at the client’s house, Iggy Barnes had risen from his knees to his feet. He didn’t appear to be alarmed, merely puzzled, as if he, too, had heard a door and didn’t understand the meaning of the fallen man, the grieving dog.
Midnight Wednesday. Sixty hours. Time on fire, minutes burning. Mitch couldn’t afford to let hours turn to ashes while he was tied up with a police investigation.
On the sidewalk, a column of marching ants changed course, crawling toward the feast within the cratered skull.
In a mostly clear sky, a rare cloud drifted across the sun. The day paled. Shadows faded.
Chilled, Mitch turned from the corpse, stepped off the curb, halted.
He and Iggy couldn’t just load the unplanted impatiens into the truck and drive away. They might not be able to do so before someone came along and saw the dead man. Their indifference to the victim and their flight would suggest guilt even to the most unworldly passerby, and certainly to the police.
The cell phone, folded shut, remained in Mitch’s hand. He looked upon it with dread.
If you go to the cops, we’ll cut her fingers off one by one…
The kidnappers would expect him to summon the authorities or to wait for someone else to do so. Forbidden, however, was any mention of Holly or of kidnapping, or of the fact that the dogwalker had been murdered as an example to Mitch.
Indeed, his unknown adversaries might have put him in this predicament specifically to test his ability to keep his mouth shut at the moment when he was in the most severe state of shock and most likely to lose his self-control.
He opened the phone. The screen brightened with an image of colorful fish in dark water.
After keying in 9 and 1, Mitch hesitated, but then entered the final digit.
Iggy dropped his trowel, moved toward the street.
Only when the police operator answered on the second ring did Mitch realize that from the moment he’d seen the dead man’s shattered head, his breathing had been desperate, ragged, raw. For a moment, words wouldn’t come, and then they blew out of him in a rough voice he barely recognized.
“A man’s been shot. I’m dead. I mean, he’s dead. He’s been shot, and he’s dead.”
Police had cordoned off both ends of the block. Squad cars, CSI vans, and a morgue wagon were scattered along the street with the insouciance of those to whom parking regulations do not apply.
Under the unblinking gaze of the sun, windshields blazed and brightwork gleamed. No cloud remained to be a pirate’s patch, and the light was merciless.
The cops wore sunglasses. Behind the dark lenses, perhaps they glanced suspiciously at Mitchell Rafferty, or perhaps they were indifferent to him.
In front of his client’s house, Mitch sat on the lawn, his back against the bole of a phoenix palm.
From time to time, he heard rats scrabbling in the top of the tree. They liked to make a high nest in a phoenix palm, between the crown and the skirt.
The feathery shadows of the fronds provided him with no sense of diminished visibility. He felt as if he were on a stage.
Twice in two hours, he had been questioned. Two plainclothes detectives had interviewed him the first time, only one on the second occasion.
He thought he had acquitted himself well. Yet they had not told him that he could go.
Thus far, Iggy had been interviewed only once. He had no wife in jeopardy, nothing to hide. Besides, Iggy had less talent for deception than did the average six-year-old, which would be evident to experienced interrogators.
Maybe the cops’ greater interest in Mitch was a bad sign. Or maybe it meant nothing.
More than an hour ago, Iggy had returned to the flower bed. He had nearly completed the installation of the impatiens.
Mitch would have preferred to stay busy with the planting. This inactivity made him keenly aware of the passage of time: Two of his sixty hours were gone.
The detectives had firmly suggested that Iggy and Mitch should remain separated because, in all innocence, if they talked together about the crime, they might unintentionally conform their memories, resulting in the loss of an important detail in one or the other’s testimony.
That might be either the truth or malarkey. The reason for keeping them apart might be more sinister, to isolate Mitch and ensure that he remained off balance. Neither of the detectives had worn sunglasses, but Mitch had not been able to read their eyes.
Sitting under the palm tree, he had made three phone calls, the first to his home number. An answering machine had picked up.
After the usual beep, he said, “Holly, are you there?”
Her abductors would not risk holding her in her own home.
Nevertheless, Mitch said, “If you’re there, please pick up.”
He was in denial because the situation made no sense. Kidnappers don’t target the wives of men who have to worry about the price of gasoline and groceries.
Man, you aren’t listening. I’m a gardener.
I have like eleven thousand bucks in the bank.
They must be insane. Delusional. Their scheme was based on some mad fantasy that no rational person could understand.
Or they had a plan that they had not yet revealed to him. Maybe they wanted him to rob a bank for them.
He remembered a news story, a couple years back, about an innocent man who robbed a bank while wearing a collar of explosives. The criminals who necklaced him had tried to use him like a remote-control robot. When police cornered the poor bastard, his controllers detonated the bomb from a distance, decapitating him so he could never testify against them.
One problem. No bank had two million dollars in cash on hand, in tellers’ drawers, and probably not even in the vault.
After getting no answer when he phoned home, he had tried Holly’s cell phone but hadn’t been able to reach her at that number.
He also had called the Realtor’s office where she worked as a secretary while she studied for her real-estate license.
Another secretary, Nancy Farasand, had said, “She called in sick, Mitch. Didn’t you know?”
“When I left home this morning, she was a little queasy,” he lied, “but she thought it would pass.”
“It didn’t pass. She said it’s like a summer flu. She was so disappointed.”
“I better call her at home,” he said, but of course he had already tried reaching her there.
He had spoken to Nancy more than ninety minutes ago, between conversations with detectives.
Passing minutes unwind a watch spring; but they had wound Mitch tight. He felt as though something inside his head was going to pop.
A fat bumblebee returned to him from time to time, hovering, buzzing close, perhaps attracted by his yellow T-shirt.
Across the street, toward the end of the block, two women and a man were standing on a front lawn, watching the police: neighbors gathered for the drama. They had been there since the sirens had drawn them outside.
Not long ago, one of them had gone into a house and had returned with a tray on which stood glasses of what might have been iced tea. The glasses sparkled in the sunlight.
Earlier, the detectives had walked up the street to question that trio. They had interviewed them only once.
Now the three stood sipping tea, chatting, as if unconcerned that a sniper had cut down someone who had been walking in their community. They appeared to be enjoying this interlude, as though it presented a welcome break from their usual routine, even if it came at the cost of a life.
To Mitch, the neighbors seemed to spend more time staring toward him than at any of the police or CSI technicians. He wondered what, if anything, the detectives had asked them about him.
None of the three used the services of Big Green. From time to time, they would have seen him in the neighborhood, however, because he took care of four properties on this street.
He disliked these tea drinkers. He had never met them, did not know their names, but he viewed them with an almost bitter aversion.
Mitch disliked them not because they seemed perversely to be enjoying themselves, and not because of what they might have said about him to the police. He disliked the three—could have worked up a loathing for them—because their lives were still in order, because they did not live under the threat of imminent violence against someone they loved.
Although irrational, his animosity had a certain value. It distracted him from his fear for Holly, as did his continuous fretful analysis of the detectives’ actions.
If he dared to give himself entirely to worry about his wife, he would go to pieces. This was no exaggeration. He was surprised at how fragile he felt, as he never had felt previously.
Each time her face rose in his mind, he had to banish it because his eyes grew hot, his vision blurred. His heart fell into an ominous heavy rhythm.
An emotional display, so out of proportion even to the shock of seeing a man shot, would require an explanation. He dared not reveal the truth, and he didn’t trust himself to invent an explanation that would convince the cops.
One of the homicide detectives—Mortonson—wore dress shoes, black slacks, and a pale-blue shirt. He was tall, solid, and all business.
The other—Lieutenant Taggart—wore white sneakers, chinos, and a red-and-tan Hawaiian shirt. He was less physically intimidating than Mortonson, less formal in his style.
Mitch’s wariness of Taggart exceeded his concern about the more imposing Mortonson. The lieutenant’s precisely trimmed hair, his glass-smooth shave, his perfect veneered teeth, his spotless white sneakers suggested that he adopted casual dress and a relaxed demeanor to mislead and to put at ease the suspects unfortunate enough to come under his scrutiny.
The detectives first interviewed Mitch in tandem. Later, Taggart had returned alone, supposedly to have Mitch “refine” something he had said earlier. In fact, the lieutenant repeated every question he and Mortonson had asked before, perhaps anticipating contradictions between Mitch’s answers and those that he had given previously.
Ostensibly, Mitch was a witness. To a cop, however, when no killer had been identified, every witness also counted as a suspect.
He had no reason to kill a stranger walking a dog. Even if they were crazy enough to think he might have done so, they would have to believe that Iggy was his accomplice; clearly Iggy did not interest them.
More likely, though they knew he’d had no role in the shooting, their instinct told them that he was concealing something.
Now here came Taggart yet again, his sneakers so white that they appeared to be radiant.
As the lieutenant approached, Mitch rose to his feet, wary and sick with worry, but trying to appear merely weary and impatient.
Detective Taggart sported an island tan to match his Hawaiian shirt. By contrast with his bronze face, his teeth were as white as an arctic landscape.
“I’m sorry for all this inconvenience, Mr. Rafferty. But I have just a couple more questions, and then you’re free to go.”
Mitch could have replied with a shrug, a nod. But he thought that silence might seem peculiar, that a man with nothing to hide would be forthcoming.
Following an unfortunate hesitation long enough to suggest calculation, he said, “I’m not complaining, Lieutenant. It could just as easily have been me who was shot. I’m thankful to be alive.”
The detective strove for a casual demeanor, but he had eyes like those of a predatory bird, hawk-sharp and eagle-bold. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, if it was a random shooting…”
“We don’t know that it was,” said Taggart. “In fact, the evidence points to cold calculation. One shot, perfectly placed.”
“Can’t a crazy with a gun be a skilled shooter?”
“Absolutely. But crazies usually want to rack up as big a score as possible. A psychopath with a rifle would have popped you, too. This guy knew exactly who he wanted to shoot.”
Irrationally, Mitch felt some responsibility for the death. This murder had been committed to ensure that he would take the kidnapper seriously and would not seek police assistance.
Perhaps the detective had caught the scent of this unearned but persistent guilt.
Glancing toward the cadaver across the street, around which the CSI team still worked, Mitch said, “Who’s the victim?”
“We don’t know yet. No ID on him. No wallet. Don’t you think that’s peculiar?”
“Going out just to walk the dog, you don’t need a wallet.”
“It’s a habit with the average guy,” Taggart said. “Even if he’s washing the car in the driveway, he has his wallet.”
“How will you identify him?”
“There’s no license on the dog’s collar. But that’s almost a show-quality golden, so she might have a microchip ID implant. As soon as we get a scanner, we’ll check.”
Having been moved to this side of the street, tied to a mailbox post, the golden retriever rested in shade, graciously receiving the attention of a steady procession of admirers.
Taggart smiled. “Goldens are the best. Had one as a kid. Loved that dog.”
His attention returned to Mitch. His smile remained in place, but the quality of it changed. “Those questions I mentioned. Were you in the military, Mr. Rafferty?”
“Military? No. I was a mower jockey for another company,
took some horticulture classes, and set up my own business a year out of high school.”
“I figured you might be ex-military, the way gunfire didn’t faze you.”
“Oh, it fazed me,” Mitch assured him.
Taggart’s direct gaze was intended to intimidate.
As if Mitch’s eyes were clear lenses through which his thoughts were revealed like microbes under a microscope, he felt compelled to avoid the detective’s stare, but sensed that he dared not.
“You hear a rifle,” Taggart said, “see a man shot, yet you hurry across the street, into the line of fire.”
“I didn’t know he was dead. Might’ve been something I could do for him.”
“That’s commendable. Most people would scramble for cover.”
“Hey, I’m no hero. My instincts just shoved aside my common sense.”
“Maybe that’s what a hero is—someone who instinctively does the right thing.”
Mitch dared to look away from Taggart, hoping that his evasion, in this context, would be interpreted as humility. “I was stupid, Lieutenant, not brave. I didn’t stop to think I might be in danger.”
“What—you thought he’d been shot accidentally?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t think anything. I didn’t think, I just reacted.”
“But you really didn’t feel like you were in danger?”
“You didn’t realize it even when you saw his head wound?”
“Maybe a little. Mostly I was sickened.”
The questions came too fast. Mitch felt off balance. He might unwittingly reveal that he knew why the dogwalker had been killed.
With a buzz of busy wings, the bumblebee returned. It had no interest in Taggart, but hovered near Mitch’s face, as if bearing witness to his testimony.
“You saw the head wound,” Taggart continued, “but you still didn’t scramble for cover.”
“I guess I figured if somebody hadn’t shot me by then, they weren’t going to shoot me.”
“So you still didn’t feel in danger.”
Flipping open his small spiral-bound notebook, Taggart said, “You told the 911 operator that you were dead.”
Surprised, Mitch met the detective’s eyes again. “That I was dead?”
Taggart quoted from the notebook: “A man’s been shot. I’m dead. I mean, he’s dead. He’s been shot, and he’s dead.'”
“Is that what I said?”
“I’ve heard the recording. You were breathless. You sounded flat-out terrified.”
Mitch had forgotten that 911 calls were recorded. “I guess I was more scared than I remember.”
“Evidently, you did recognize a danger to yourself, but still you didn’t take cover.”
Whether or not Taggart could read anything of Mitch’s thoughts, the pages of the detective’s own mind were closed, his eyes a warm but enigmatic blue.
“‘I’m dead,'” the detective quoted again.
“A slip of the tongue. In the confusion, the panic.”
Taggart looked at the dog again, and again he smiled. In a voice softer than it had been previously, he said, “Is there anything more I should have asked you? Anything you would like to say?”
In memory, Mitch heard Holly’s cry of pain.
Kidnappers always threaten to kill their hostage if the cops are brought in. To win, you don’t have to play the game by their rules.
The police would contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI had extensive experience in kidnapping cases.
Because Mitch had no way to raise two million, the police would at first doubt his story. When the kidnapper called again, however, they would be convinced.
What if the second call didn’t come? What if, knowing that Mitch had gone to the police, the kidnapper fulfilled his threat, mutilated Holly, killed her, and never called again?
Then they might think that Mitch had concocted the kidnapping to cover the fact that Holly was already dead, that he himself had killed her. The husband is always the primary suspect.
If he lost her, nothing else would matter. Nothing ever. No power could heal the wound that she would leave in his life.
But to be suspected of harming her—that would be hot shrapnel in the wound, ever burning, forever lacerating.
Closing the notebook and returning it to a hip pocket, shifting his attention from the dog to Mitch, Taggart asked again, “Anything, Mr. Rafferty?”
At some point during the questioning, the bumblebee had flown away. Only now, Mitch realized that the buzzing had stopped.
If he kept the secret of Holly’s abduction, he would stand alone against her kidnappers.
He was no good alone. He had been raised with three sisters and a brother, all born within a seven-year period. They had been one another’s confidants, confessors, counsels, and defenders.
A year after high school, he moved out of his parents’ house, into a shared apartment. Later, he had gotten his own place, where he felt isolated. He had worked sixty hours a week, and longer, just to avoid being alone in his rooms.
He had felt complete once more, fulfilled, connected, only when Holly had come into his world. I was a cold word; we had a warmer sound. Us rang sweeter on the ear than me.
Lieutenant Taggart’s eyes seemed less forbidding than they had been heretofore.
Mitch said, “Well…”
The detective licked his lips.
The air was warm, humidity low. Mitch’s lips felt dry, too.
Nevertheless, the quick pink passage of Taggart’s tongue seemed reptilian, and suggested that he was mentally savoring the taste of pending prey.
Only paranoia allowed the twisted thought that a homicide detective might be allied with Holly’s abductors. This private moment between witness and investigator in fact might be the ultimate test of Mitch’s willingness to follow the kidnapper’s instructions.
All the flags of fear, both rational and irrational, were raised high in his mind. This parade of rampant dreads and dark suspicions did not facilitate clear thinking.
He was half convinced that if he told Taggart the truth, the detective would grimace and say We’ll have to kill her now, Mr. Rafferty. We can’t trust you anymore. But we’ll let you choose what we cut off first—her fingers or her ears.
As earlier, when he’d been standing over the dead man, Mitch felt watched, not just by Taggart and the tea-drinking neighbors, but by some presence unseen. Watched, analyzed.
“No, Lieutenant,” he said. “There’s nothing more.”
The detective retrieved a pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket and put them on.
In the mirrored lenses, Mitch almost didn’t recognize the twin reflections of his face. The distorting curve made him look old.
“I gave you my card,” Taggart reminded him.
“Yes, sir. I have it.”
“Call me if you remember anything that seems important.”
The smooth, characterless sheen of the sunglasses was like the gaze of an insect: emotionless, eager, voracious.
Taggart said, “You seem nervous, Mr. Rafferty.”
Raising his hands to reveal how they trembled, Mitch said, “Not nervous, Lieutenant. Shaken. Badly shaken.”
Taggart licked his lips once more.
Mitch said, “I’ve never seen a man murdered before.”
“You don’t get used to it,” the detective said.
Lowering his hands, Mitch said, “I guess not.”
“It’s worse when it’s a woman.”
Mitch did not know what to make of that statement. Perhaps it was a simple truth of a homicide detective’s experience—or a threat.
“A woman or a child,” Taggart said.
“I wouldn’t want your job.”
“No. You wouldn’t.” Turning away, the detective said, “I’ll be seeing you, Mr. Rafferty.”
Glancing back, Taggart said, “You and I—we’ll both be witnesses in a courtroom someday.”
“Seems like a tough case to solve.”
“‘Blood crieth unto me from the ground,’ Mr. Rafferty,” said the detective, apparently quoting someone. ‘”Blood crieth unto me from the ground.'”
Mitch watched Taggart walk away.
Then he looked at the grass under his feet.
The progress of the sun had put the palm-frond shadows behind him. He stood in light, but was not warmed by it.
The dashboard clock was digital, as was Mitch’s wristwatch, but he could hear time ticking nonetheless, as rapid as the click-click-click of the pointer snapping against the marker pegs on a spinning wheel of fortune.
He wanted to race directly home from the crime scene. Logic argued that Holly would have been snatched at the house. They would not have grabbed her on the way to work, not on a public street.
They might unintentionally have left something behind that would suggest their identity. More likely, they would have left a message for him, further instructions.
As usual, Mitch had begun the day by picking up Iggy at his apartment in Santa Ana. Now he had to return him.
Driving north from the fabled and wealthy Orange County coastal neighborhoods where they worked, toward their humbler communities, Mitch switched from the crowded freeway to surface streets, but encountered traffic there, as well.
Iggy wanted to talk about the murder and the police. Mitch had to pretend to be as naively excited by the novelty of the experience as Iggy was, when in fact his mind remained occupied with thoughts of Holly and with worry about what might come next.
Fortunately, as usual, Iggy’s conversation soon began to loop and turn and tangle like a ball of yarn unraveled by a kitten.
Appearing to be engaged in this rambling discourse required less of Mitch than when the subject had been the dead dog-walker.
“My cousin Louis had a friend named Booger,” Iggy said. “The same thing happened to him, shot while walking a dog, except it wasn’t a rifle and it wasn’t a dog.”
“Booger?” Mitch wondered.
“Booker,” Iggy corrected. “B-o-o-k-e-r. He had a cat he called Hairball. He was walking Hairball, and he got shot.”
“People walk cats?”
“The way it was—Hairball is cozy in a travel cage, and Booker is carrying him to a vet’s office.”
Mitch repeatedly checked the rearview and side mirrors. A black Cadillac SUV had departed the freeway in their wake. Block after block, it remained behind them.
“So Booker wasn’t actually walking the cat,” Mitch said.
“He was walking with the cat, and this like twelve-year-old brat, this faucet-nosed little dismo, shot Booker with a paint-ball gun.”
“So he wasn’t killed.”
“He wasn’t quashed, no, and it was a cat instead of a dog, but Booker was totally blue.”
“Blue hair, blue face. He was fully pissed.”
The Cadillac SUV reliably remained two or three vehicles behind them. Perhaps the driver hoped Mitch wouldn’t notice him.
“So Booker’s all blue. What happened to the kid?” Mitch asked.
“Booker was gonna break the little dismo’s hand off, but the kid shot him in the crotch and ran. Hey, Mitch, did you know there’s a town in Pennsylvania named Blue Balls?”
“I didn’t know.”
“It’s in Amish country. There’s another town nearby called Intercourse.”
“How about that.”
“Maybe those Amish aren’t as square as Cheez-Its, after all.”
Mitch accelerated to cross an intersection before the traffic light phased to red. Behind him, the black SUV changed lanes, sped up, and made it through on the yellow.
“Did you ever eat an Amish shoofly pie?” Iggy asked.
“No. Never did.”
“It’s full-on rich, sweeter than six Gidget movies. Like eating molasses. Treacherous, dude.”
The Cadillac dropped back, returned to Mitch’s lane. Three vehicles separated them once more.
Iggy said, “Earl Potter lost a leg eating shoofly pie.”
“Tim Potter’s dad. He was diabetic, but he didn’t know it, and he totally destroyed like a bucket of sweets every day. Did you ever eat a Quakertown pie?”
“What about Earl’s leg?” Mitch asked.
“Unreal, bro. One day his foot’s numb, he can’t walk right. Turns out he’s got almost no circulation down there ’cause of radical diabetes. They sawed his left leg off above the knee.”
“While he was eating shoofly pie.”
“No. He realized he had to give up sweets.”
“Good for him.”
“So the day before surgery, he had his last dessert, and he chose a whole shoofly pie with like a cow’s worth of whipped cream. Did you ever see that stylin’ Amish movie with Harrison Ford and the girl with the great knockers?”
By way of Hairball, Blue Balls, Intercourse, shoofly pie, and Harrison Ford, they arrived at Iggy’s apartment building.
Mitch stopped at the curb, and the black SUV went past without slowing. The side windows were tinted, so he couldn’t see the driver or any passengers.
Opening his door, before getting out of the truck, Iggy said, “You okay, boss?”
“You look stomped.”
“I saw a guy shot to death,” Mitch reminded him.
“Yeah. Wasn’t that radical? I guess I know who’s gonna rule the bar at Rolling Thunder tonight. Maybe you should stop in.”
“Don’t save a stool for me.”
The Cadillac SUV dwindled westward. The afternoon sun wrapped the suspicious vehicle in glister and glare. It shimmered and seemed to vanish into the solar maw.
Iggy got out of the truck, looked back in at Mitch, and pulled a sad face. “Ball and chain.”
“Wind beneath my wings.”
“Whoa. That’s goob talk.”
“Go waste yourself.”
“I do intend to get mildly polluted,” Iggy assured him. “Dr. Ig prescribes at least a six-pack of cerveza for you. Tell Mrs. Mitch I think she’s an uber wahine.”
Iggy slammed the door and walked away, big and loyal and sweet and clueless.
With hands that were suddenly shaky on the wheel, Mitch piloted the truck into the street once more.
Coming north, he had been impatient to be rid of Iggy and to get home. Now his stomach turned when he considered what might wait for him there.
What he most feared was finding blood.
Mitch drove with the truck windows open, wanting the sounds of the streets, proof of life.
The Cadillac SUV did not reappear. No other vehicle took up the pursuit. Evidently, he had imagined the tail.
His sense of being under surveillance passed. From time to time, his eyes were drawn to the rearview mirror, but no longer with the expectation of seeing anything suspicious.
He felt alone, and worse than alone. Isolated. He almost wished that the black SUV would reappear.
Their house was in an older neighborhood of Orange, one of the oldest cities in the county. When he turned onto their street, except for the vintage of the cars and trucks, a curtain in time might have parted, welcoming him to 1945.
The bungalow—pale-yellow clapboard, white trim, a cedar-shingle roof—stood behind a picket fence on which roses twined. Some larger and some nicer houses occupied the block, but none boasted better landscaping.
He parked in the driveway beside the house, under a massive old California pepper tree, and stepped out into a breathless afternoon.
Sidewalks and yards were deserted. In this neighborhood, most families relied on two incomes; everyone was at work. At 3:04, no latchkey kids were yet home from school.
No maids, no window washers, no gardening services busy with leaf blowers. These homeowners swept their own carpets, mowed their own yards.
The pepper tree braided the sunshine in its cascading tresses, and littered the shadowed pavement with elliptical slivers of light.
Mitch opened a side gate in the picket fence. He crossed the lawn to the front steps.
The porch was deep and cool. White wicker chairs with green cushions stood beside small wicker tables with glass tops.
On Sunday afternoons, he and Holly often sat here, talking, reading the newspaper, watching hummingbirds flit from one crimson bloom to another on the trumpet vines that flourished on the porch posts.
Sometimes they unfolded a card table between the wicker chairs. She crushed him at Scrabble. He dominated the trivia games.
They didn’t spend much on entertainment. No skiing vacations, no weekends in Baja. They seldom went out to a movie. Being together on the front porch offered as much pleasure as being together in Paris.
They were saving money for things that mattered. To allow her to risk a career change from secretary to real-estate agent. To enable him to do some advertising, buy a second truck, and expand the business.
Kids, too. They were going to have kids. Two or three. On certain holidays, when they were most sentimental, even four did not seem like too many.
They didn’t want the world, and didn’t want to change it. They wanted their little corner of the world, and the chance to fill it with family and laughter.
He tried the front door. Unlocked. He pushed it inward and hesitated on the threshold.
He glanced back at the street, half expecting to see the black SUV. It wasn’t there.
After he stepped inside, he stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust. The living room was illuminated only by what tree-filtered sunlight pierced the windows.
Everything appeared to be in order. He could not detect any signs of struggle.
Mitch closed the door behind him. For a moment he needed to lean against it.
If Holly had been at home, there would have been music. She liked big-band stuff. Miller, Goodman, Ellington, Shaw. She said the music of the ’40s was suitable to the house. It suited her, too. Classic.
An archway connected the living room to the small dining room. Nothing in this second room was out of place.
On the table lay a large dead moth. It was a night-flyer, gray with black details along its scalloped wings.
The moth must have gotten in the previous evening. They had spent some time on the porch, and the door had been open.
Maybe it was alive, sleeping. If he cupped it in his hands and took it outside, it might fly into a corner of the porch ceiling and wait there for moonrise.
He hesitated, reluctant to touch the moth, for fear that no flutter was left in it. At his touch, it might dissolve into a greasy kind of dust, which moths sometimes did.
Mitch left the night-flyer untouched because he wanted to believe that it was alive.
The connecting door between the dining room and the kitchen stood ajar. Light glowed beyond.
The smell of burnt toast lingered on the air. It grew stronger when he pushed through the door into the kitchen.
Here he found signs of a struggle. One of the dinette chairs had been overturned. Broken dishes littered the floor.
Two slices of blackened bread stood in the toaster. Someone had pulled the plug. The butter had been left out on the counter, and had softened as the day grew warmer.
The intruders must have come in from the front of the house, surprising her as she was making toast.
The cabinets were painted glossy white. Blood spattered a door and two drawer fronts.
For a moment, Mitch closed his eyes. In his mind, he saw the moth flutter and fly up from the table. Something fluttered in his chest, too, and he wanted to believe that it was hope.
On the white refrigerator, a woman’s bloody hand print cried havoc as loud as any voice could have shouted. Another full hand print and a smeared partial darkened two upper cabinets.
Blood spotted the terra-cotta tiles on the floor. It seemed to be a lot of blood. It seemed to be an ocean.
The scene so terrified Mitch that he wanted to shut his eyes again. But he had the crazy idea that if he closed his eyes twice to this grim reality, he would go blind forever.
The phone rang.
He did not have to tread in blood to reach the telephone. He picked up the handset on the third ring, and heard his haunted voice say, “Yeah?”
“It’s me, baby. They’re listening.”
“Holly. What’ve they done to you?”
“I’m all right,” she said, and she sounded strong, but she did not sound all right.
“I’m in the kitchen,” he said.
“I know. Don’t think about that now. Mitch, they said we have one minute to talk, just one minute.”
He grasped her implication: One minute, and maybe never again.
His legs would not support him. Turning a chair away from the dinette table, collapsing into it, he said, “I’m so damn sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. Don’t beat yourself up.”
“Who are these freaks, are they deranged, what?”
“They’re vicious creeps, but they’re not crazy. They seem…professional. I don’t know. But I want you to make me a promise—”
“I’m dyin’ here.”
“Listen, baby. I want your promise. If anything happens to me—”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“If anything happens to me,” she insisted, “promise you’ll keep it together.”
“I don’t want to think about that.”
“You keep it together, damn it. You keep it together and have a life.”
“You’re my life.”
“You keep it together, mower jockey, or I’m going to be way pissed.”
“I’ll do what they want. I’ll get you back.”
“If you don’t keep it together, I’ll haunt your ass, Rafferty. It’ll be like that Poltergeist movie cubed.”
“God, I love you,” he said.
“I know. I love you. I want to hold you.”
“I love you so much.”
She didn’t reply.
The silence electrified him, brought him up from the chair.
“Holly? You hear me?”
“I hear you, mower jockey,” said the kidnapper to whom he had spoken previously.
“I understand your anger—”
“You piece of garbage.”
“—but I don’t have much patience for it.”
“If you hurt her-“
“I already have hurt her. And if you don’t pull this off, I’ll butcher the bitch like a side of beef.”
An acute awareness of his helplessness brought Mitch crashing down from anger to humility.
“Please. Don’t hurt her again. Don’t.”
“Chill, Rafferty. You just chill while I explain a few things.”
“Okay. All right. I need things explained. I’m lost here.”
Again his legs felt weak. Instead of sitting in the chair, he brushed a broken dish aside with one foot and knelt on the floor. For some reason, he felt more comfortable on his knees than in the chair.
“About the blood,” the kidnapper said. “I slapped her down when she tried to fight back, but I didn’t cut her.”
“All the blood…”
“That’s what I’m telling you. We put a tourniquet on her arm until a vein popped up, stuck a needle in it, and drew four vials just like your doctor does when you get a physical.”
Mitch leaned his forehead against the oven door. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.
“We smeared blood on her hands and made those prints. Spattered some on the counters, cabinets. Dripped it on the floor. It’s stage setting, Rafferty. So it looks like she was murdered there.”
Mitch was the turtle, just leaving the start line, and this
guy on the phone was the rabbit, already halfway through the marathon. Mitch couldn’t get up to speed. “Staged? Why?”
“If you lose your nerve and go to the cops, they’ll never buy the kidnapping story. They’ll see that kitchen and think you croaked her.”
“I didn’t tell them anything.”
“What you did to the dogwalker—I knew you had nothing to lose. I knew I couldn’t mess with you.”
“This is just a little extra insurance,” the kidnapper said. “We like insurance. There’s a butcher knife missing from the rack there in your kitchen.”
Mitch didn’t bother to confirm the claim.
“We wrapped it with one of your T-shirts and a pair of your blue jeans. The clothes are stained with Holly’s blood.”
They were professional, all right, just like she had said.
“That package is hidden on your property,” the kidnapper continued. “You couldn’t easily find it, but police dogs will.”
“I get the picture.”
“I knew you would. You aren’t stupid. That’s why we’ve bought ourselves so much insurance.”
“What now? Make sense of this whole thing for me.”
“Not yet. Right now you’re very emotional, Mitch. That’s not good. When you’re not in control of your emotions, you’re likely to make a mistake.”
“I’m solid,” Mitch assured him, although his heart still stormed and his blood thundered in his ears.
“You don’t have any room for a mistake, Mitch. Not one. So I want you to chill, like I said. When you’ve got your head straight, then we’ll discuss the situation. I’ll call you at six o’clock.”
Though remaining on his knees, Mitch opened his eyes, checked his watch. “That’s over two and a half hours.”
“You’re still in your work clothes. You’re dirty. Take a nice hot shower. You’ll feel better.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“Anyway, you’ll need to be more presentable. Shower, change, and then leave the house, go somewhere, anywhere. Just be sure your cell phone is fully charged.”
“I’d rather wait here.”
“That’s no good, Mitch. The house is filled with memories of Holly, everywhere you look. Your nerves will be rubbed raw. I need you to be less emotional.”
“Yeah. All right.”
“One more thing. I want you to listen to this….”
Mitch thought they were going to twist a scream of pain from Holly again, to emphasize how powerless he was to protect her. He said, “Don’t.”
Instead of Holly, he heard two taped voices, clear against a faint background hiss. The first voice was his own:
“I’ve never seen a man murdered before.”
“You don’t get used to it.”
“I guess not.”
“It’s worse when it’s a woman…a woman or a child.”
The second voice belonged to Detective Taggart.
The kidnapper said, “If you had spilled your guts to him, Mitch, Holly would be dead now.”
In the dark smoky glass of the oven door, he saw the reflection of a face that seemed to be looking out at him from a window in Hell.
“Taggart’s one of you.”
“Maybe he is. Maybe not. You should just assume that everybody is one of us, Mitch. That’ll be safer for you, and a lot safer for Holly. Everybody is one of us.”
They had built a box around him. Now they were putting on the lid.
“Mitch, I don’t want to leave you on such a dark note. I want to put you at ease about something. I want you to know that we won’t touch her.”
“You hit her.”
“I’ll hit her again if she doesn’t do what she’s told. But we won’t touch her. We aren’t rapists, Mitch.”
“Why would I believe you?”
“Obviously, I’m handling you, Mitch. Manipulating, finessing. And obviously there is a lot of stuff I won’t tell you—”
“You’re killers, but not rapists?”
“The point is that everything I have told you has been true. You think back over our relationship, and you’ll see I’ve been truthful and I’ve kept my word.”
Mitch wanted to kill him. Never before had he felt an urge to do serious violence to another human being, but he wanted to destroy this man.
He was clutching the phone so fiercely that his hand ached. He was not able to relax his grip.
“I’ve had a lot of experience working through surrogates, Mitch. You’re an instrument to me, a valuable tool, a sensitive machine.”
“Hang with me a minute, okay? It makes no sense to abuse a valuable and sensitive machine. I wouldn’t buy a Ferrari and then never change the oil, never lubricate it.”
“At least I’m a Ferrari.”
“When I’m your handler, Mitch, you won’t be pressed beyond your limits. I would expect very high performance from a Ferrari, but I wouldn’t expect to be able to drive it through a brick wall.”
“I feel like I’ve already been through a brick wall.”
“You’re tougher than you think. But in the interest of getting the best performance out of you, I want you to know we’ll treat Holly with respect. If you do everything we want, then she’ll come back to you alive…and untouched.”
Holly was not weak. She would not easily be mentally broken by physical abuse. But rape was more than a violation of the body. Rape rended the mind, the heart, the spirit.
Her captor might have raised the issue with the sincere intent of putting some of Mitch’s fears to rest. But the sonofabitch had also raised it as a warning.
Mitch said, “I still don’t think you’ve answered the question. Why should I believe you?”
“Because you have to.”
That was an inescapable truth.
“You have to, Mitch. Otherwise, you might as well consider her dead right now.”
The kidnapper terminated the call.
For a while, Mitch’s sense of powerlessness kept him on his knees.
Eventually a recording, a woman with the vaguely patronizing tone of a nursery-school teacher not fully comfortable with children, requested that he hang up the phone. He put the handset on the floor instead, and a continuous beeping urged him to comply with the operator’s suggestion.
Remaining on his knees, he rested his forehead against the oven door once more, and closed his eyes.
His mind was in tumult. Images of Holly, tornadoes of memories, tormented him, fragmented and spinning, good memories, sweet, but they tormented because they might be all that he would ever have of her. Fear and anger. Regret and sorrow. He had never known loss. His life had not prepared him for loss.
He strove to clear his mind because he sensed that there was something he could do for Holly right here, now, if only he could quiet his fear and be calm, and think. He didn’t have to wait for orders from her kidnappers. He could do something important for her now. He could take action on her behalf. He could do something for Holly.
Humbled against the hard terra-cotta tiles, his knees began to ache. This physical discomfort gradually cleared his mind. Thoughts no longer blew through him like shatters of debris, but drifted as fallen leaves drift on a placid river.
He could do something meaningful for Holly, and the awareness of the thing that he could do was right below the surface, floating just beneath his questing reflection. The hard floor was unforgiving, and he began to feel as if he were kneeling
on broken glass. He could do something for Holly. The answer eluded him. Something. His knees ached. He tried to ignore the pain, but then he got to his feet. The pending insight receded. He returned the telephone handset to its cradle. He would have to wait for the next call. He had never before felt so useless.
Although still hours away, the approaching night pulled ,. every shadow toward the east, away from the westbound sun. Queen-palm shadows yearned across the deep yard.
To Mitch, standing on the back porch, this place, which had previously been an island of peace, now seemed as fraught with tension as the webwork of cables supporting a suspension bridge.
At the end of the yard, beyond a board fence, lay an alleyway. On the farther side of the alley were other yards and other houses. Perhaps a sentinel at one of those second-floor windows observed him now with high-powered binoculars.
On the phone, he had told Holly that he was in the kitchen, and she had said I know. She could have known only because her captors had known.
The black Cadillac SUV had not proved to be in any dark power’s employ, imbued with menace only by his imagination. No other vehicle had followed him.
They had expected him to go home, so instead of tailing him, they had staked out his house. They were watching now.
One of the houses on the farther side of the alley might offer a good vantage point if the observer was equipped with high-tech optical gear that provided an intimate view from a distance.
His suspicion settled instead on the detached garage at the rear of this property. That structure could be accessed either from the alley or from the front street via the driveway that ran alongside the house.
The garage, which provided parking for Mitch’s truck and Holly’s Honda, featured windows on the ground floor and in the storage loft. Some were dark, and some were gilded with reflected sunlight.
No window revealed a ghostly face or a telltale movement. If someone was watching from the garage, he would not be careless. He would be glimpsed only if he wished to be seen for the purpose of intimidation.
From the roses, from the ranunculus, from the corabells, from the impatiens, slanting sunlight struck luminous color like flaring shards in stained-glass windows.
The butcher knife, wrapped in bloody clothes, had probably been buried in a flower bed.
By finding that bundle, retrieving it, and cleaning up the blood in the kitchen, he would regain some control. He’d be able to react with greater flexibility to whatever challenges were thrust upon him in the hours ahead.
If he was being watched, however, the kidnappers would not view his actions with equanimity. They had staged his wife’s murder to box him in, and they wouldn’t want the box to be deconstructed.
To punish him, they would hurt Holly.
The man on the phone had promised that she would not be touched, meaning raped. But he had no compunctions about hitting her:
Given reason, he would hit her again. Punch her. Torture her. Regarding those issues, he had made no promises.
To dress the set of the staged homicide, they had drawn her blood painlessly, with a hypodermic syringe. They had not, however, sworn to spare her forever from a knife.
As instruction in the reality of his helplessness, they might cut her. Any laceration she endured would sever the very tendons of his will to resist.
They dared not kill her. To continue controlling Mitch, they had to let him speak to her from time to time.
But they could cut to disfigure, then instruct her to describe the disfigurement to him on the phone.
Mitch was surprised by his ability to anticipate such hideous developments. Until a few hours ago, he’d had no personal experience of unalloyed evil.
The vividness of his imagination in this area suggested that on a subconscious level, or on a level deeper than the subconscious, he had known that real evil walked the world, abominations that could not be faded to gray by psychological or social analysis. Holly’s abduction had raised this willfully repressed awareness out of a hallowed darkness, into view.
The shadows of the queen palms, stretched toward the backyard fence, seemed taut to the snapping point, and the
sun-brightened flowers looked as brittle as glass. %t the tension in the scene increased.
Neither the elongated shadows nor the flowers would snap. Whatever strained toward the breaking point, it would break within Mitch. And though anxiety soured his stomach and clenched his teeth, he sensed that this coming change would not be a bad thing.
At the garage, the dark windows and the sun-fired windows mocked him. The porch furniture and the patio furniture, arranged with the expectation of the enjoyment of lazy summer evenings, mocked him.
The lush and sculpted landscaping, on which he had spent so many hours, mocked him as well. All the beauty born from his work seemed now to be superficial, and its superficiality made it ugly.
He returned to the house and closed the back door. He did not bother locking it.
The worst that could have invaded his home had already been here and had gone. What violations followed would be only embellishments on the original horror.
He crossed the kitchen and entered a short hall that served two rooms, the first of which was a den. It contained a sofa, two chairs, and a large-screen television.
These days, they rarely watched any programs. So-called reality TV dominated the airwaves, and legal dramas and police dramas, but all of it bored because none of it resembled reality as he had known it; and now he knew it even better.
At the end of the hallway was the master bedroom. He withdrew clean underwear and socks from a bureau drawer.
For now, as impossible as every mundane task seemed in these circumstances, he could do nothing other than what he had been told to do.
The day had been warm; but a night in the middle of May was likely to be cool. At the closet, he slipped a fresh pair of jeans and a flannel shirt from hangers. He put them on the bed.
He found himself standing at Holly’s small vanity, where she daily sat on a tufted stool to brush her hair, apply her makeup, put on her lipstick.
Unconsciously, he had picked up her hand mirror. He looked into it, as if hoping, by some grace that would foretell the future, to see her fine and smiling face. His own countenance did not bear contemplation.
He shaved, showered, and dressed for the ordeal ahead.
He had no idea what they expected of him, how he could possibly raise two million dollars to ransom his wife, but he made no attempt to imagine any possible scenarios. A man on a high ledge is well advised not to spend much time studying the long drop.
As he sat on the edge of the bed, just as he finished tying his shoes, the doorbell rang.
The kidnapper had said he would call at six, not come calling. Besides, the bedside clock read 4:15.
Leaving the door unanswered was not an option. He needed to be responsive regardless of how Holly’s captors chose to contact him.
If the visitor had nothing to do with her abduction, Mitch was nevertheless obliged to answer the door in order to maintain an air of normalcy.
His truck in the driveway proved that he was home. A neighbor, getting no response to the bell, might circle to the back of the house to knock at the kitchen door.
The six-pane window in that door would provide a clear view of the kitchen floor strewn with broken dishes, the bloody hand prints on the cabinets and the refrigerator.
He should have drawn shut the blinds.
He left the bedroom, followed the hall, and crossed the living room before the visitor had time to ring the bell twice.
The front door had no windows. He opened it and found Detective Taggart on the porch.
The praying-mantis stare of mirrored lenses skewered Mitch and pinned his voice in his throat.
“I love these old neighborhoods,” Taggart said, surveying the front porch. “This was how southern California looked in its great years, before they cut down all the orange groves and built a wasteland of stucco tract houses.”
Mitch found a voice that sounded almost like his own, though thinner: “You live around here, Lieutenant?”
“No. I live in one of the wastelands. It’s more convenient. But I happened to be in your neighborhood.”
Taggart was not a man who just happened to be anywhere. If he ever went sleepwalking, even then he would have a purpose, a plan, and a destination.
“Something’s come up, Mr. Rafferty. And since I was nearby, it seemed as easy to stop in as to call. Can you spare a few minutes?”
If Taggart was not one of the kidnappers, if his conversation with Mitch had been taped without his knowledge, allowing him across the threshold would be reckless. In this small house,
the living room, a picture of tranquility, and the kitchen, smeared with incriminating evidence, were only a few steps apart.
“Sure,” Mitch said. “But my wife came home with a migraine. She’s lying down.”
If the detective was one of them, if he knew that Holly was being held elsewhere, he did not betray his knowledge by any change in his expression.
“Why don’t we sit here on the porch,” Mitch said.
“You’ve got it fixed up real nice.”
Mitch pulled the door shut behind him, and they settled into the white wicker chairs.
Taggart had brought a nine-by-twelve white envelope. He put it on his lap, unopened.
“We had a porch like this when I was a kid,” he said. “We used to watch traffic go by, just watch traffic.”
He removed his sunglasses and tucked them in his shirt pocket. His gaze was as direct as a power drill. “Does Mrs. Rafferty use ergotamine?”
“Ergotamine. For the migraines.”
Mitch had no idea whether ergotamine was an actual medication or a word the detective had invented on the spot. “No. She toughs it out with aspirin.”
“How often does she get one?”
“Two or three times a year,” Mitch lied. Holly had never had a migraine. She rarely suffered headaches of any kind. A gray-and-black moth was settled on the porch post to the right of the front steps, a night-flyer sleeping in the shade until sunset.
“I have ocular migraines,” Taggart said. “They’re entirely visual. I get the glimmering light and the temporary blind spot for like twenty minutes, but there’s no pain.”
“If you’ve got to have a migraine, that sounds like the kind to have.”
“A doctor probably wouldn’t prescribe ergotamine until she was having a migraine a month.”
“It’s just twice a year. Three times,” Mitch said.
He wished that he had resorted to a different lie. Taggart having personal knowledge of migraines was rotten luck.
This small talk unnerved Mitch. To his own ear, he sounded wary, tense.
Of course, Taggart had no doubt long ago grown accustomed to people being wary and tense with him, even innocent people, even his mother.
Mitch had been avoiding the detective’s stare. With an effort, he made eye contact again.
“We did find an AVID on the dog,” Taggart said.
“An American Veterinary Identification Device. That microchip ID I mentioned earlier.”
Before Mitch realized that his sense of guilt had sabotaged him again, his gaze had drifted away from Taggart to follow a passing car in the street.
“They inject it into the muscle between the dog’s shoulders,”
said Taggart. “It’s very tiny. The animal doesn’t feel it. We scanned the retriever, got her AVID number. She’s from a house one block east, two blocks north of the shooting. Owner’s name is Okadan.”
“Bobby Okadan? I do his gardening.”
“Yes, I know”
“The guy who was killed—that wasn’t Mr. Okadan.”
“Who was he? A family member, a friend?”
Avoiding the question, Taggart said, “I’m surprised you didn’t recognize the dog.”
“One golden looks like another.”
“Not really. They’re distinct individuals.”
“Mishiki,” Mitch remembered.
“That’s the dog’s name,” Taggart confirmed.
“We do that property on Tuesdays, and the housekeeper makes sure Mishiki stays inside while we’re there, out of our way. Mostly I’ve seen the dog through a patio door.”
“Evidently, Mishiki was stolen from the Okadans’ backyard this morning, probably around eleven-thirty. The leash and collar on her don’t belong to the Okadans.”
“You mean…the dog was stolen by the guy who was shot?”
“So it appears.”
This revelation reversed Mitch’s problem with eye contact. Now he couldn’t look away from the detective.
Taggart hadn’t come here just to share a puzzling bit of case news. Apparently this development triggered, in the detective’s mind, a question about something Mitch had said earlier—or had failed to say.
From inside the house came the muffled ringing of the telephone.
The kidnappers weren’t supposed to call until six o’clock. But if they called earlier and couldn’t reach him, they might be angry.
As Mitch started to rise from his chair, Taggart said, “I’d rather you didn’t answer that. It’s probably Mr. Barnes.”
“He and I spoke half an hour ago. I asked him not to call here until I had a chance to speak with you. He’s probably been wrestling with his conscience ever since, and finally his conscience won. Or lost, depending on your point of view.”
Remaining in his chair, Mitch said, “What’s this about?”
Ignoring the question, returning to his subject, Taggart said, “How often do you think dogs are stolen, Mr. Rafferty?”
“I never thought about them being stolen at all.”
“It happens. They aren’t taken as frequently as cars.” His smile was not infectious. “You can’t break a dog down for parts like you can a Porsche. But they do get snatched now and then.”
“If you say so.”
“Purebred dogs can be worth thousands. As often as not, the thief doesn’t intend to sell the animal. He just wants a fancy dog for himself, without paying for it.”
Though Taggart paused, Mitch didn’t say anything. He wanted to speed up the conversation. He was anxious to know the point. All this dog talk had a bite in it somewhere.
“Certain breeds are stolen more than others because they’re known to be friendly, unlikely to resist the thief. Golden
retrievers are one of the most sociable, least aggressive of all the popular breeds.”
The detective lowered his head, lowered his eyes, sat pensively for a moment, as if considering what he wished to say next.
Mitch didn’t believe that Taggart needed to gather his thoughts. This man’s thoughts were as precisely ordered as the clothes in an obsessive-compulsive’s closet.
“Dogs are mostly stolen out of parked cars,” Taggart continued. “People leave the dog alone, the doors unlocked. When they come back, Fido’s gone, and someone’s renamed him Duke.”
Realizing that he was gripping the arms of the wicker chair as if strapped in the hot seat and waiting for the executioner to throw the big switch, Mitch made an effort to appear relaxed.
“Or the owner ties the dog to a parking meter outside a shop. The thief slips the knot and walks off with a new best friend.”
Another pause. Mitch endured it.
With his head still bowed, Lieutenant Taggart said, “It’s rare, Mr. Rafferty, for a dog to be stolen out of its owner’s backyard on a bright spring morning. Anything rare, anything unusual makes me curious. Any outright weirdness really gets under my skin.”
Mitch raised one hand to the back of his neck and massaged the muscles because that seemed like something a relaxed man, a relaxed and unconcerned man, might do.
“It’s strange for a thief to enter a neighborhood like that on foot and walk away with a stolen pet. It’s strange that he carries
no ID. It’s more than strange, it’s remarkable, that he gets shot to death three blocks later. And it’s weird, Mr. Rafferty, that you, the primary witness, knew him.”
“But I didn’t know him.”
“At one time,” Taggart insisted, “you knew him quite well.”
White ceiling, white railings, white floorboards, white wicker chairs, punctuated by the gray-and-black moth: Everything about the porch was familiar, open and airy, yet it seemed dark now to Mitch, and strange.
His gaze still downcast, Taggart said, “One of the jakes on the scene eventually got a closer look at the victim and recognized him.”
“One of the uniformed officers. Said he arrested the guy on a drug-possession charge after stopping him for a traffic violation about two years ago. The guy never served any time, but his prints were in our system, so we were able to make a quick match. Mr. Barnes says you and he went to high school with the vie.”
Mitch wished that the cop would meet his eyes. As intuitive and perceptive as he was, Taggart would recognize genuine surprise when he saw it.
“His name was Jason Osteen.”
“I didn’t just go to school with him,” Mitch said. “Jason and I were roommates for a year.”
At last reestablishing eye contact, Taggart said, “I know.”
“Iggy would have told you.”
Eager to be forthcoming, Mitch said, “After high school, I lived with my folks for a year, while I took some classes—”
“That’s right. Then I got a job with a landscaping company, and I moved out. Wanted an apartment of my own. Couldn’t fully afford one, so Jason and I split rent for a year.”
The detective bowed his head again, in that contemplative pose, as if part of his strategy was to force eye contact when it made Mitch uncomfortable and to deny eye contact when Mitch wanted it.
“That wasn’t Jason dead on the sidewalk,” Mitch said.
Opening the white envelope that had been on his lap, Taggart said, “In addition to the identification by an officer and the print match, I have Mr. Barnes’s positive ID based on this.”
He withdrew an eight-by-ten color photo from the envelope and handed it to Mitch.
A police photographer had repositioned the cadaver to get better than a three-quarter image of the face. The head was turned to the left only far enough to conceal the worst of the wound.
The features had been subtly deformed by the temple entrance, transit, and post-temple exit of the high-velocity shot. The left eye was shut, the right open wide in a startled cyclo-pean stare.
“It could be Jason,” Mitch said.
“At the scene, I only saw one side of his face. The right profile, the worst side, with the exit wound.”
“And you probably didn’t look too close.”
“No. I didn’t. Once I saw he had to be dead, I didn’t want to look too close.”
“And there was blood on the face,” Taggart said. “We swabbed it off before this photo was taken.”
“The blood, the brains, that’s why I didn’t look too close.” Mitch couldn’t take his eyes from the photo. He sensed that it was prophetic. One day there would be a photograph like this of his face. They would show it to his parents: Is this your son, Mr. and Mrs. Rafferty?
“This is Jason. I haven’t seen him in eight years, maybe nine.”
“You roomed with him when you were—what?—eighteen?”
“Eighteen, nineteen. Just for a year.”
“About ten years ago.”
“Not quite ten.”
Jason had always affected a cool demeanor, so mellow he seemed to have surfwaxed his brain, but at the same time he seemed to know the secrets of the universe. Other boardheads called him Breezer, and admired him, even envied him. Nothing had rattled Jason or surprised him.
He appeared to be surprised now. One eye wide, mouth open. He appeared to be shocked.
“You went to school together, you roomed together. Why didn’t you stay in touch?”
While Mitch had been riveted by the photo, Taggart had been watching him intently. The detective’s stare had the sharp promise of a nail gun.
“We had .. . different ideas about things,” Mitch said.
“It wasn’t a marriage. You were just roommates. You didn’t have to want the same things.”
“We wanted some of the same things, but we had different ideas about how to get them.”
“Jason wanted to get everything the easy way,” Taggart guessed.
“I thought he was headed for big trouble, and I didn’t want any part of it.”
“You’re a straight shooter, you walk the line,” Taggart said.
“I’m no better than anyone else, worse than some, but I don’t steal.”
“We haven’t learned much about him yet, but we know he rented a house in Huntington Harbor for seven thousand a month.”
“Nice house, on the water. And so far it looks like he didn’t have a job.”
“Jason thought work was strictly for inlanders, smog monsters.” Mitch saw that an explanation was required. “Surfer lingo for those who don’t live for the beach.”
“Was there a time when you lived for the beach, Mitch?”
“Toward the end of high school, for a while after. But it wasn’t enough.”
“What was it lacking?”
“The satisfaction of work. Stability. Family.”
“You’ve got all that now. Life is perfect, huh?”
“It’s good. Very good. So good it makes me nervous sometimes.”
“But not perfect? What’s it lacking now, Mitch?”
Mitch didn’t know. He’d thought about that from time to time, but he had no answer. So he said, “Nothing. We’d like to have kids. Maybe that’s all.”
“I have two daughters,” the detective said. “One’s nine and one’s twelve. Kids change your life.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
Mitch realized that he was responding to Taggart less guardedly than he had previously. He reminded himself that he was no match for this guy.
“Aside from the drug-possession charge,” Taggart said, “Jason stayed clean all these years.”
“He always was lucky.”
Indicating the photo, Taggart said, “Not always.”
Mitch didn’t want to look at it anymore. He returned the photo to the detective.
“Your hands are shaking,” Taggart said.
“I guess they are. Jason was a friend once. We had a lot of laughs. All that comes back to me now.”
“So you haven’t seen or spoken to him in ten years.”
Returning the photo to the envelope, Taggart said, “But you do recognize him now.”
“Without the blood, seeing more of the face.”
“When you saw him walking the dog, before he was killed, you didn’t think—Hey, don’t I know that guy?”
“He was across the street. I only glanced at him, then the shot.”
“And you were on the phone, distracted. Mr. Barnes says you were on the phone when the shot was fired.”
“That’s right. I wasn’t focused on the guy with the dog. I just glanced at him.”
“Mr. Barnes strikes me as being incapable of guile. If he lied, I expect his nose might light up.”
Mitch wasn’t sure if he was meant to infer, by contrast to Iggy, that he himself was enigmatic and unreliable. He smiled and said, “Iggy’s a good man.”
Looking down at the envelope as he fixed the flap shut with the clasp, Taggart said, “Who were you on the phone with?”
“Holly. My wife.”
“Calling to let you know she had a migraine?”
“Yeah. To let me know she was going home early with a migraine.”
Glancing at the house behind them, Taggart said, “I hope she’s feeling better.”
“Sometimes they can last all day.”
“So the guy who’s shot turns out to be your old roommate. You see why it’s weird to me?”
“It is weird,” Mitch agreed. “It freaks me out a little.”
“You hadn’t seen him in nine years. Hadn’t spoken on the phone or anything.”
“He was hanging with new friends, a different crowd. I didn’t care for any of them, and I didn’t run into him anymore at any of the old places.”
“Sometimes coincidences are just coincidences.” Taggart rose from his chair and moved toward the porch steps.
Relieved, blotting his palms on his jeans, Mitch got up from his chair, too.
Pausing beside the steps, head lowered, Taggart said, “There’s not yet been a thorough search of Jason’s house. We’ve only begun. But we found one odd thing already.”
As Earth rolled away from the slowly sinking sun, afternoon light penetrated a gap in the branches of the pepper tree. A dappled orange glare found Mitch and made him squint.
Beyond the sudden light, in shadow, Taggart said, “In his kitchen there was a catchall drawer where he kept loose change, receipts, an assortment of pens, spare keys…. We found only one business card in the drawer. It was yours.”
“‘Big Green,'” Taggart quoted. “‘Landscape design, installation, and maintenance. Mitchell Rafferty.'”
This was what had brought the detective north from the coast. He had gone to Iggy, guileless Iggy, from whom he’d learned that indeed a connection existed between Mitch and Jason.
“You didn’t give him the card?” Taggart asked. “No, not that I remember. What color was the card stock?”
“I’ve only used white for the past four years. Before that, the stock was pale green.”
“And you haven’t seen him in like nine years.”
“Maybe nine years.”
“So although you lost track of Jason, it seems like Jason kept track of you. Any idea why?”
After a silence, Taggart said, “You’ve got trouble here.”
“There must be a thousand ways he could’ve gotten my business card, Lieutenant. It doesn’t mean he was keeping track of me.”
Eyes still downcast, the detective pointed to the porch railing. “I’m talking about this.”
On the white handrail, in the warm stillness, a pair of winged insects squirmed together, as if trysting.
“Termites,” Taggart said.
“They might just be winged ants.”
“Isn’t this the time of year when termites swarm? You better have the place inspected. A house can appear to be fine, solid and safe, even while it’s being hollowed out right under your feet.”
At last the detective looked up and met Mitch’s eyes.
“They’re winged ants,” Mitch said.
“Is there anything else you want to tell me, Mitch?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“Take a moment. Be sure.”
Had Taggart been allied with the kidnappers, he would have played this differently. He wouldn’t have been so persistent or so thorough. There would have been a sense that it was a game to him, a charade.
If you had spilled your pits to him, Mitch, Holly would be dead now.
Their previous conversation could have been recorded from a distance. These days, high-tech directional microphones, what they called shotgun microphones, could pick up voices clearly from hundreds of feet away. He’d seen it in a movie. Little of what he saw in movies was based on any truth, but he thought shotgun microphones were. Taggart might have been as oblivious of the taping as Mitch had been.
Of course, what had been done once could be done twice. A van that Mitch had never seen before stood at the curb across the street. A surveillance specialist might be stationed in the back of it.
Taggart surveyed the street, evidently seeking the object of Mitch’s interest.
The houses were suspect, too. Mitch didn’t know all of the neighbors. One of the houses was empty and listed for sale.
“I’m not your enemy, Mitch.”
“I never thought you were,” he lied.
“Everyone thinks I am.”
“I’d like to think I don’t have any enemies.”
“Everyone has enemies. Even a saint has enemies.”
“Why would a saint have enemies?”
“The wicked hate the good just because they are good.”
“The word wicked sounds so…”
“Quaint,” Taggart suggested.
“I guess in your work, everything looks black-and-white.”
“Under all the shades of gray, everything is black-and-white, Mitch.”
“I wasn’t raised to think that way.”
“Oh, even though I see proof every day, I have some trouble staying focused on the truth. Shades of gray, less contrast, less certainty—that’s so much more comfortable.”
Taggart took his sunglasses from his shirt pocket and put them on. From the same pocket, he withdrew one of his business cards.
“You already gave me a card,” Mitch said. “It’s in my wallet.”
“That one just has the homicide-division number. I’ve written my cell phone on the back of this one. I seldom give it out. You can reach me twenty-four/seven.”
Accepting the card, Mitch said, “I’ve told you everything I know, Lieutenant. Jason being caught up in this just…mystifies me.”
Taggart stared at him from behind twin mirrors that portrayed his face in shades of gray.
Mitch read the cell number. He put the card in his shirt pocket.
Apparently quoting again, the detective said, “‘Memory is a net. One finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook, but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking.'”
Taggart descended the porch steps. He followed the front walkway toward the street.
Mitch knew that everything he had told Taggart was caught in the detective’s net, every word and every inflection, every emphasis and hesitation, every facial expression and twitch of body language, not just what the words said but also what they implied. In that haul of fish, which the cop would read with the vision of a true Gypsy poring over tea leaves, he would find an omen or an indicant that would bring him back with warnings and new questions.
Taggart stepped through the front gate and closed it behind him.
The sun lost its view through the gap in the boughs of the pepper tree, and Mitch was left in shade, but he did not feel a chill because the light had not warmed him in the first place.
In the den, the big TV was a blind eye. Even if Mitch used the remote to fill the screen with bright idiot visions, this eye could not see him; yet he felt watched by a presence that regarded him with cold amusement.
The answering machine stood on a corner desk. The only message was from Iggy:
“Sorry, bro. I should’ve called as soon as he left here. But Taggart…he’s like fully macking triple overhead corduroy to the horizon. He scares you off the board and makes you want to sit quiet on the beach and just watch the monsters break.”
Mitch sat at the desk and opened the drawer in which Holly kept their checkbook and bank statements.
In his conversation with the kidnapper, he had overestimated their checking-account balance, which was $10,346.54.
The most recent monthly statement showed an additional savings-account balance of $27,311.40.
They had bills due. Those were in a different drawer of the same desk. He didn’t look at them. He was counting only assets.
Their monthly mortgage payment was automatically deducted from their checking account. The bank statement listed the remaining loan balance as $286,770.
Recently, Holly had estimated that the house was worth $425,000. That was a crazy amount for a small bungalow in an old neighborhood, but it was accurate. Though old, the neighborhood was desirable, and the greater part of the value lay in the large lot.
Added to their cash on hand, the equity in the house made a total of approximately $175,000. That was far short of two million; and the kidnapper had not sounded like a guy whose intention was to negotiate in good faith.
Anyway, the equity in the house couldn’t be converted to cash unless they took a new loan or sold the place. Because the house was jointly owned, he needed Holly’s signature in either scenario.
They wouldn’t have had the house if Holly hadn’t inherited it from her grandmother, Dorothy, who had raised her. The mortgage had been smaller upon Dorothy’s death, but to pay inheritance taxes and save the house, they’d had to work out a bigger loan.
So the amount available for ransom was approximately thirty-seven thousand dollars.
Until now, Mitch had not thought of himself as a failure. His self-image had been that of a young man responsibly building a life.
He was twenty-seven. No one could be a failure at twenty-seven.
this fact was indisputable: Although Holly was the center of his life, and priceless, when forced to put a price on her, he could pay only thirty-seven thousand.
A bitterness overcame him for which he had no target except himself. This was not good. Bitterness could turn to self-pity, and if he surrendered to self-pity, he would make a failure of himself. And Holly would die.
Even if the house had been without a mortgage, even if they had half a million in cash and were wildly successful for people their age, he would not have had the funds to ransom her.
That truth brought him to the realization that money would not be what saved Holly. He would be what saved her if she could be saved: his perseverance, his wits, his courage, his love.
As he returned the bank statement to the drawer, he saw an envelope bearing his name in Holly’s handwriting. It contained a birthday card that she had bought weeks before the day.
On the front of the card was the photograph of an ancient man festooned with wrinkles and wattles. The caption declared When you’re old, I’ll still need you, dear.
Mitch opened the card and read By then, the only thing I’ll have left to enjoy is gardening, and you’ll make excellent compost.
He laughed. He could imagine Holly’s laugh in the store when she had opened the card and read that punch line.
Then his laugh became something different from a laugh. In the past five terrible hours, he had more than once come close to tears but had repressed them. The card ruined him.
Below the printed text, she had written Happy birthday! Love, Holly. Her writing was graceful but not flamboyant, neat.
In his mind’s eye, he saw her hand as she held the pen. Her hands looked delicate, but they were surprisingly strong.
Eventually he recovered his composure by remembering the strength of her fine hands.
He went to the kitchen and found Holly’s car keys on the pegboard by the back door. She drove a four-year-old Honda.
After retrieving his cell phone from the charger beside the toaster oven, he went outside and moved his truck to the garage at the back of the property.
The white Honda stood in the second bay, sparkling because Holly had washed it Sunday afternoon. He parked beside the car.
He got out of the truck and shut the driver’s door, and stood between the vehicles, sweeping the room with his gaze. If anyone had been here, they would have heard and seen the truck approaching, would have had ample warning and would have fled.
The garage smelled vaguely of motor oil and grease, and strongly of the grass clippings that were bundled in burlap tarps and mounded in the bed of the pickup.
He stared at the low ceiling, which was the floor of the loft that overhung two-thirds of the garage. Windows in the higher space faced the house, providing an excellent vantage point.
Someone had known when Mitch had come home earlier, had known precisely when he had entered the kitchen. The phone had rung, with Holly on the line, moments after he had found the broken dishes and the blood.
Although an observer might have been in the garage, might still be here, Holly would not be with him. He might know where she was being held, but he might not know.
If the observer, whose existence remained theoretical, knew where Holly could be found, it would nevertheless be reckless for Mitch to go after him. These people clearly had much experience of violence, and they were ruthless. A gardener would not be a match for any of them.
A board creaked overhead. In a building of this vintage, the creak might have been an ordinary settling noise, old joints paying obeisance to gravity.
Mitch walked around to the driver’s door of the Honda, opened it. He hesitated, but got in behind the steering wheel, leaving the door open.
For the purpose of distraction, he started the engine. The garage door stood open, eliminating any danger of carbon-monoxide poisoning.
He got out of the car and slammed the door. Anyone listening would assume he had pulled it shut from inside.
Why he was not at once backing out of the garage might puzzle the listener. One assumption might be that he was making a phone call.
On a side wall were racked the many gardening tools that he used when working on his own property. The various clippers and pruning shears all seemed too unwieldy.
He quickly selected a well-made garden trowel formed from a single piece of machined steel. The handle featured a rubber grip.
The blade was wide and scooped and not as sharp as the blade of a knife. It was sharp enough.
Brief consideration convinced him that, although he might be able to stab a man, he should select a weapon more likely to disable than to kill.
On the wall opposite from the gardening implements, other racks held other tools. He chose a combination lug wrench and pry bar.
Mitch was aware that a kind of madness, bred of desperation, had come over him. He could bear no more inaction.
With the long-handled lug wrench clutched in his right hand, he moved to the back of the garage where steep open stairs in the north corner led in a single straight flight to the loft.
By continuing to react instead of acting, by waiting docilely for the six-o’clock call—one hour and seven minutes away—he would be performing as the machine that the kidnappers wished him to be. But even Ferraris sometimes ended in junkyards.
Why Jason Osteen had stolen the dog and why he, of all people, had been shot dead as an example to Mitch were mysteries to which no solutions were at hand.
Intuition told him, however, that the kidnappers had known Jason would be linked with him and that this link would make the police suspicious of him. They were weaving a web of circumstantial evidence that, were they to kill Holly, would force Mitch to trial for her murder and would elicit the death penalty from any jury.
Perhaps they were doing this only to make it impossible for him to turn to the authorities for help. Thus isolated, he would be more easily controlled.
Or, once he acquired the two million dollars by whatever scheme they presented to him, perhaps they had no intention of releasing his wife in return for the ransom. If they could use him to knock over a bank or some other institution by proxy, if they killed Holly after they got the money, and if they were clever enough to leave no traces of themselves, Mitch—and perhaps another fall guy that he had not yet met—might take the rap for every crime.
Alone, grieving, despised, imprisoned, he would never know who his enemies had been. He would be left to wonder why they had chosen him rather than another gardener or a mechanic, or a mason.
Although the desperation that drove him up the loft stairs had stripped away inhibiting fear, it had not robbed him of his reason. He didn’t race to the top, but climbed warily, the steel bar held by the pry end, the socket end ready as a club.
The wooden treads must have creaked or even groaned underfoot, but the chug of the Honda’s idling engine, echoing off the walls, masked the sounds of his ascent.
Walled on three sides, the loft lay open at the back. A railing extended left from the top of the stairs and across the width of the garage.
In the three walls of the loft, windows admitted afternoon light into that higher space. Visible beyond the balusters—and looming above them—were stacks of cardboard boxes and other items for which the bungalow provided no storage.
The stored goods were arranged in rows, as low as four feet in some places, as high as seven in others. The aisles between were shadowy, and every end offered a blind turn.
At the top of the stairs, Mitch stood at the head of the first aisle. A pair of windows in the north wall directly admitted adequate light to assure him that no one crouched in any shallow niche among the boxes.
The second aisle proved darker than the first, although the intersecting passage at the end was brightened by unseen windows in the west wall, which faced the house. The light at the end would have silhouetted anyone standing boldly in the intervening space.
Because the boxes were not all the same size and were not in every instance stacked neatly, and because gaps existed here and there in the rows, nooks along each aisle offered places large enough for a man to hide.
Mitch had quietly ascended the stairs. The Honda below probably had not been running long enough to raise significant suspicion. Therefore, any sentinel stationed in the loft would be alert and listening, but most likely would not yet have realized the immediate need to be elusive.
The third aisle was brighter for having a window directly at the end of it. He checked out the fourth aisle, then the fifth and final, which lay along the south wall in the light of two dusty windows. He found no one.
The intersecting passage that paralleled the west wall, into which all the east-west aisles terminated, was the only length of the loft that he had not seen in its entirety. Every row of boxes hid a portion of that space.
Raising the lug wrench higher, he eased along the southernmost aisle, toward the front of the loft. He found that the entire length of the last passage was as deserted as the portions he had seen from the farther end of the building.
On the floor, however, against the end of a row of boxes, stood some equipment that should not be here.
More than half the stuff in the loft had belonged to Dorothy, Holly’s grandmother. She had collected ornaments and other decorative items for every major holiday.
At Christmas, she’d unpacked fifty or sixty ceramic snowmen of various kinds and sizes. She’d had more than a hundred ceramic Santa Clauses. Ceramic reindeer, Christmas trees, wreaths, ceramic bells and sleighs, groups of ceramic carolers, miniature ceramic houses that could be arranged to form a village.
The bungalow couldn’t accommodate Dorothy’s full collection for any holiday. She’d unpacked and set out as much as would fit.
Holly hadn’t wanted to sell any of the ceramics. She continued the tradition. Someday, she said, they would have a bigger house, and the full glory of each collection could be revealed.
Sleeping in hundreds of cardboard boxes were Valentine’s Day lovers, Easter bunnies and lambs and religious figures, July Fourth patriots, Halloween ghosts and black cats, Thanksgiving Pilgrims, and the legions of Christmas.
The gear on the floor in the final aisle was neither ceramic nor ornamental, nor festive. The electronic equipment included a receiver and a recorder, but he couldn’t identify the other three items.
They were plugged into a board of expansion receptacles, which was itself plugged into a nearby wall outlet. Indicator lights and LED readouts revealed the equipment to be engaged.
They had been maintaining surveillance of the house. Its rooms and phones were probably bugged.
Confident in his stealth, having seen no one in the loft, Mitch assumed, upon sight of the equipment, that it was not at the moment being monitored, that it must be set to automatic operation. Perhaps they could even access it and download it from a distance.
Simultaneously with that thought, the array of indicator lights changed patterns, and at least one of the LED displays began to keep a running count.
He heard a hissing distinct from the idling Honda in the garage below, and then the voice of Detective Taggart.
“I love these old neighborhoods. This was how southern California looked in its great years…”
Not just the rooms of the house but the front porch, too, had been bugged.
He knew that he had been outmaneuvered only an instant before he felt the muzzle of the handgun against the back of his neck.
Although he flinched, Mitch did not attempt to turn toward .. the gunman or to swing the lug wrench. He would not be able to move fast enough to succeed.
During the past five hours, he had become acutely aware of his limitations, which counted as an achievement, considering that he had been raised to believe he had no limitations.
He might be the architect of his life, but he could no longer believe that he was the master of his fate.
“…before they cut down all the orange groves and built a wasteland of stucco tract houses.”
Behind him, the gunman said, “Drop the lug wrench. Don’t stoop to put it down. Just drop it.”
The voice was not that of the man on the phone. This one sounded younger than the other, not as cold, but with a disturbing deadpan delivery that flattened every word and gave them all the same weight.
Mitch dropped the club.
“…more convenient. But I happened to be in your neighborhood.”
Apparently using a remote control, the gunman switched off the recorder.
He said to Mitch, “You must want her cut to pieces and left to die, the way he promised.”
“Maybe we made a mistake, choosing you. Maybe you’d be happy to be rid of her.”
“Don’t say that.”
Every word matter-of-fact, all with the same emotional value, which was no value at all: “A large life-insurance policy. Another woman. You could have reasons.”
“There’s nothing like that.”
“Perhaps you’d do a better job for us if, as compensation, we promised to kill her for you.”
“No. I love her. I do.”
“You pull another stunt like this one, she’s dead.”
“Let’s go back the way you came.”
Mitch turned, and the gunman also turned, staying behind him.
As he began to retrace his steps along the final aisle, past the first of the southern windows, Mitch heard the lug wrench scrape against the boards as the gunman scooped it off the floor.
He could have pivoted, kicked, and hoped to catch the man as he rose from a quick stoop. He feared the maneuver would be anticipated.
Thus far, he had thought of these nameless men as professional criminals. They probably were that, but they were
something else, too. He did not know what else they might be, but something worse.
Criminals, kidnappers, murderers. He could not imagine what might be worse than what he already knew them to be.
Following him along the aisle, the gunman said, “Get in the Honda. Go for a ride.”
“Wait for the call at six o’clock.”
“All right. I will.”
As they neared the end of the aisle, at the back of the loft, where they needed to turn left and cross the width of the garage to the steps in the northeast corner, something like luck intervened by way of a cord, a knot in the cord, a loop in the knot.
At the moment it happened, Mitch didn’t perceive the cause, only the effect. A tower of cardboard boxes collapsed. Some tumbled into the aisle, and one or two fell on the gunman.
According to stenciled legends on the cartons, they contained Halloween ceramics. Packed with more bubble wrap and shredded tissue paper than with decorative objects, the boxes were not heavy, but an avalanche of them almost knocked the gunman off his feet and sent him stumbling.
Mitch dodged one box and raised an arm to deflect another.
The falling first stack destabilized a second.
Mitch almost reached toward the gunman to steady him. But then he realized that any offer of support might be misinterpreted as an attack. To avoid being misunderstood—and shot—he stepped out of his enemy’s way.
The old dry wood of the railing at the back of the loft could safely accommodate anyone who leaned casually on it, but it proved too weak to endure the impact of the stumbling gunman. Balusters cracked, nails shrieked loose of their holes, and two butted lengths of the handrail separated at the joint.
The gunman cursed at the storm of boxes. He cried out in alarm as the railing sagged away from him.
He fell to the floor of the garage. The distance was not great, approximately eight feet, yet he landed with a terrible sound, and in a clatter of broken railing, and the gun went off.
From the toppling of the first box to the concluding punctuation of the gunshot, only a few seconds had passed. Mitch stood in stunned disbelief longer than the event itself had taken to unfold.
Silence shocked him from paralysis. The silence below.
He hurried to the stairs, and under his feet the boards released a great thunder, as though they had stored it up from the storms that long ago had lashed the trees from which they had been milled.
As Mitch crossed the garage on the ground level, past the front of the truck, past the idling Honda, elation contested with despair for control of him. He did not know what he would find and therefore did not know what to feel.
The gunman lay facedown, head and shoulders under an overturned wheelbarrow. He must have slammed into one edge of the wheelbarrow, flipping it over and on top of himself.
An eight-foot fall should not have left him in such a profound stillness.
Breathing hard but not from physical exertion, Mitch righted the wheelbarrow, shoved it aside. Each breath brought him the scent of motor oil, of fresh grass clippings, and as he crouched beside the gunman, he detected the bitter pungency of gunfire, too, and then the sweetness of blood.
He turned the body over and saw the face clearly for the first time. The stranger was in his middle twenties, but he had the clear complexion of a preadolescent boy, jade-green eyes, thick lashes. He did not look like a man who could talk deadpan about mutilating and murdering a woman.
He had landed with his throat across the rolled metal edge of the wheelbarrow tray. The impact appeared to have crushed his larynx and collapsed his trachea.
His right forearm had broken, and his right hand, trapped under him, had reflexively fired the pistol. The index finger remained hooked through the trigger guard.
The bullet had penetrated just below the sternum, angled up and to the left. Minimal bleeding suggested a heart wound, instant death.
If the shot hadn’t killed him instantly, the collapsed airway would have killed him quickly.
This was too much luck to be just luck.
Whatever it was—luck or something better, luck or something worse—Mitch didn’t at first know whether it was a helpful or an unwelcome development.
The number of his enemies had been reduced by one. A tattered glee, frayed by the rough edge of vengeance, fluttered in him and might have teased out a torn and threadbare laugh if he had not also been at once aware that this death complicated his situation.
When this man did not report back to his associates, they would call him. When they could not raise him on the phone, they might come looking for him. If they found him dead, they would assume that Mitch had killed him, and soon thereafter Holly’s fingers would be taken off one by one, each stump flame-cauterized without benefit of an anesthetic.
Mitch hurried to the Honda and switched off the engine. He used the remote control to shut the garage door.
As shadows closed in, he switched on the lights.
The single shot might not have been heard. If it had been heard, he felt sure that it had not been recognized for what it was.
At this hour, neighbors would not be home from work. Some kids might have returned from school, but they would be listening to CDs or would be deep in an Xbox world, and the muffled shot would be perceived as another bit of music or game percussion.
Mitch returned to the body and stood looking down at it.
For a moment, he was not able to proceed. He knew what needed to be done, but he could not act.
He had lived for almost twenty-eight years without witnessing a death. Now he’d seen two men shot in the same day.
Thoughts of his own death pecked at him, and when he tried to repress them, they could not be caged. The susurration in his ears was only the sound of his rushing blood, driven by the oars of a sculling heart, but his imagination provided dark wings beating at the periphery of his mind’s eye.
Although he was squeamish about searching the corpse, necessity brought him to his knees beside it.
From a hand so warm that it seemed death might be a pretense, he removed the pistol. He put it in the nearby wheelbarrow.
If the right leg of the dead man’s khakis had not been pulled up in the fall, Mitch wouldn’t have seen the second weapon. The gunman carried the snub-nosed revolver in an ankle holster.
After putting the revolver with the pistol, Mitch considered the holster. He undid the Velcro closures, put the holster with the guns.
He dug through the pockets of the sports coat, turned out the pockets of the pants.
He discovered a set of keys—one for a car, three others—which he considered but then returned to the pocket where he’d found them. After a brief hesitation, he retrieved them and added them to the wheelbarrow.
He found nothing more of interest other than a wallet and a cell phone. The former would contain identification, and the latter might be programmed to speed-dial, among other numbers, each of the dead man’s collaborators.
If the phone rang, Mitch didn’t dare answer it. Even if he spoke in monosyllables and the man at the other end briefly mistook his voice for that of the dead man, he would give himself away by one slip or another.
He switched off the phone. They would be suspicious when they got voice mail, but they would not act precipitously on mere suspicion.
Restraining his curiosity, Mitch set the wallet and phone aside in the wheelbarrow. Other, more urgent tasks awaited him.
From the back of the truck, Mitch fetched a canvas tarp that was used for bundling rosebush clippings. The thorns could not easily penetrate it, as they did burlap.
In case one of the other kidnappers came looking for the dead man, Mitch couldn’t leave the body here.
The thought of driving around with the corpse in the trunk of his car turned his stomach sour. He would have to buy some antacids.
The tarp had softened with use and was as fissured as the glaze on an antique vase. Although not waterproof, it remained fairly water-resistant.
Because the gunman’s heart had stopped instantly, little blood had escaped the wound. Mitch wasn’t worried about bloodstains.
He didn’t know how long he would have to keep the body in the trunk. A few hours, a day, two days? Sooner or later, fluids other than blood would leak from it.
He spread the tarp on the floor and rolled the cadaver onto it. A wave of revulsion washed through him, inspired by the way the dead man’s arms flopped, by the way the head lolled.
Considering Holly’s peril, which required him not to recoil from even the most disturbing tasks, he closed his eyes and took several slow, deep breaths. He choked down his revulsion.
The lolling head suggested that the gunman’s neck was broken. In that case, he was three ways dead: broken neck, crushed trachea, bullet-torn heart.
This could not be luck. Such layered grisliness could not be a stroke of good fortune. To view it as such would be repellant.
Extraordinary, yes. An extraordinary incident. And strange. But not auspicious.
Besides, he could not yet say that this accident had been to his advantage. It might easily prove to be his undoing.
After rolling the body in the tarp, he did not take time to weave twine through the eyelets and tie the package shut. Worry was a clock ticking, an hourglass draining, and he feared an interruption of one kind or another before this cleanup could be completed.
He dragged the tarp-wrapped corpse to the back of the Honda. As he opened the trunk of the car, a thrill of dread went through him, the absurd thought that he would find another dead man already occupying the space, but of course the trunk was empty.
His imagination had never been a fever swamp, and it had not heretofore been morbid. He wondered if this expectation of a second corpse might be not a flash of fantasy but in fact a presentiment that other dead men lay in his immediate future.
Loading the body into the trunk proved to be an arduous job.
The gunman weighed less than Mitch, but he was after all a dead weight.
If Mitch had not been strong and if his business had not been one that kept him in good physical condition, the corpse might have defeated him. Sweat glazed him by the time he slammed shut the trunk lid and locked it.
A careful inspection revealed no blood on the wheelbarrow. None on the floor, either.
He gathered the broken balusters and the fallen section of the handrail, and he took them out of the garage and concealed them in a half-depleted stack of cordwood that had supplied the living-room fireplace during the previous winter.
Inside once more, he climbed the stairs to the loft and returned to the fateful spot at the end of the southernmost aisle. The cause of the accident soon revealed itself.
Many of the stacked boxes were sealed with tape, but others were tied shut with cord. The neck of the lug wrench was still caught in the loop of a knot.
Carrying the wrench down at his side, somewhat away from his body, the gunman must have snared the dangling loop of cord. He had pulled Halloween down on himself.
Mitch stacked most of the fallen boxes as they had been. He created a new row of short stacks in front of the breach in the railing to conceal the damage.
If the gunman’s pals came searching for him, the splintered balusters and the missing section of handrail would suggest to them that a struggle had occurred.
The ragged gap in the railing would still be visible to them from the southeast corner of the lower level. The stairs were at the northeast corner, however, and the gunman’s friends might never be in a position to see the damage.
Although Mitch would have liked to vent some anger by smashing the electronic eavesdropping equipment arrayed in the aisle along the west wall, he left it untouched.
When he picked up the long lug wrench, it felt heavier than he remembered.
In the silence, in the stillness, he sensed deception. Felt watched. Felt mocked.
Nearby, web-hung spiders must be patiently dreaming of ripe twitching morsels. A fat spring fly or two must be droning toward silken snares.
More than flies, worse than spiders, something loomed. Mitch turned, but seemed to be alone.
An important truth hid from him, hid not in shadows, hid not behind the boxed holidays, but hid from him in plain sight. He saw but was blind. He heard but was deaf.
This extraordinary perception grew more intense, swelled until it became oppressive, until it had such a physical dimension that his lungs would not expand. Then it rapidly subsided, was gone.
He took the lug wrench downstairs and hung it on the tool rack where it belonged.
From the wheelbarrow, he retrieved the phone, the wallet, the keys, the two guns, and the ankle holster. He put everything on the front passenger’s seat of the Honda.
He drove out of the garage, parked beside the house, and went quickly inside to get a jacket. He was wearing a flannel shirt, and though the night ahead would not be cool enough to require a jacket, he needed one.
When he came out of the house, he expected to find Taggart waiting by the Honda for him. The detective didn’t show.
In the car once more, he placed the lightweight sports jacket on the passenger’s seat, concealing the items that he had taken from the corpse.
The dashboard clock agreed with his wristwatch—5:11.
He drove out to the street and turned right, with a thrice-dead man in the trunk of the car and worse horrors loose in his mind.
Two blocks from his house, Mitch parked at the curb. He left the engine running, kept the windows closed and the doors locked.
He could not recall ever previously locking the doors while he was in the car.
He glanced at the rearview mirror, suddenly certain that the trunk lock had not engaged, that the lid had popped open, presenting the swaddled cadaver for viewing. The trunk remained closed.
In the dead man’s wallet were credit cards and a California driver’s license in the name of John Knox. For the license photo, the youthful gunman had flashed a smile as winsome as that of a boy-band teen idol.
Knox had been carrying $585, including five one-hundred-dollar bills. Mitch counted the money without taking it out of the currency compartment.
Nothing in the wallet revealed a single fact about the man’s profession, personal interests, or associations. No business card, no library card, no health-insurance card. No photos of loved ones. No reminder notes or Social Security card, or receipts.
According to the license, Knox lived in Laguna Beach. Something useful might be learned by a search of his residence.
Mitch needed time to consider the risks of going to Knox’s place. Besides, there was someone else he needed to visit before the scheduled six-o’clock call.
He put the wallet, the dead man’s cell phone, and the set of keys in the glove box. He tucked the revolver and the ankle holster under the driver’s seat.
The pistol remained on the adjacent seat, under his sports coat.
Through a zigzaggery of low-traffic residential streets, ignoring the speed limits and even a couple of stop signs, Mitch arrived at his parents’ place in east Orange at 5:35. He parked in the driveway and locked the Honda.
The handsome house stood on a second tier of hills, with hills above it. The two-lane street, sloping toward flatter land, revealed no suspicious vehicle following in his wake.
A languid breeze had uncoiled from the east. With a thousand times a thousand silvery-green tongues, the tall eucalyptus trees whispered to one another.
He looked up to the single window of the learning room. When he was eight years old, he had spent twenty consecutive days there, with an interior shutter locked across that window.
Sensory deprivation focuses thought, clears the mind. That is the theory behind the dark, silent, empty learning room.
Mitch’s father, Daniel, answered the doorbell. At sixty-one, he remained a strikingly good-looking man, still in possession of all his hair, though it had turned white.
Perhaps because his features were so pleasingly bold—perfect features if he had wished to be a stage actor—his teeth seemed too small. They were his natural teeth, everyone. He was a stickler for dental hygiene. Laser-whitened, they dazzled, but they looked small, like rows of white-corn kernels in a cob.
Blinking with surprise that was a degree too theatrical, he said, “Mitch. Katherine never told me you called.”
Katherine was Mitch’s mother.
“I didn’t,” Mitch admitted. “I hoped it would be all right if I just stopped by.”
“More often than not, I’d be occupied with one damn obligation or another, and you’d be out of luck. But tonight I’m free.”
“Though I did expect to do a few hours of reading.”
“I can’t stay long,” Mitch assured him.
The children of Daniel and Katherine Rafferty, all now adults, understood that, in respect for their parents’ privacy, they were to schedule their visits and avoid impromptu drop-ins.
Stepping back from the door, his father said, “Come in, then.”
In the foyer, with its white-marble floor, Mitch looked left and right at an infinity of Mitches, echo reflections in two large facing mirrors with stainless-steel frames.
He asked, “Is Kathy here?”
“Girls’ night out,” his father said. “She and Donna Watson and that Robinson woman are off to a show or something.”
“I’d hoped to see her.”
“They’ll be late,” his father said, closing the door. “They’re always late. They chatter at each other all evening, and when they pull into the driveway, they’re still chattering. Do you know the Robinson woman?”
“No. This is the first I’ve heard of her.”
“She’s annoying,” his father said. “I don’t understand why Katherine enjoys her company. She’s a mathematician.”
“I didn’t know mathematicians annoyed you.”
“This one does.”
Mitch’s parents were both doctors of behavioral psychology, tenured professors at UCI. Those in their social circle were mostly from what academic types recently had begun to call the human sciences, largely to avoid the term soft sciences. Among that crowd, a mathematician might annoy like a stone in a shoe.
“I just fixed a Scotch and soda,” his father said. “Would you like something?”
“No thank you, sir.”
“Did you just sir me?”
“I’m sorry, Daniel.”
“Mere biological relationship—”
“—should not confer social status,” Mitch finished.
The five Rafferty children, on their thirteenth birthdays, had been expected to stop calling their parents Mom and Dad, and to begin using first names. Mitch’s mother, Katherine, preferred to be called Kathy, but his father would not abide Danny instead of Daniel.
As a young man, Dr. Daniel Rafferty had held strong views about proper child-rearing. Kathy had no firm opinions on the subject, but she had been intrigued by Daniel’s unconventional theories and curious to see if they would prove successful.
For a moment, Mitch and Daniel stood in the foyer, and Daniel seemed unsure how to proceed, but then he said, “Come see what I just bought.”
They crossed a large living room furnished with stainless-steel-and-glass tables, gray leather sofas, and black chairs. The art works were black-and-white, some with a single line or block of color: here a rectangle of blue, here a square of teal, here two chevrons of mustard yellow.
Daniel Rafferty’s shoes struck hard sounds from the Santos-mahogany floor. Mitch followed as quietly as a haunting spirit.
In the study, pointing to an object on the desk, Daniel said, “This is the nicest piece of shit in my collection.”
The study decor matched the living room, with lighted display shelves that presented a collection of polished stone spheres.
Alone on the desk, cupped in an ornamental bronze stand, the newest sphere had a diameter greater than a baseball. Scarlet veins speckled with yellow swirled through a rich coppery brown.
To the uninformed it might have appeared to be a piece of exotic granite, ground and polished to bring out its beauty. In fact it was dinosaur dung, which time and pressure had petrified into stone.
“Mineral analysis confirms that it came from a carnivore,” said Mitch’s father.
“The size of the entire stool deposit suggests something smaller than a T. rex.”
“If it had been found in Canada, dating to the Upper Cretaceous, then perhaps a gorgosaurus. But the deposit was found in Colorado.”
“Upper Jurassic?” Mitch asked.
“Yes. So it’s probably a ceratosaurus dropping.”
As his father picked up a glass of Scotch and soda from the desk, Mitch went to the display shelves.
He said, “I gave Connie a call a few nights ago.”
Connie was his oldest sister, thirty-one. She lived in Chicago.
“Is she still drudging away in that bakery?” his father asked.
“Yes, but she owns it now.”
“Are you serious? Yes, of course. It’s typical. If she puts one foot in a tar pit, she’ll never back up, just flail forward.”
“She says she’s having a good time.”
“That’s what she would say, no matter what.”
Connie had earned a master’s degree in political science before she had jumped off the plank into an ocean of entrepreneurship. Some were mystified by this sea change in her, but Mitch understood it.
The collection of polished dinosaur-dung spheres had grown since he had last seen it. “How many do you have now, Daniel?”
“Seventy-three. I’ve got leads on four brilliant specimens.”
Some spheres were only two inches in diameter. The largest were as big as bowling balls.
The colors tended toward browns, golds, and coppers, for the obvious reason; however, every hue, even blue, lustered under the display lights. Most exhibited speckled patterns; actual veining was rare.
“I talked to Megan the same evening,” Mitch said.
Megan, twenty-nine, had the highest IQ in a family of high IQs. Each of the Rafferty kids had been tested three times: the week of their ninth, thirteenth, and seventeenth birthdays.
After her sophomore year, Megan had dropped out of college. She lived in Atlanta and operated a thriving dog-grooming business, both a shop and a mobile service.
“She called at Easter, asked how many eggs we dyed,” Mitch’s father said. “I assume she thought that was funny. Katherine and I were just relieved that she didn’t announce she was pregnant.”
Megan had married Carmine Maffuci, a mason with hands the size of dinner plates. Daniel and Kathy felt that she had settled for a husband beneath her station, intellectually. They expected that she would realize her error and divorce him—if children didn’t arrive first to complicate the situation.
Mitch liked Carmine. The guy had a sweet nature, an infectious laugh, and a tattoo of Tweety Bird on his right biceps.
“This one looks like porphyry,” he said, pointing to a dung specimen with a purple-red groundmass and flecks of something that resembled feldspar.
He had also recently spoken to his youngest sister, Portia, but he did not mention her because he didn’t want to start an argument.
Freshening his Scotch and soda at the corner wet bar, Daniel said, “Anson had us to dinner two nights ago.”
Anson, Mitch’s only brother, at thirty-three the oldest of the siblings, was the most dutiful to Daniel and Kathy.
In fairness to Mitch and his sisters, Anson had long been his parents’ favorite, and he had never been rebuffed. It was easier to be a dutiful child when your enthusiasms were not analyzed for signs of psychological maladjustment and whenyour invitations were not met with either gimlet-eyed suspicion or impatience.
In fairness to Anson, he had earned his status by fulfilling his parents’ expectations. He had proved, as had none of the others, that Daniel’s child-rearing theories could bear fruit.
Top of his class in high school, star quarterback, he declined football scholarships. Instead he accepted those offered only in respect of the excellence of his mind.
The academic world was a chicken yard and Anson a fox. He did not merely absorb learning but devoured it with the appetite of an insatiable carnivore. He earned his bachelor’s degree in two years, a master’s in one, and had a Ph.D. at the age of twenty-three.
Anson was neither resented by his siblings nor in any slightest way alienated from them. On the contrary, if Mitch and his sisters had taken a secret vote for their favorite in the family, all four of their ballots would have been marked for their older brother.
His good heart and natural grace had allowed Anson to please his parents without becoming like them. This achievement seemed no less impressive than if nineteenth-century scientists, with nothing but steam power and primitive voltaic cells, had sent astronauts to the moon.
“Anson just signed a major consulting contract with China,” Daniel said.
Brontosaurus, diplodocus, brachiosaurus, iguanodon, moschops, stegosaurus, triceratops, and other droppings were labeled by engraving on the bronze stands that held the spheres.
“He’ll be working with the minister of trade,” said Daniel.
Mitch didn’t know whether petrified stool could be analyzed so precisely as to identify the particular dinosaur species or genus. Perhaps his father had arrived at these labels by the application of theories with little or no hard science supporting them.
In certain areas of intellectual inquiry where absolute answers could not be defended, Daniel embraced them anyway.
“And directly with the minister of education,” Daniel said.
Anson’s success had long been used to goad Mitch to consider a career more ambitious than his current work, but the jabs never broke the skin of his psyche. He admired Anson but didn’t envy him.
As Daniel prodded with another of Anson’s achievements, Mitch checked his wristwatch, certain that he would shortly have to leave to take the kidnapper’s call in privacy. But the time was only 5:42.
He felt as if he had been in the house at least twenty minutes, but the truth was seven.
“Do you have an engagement?” Daniel asked.
Mitch detected a hopeful note in his father’s voice, but he did not resent it. Long ago he had realized that an emotion as bitter and powerful as resentment was inappropriate in this relationship.
Author of thirteen ponderous books, Daniel believed himself to be a giant of psychology, a man of such iron principles and steely convictions that he was a rock in the river of contemporary American intellectualism, around which lesser minds washed to obscurity.
Mitch knew beyond doubt that his old man was not a rock.
Daniel was a fleeting shadow on that river, riding the surface, neither agitating nor smoothing the currents.
If Mitch had nurtured resentment toward such an ephemeral man, he would have made himself crazier than Captain Ahab in perpetual pursuit of the white whale.
Throughout their childhood, Anson had counseled Mitch and his sisters against anger, urging patience, teaching the value of humor as defense against their father’s unconscious inhumanity. And now Daniel inspired in Mitch nothing but indifference and impatience.
The day Mitch had left home to share an apartment with Jason Osteen, Anson had told him that having put anger behind himself, he would eventually come to pity their old man. He had not believed it, and thus far he had advanced no further than grudging forbearance.
“Yes,” he said, “I have an engagement. I should be going.”
Regarding his son with the keen interest that twenty years ago would have intimidated Mitch, Daniel said, “What was this all about?”
Whatever Holly’s kidnappers intended for Mitch, his chances of surviving it might not be high. The thought had crossed his mind that this might be the last chance he had to see his parents.
Unable to reveal his plight, he said, “I came to see Kathy. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“Came to see her about what?”
A child can love a mother who has no capacity to love him in return, but in time, he realizes that he is pouring his affection not on fertile ground but on rock, where nothing can be grown. A child might then spend a life defined by settled anger or by self-pity.
If the mother is not a monster, if she is instead emotionally disconnected and self-absorbed, and if she is not an active tormentor but a passive observer in the home, her child has a third option. He can choose to grant her mercy without pardon, and find compassion for her in recognition that her stunted emotional development denies her the fullest enjoyment of life.
For all her academic achievements, Kathy was clueless about the needs of children and the bonds of motherhood. She believed in the cause-and-effect principle of human interaction, the need to reward desired behavior, but the rewards were always materialistic.
She believed in the perfectibility of humanity. She felt that children should be raised according to a system from which one did not deviate and with which one could ensure they would be civilized.
She did not specialize in that area of psychology. Consequently, she might not have become a mother if she hadn’t met a man with firm theories of child development and with a system to apply them.
Because Mitch would not have life without his mother and because her cluelessness did not encompass malice, she inspired a tenderness that was not love or even affection. It was instead a sad regard for her congenital incapacity for sentiment. This tenderness had nearly ripened into the pity that he withheld from his father.
“It’s nothing important,” Mitch said. “It’ll keep.”
“I can give her a message,” Daniel said, following Mitch across the living room.
“No message. I was nearby, so I just dropped in to say hello.”
Because such a breach of family etiquette had never happened previously, Daniel remained unconvinced. “Something’s on your mind.”
Mitch wanted to say Maybe a week of sensory deprivation in the learning room will squeeze it out of me.
Instead he smiled and said, “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”
Although he had little insight into the human heart, Daniel had a bloodhound’s nose for threats of a financial nature. “If it’s money problems, you know our position on that.”
“I didn’t come for a loan,” Mitch assured him.
“In every species of animal, the primary obligation of parents is to teach self-sufficiency to their offspring. The prey must learn evasion, and the predator must learn to hunt.”
Opening the door, Mitch said, “I’m a self-sufficient predator, Daniel.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear that.”
He favored Mitch with a smile in which his small super-naturally white teeth appeared to have been sharpened since last he revealed them.
Even to deflect his father’s suspicions, Mitch could not summon a smile this time.
“Parasitism,” Daniel said, “isn’t natural to Homo sapiens or to any species of mammal.”
Beaver Cleaver would never have heard that line from his dad.
Stepping out of the house, Mitch said, “Tell Kathy I said hi.”
“She’ll be late. They’re always late when the Robinson woman joins the pack.”
“Mathematicians,” Mitch said scornfully.
“Especially this one.”
Mitch pulled the door shut. Several steps from the house, he stopped, turned, and studied the place perhaps for the last time.
He had not only lived here but had also been home-schooled here from first grade through twelfth. More hours of his life had been spent in this house than out of it.
As always, his gaze drifted to that certain second-story window, boarded over on the inside. The learning room.
With no children at home any longer, what did they use that high chamber for?
Because the front walk curved away from the house instead of leading straight to the street, when Mitch lowered his attention from the second floor, he faced not the door but the sidelight. Through those French panes, he saw his father.
Daniel stood at one of the big steel-framed foyer mirrors, apparently considering his appearance. He smoothed his white hair with one hand. He wiped at the corners of his mouth.
Although he felt like a Peeping Tom, Mitch could not look away.
As a child, he had believed there were secrets about his parents that would free him if he were able to learn them. Daniel and Kathy were a guarded pair, however, as discreet as silverfish.
In the foyer now, Daniel pinched his left cheek between thumb and forefinger, and then his right, as if to tweak some color into them.
Mitch suspected that his visit had already more than half faded from his father’s mind, now that the threat of a loan request had been lifted.
In the foyer, Daniel turned sideways to the mirror, as though taking pride in the depth of his chest, the slimness of his waist.
How easy to imagine that between the facing mirrors, his father did not cast an infinity of echo reflections, as Mitch had done, and that the single likeness of him possessed so little substance that, to any eye but his own, it would appear as transparent as the image of a spook.
At 5:50, only fifteen minutes after he had arrived at Daniel . and Kathy’s house, Mitch drove away. He turned the corner and traveled a quick block and a half.
Perhaps two hours of daylight remained. He could easily have detected a tail if one had pursued him.
He pulled the Honda into the empty parking lot at a church.
A forbidding brick facade, fractured eyes of multicolored glass somber with no current inner light, rose to a steeple that gouged the sky and cast a hard shadow across the blacktop.
His father’s fear had been unfounded. Mitch had not intended to ask for money.
His parents had done well financially. They could no doubt contribute a hundred thousand to the cause without being in the least pinched. Even if they would give him twice that sum, and considering his own meager resources, he would still have in hand only a little more than ten percent of the ransom.
Besides, he would not have asked because he knew they would have declined, ostensibly on the basis of their theories of parenting.
Furthermore, he had come to suspect that the kidnappers were seeking more than money. He had no idea what they desired in addition to cash, but snatching the wife of a gardener who earned a five-figure income made no sense unless they wanted something else that only he could provide.
He had been all but certain that they intended to commit a major robbery by proxy, using him as if he were a remote-controlled robot. He could not rule out that scenario, but it no longer convinced him.
From under the driver’s seat, he retrieved the snub-nosed revolver and the ankle holster.
He examined the weapon with caution. As far as he could tell, it did not have a safety.
When he broke out the cylinder, he discovered that it held five rounds. This surprised him, as he had expected six.
All he knew about guns was what he had learned from books and movies.
In spite of Daniel’s talk about inspiring children to be self-sufficient, he had not prepared Mitch for the likes of John Knox.
The prey must learn evasion, and the predator must learn to hunt.
His parents had raised him to be prey. With Holly in the hands of murderers, however, Mitch had nowhere to run. He would rather die than hide and leave her to their mercy.
The Velcro closure on the holster allowed him to strap it far enough above his ankle to avoid exposing it if his pants hiked when he sat down. He didn’t favor peg-legged jeans, and this pair accommodated the compact handgun.
He shrugged into the sports coat. Before he got out of the car, he would tuck the pistol under his belt, in the small of his back, where the coat would conceal it.
He examined that weapon. Again he failed to locate a safety.
With some fumbling, he ejected the magazine. It contained eight cartridges. When he pulled the slide back, he saw a ninth gleaming in the breach.
After reinserting the magazine and making sure that it clicked securely into place, he put the pistol on the passenger’s seat.
His cell phone rang. The car clock read 5:59.
The kidnapper said, “Did you enjoy your visit with Mom and Dad?”
He had not been followed to his parents’ house or away from it, and yet they knew where he had been.
He said at once, “I didn’t tell them anything.”
“What were you after—milk and cookies?”
“If you’re thinking I could get the money from them, you’re wrong. They’re not that rich.”
“We know, Mitch. We know.”
“Let me talk to Holly.”
“Not this time.”
Let me talk to her,” he insisted.
“Relax. She’s doing fine. I’ll put her on the next call. Is that the church you and your parents attended?”
His was the only car in the parking lot, and none were passing at the moment. Across the street from the church, the only vehicles were those in driveways, none at the curb.
“Is that where you went to church?” the kidnapper asked again.
Although he was closed in the car with the doors locked, he felt as exposed as a mouse in an open field with the vibrato of hawk wings suddenly above.
“Were you an altar boy, Mitch?”
“Can that be true?”
“You seem to know everything. If you know it’s true.”
“For a man who was never an altar boy, Mitch, you are so like an altar boy.”
When he didn’t at first respond, thinking the statement a non sequitur, and when the kidnapper waited in silence, Mitch at last said, “I don’t know what that means.”
“Well, I don’t mean you’re pious, that’s for sure. And I don’t mean you’re reliably truthful. With Detective Taggart, you’ve proved to be a cunning liar.”
In their two previous conversations, the man on the phone had been professional, chillingly so. This petty jeering seemed out of sync with his past performance.
He had, however, called himself a handler. He had bluntly said that Mitch was an instrument to be manipulated, finessed.
These taunts must have a purpose, though it eluded Mitch. The kidnapper wanted to get inside his head and mess with him, for some subtle purpose, to achieve a particular result.
“Mitch, no offense, because it’s actually kind of sweet—but you’re as naive as an altar boy.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. I say so.”
This might be an attempt to anger him, anger being an inhibition to clear thinking, or perhaps the purpose was to instill in him such doubt about his competence that he would remain cowed and obedient.
He had already acknowledged to himself the absolute degree of his helplessness in this matter. They could not strop his humility to a sharper edge than now existed.
“Your eyes are wide open, Mitch, but you don’t see.”
This statement unnerved him more than anything else that the kidnapper had said. Not an hour ago, in the loft of his garage, that very thought, couched in similar words, had occurred to him. Having packed John Knox in the trunk of the car, he had returned to the loft to puzzle out how the accident had occurred. Having seen the neck of the lug wrench snared in
the loop of the knot, he had settled the mystery.
But just then he had felt deceived, watched, mocked. He had been overcome by an instinctive sense that a greater truth waited in that loft to be discovered, that it hid from him in plain sight.
He had been shaken by the thought that he saw and yet was blind, that he heard and yet was deaf.
Now the mocking man on the telephone: Your eyes are wide open, Mitch, but you don’t see.
Uncanny seemed not to be too strong a word. He felt that the kidnappers could not only watch him and listen to him anywhere, at any time, but also that they could pore through his thoughts.
He reached for the pistol on the passenger’s seat. No immediate threat loomed, but he felt safer holding the gun.
“Are you with me, Mitch?”
“I’ll call you again at seven-thirty—”
“More waiting? Why?” Impatience gnawed at him, and he could not cage it, though he knew the danger of the infection proceeding to a state of foaming recklessness. “Let’s get on with this.”
“Easy, Mitch. I was about to tell you what to do next when you interrupted.”
“Then, damn it, tell me.”
“A good altar boy knows the ritual, the litanies. A good altar boy responds, but he doesn’t interrupt. If you interrupt again, I’ll make you wait until eight-thirty.”
Mitch got a leash on his impatience. He took a deep breath, let it slowly out, and said, “I understand.”
“Good. So when I hang up, you’ll drive to Newport Beach, to your brother’s house.”
Surprised, he said, “To Anson’s place?”
“You’ll wait with him for the seven-thirty call.”
“Why does my brother have to be involved in this?”
“”You can’t do alone what has to be done,” said the kidnapper.
“But what has to be done? You haven’t told me.”
“We will. Soon.”
“If it takes two men, the other doesn’t have to be him. I don’t want Anson dragged into this.”
“Think about it, Mitch. Who better than your brother? He loves you, right? He won’t want your wife to be cut to pieces like a pig in a slaughterhouse.”
Throughout their beleaguered childhood, Anson had been the reliable rope that kept Mitch tethered to a mooring. Always it was Anson who raised the sails of hope when there seemed to be no wind to fill them.
To his brother, he owed the peace of mind and the happiness that eventually he had found when at last free of his parents, the lightness of spirit that had made it possible for him to win Holly as a wife.
“You’ve set me up,” Mitch said. “If whatever you want me to do goes wrong, you’ve set me up to make it look as if I killed my wife.”
“The noose is even tighter than you realize, Mitch.”
They might be wondering about John Knox, but they didn’t know that he was dead in the trunk of the Honda. A dead conspirator was some proof of the story Mitch could tell the authorities.
Or was it? He had not considered all the ways that the police might interpret Knox’s death, perhaps most of them more incriminating than exculpatory.
“My point,” Mitch said, “is that you’ll do the same to Anson. You’ll wrap him in chains of circumstantial evidence to keep him cooperative. It’s how you work.”
“None of that will matter if the two of you do what we want, and you get her back.”
“But it isn’t fair,” Mitch protested, and realized that he must in fact sound as ingenuous and credulous as an altar boy.
The kidnapper laughed. “And by contrast, you feel we’ve dealt fairly with you? Is that it?”
Clenched around the pistol, his hand had grown cold and moist.
“Would you rather we spared your brother and partnered you with Iggy Barnes?”
“Yes,” Mitch said, and was at once embarrassed to have been so quick to sacrifice an innocent friend to save a loved one.
“And that would be fair to Mr. Barnes?”
Mitch’s father believed that shame had no social usefulness, that it was a signature of the superstitious mind, and that a person of reason, living a rational life, must be free of it. He believed, as well, that the capacity for shame could be expunged by education.
In Mitch’s case, the old man had failed miserably, at least on this score. Although the thug on the phone was the only witness to this willingness to save a brother at the expense of a friend, Mitch felt his face turn warm with shame.
“Mr. Barnes,” the kidnapper said, “is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. If for no other reason, your friend would not be an acceptable substitute for your brother. Now go to Anson’s house and wait for our call.”
Resigned to this development but sick with despair that his brother must be imperiled, Mitch said, “What should I tell him?”
“Absolutely nothing. I’m requiring yon to tell him nothing. I am the experienced handler, not you. When I call, I’ll let him hear Holly scream, and then explain the facts.”
Alarmed, he said, “That’s not necessary, making her scream. t promised not to hurt her.”
“I promised not to rape her, Mitch. Nothing you say to your brother will be as convincing as her scream. I know better than you how to do this.”
His cold, sweaty grip on the pistol was problematic. When his hand began to shake, he put the weapon on the passenger’s seat once more.
“What if Anson isn’t home?”
“He’s home. Get moving, Mitch. It’s rush hour. You don’t want to be late getting to Newport Beach.”
The kidnapper terminated the call.
When Mitch pressed the end button on his phone, the act felt grimly predictive.
He shut his eyes for a moment, trying to gather his unraveled nerves, but then opened them because he felt vulnerable with them closed.
When he started the engine, a flock of crows flew up from the pavement, from the shadow of the steeple to the steeple itself.
Famous for its yacht harbor, its mansions, and its wonderland of upscale shopping, Newport Beach was not home exclusively to the fabulously wealthy. Anson lived in the Corona del Mar district, in the front half of a two-unit condo.
Shaded by a massive magnolia, approached by a used-brick path, with New England architecture as interpreted by a swooning romantic, the house did not impress, but it charmed.
The door chimes played a few bars of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
Anson arrived before Mitch pressed the bell push a second time.
Although as fit as an athlete, Anson was a different physical type from Mitch: bearish, barrel-chested, bull-necked. That he had been a star quarterback in high school testified to his quickness and agility, for he looked more like a middle linebacker.
His handsome, broad, open face seemed always to be anticipating a reason to smile. At the sight of Mitch, he grinned.
“Fratello mio!” Anson exclaimed, embracing his brother and drawing him into the house. “Entrino! Entrino!”
The air was redolent of garlic, onions, bacon.
“Cooking Italian?” Mitch asked.
“Bravissimo, fratello piccolo! From a mere aroma and my bad Italian, you make a brilliant deduction. Let me hang up your coat.”
Mitch had not wanted to leave the pistol in the car. The gun was tucked under his belt, in the small of his back.
“No,” he said. “I’m fine. I’ll keep it.”
“Come to the kitchen. I was in a funk at the prospect of another dinner alone.”
“If you’re immune to funk,” Mitch said.
“There is no such thing as funk antibodies, little brother.”
The house featured a masculine but stylish decor, emphasizing nautical decorative items. Paintings of sailing ships portrayed proud vessels tossed in storms and others making way under radiant skies.
From childhood, Anson had believed that perfect freedom could never be found on land, only at sea, under sail.
He’d been a fan of pirate yarns, stories of naval battles, and tales of adventure on the bounty. He’d read many of them aloud to Mitch, who had sat enthralled for hours.
Daniel and Kathy suffered motion sickness in a rowboat on a pond. Their aversion to the sea had been the first thing to inspire Anson’s interest in the nautical life.
In the cozy, fragrant kitchen, he pointed to a pot steaming on the stove. “Zuppa massaia.”
“What kind of soup is massaia?”
“Classic housewife’s soup. Lacking a wife, I have to get in touch with my feminine side when I want to make it.”
Sometimes Mitch found it hard to believe that a pair as leaden as their parents could have produced a son as buoyant as Anson.
The kitchen clock read 7:24. A traffic backup from an accident had delayed him.
On the table stood a bottle of Chianti Classico and a half-full glass. Anson opened a cabinet, plucked another glass from a shelf.
Mitch almost declined the wine. But one round would not dull his wits and might restore some elasticity to his brittle nerves.
As Anson poured the Chianti, he did a fair imitation of their father’s voice. “Yes, I’m pleased to see you, Mitch, though I didn’t notice your name on the visiting-progeny schedule, and I had planned to spend this evening tormenting guinea pigs in an electrified maze.”
Accepting the Chianti, Mitch said, “I just came from there.”
“That explains your subdued manner and your gray complexion.” Anson raised his glass in a toast. “La dolce vita.”
“To your new deal with China,” Mitch said.
“Was I used as a needle again?”
“Always. But he can’t push hard enough to puncture me anymore. Sounds like a big opportunity.”
“The China thing? He must’ve hyped what I told him. They aren’t dissolving the Communist Party and giving me the emperor’s throne.”
Anson’s consulting work was so arcane that Mitch had never been able to understand it. He had earned a doctorate in linguistics, the science of language, but he also had a deep background in computer languages and in digitalization theory, whatever that might be.
“Every time I leave their place,” Mitch said, “I feel the need to dig in the dirt, work with my hands, something.”
“They make you want to flee to something real.”
“That’s it exactly. This wine’s good.”
“After the soup, we’re having lombo dimaiale con castagne.”
“I can’t digest what I can’t pronounce.”
“Roast loin of pork with chestnuts,” Anson said.
“Sounds good, but I don’t want dinner.”
“There’s plenty. The recipe serves six. I don’t know how to cut it down, so I always make it for six.”
Mitch glanced at the windows. Good—the blinds were shut.
From the counter near the kitchen phone, he picked up a pen and a notepad. “Have you gotten any sailing in lately?”
Anson dreamed of one day owning a sailing yacht. It should be large enough not to seem claustrophobic on a long coastal run or perhaps even on a voyage to Hawaii, but small enough to be managed with one mate and an array of sail motors.
He used the word mate to mean his fellow sailor but also his companion in bed. Regardless of his bearish appearance and sometimes acerbic sense of humor, Anson was a romantic not just about the sea but also about the opposite sex.
The attraction women felt for him could not be called merely magnetic. He drew them as the gravity of the moon pulls the tides.
Yet he was no Don Juan. With great charm, he turned away most of his pursuers. And each one that he hoped might be his ideal woman always seemed to break his heart, though he would not have put it that melodramatically.
The small boat—an eighteen-foot American Sail—that he currently moored at a buoy in the harbor was by no measure a yacht. But given his luck at love, he might one day own the vessel of his dreams long before he found someone with whom to sail it.
In answer to Mitch’s question, he said, “I haven’t had time to do more than bob the harbor like a duck, tacking the channels.”
Sitting at the kitchen table, printing in block letters on the notepad, Mitch said, “I should have a hobby. If you’ve got sailing, and the old man has dinosaur crap.”
He tore off the top sheet of the pad and pushed it across the table so that Anson, still standing, could read it: YOUR HOUSE IS PROBABLY BUGGED.
His brother’s look of astonishment had a quality of wonder that Mitch recognized as similar to the expression that had overtaken him when he had read aloud the pirate yarns and the tales of heroic naval battles that thrilled him as a boy. His initial reaction seemed to be that some strange adventure had begun, and he appeared not to grasp the implied danger.
To cover Anson’s stunned silence, Mitch said, “He just bought a new specimen. He says it’s a ceratosaurus dropping. From Colorado, the Upper Jurassic.”
He presented another sheet of paper on which he had printed THEY’RE SERIOUS. I SAW THEM KILL A MAN.
While Anson read, Mitch withdrew his cell phone from an inside coat pocket and placed it on the table. “Given our family history, it’ll be so appropriate—inheriting a collection of polished shit.”
As Anson pulled out a chair and sat at the table, his boyish expression of expectation clouded with worry. He assisted in the pretense of an ordinary conversation: “How many does he have now?”
“He told me. I don’t remember. You could say the den’s become a sewer.”
“Some of the spheres are pretty things.”
“Very pretty,” Mitch agreed as he printed THEY’LL CALL AT 7:30.
Mystified, Anson mouthed the questions Who? What?
Mitch shook his head. He indicated the wall clock—7:27.
They conducted a self-conscious and inane conversation until the phone rang promptly on the half-hour. The ring came not from Mitch’s cell but from the kitchen phone.
Anson looked to him for guidance.
In the event, which seemed likely, that the timing of this call was coincidental and that the expected contact would come on the cell phone, Mitch indicated that his brother should answer it.
Anson caught it on the third ring and brightened when he heard the caller’s voice. “Holly!”
Mitch closed his eyes, bent his head, covered his face with his hands, and from Anson’s reaction, knew when Holly screamed.
Mitch expected to be brought into the call, but the kidnapper spoke only to Anson, and for longer than three minutes.
The substance of the first part of the conversation was obvious, and could be deduced from hearing his brother’s half of it. The last couple of minutes proved not easy to follow, in part because Anson’s responses grew shorter even as his tone of voice became more grim.
When Anson hung up, Mitch said, “What do they want us to do?”
Instead of answering, Anson came to the table and picked up the bottle of Chianti. He topped off his glass.
Mitch was surprised to see that his own glass was empty. He could recall having taken only a sip or two. He declined a refill.
Pouring in spite of Mitch’s protest, Anson said, “If your heart’s in the same gear as mine, you’ll burn off two glasses of this stuff even as you’re swallowing it.”
Mitch’s hands were trembling, though not from the effect of Chianti, and in fact the wine might steady them.
“And Mickey?” Anson said.
Mickey had been an affectionate nickname that Anson had called his younger brother during a particularly difficult period of their childhood.
When Mitch looked up from his unsteady hands, Anson said, “Nothing will happen to her. I promise you, Mickey. I swear nothing will happen to Holly. Nothing.”
Through the formative years of Mitch’s life, his brother had been a trustworthy pilot, bringing them through storms, or a wingman flying defense as it was needed. He seemed overreaching now, however, when he promised a safe landing, for surely Holly’s kidnappers controlled this flight.
“What do they want us to do?” he asked again. “Is it even possible, is it something that can be done, or is it as crazy as it seemed to me the moment I first heard him demand two million?”
Instead of replying, Anson sat down. Leaning forward, shoulders hunched, beefy arms on the table, the wineglass all but concealed by his large hands, he was an imposing presence.
He still looked bearish but no longer cuddly. The women usually drawn to him as the tides to the moon, upon seeing him in this mood, would take a wide orbit around him.
This particular set to Anson’s jaw, the flare of his nostrils, a perceived change in his eyes from a soft seawater green to an emerald hardness heartened Mitch. He knew this look. This was Anson rising to meet injustice, which always brought out in him a stubborn, effective resistance.
Although relieved to have his brother’s assistance, Mitch felt guilty, too. “I’m sorry about this. Man, I never anticipated you’d be dragged into it. I was blindsided by that. I’m sorry.”
“If you don’t have anything to be sorry about. Nada, zip, zero.”
“If I’d have done something different…”
“If you’d done anything different, maybe Holly would be dead now. So what you’ve done so far is the right thing.”
Mitch nodded. He needed to believe what his brother had said. He felt useless nonetheless. “What do they want us to do?” he asked again.
“First, Mickey, I want to hear everything that’s happened. What the sonofabitch on the phone told me isn’t a fraction of it. I need to hear it from the beginning until you rang my bell.”
Surveying the room, Mitch wondered where an eavesdropping device might be hidden.
“Maybe they’re listening to us right now, maybe they’re not,” Anson said. “It doesn’t matter, Mickey. They already know everything you’re going to tell me because they did it to you”
Mitch nodded. He fortified himself with some Chianti. Then he gave Anson an account of this hellish day.
In case they were being monitored, he withheld only the story of his encounter with John Knox in the garage loft.
Anson listened intently and interrupted only a few times to ask clarifying questions. When Mitch finished, his brother sat with eyes closed, ruminating on what he’d been told.
Megan had the highest IQ of the Rafferty children, but Anson had always scored a close second to her. Holly’s situation remained as dire now as it had been half an hour ago, but Mitch took comfort in the fact that his brother had joined the fight.
He himself had done nearly as well as Anson on the tests. He felt somewhat cheered not because a higher intelligence had set to work on the problem, but because he was no longer alone.
He had never been any good alone.
Getting up from his chair, Anson said, “Sit tight, Mickey. I’ll be right back,” and left the kitchen.
Mitch stared at the telephone. He wondered if he would recognize a listening device if he took the phone apart.
He glanced at the clock—7:48. He had been given sixty hours to raise the money, and fifty-two were left.
That didn’t seem correct. The events that brought him here had left him feeling wrung out, pressed flat. He felt as if he’d already been through the entire sixty hours.
Because he experienced no effect from what he’d thus far drunk, he finished the wine remaining in his glass.
Anson returned, wearing a sports coat. “We have places to go. I’ll tell you everything in the car. I’d rather you drove.”
“Give me a second to finish this wine,” Mitch said, although his glass was empty.
On the notepad, he printed one more message: THEY CAN TRACK MY CAR.
Although no one had tailed him on his way to his parents’ house, the kidnappers had known that he’d gone there. And later, when he had parked in the church lot to take the six-o’clock call, they had known his precise location.
Is that the church you and your parents attended?
If they had attached tracking devices to his truck and to the Honda, they had been able to follow him at a distance, out of sight, monitoring his whereabouts electronically.
Although Mitch didn’t know the practical details of how such technology worked, he did understand that the use of it meant Holly’s abductors were even more sophisticated than he had initially thought. The extent of their resources—that is, their knowledge and their criminal experience—made it increasingly clear that any attempt at resistance would be unlikely to succeed.
On the brighter side, the kidnappers’ professionalism argued that any action they directed Mitch and Anson to undertake would have been well thought out and would be likely to succeed, whether robbery by proxy or another crime. With luck, the ransom would be raised.
In response to the warning in the latest note, Anson switched off the flame under the pot of soup, and produced the keys to his SUV. “Let’s take my Expedition. You drive.”
Mitch caught the keys when they were tossed to him, then quickly gathered the notes that he had printed, and threw them in the trash.
He and his brother left by the kitchen door. Anson neither turned off any lights nor engaged the lock, perhaps recognizing that, in this tempest, he could not keep out those whom he wished to bar, only those who had no desire to enter.
Softened by ferns and dwarf nandina, a brick courtyard separated the front and rear condos. The smaller back unit was above a pair of garages.
Anson’s two-stall garage contained the Expedition and a 1947 Buick Super Woody Wagon, which he himself had restored.
Mitch got behind the wheel of the SUV. “What if they have tracking devices on your cars, too?”
As he pulled shut the passenger’s door, Anson said, “Doesn’t matter. I’m going to do exactly what they want. If they’re able to track us, they’ll be reassured.”
Backing out of the garage, into the alley, Mitch said, “So what do they want, what have we got to do? Hit me with it.”
“They want two million bucks transferred to a numbered account in the Grand Cayman Islands.”
“Yeah, well, I guess that’s better than having to give it to them in pennies, two hundred million damn pennies, but whose money do we have to rip off?”
The violent light of a red sunset flooded the alleyway.
Anson pressed the remote to close the garage door. He said, “We don’t have to rip off anybody. It’s my money, Mickey. They want my money, and for this they can have it.”
The burning sky made radiant the alley, and a furnace glow filled the Expedition.
Flushed with a fiery reflection of the smoldering sun, Anson’s face appeared fierce, and a golden eyeshine gilded his stare, but in his soft voice was the tender truth of him: “Everything I have is yours, Mickey.”
As if he had crossed a busy city street and, glancing back, saw a primeval forest where a metropolis had just stood, Mitch sat for a moment in bewildered silence, and then said, “You have two million dollars? Where did you get two million dollars?”
“I’m good at what I do, and I’ve worked hard.”
“I’m sure you’re good at what you do, you’re good at everything you do, but you don’t live like a rich man.”
“Don’t want to. Flash and status don’t interest me.”
“I know some people with money keep a low profile, but…”
“Ideas interest me,” Anson said, “and getting real freedom someday, but not having my picture in the society pages.”
Mitch remained lost in the forest of this new reality. “You mean you have, really have, two million in the bank?”
“I’ll have to liquidate investments. It can be done by phone, by computer, once the exchanges open tomorrow. Three hours tops.”
Dry seeds of hope swelled with the irrigation provided by this amazing, this astonishing news.
Mitch said, “How…how much do you have? I mean, altogether.”
“This will almost wipe out my liquidity,” Anson said, “but I’ll still have the equity in the condo.”
“Wipe you out. I can’t let that happen.”
“If I earned it once, I can earn it again.”
“Not that much. Not easily.”
“What I do with my money is my business, Mickey. And what I want to do with it is get Holly home safe.”
Through the streaming crimson light, through soft dusky shadows fast hardening toward night, along the alley came a ginger cat.
Caught in cross tides of emotion, Mitch did not trust himself to speak, so he watched the cat and drew slow deep breaths.
Anson said, “Because I’m not married, don’t have kids, these scum came after Holly and you as a way to get at me.”
The revelation of Anson’s wealth had so surprised Mitch that he had not at once grasped this obvious explanation of the heretofore inexplicable abduction.
“If there’d been someone closer to me,” Anson continued, “if I had been more vulnerable that way, then my wife or child would have been snatched, and Holly would’ve been spared.”
Slinking slowly to a stillness, the ginger cat stopped in front of the Expedition, peered up at Mitch. In a streetscape of reflected fire, only the cat’s eyes produced original light, radium-green.
“It could’ve been one of our sisters they grabbed, couldn’t it? Megan, Connie, Portia? And this is no different from that.”
Mitch wondered, “The way you live, so middle-class, how did they know?”
“Someone working in a bank, a stock brokerage, one bent nail where there shouldn’t be any.”
“You have any idea who?”
“I haven’t had time to think about it, Mickey. Ask me tomorrow.”
Breaking stillness, sneaking forward, the ginger cat passed close by the SUV, vanishing from sight.
In that instant, a bird flew up, a pigeon or a dove that had lingered late over scattered crumbs, thrashing its wings against the driver’s-door window as it swooped off toward some safe bower.
Mitch was startled by the sound and by the dreamlike perception that the cat, on vanishing, had become the bird.
Facing his brother again, Mitch said, “I couldn’t see a way to go to the cops. But everything’s changed now. You have that option.”
Anson shook his head. “They shot a guy to death right in front of you to make a point.”
“And you got the point.”
“Well, so did I. Unless they get what they want, they’ll kill without compunction, and they’ll pin it on you or on both of us. We get Holly back, and then we go to the cops.”
“Two million dollars.”
“It’s only money,” Anson said.
Mitch remembered what his brother had said about not caring to have his picture in the society pages, about instead being interested in ideas and in “getting real freedom someday.”
Now he repeated those four words and said, “I know what that means. The sailing yacht. A life on the sea.”
“It doesn’t matter, Mickey.”
“Sure it matters. With that much money, you’re close to having the boat and a life without chains.”
Anson’s turn had come to look for the cat or an equivalent distraction in the rouge light, the mordant shadows.
Mitch said, “I know you’re a planner. You always have been. When did you plan to retire, to go for it?”
“It’s a child’s dream anyway, Mickey. Pirate yarns and naval battles.”
“When?” Mitch insisted.
“In two years. When I turned thirty-five. So it’ll be a few years later. And I might make it back quicker than I think. My business is growing fast.”
“The China deal.”
“The China deal and others. I’m good at what I do.”
“No way I’d turn you down,” Mitch said. “I’d die for Holly, so I’m sure as hell willing to let you go broke for her. But I won’t let you minimize the sacrifice. It’s one mother of a sacrifice.”
Anson reached out, put a hand around the back of Mitch’s neck, pulled him close, gently pressed forehead to forehead, so they were not looking at each other but down at the gearshift console between them. “Tell you something, bro.”
“Normally I’d never mention this. But so you don’t chew out your own liver with guilt, which is the way you are…you should know you aren’t the only one who’s needed help.”
“What do you mean?”
“How do you think Connie bought her bakery?”
“I structured a loan so a portion converts into a tax-free gift each year. I don’t want to be repaid. It’s fun to do this. And Megan’s dog-grooming business.”
Mitch said, “The restaurant Portia and Frank are opening.”
Still sitting bowed head to bowed head, Mitch said, “How did they figure out you had so much?”
“They didn’t. I saw what they needed. I’ve been trying to think what you need, but you’ve always seemed…so damned self-reliant.”
“This is way different from a loan to buy a bakery or open a little restaurant.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
Mitch laughed shakily.
“Growing up in Daniel’s rat maze,” Anson said, “the only thing any of us had was one another. The only thing that mattered. That’s still the way it is, fratello piccolo. That’s the way it’s always going to be.”
“I’ll never forget this,” Mitch said.
“Damn right. You owe me forever.”
Mitch laughed again, less shakily. “Free gardening for life.”
“Are you gonna drip snot on the gearshift?”
“No,” Mitch promised.
“Good. I like a clean car. You ready to drive?”
“Then let’s roll.”
Only the thinnest wound of the fallen day bled along the far horizon, and otherwise the sky was dark, and the
sea dark; and the moon had not yet risen to silver the deserted beaches.
Anson said he needed to think, and he thought clearly and well aboard a car in motion, because it was akin to a boat under sail. He suggested Mitch drive south.
At that hour, light traffic plied the Pacific Coast Highway, and Mitch stayed in the right-hand lane, in no hurry.
“They’ll call the house tomorrow at noon,” Anson said, “to see what progress I’ve made with the financials.”
“I don’t like this wire transfer to the Cayman Islands.”
“Neither do I. Then they have the money and Holly.”
“Better we have a face-to-face,” Mitch said. “They bring Holly, we bring a couple suitcases of cash.”
“That’s also iffy. They take the money, shoot all of us.”
“Not if we make it a condition that we can be armed.”
Anson was dubious. “That would intimidate them? They’re really gonna believe we know guns?”
“Probably not. So we take weapons that don’t require us to be great shooters. Like shotguns.”
“Where do we get shotguns?” Anson asked.
“We buy them at a gun shop, at Wal-Mart, wherever.”
“Isn’t there a waiting period?”
“I don’t think so. Only with handguns.”
“We’d need to practice with them.”
“Not much,” Mitch said, “just to get comfortable.”
“Maybe we could go out Ortega Highway. Once we had the guns, I mean. There’s still some desert they haven’t slammed full of houses. We could find a lonely place, fire some rounds.”
Mitch drove in silence, and Anson rode in silence, the eastern hills speckled with the lights of expensive houses, the black sea to the west, and the sky black, with no horizon line visible anymore, sea and sky merging into one great black void.
Then Mitch said, “It doesn’t feel real to me. The shotguns.”
“It feels movie,” Anson agreed.
“I’m a gardener. You’re a linguistics expert.”
“Anyway,” Anson said, “I don’t see kidnappers letting us set conditions. Whoever has the power makes the rules.”
They worried southward. The graceful highway curved, rose, and descended into downtown Laguna Beach.
In mid-May the tourist season had begun. People strolled the sidewalks, going to and from dinner, peering in the windows of the closed shops and galleries.
When his brother suggested that they grab something to eat, Mitch said he wasn’t hungry. “”&u have to eat,” Anson pressed.
Resisting, Mitch said, “What’re we going to talk about over dinner? Sports? We don’t want to be overheard talking about this.”
“So we’ll eat in the car.”
Mitch parked in front of a Chinese restaurant. Painted on the windows, a dragon rampant tossed its mane of scaly flagella.
While Anson waited in the SUV, Mitch went inside. The girl at the takeout counter promised to have his order in ten minutes.
The animated conversation of the diners at the tables grated on him. He resented their carefree laughter.
Aromas of coconut rice, sweet-chili rice, deep-fried corn balls, cilantro, garlic, sizzling cashews raised an appetite. But soon the fragrant air grew oppressive, oily; his mouth turned dry and sour.
Holly remained in the hands of murderers.
They had hit her.
They had made her scream for him, and for Anson.
Ordering Chinese takeout, eating dinner, attending to any tasks of ordinary life seemed like betrayals of Holly, seemed to diminish the desperation of her situation.
If she had heard the threats made to Mitch on the phone—that her fingers would be sawn off, her tongue cut out—then her fear must be unbearable, desolating.
When he imagined her unrelenting fear, thought of her bound in darkness, the humility arising from his helplessness began at last to make way for greater anger, for rage. His face was hot, his eyes stinging, his throat so swollen with fury he could not swallow.
Irrationally, he envied the happy diners with an intensity that made him want to knock them out of their chairs, smash their faces.
The orderly decor offended him. His life had fallen into chaos, and he burned with the desire to spend his misery in a violent spree.
Some secret savage splinter of his nature, long festering, now flamed to full infection, filling him with the urge to tear down the colorful paper lanterns, shred the rice-paper screens, rip from the walls the red-enameled wooden letters of the Chinese language and spin them, as if they were martial-arts throwing stars, to slash and gouge everything in their path, to shatter windows.
Presenting two white bags containing his order, the counter girl sensed the pending storm in him. Her eyes widened, and she tensed.
Only a week ago, a deranged customer in a pizzeria had shot and killed a cashier and two waiters before another customer, an off-duty cop, had brought him down with two shots. This girl probably replayed in her mind the TV reports of that slaughter.
The realization that he might be frightening her was a lifeline that reeled Mitch back from fury to anger, then to a passive misery that dropped his blood pressure and quieted his thundering heart.
Leaving the restaurant, stepping into the mild spring night, he saw that his brother, in the Expedition, was on his cell phone.
As Mitch got behind the steering wheel, Anson concluded the call, and Mitch said, “Was it them?”
“No. There’s this guy I think we should talk to.”
Giving Anson the larger bag of takeout, Mitch said, “What guy?”
“We’re in deep water with sharks. We’re no match for them. We need advice from someone who can keep us from being eaten like chum.”
Although earlier he had given his brother the option of going to the authorities, Mitch said, “They’ll kill her if we tell anyone.”
“They said no cops. We aren’t going to the police.”
“It still makes me nervous.”
“Mickey, I see the risks. We’re playing a trip wire with a violin bow. But if we don’t try to make some music, we’re screwed anyway.”
Tired of feeling powerless, convinced that docile obedience to the kidnappers would be repaid with contempt and cruelty, Mitch said, “Okay. But what if they’re listening to us right now?”
“They’re not. To bug a car and listen in real time, wouldn’t they have to plant more than a microphone? Wouldn’t they have to package it with a microwave transmitter and a power source?”
“Would they? I don’t know. How would I know?”
“I think so. It would be too much equipment, too bulky, too complicated to conceal easily or to set up quickly.”
With chopsticks, which he had requested, Anson ate Szechuan beef from one container, rice with mushrooms from another.
“What about directional microphones?”
“I’ve seen the same movies you have,” Anson said. “Directional
mikes work best when the air is still. Look at the trees. We have a breeze tonight.”
Mitch ate moo goo gai pan with a plastic fork. He resented the deliciousness of the food, as though he would be more faithful to Holly if he gagged down a flavorless meal.
“Besides,” Anson said, “directional mikes don’t work between one moving vehicle and another.”
“Then let’s not talk about it till we’re moving.”
“Mickey, there’s a very thin line between sensible caution and paranoia.”
“I passed that line hours ago,” Mitch said, “and for me there’s no going back.”
The moo goo gai pan left an unsavory aftertaste that Mitch tried unsuccessfully to wash away with Diet Pepsi as he drove.
He headed south on Coast Highway. Buildings and trees screened the sea from sight except for glimpses of an abyssal blackness.
Sipping from a tall paper cup of lemon tea, Anson said, “His name is Campbell. He’s ex-FBI.”
Alarmed, Mitch said, “This is exactly who we can’t turn to.”
“Emphasis on the ex, Mickey. ￡#-FBI. He was shot, and shot bad, when he was twenty-eight. Other guys would have lived on disability, but he built his own little business empire.”
“What if they’ve got a tracking device on the Expedition, and they figure out we’re powwowing with an ex-FBI agent?”
“They won’t know that he was. If they know anything at all about him, they might know I did a large piece of business with him a few years ago. That’ll just look like I’m putting together the ransom.”
The tires droned on the blacktop, but Mitch felt as though the highway under them were no more substantial than the skin of surface tension on a pond, across which a mosquito might skate confidently until a feeding fish rose and took it.
“I know what soil bougainvillea needs, what sunlight loropetalum requires,” he said. “But this stuff is another universe to me.”
“Me too, Mickey. Which is why we need help. No one has more real-world knowledge, more street smarts than Julian Campbell.”
Mitch had begun to feel that every yes-no decision was a switch on a bomb detonator, that one wrong choice would atomize his wife.
If this continued, he would soon worry himself into paralysis. Inaction would not save Holly. Indecision would be the death of her.
“All right,” he relented. “Where does this Campbell live?”
“Get to the interstate. We’re going south to Rancho Santa Fe.”
East-northeast of San Diego, Rancho Santa Fe was a community of four-star resorts, golf courses, and multimillion-dollar estates.
“Jam it,” Anson said, “and we’ll be there in ninety minutes.”
When together, they were comfortable with silences, perhaps because each of them, as a kid, had separately and alone spent much time in the learning room. That chamber was better soundproofed than a radio-station studio. No noise penetrated from the outside world.
During the drive, Mitch’s silence and his brother’s were different from each other. His was the silence of futile thrashing in a vacuum, of a mute astronaut tumbling in zero gravity.
Anson’s was the silence of feverish but ordered thought. His mind raced along chains of deductive and inductive reasoning faster than any computer, without the hum of electronic calculation.
They had been on I-5 for twenty minutes when Anson said, “Do you sometimes feel we were held for ransom our entire childhood?”
“If not for you,” Mitch said, “I’d hate them.”
“I do hate them sometimes,” Anson said. “Intensely but briefly They’re too pathetic to hate for more than a moment. It would be like wasting your life hating Santa Claus because he doesn’t exist.”
“Remember when I got caught with the copy of Charlotte’s Web?”
“You were almost nine. You spent twenty days in the learning room.” Anson quoted Daniel: ” ‘Fantasy is a doorway to superstition.’ “
“Talking animals, a humble pig, a clever spider—”
“A corrupting influence,'” Anson quoted. ” ‘The first step in a life of unreason and irrational beliefs.’ “
Their father saw no mystery in nature, just a green machine.
Mitch said, “It would have been better if they hit us.”
“Much better. Bruises, broken bones—that’s the kind of thing that gets the attention of Child Protective Services.”
After another silence, Mitch said, “Connie in Chicago, Megan in Atlanta, Portia in Birmingham. Why are you and I still here?”
“Maybe we like the climate,” Anson said. “Maybe we don’t think distance heals. Maybe we feel we have unfinished business.”
The last explanation resonated with Mitch. He had often thought about what he would say to his parents if the opportunity arose to question the disparity between their intentions and methods, or the cruelty of trying to strip from children their sense of wonder.
When he left the interstate and drove inland on state highways, desert moths swirled as white as snowflakes in the headlights and burst against the windshield.
Julian Campbell lived behind stone walls, behind an imposing iron gate framed by a massive limestone chambranle. The ascendants of the chambranle featured rich carvings of leafy vines that rose to the capping transverse, joining to form a giant wreath at the center.
“This gate,” Mitch said, “must’ve cost as much as my house.”
Anson assured him: “Twice as much.”
To the left of the main gate, the stacked-stone estate wall incorporated a guardhouse. As the Expedition drifted to a stop, the door opened, and a tall young man in a black suit appeared.
His clear dark eyes read Mitch as instantly as a cashier’s scanner reads the bar code on a product. “Good evening, sir.” He at once looked past Mitch to Anson. “Pleased to see you, Mr. Rafferty.”
With no sound that Mitch could detect, the ornate iron gates swung inward. Beyond lay a two-lane driveway paved with quartzite cobblestones, flanked by majestic phoenix palms, each tree lighted from the base, the great crowns forming a canopy over the pavement.
He drove onto the estate with the feeling that, all forgiven, Eden had been restored.
The driveway was a quarter of a mile long. Vast, magically illuminated lawns and gardens receded into mystery on both sides.
Anson said, “Sixteen manicured acres.”
“There must be a dozen on the landscape staff alone.”
“I’m sure there are.”
From red tile roofs, limestone walls, mullioned windows radiant with golden light, columns, balustrades, and terraces, the architect had conjured as much grace as grandeur. So large that it should have been intimidating, the Italianate house instead looked welcoming.
The driveway ended by encircling a reflecting pond with a center fountain from which crisscrossing jets, like sprays of silver coins, arced and sparkled in the night. Mitch parked beside it.
“Does this guy have a license to print money?”
“He’s in entertainment. Movies, casinos, you name it.”
This splendor overawed Mitch but also raised his hopes that Julian Campbell would be able to help them. Having built such wealth after being critically wounded and released from the FBI on permanent disability, having been dealt such a bad hand yet having played it to win, Campbell must be as street-smart as Anson promised.
A silver-haired man, with the demeanor of a butler, greeted them on the terrace, said his name was Winslow, and escorted them inside.
They followed Winslow across an immense white-marble receiving foyer capped by a coffered plaster ceiling with gold-leaf details. After passing through a living room measuring at least sixty by eighty feet, they came finally into a mahogany-paneled library.
In response to Mitch’s question, Winslow revealed that the book collection numbered over sixty thousand volumes. “Mr. Campbell will be with you momentarily,” he said, and departed. The library, which incorporated more square footage than Mitch’s bungalow, offered half a dozen seating areas with sofas and chairs.
They settled into armchairs, facing each other across a coffee table, and Anson sighed. “This is the right thing.”
“If he’s half as impressive as the house—”
“Julian is the best, Mickey. He’s the real deal.”
“He must think a lot of you to meet on such short notice, past ten o’clock at night.”
Anson smiled ruefully. “What would Daniel and Kathy say if I turned away your compliment with a few words of modesty?”
” ‘Modesty is related to diffidence,’ ” Mitch quoted. ” ‘Diffidence is related to shyness. Shyness is a synonym for timidity. Timidity is a characteristic of the meek. The meek do not inherit the earth, they serve those who are self-confident and self-assertive.’ “
“I love you, little brother. You’re amazing.”
“I’m sure you could quote it word for word, too.”
“That’s not what I mean. You were raised in that Skinner box, that rat maze, and yet you’re maybe the most modest guy I know.”
“I’ve got issues,” Mitch assured him. “Plenty of them.”
“See? Your response to being called modest is self-criticism.” Mitch smiled. “Guess I didn’t learn much in the learning room.”
“For me, the learning room wasn’t the worst,” Anson said. “What I’ll never scrape out of my mind is the shame game.”
Memory flushed Mitch’s face. “‘Shame has no social usefulness. It’s a signature of the superstitious mind.'”
“When did they first make you play the shame game, Mickey?”
“I think I was maybe five.”
“How often did you have to play it?”
“I guess half a dozen times over the years.”
“They put me through it eleven times that I remember, the last when I was thirteen.”
Mitch grimaced. “Man, I remember that one. You were given a full week of it.”
“Living na*ed twenty-four/seven while everyone else in the house remains clothed. Being required to answer in front of everyone the most embarrassing, the most intimate questions about your private thoughts and habits and desires. Being watched by two other family members at every toilet, at least one of them a sister, allowed no smallest private moment…Did that curt you of shame, Mickey?”
“Look at my face,” Mitch said.
“I could light a candle off that blush.” Anson laughed softly, a warm and bearish laugh. “Damn if we’re getting him anything for Father’s Day.”
“Not even cologne?” Mitch asked.
This was a jokey routine from childhood.
“Not even a pot to piss in,” Anson said.
“What about the piss without the pot?”
“How would I wrap it?”
“With love,” Mitch said, and they grinned at each other.
“I’m proud of you, Mickey. You beat ’em. It didn’t work with you the way it worked with me.”
“The way what worked?”
“They broke me, Mitch. I have no shame, no capacity for guilt.” From under his sports coat, Anson withdrew a pistol.
Mitch held his smile in anticipation of the punch line, as if the pistol would prove to be not a weapon but instead a cigarette lighter or a novelty-store item that shot bubbles.
If the salty sea could freeze and keep its color, it would have been the shade of Anson’s eyes. They were as clear as ever, as direct as always, but they were further colored by a quality that Mitch had never seen before, that he could not identify, or would not.
“Two million. Truth is,” Anson said almost sadly, without bite or rancor, “I wouldn’t pay two million to ransom you, so Holly was dead the moment she was snatched.”
Mitch’s face set marble-hard, and his throat seemed to be full of broken stones that weighed down speech.
“Some people I’ve done consulting work for—sometimes they come across an opportunity that is crumbs to them but meat to me. Not my usual work, but things that are more directly criminal.”
Mitch had to struggle to focus his attention, to hear what was said, for his head was filled with a roar of lifelong perceptions collapsing like a construct of termite-eaten timbers.
“The people who kidnapped Holly are the team I put together for one of those jobs. They made a bundle from it, but they found out my take was bigger than I told them, and now they’re greedy.”
So Holly had been kidnapped not solely because Anson had enough money to ransom her, but also because—primarily because—Anson had cheated her abductors.
“They’re afraid to come directly after me. I’m a valuable resource to some serious people who’d pop anyone who popped me.”
Mitch assumed he would soon meet some of those “serious people,” but whatever threat they might pose to him, it could not equal the devastation of this betrayal.
“On the phone,” Anson revealed, “they said if I don’t ransom Holly, they’ll kill her and then shoot you down in the street one day, like they shot Jason Osteen. The poor dumb babies. They think they know me, but they don’t know what I really am. Nobody does.”
Mitch shivered, for his mental landscape had turned wintry, his thoughts a storm of sleet, an icy and unrelenting barrage.
“Jason was one of them, by the way. Sweet brainless Breezer. He thought his pals were going to shoot the dog to make their point with you. By shooting him instead, they made a sharper point and improved the split of the remaining partners.”
Of course, Anson had known Jason as long as Mitch had known him. But Anson evidently had remained in touch with Jason long after Mitch had lost track of his former roommate.
“Is there something you want to say to me, Mitch?”
Perhaps another man in his position would have had a thousand angry questions, bitter denunciations, but Mitch sat frozen, having just experienced an emotional and intellectual polar shift, his previous equatorial view of life having flipped arctic in an instant. The landscape of this new reality was unknown to him, and this man who so resembled his brother was not the brother he had known, but a stranger. They were foreigners to each other, with no common language, here on a desolate plain.
Anson seemed to take Mitch’s silence as a challenge or even an affront. Leaning forward in his chair, he sought a reaction, though he spoke in the brotherly voice that he had always used before, as if his tongue was so accustomed to the soft tones of deceit that it could not sharpen itself to the occasion.
“Just so you won’t feel that you mean less to me than Megan, Connie, and Portia, I should clarify something. I didn’t give them money to start businesses. That was bullshit, bro. I handled you.”
Because a response was clearly wanted, Mitch did not give one.
A man with a fever can suffer chills, and Anson’s stare remained icy though its intensity revealed a feverishly agitated mind. “Two million wouldn’t wipe me out, bro. The truth is…I’ve got closer to eight.”
From behind the burly bearish charm, a goatish other watched, and Mitch sensed, without fully understanding what he meant, that he and his brother, alone in the room, were in fact not alone.
“I bought the yacht in March,” Anson said. “Come September,
I’ll run my consulting service at sea, with a satellite uplink. Freedom. I’ve earned it, and no one’s gonna bleed me for two cents of it.”
The library door closed. Someone had arrived—and wanted privacy for what came next.
Rising from his chair, pistol ready, Anson tried once more to sting a reaction from Mitch. “You can take some comfort from the fact that this will be over for Holly quicker now than midnight Wednesday.”
Defined by a confidence and grace that suggested miscegenation with a panther somewhere in his heritage, a tall man arrived, his iron-gray eyes bright with curiosity, his nose raised as if seeking an elusive scent.
To Mitch, Anson said, “When I’m not home to take their call at noon, and when they can’t get you on your cell phone, they’ll know my buttons can’t be pushed. They’ll whack her, dump her, and run.”
The confident man wore tasseled loafers, black silk slacks, and a gray silk shirt the shade of his eyes. A gold Rolex brightened his left wrist, and his manicured fingernails were buffed to a shine.
“They won’t torture her,” Anson continued. “That was bluff. They probably won’t even screw her before they kill her, though I would if I were them.”
Two solid men stepped from behind Mitch’s chair, flanking him. Both had pistols fitted with silencers, and their eyes were like those you usually saw only from the free side of a cage.
“He’s carrying a piece in the small of his back,” Anson told them. To Mitch, he said, “I felt it when I hugged you, bro.”
In retrospect, Mitch wondered why he hadn’t mentioned the pistol to Anson once they were in the Expedition, in motion, and not likely to be monitored. Perhaps in the deepest catacombs of his mind had been interred a distrust of his brother that he had not been able to acknowledge.
One of the gunmen had a bad complexion. Like aphids at a leaf, acne had pitted his face. He told Mitch to stand, and Mitch got up from the chair.
The other gunman lifted the back of his sports coat and took the pistol from him.
When told to sit down, Mitch obeyed.
At last he spoke to Anson, but only to say, “I pity you,” which was true, though it was a wretched kind of pity, with some compassion but no tenderness, leeched of mercy but transfused with revulsion.
However this pity might be qualified, Anson wanted none of it. He had said that he was proud of Mickey for not being molded in their parents’ forge, that he himself felt broken. Those were lies, the lubricating oil of a manipulator.
His pride was reserved for his own cunning and ruthlessness. At Mitch’s declaration of pity, disdain narrowed Anson’s eyes, and his clear contempt brought a harder edge of brutality to his features.
As if he sensed that Anson was sufficiently offended to do something rash, the man in silk raised one hand, Rolex glittering, to stay a gunshot. “Not here.”
After a hesitation, Anson returned his pistol to the shoulder holster under his sports coat.
Unsought, into Mitch’s mind came the seven words that Detective Taggart had spoken to him eight hours before, and though he did not know their source and did not fully see their appropriateness to the moment, he felt compelled to speak them. “‘Blood crieth unto me from the ground.'”
For an instant, Anson and his associates were as motionless as figures in a painting, the library hushed, the air still, the night crouched at the French doors, and then Anson walked out of the room, and the two gunmen retreated a few steps, remaining alert, and the man in silk perched on the arm of the chair in which Anson had sat.
“Mitch,” he said, “you’ve been quite a disappointment to your brother.”
Julian Campbell had the golden glow that could have been achieved only with a tanning machine of his own, a sculpted physique that was proof of a home gym and a personal trainer, and a smooth face that, for a man in his fifties, suggested a plastic surgeon on retainer.
The wound that had ended his FBI career was not evident, nor any sign of disability. His triumph over his physical injuries evidently equaled his economic success.
“Mitch, I’m curious.”
Instead of answering, Campbell said, “I’m a practical man. In my business I do what I need to do, and I don’t get acid indigestion over it.”
Mitch translated those words to mean that Campbell did not allow himself to be troubled by guilt.
“I know a lot of men who do what needs done. Practical men.”
In thirteen and a half hours, the kidnappers would call Anson’s house. If Mitch wasn’t there to take the call, Holly would be killed.
“But this is the first time I’ve seen a man drop the dime on his own brother just to prove he’s the hardest hardcase around.”
“For money,” Mitch corrected.
Campbell shook his head. “No. Anson could have asked me to teach these pussies a lesson. They aren’t as tough as they think.”
Below this darkest level of the day’s descent lay something darker.
“In twelve hours, we could have them begging to pay us to take your wife back unharmed.”
Mitch waited. For now there was nothing to do but wait.
“These guys have mothers. We burn down one mom’s house, maybe smash another old lady’s face, she needs a year of reconstructive surgery.”
Campbell was as matter-of-fact as if he had been explaining the terms of a real-estate deal.
“One of them has a daughter by an ex-wife. She means something to him. We stop the kid on her way home from school, strip her naked, set her clothes on fire. We tell her dad—next time we burn little Suzie with her clothes.”
Earlier, in his naivete, Mitch had been willing to have Iggy dragged into this mess to spare Anson.
Now he wondered if he would have been willing for other innocent people to be beaten, burned, and savaged in order to save Holly. Perhaps he should be thankful that the choice had not been offered to him.
“If we tweaked twelve of theirs in twelve hours, those pussies
would send your wife home with apologies and a Nordstrom gift certificate for a new wardrobe.”
The two gunmen never took their eyes off Mitch.
“But Anson,” Campbell continued, “he wants to make a statement so nobody ever underestimates him again. Indirectly, the statement’s also for my benefit. And I gotta say…I’m impressed.”
Mitch could not let them see the true intensity of his terror. They would assume that extreme fear would make him reckless, and they would watch him even more diligently than they watched him now.
He must appear to be fearful but, more than fearful, despairing. A man in the grip of despair, who has utterly abandoned hope, is not a man with the will to fight.
“I’m curious,” Campbell repeated, coming around at last to where he had started. “For your brother to be able to do this to you .. . what did you do?”
“Loved him,” Mitch said.
Campbell regarded Mitch as a wading heron regards a swimming fish, and then smiled. “Yes, that would do it. What if one day he found himself reciprocating?”
“He’s always wanted to go far, and to get there fast.”
“Sentiment is an encumbrance,” Campbell said.
In a voice weighed low with despair, Mitch said, “Oh, it’s a chain and an anchor.”
From the coffee table where one of the gunmen had put it, Campbell picked up the pistol that had been taken from Mitch. “Have you ever fired this?”
Mitch almost said that he had not, but then realized that the magazine lacked one bullet, the round with which Knox accidentally shot himself. “Once. I fired it once. To see what it felt like.”
Amused, Campbell said, “And did it feel scary?”
“Your brother says you’re not a man for guns.”
“He knows me better than I know him.”
“So where did you get this?”
“My wife thought we should keep one in the house.”
“How right she was.”
“It’s been in a nightstand drawer since the day we bought it,” Mitch lied.
Campbell rose to his feet. With his right arm extended full length, he pointed the pistol at Mitch’s face. “Stand up.”
Meeting the blind stare of the pistol, Mitch rose from the armchair.
The two nameless gunmen moved to new positions, as though their intent was to cut down Mitch in triangulated fire.
“Take off your coat and put it on the table,” Campbell said.
Mitch did as he was told, and then followed another instruction to turn out the pockets of his jeans. He put his ring of keys, his wallet, and a couple of wadded Kleenex on the coffee table.
He recalled being a boy in darkness and silence. Instead of concentrating for days on the simple lesson his incarceration was meant to teach him, he had conducted imaginary conversations with a spider named Charlotte, a pig named Wilbur, a rat named Templeton. That had been the closest he had come to defiance—then or since.
He doubted that these men would shoot him while in the house. Even when scrubbed away and no longer visible to the signature mat special chemicals and lights could reveal.
One of the gunmen picked up Mitch’s coat, searched the pockets, and found only the cell phone.
To his watchful host, Mitch said, “How did you go from being an FBI hero to this?”
Campbell’s puzzlement was brief. “Is that the yarn Anson spun to get you here? Julian Campbell—FBI hero?”
Although the gunmen had seemed as humorless as carrion-eating beetles, the one with smooth skin laughed, and the other smiled.
“You probably didn’t make your money in entertainment, either,” Mitch said.
“Entertainment? That could be true enough,” Campbell said, “if you have an elastic definition of entertainment.”
The acne-scarred gunman had produced a folded plastic garbage bag from a hip pocket. He shook it open.
Campbell said, “And Mitch, if Anson told you these two gentlemen are candidates for the priesthood, I should warn you they aren’t.”
The carrion beetles were further amused.
The gunman with the plastic bag stuffed it with the sports coat, cell phone, and other items that they had taken off Mitch. Before throwing away the wallet, he stripped out the cash and gave it to Campbell.
Mitch remained on his feet, waiting.
The three men were more relaxed with him than they had first been. They knew him now.
He was Anson’s brother but only by blood. He was an evader, not a hunter. He would obey. They knew he would not effectively resist. He would retreat within himself. Eventually he would beg.
They knew him, knew his kind, and after the gunman finished putting items in the garbage bag, he produced a pair of handcuffs.
Before Mitch could be asked to extend his hands, he offered them.
The man with the cuffs hesitated, and Campbell shrugged, and the man with the cuffs snapped them around Mitch’s wrists.
“You seem very tired,” Campbell said.
“Funny how tired,” Mitch agreed.
Putting down the gun they had confiscated, Campbell said, “It’s that way sometimes.”
Mitch didn’t bother to test the cuffs. They were tight, and the shackle chain between the wrists was short.
As Campbell counted the forty-odd dollars that had been taken from Mitch’s wallet, his voice had an almost tender quality: “You might even fall asleep on the way.”
“Where are we going?”
“I knew a guy who fell asleep one night, on a drive like the one you’re taking. It was almost a shame to wake him when we got there.”
“Are you coming?” Mitch asked.
“Oh, I haven’t in years. I’ll stay here with my books. You don’t need me. You’ll be all right. Everyone’s all right, at the end.”
Mitch looked around at the aisles of books. “Have you read any?”
“The histories. I’m fascinated by history, how almost no one ever learns from it.”
“Have you learned from it?”
“I am history. I’m the thing nobody wants to learn.”
Campbell’s hands, as dexterous as those of a magician, folded Mitch’s money into his own wallet with an economy of movement that was nevertheless theatrical.
“These gentlemen will be taking you to the car pavilion. Not through the house, but across the gardens.”
Mitch assumed that the household staff—night maids, the butler—either were not aware of the hard side of Campbell’s business or collaborated in a pretense of ignorance.
“Good-bye, Mitch. You’ll be all right. It’s not long now. You might even doze on the way.”
Flanking Mitch, each holding him by one arm, the gunmen walked him across the library to the French doors. The man with the pitted face, on his right, pressed the muzzle of a pistol into his side, not cruelly, only as a reminder.
Just before stepping across the threshold, Mitch glanced back and saw Campbell reviewing the titles on a shelf of books. He stood with the hipshot grace of a loitering ballet dancer.
He appeared to be choosing a book to take to bed. Or maybe not to bed. A spider does not sleep; neither does history.
Terrace to steps, descending to another terrace, the gunmen expertly conveyed Mitch.
The moon lay drowned in the swimming pool, as pale and undulant as an apparition.
Along garden pathways where hidden toads sang, across a broad lawn, through a copse of tall lacy silver sheens shimmering like the scales of schooling fish, by a roundabout route, they
came to a large but elegant building encircled by a romantically lighted loggia.
The gunmen’s vigilance never wavered during the walk.
Night-blooming jasmine twined the columns of the loggia and festooned the eaves.
Mitch drew slow deep breaths. The heavy fragrance was so sweet as to be almost narcoleptic.
A slow-moving black long-horned beetle crossed the floor of the loggia. The gunmen guided Mitch around the insect.
The pavilion contained exquisitely restored cars from the 1930s and 1940s—Buicks, Lincolns, Packards, Cadillacs, Pontiacs, Fords, Chevrolets, Kaizers, Studebakers, even a Tucker Torpedo. They were displayed like jewels under precisely focused arrays of pin lights.
Estate vehicles in daily use were not kept here. Evidently, by taking him to the main garage, they would have risked encountering members of the household staff.
The gunman with the pitted face fished from his pocket a set of keys and opened the trunk of a midnight-blue Chrysler Windsor from the late 1940s. “Get in.”
For the same reason they had not shot him in the library, they would not shoot him here. Besides, they wouldn’t want to risk doing damage to the car.
The trunk was roomier than those of contemporary cars. Mitch lay on his side, in the fetal position.
“You can’t unlock it from the inside,” the scarred man said. “They had no child-safety awareness in those days.”
His partner said, “We’ll be on back roads where no one will hear you. So if you make a lot of noise, it won’t do you any good.”
Mitch said nothing.
The scarred man said, “It’ll just piss us off. Then we’ll be harder on you at the other end than we have to be.”
“I don’t want that.”
“No. You don’t want that.”
Mitch said, “I wish we didn’t have to do this.”
“Well,” said the one with smooth skin, “that’s how it is.”
Backlighted by the pin spots, their faces hung over Mitch like two shadowed moons, one with an expression of bland indifference, the other tight and cratered with contempt.
They slammed the lid, and the darkness was absolute.
Holly lies in darkness, praying that Mitch will live. She fears less for herself than for him. Her captors at all times wear ski masks in her presence, and she assumes they would not bother to conceal their faces if they intended to kill her.
They aren’t just wearing them as a fashion statement. No one looks good in a ski mask.
If you were hideously disfigured, like the Phantom of the Opera, maybe you would want to wear a ski mask. But it defied reason that all four of these men would be hideously disfigured.
Of course, even if they hoped not to harm her, something could go awry with their plans. In a moment of crisis, she might be shot accidentally. Or events could change the kidnappers’ intentions toward her.
Always an optimist, having believed since childhood that every life has meaning and that hers will not pass before she finds its purpose, Holly does not dwell on what might go wrong, but envisions herself released, unharmed.
She believes envisioning the future helps shape it. Not that she could become a famous actress merely by envisioning herself accepting an Academy Award. Hard work, not wishes, builds careers.
Anyway, she doesn’t want to be a famous actress. She would have to spend a lot of time with famous actors, and most of the current crop creep her out.
Free again, she will eat marzipan and chocolate peanut-butter ice cream and potato chips until she either embarrasses herself or makes herself sick. She hasn’t thrown up since childhood, but even vomiting is an affirmation of life.
Free, she will celebrate by going to Baby Style, that store in the mall, and buying the huge stuffed bear she saw in their window when she passed by recently. It was fluffy and white and so cute.
Even as a teenage girl, she liked teddy bears. Now she needs one anyway.
Free, she will make love to Mitch. When she is done with him, he’ll feel as if he’s been hit by a train.
Well, that isn’t a particularly satisfying romantic image. It’s not the kind of thing that sells millions of Nicholas Sparks novels.
She made love to him with every fiber of her being, body and soul, and when at last their passion passed, he was splattered all over the room as if he had thrown himself in front of a locomotive.
Envisioning herself as a best-selling novelist would be a waste of effort. Fortunately, her goal is to be a real-estate agent.
So she prays that her beautiful husband will live through this terror. He is physically beautiful, but the most beautiful thing about him is his gentle heart.
Holly loves him for his gentle heart, for his sweetness, but she worries that certain aspects of his gentleness, such as his tendency toward passive acceptance, will get him killed.
He possesses a deep and quiet strength, too, a spine of steel, which is revealed in subtle ways. Without that, he would have been broken by his freak-show parents. Without that, Holly would not have led him on a chase all the way to the altar.
So she prays for him to stay strong, to stay alive.
During her prayers, during her ruminations about kidnappers’ fashions and gluttony and vomiting and big fluffy teddy bears, she works steadily at the nail in the floorboard. She has always been an excellent multitasker.
The wood floor is rough. She suspects that the planks are thick enough to have required heavier than usual flooring nails.
The nail that interests her has a large flat head. The size of the head suggests that this nail may be large enough to qualify as a spike.
In a crisis, a spike might serve as a weapon.
The flat head of the nail is not snug to the wood. It is raised maybe a sixteenth of an inch. This gap gives her a little leverage, a grip with which to work the nail back and forth.
Though the nail isn’t loose, one of her virtues is perseverance. She will keep working at the nail, and she will envision it loose, and eventually she will extract it from the plank.
She wishes she had acrylic fingernails. They look nice; and when she’s a real-estate agent, she’ll certainly need to have them.
Good acrylic fingernails might give her an advantage with the spike.
On the other hand, they might break and split easier than her real fingernails. If she had them, they might prove to be a terrible disadvantage.
Ideally, when she had been kidnapped, she would have had acrylic nails on her left hand and none on her right. And two steel teeth set with a gap in the front of her mouth.
An ankle cuff and a length of chain shackle her right leg to a ringbolt in the floor. This leaves both of her hands free to work on the not-yet-loose nail.
The kidnappers have made some considerations for her comfort. They have provided her with an air mattress to lie on, a six-pack of bottled water, and a bedpan. Earlier they had given her half of a cheese-and-pepperoni pizza.
This is not to suggest that they are nice people. They are not nice people.
When they needed her to scream for Mitch, they hit her. When they needed her to scream for Anson, they pulled her hair suddenly, sharply, and so hard that she thought her scalp was coming off.
Although these are not people you would ever meet in church, they are not cruel sheerly for the fun of it. They are evil, but they have a business goal, so to speak, on which they remain focused.
One of them is evil and crazy.
He’s the one who worries her.
They have not made her privy to their scheme, but Holly vaguely understands that they are imprisoning her in order to use Mitch to manipulate Anson.
She doesn’t know why or how they think Anson can tap a fortune to ransom her for Mitch, but she is not surprised that he stands at the center of the whirlwind. She has long felt that Anson is not only what he pretends to be.
Now and then she has caught him staring at her in a way that the loving brother of her husband should never stare. When he realizes he has been caught, the predatory lust in his eyes and the hungry cast of his face vanish under his usual charm so instantaneously that it’s easy to believe you must have imagined the glint of savage interest.
Sometimes when he laughs, his mirth sounds manufactured to her. She seems to be alone in this perception. Everyone else finds Anson’s laugh infectious.
She has never shared her doubts about Anson. Until she met Mitch, all that he had were his sisters—who had fled to far points of the compass—his brother, and his passion for working in fertile earth, for making green things grow. Her hope has always been to enrich his life, not to subtract anything from it.
She can put her life in Mitch’s strong hands and fall at once into a dreamless sleep. In a sense, that is what marriage is about—a good marriage—a total trusting with your heart, your mind, your life.
But with her fate in Anson’s hands, as well, she might not sleep at all, and if she sleeps, there will be nightmares.
She worries, worries, worries the nail until her fingers ache. Then she uses two different fingers.
As the dark silent minutes pass, she tries not to brood about how a day that began with such joy could spiral into these desperate circumstances. After Mitch had gone to work and before the masked men had burst into her kitchen, she had used the kit that she’d bought the previous day but that she’d been too nervous to consult until this morning. Her period is nine days overdue, and according to the pregnancy test, she is going to have a baby.
For a year, she and Mitch have been hoping for this. Now here it is, on this of all days.
The kidnappers are unaware that two lives are at their mercy, and Mitch is unaware that not only his wife but also his child depend upon his cunning and his courage, but Holly knows. This knowledge is at once a joy and an anguish.
She envisions a child of three—sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy—at play in their backyard, and laughing. She envisions it more vividly than she has envisioned anything before, in the hope that she can make it come to pass.
She tells herself that she will be strong, that she will not cry. She does not sob or otherwise disturb the stillness, but sometimes tears come.
To shut off that hot flow, she works more aggressively at the nail, the stubborn damn nail, in the blinding dark.
After a long period of silence, she hears a solid thud with a hollow metallic quality: ca-chunk.
Alert, wary, she waits, but the thud does not repeat. No other noise follows it.
The sound is tantalizingly familiar. A mundane noise—and yet her instinct tells her that her fate hangs on that ca-chunk.
She is able to replay the sound in her memory, but she is not at first able to connect it to a cause.
After a while, Holly begins to suspect that the sound was imagined rather than real. More accurately, that it occurred in her head, not beyond the walls of this room. This is a peculiar notion, but it persists.
Then she recognizes the source, something she has heard perhaps hundreds of times, and although it has no ominous associations for her, she is chilled. The ca-chunk is the sound of a lid slamming shut on a car trunk.
Just the lid slamming shut on a car trunk, whether imagined or actually heard, should not cause crystals of creeping frost to form in the hollows of her bones. She sits very erect, the nail forgotten for the moment, breathing not at all, then shallowly, quietly.
Would You Die for Love?
Would You Kill?
In the late 1940s, if you owned a car like a Chrysler Windsor, you knew the engine was big because it made a big sound. It had the throb of a bull’s heart, low fierce snort and heavy stamp of hooves.
The war was over, you were a survivor, large swaths of Europe lay in ruin, but the homeland was untouched, and you wanted to feel alive. You didn’t want a sound-proofed engine compartment. You didn’t want noise-control technology. You wanted power, balanced weight, and speed.
The car’s dark trunk reverberated with engine knock and rumble transferred along the drive shaft, through the body and the frame. The thrum and stutter of road noise rose and fell in direct relation to the tempo of the turning wheels.
Mitch smelled faint traces of exhaust gases, perhaps from a leak in the muffler, but he was in no danger of being overcome by carbon monoxide. Stronger were the rubbery scent of the mat on which he lay and the acidity of his own fear sweat.
Although as dark as the chamber in his parents’ house, this mobile learning room otherwise failed to impose sensory deprivation. Yet one of the greatest lessons of his life was being driven home to him mile by mile.
His father says there is no tao, no natural law we are born to understand. In his materialist view, we should conduct ourselves not according to any code, only according to self-interest.
Rationality is always in a man’s self-interest, Daniel says. Therefore, any act that is rational is right and good and
Evil does not exist in Daniel’s philosophy. Stealing, rape, murder of the innocent—these and other crimes are merely irrational because they put he who commits them in jeopardy of his freedom.
Daniel does acknowledge that the degree of irrationality depends on the criminal’s chances of escaping punishment. Therefore, those irrational acts that succeed and have only positive consequences for the perpetrator may be right and admirable, if not good for society.
Thieves, rapists, murderers, and their ilk might benefit from therapy and rehabilitation, or they might not. In either case, Daniel says, they are not evil; they are recovering—or irredeemable—irrationalists, only that and nothing more.
Mitch had thought that these teachings had not penetrated him, that he’d not been singed by the fire of a Daniel Rafferty education. But fire produced fumes; he’d been smoked in his father’s fanaticism so long that some of what steeped into him had stayed.
He could see, but he had been blind. He could hear, but he had been deaf.
This day, this night, Mitch had come face-to-face with evil. It was as real as stone.
Although an irrational man should be met with compassion and therapy, an evil man was owed nothing more or less than resistance and retribution, the fury of a righteous justice.
In Julian Campbell’s library, when the gunman had produced the handcuffs, Mitch had at once held out his hands. He had not waited for instructions.
If he had not appeared worn down, had not seemed meek and resigned to his fate, they might have cuffed his hands behind him. Reaching the revolver in his ankle holster would have been more difficult; using it with accuracy would have been impossible.
Campbell had even commented on Mitch’s weariness, by which he had meant primarily the weariness of mind and heart.
They thought they knew the kind of man he was, and maybe they did. But they didn’t know the kind of man he could become when the life of his wife was in the balance.
Amused by his lack of familiarity with the pistol that they had confiscated, they had not imagined he would have a second weapon. Not only good men are disadvantaged by their expectations.
Mitch pulled up the leg of his jeans and retrieved the revolver. He unstrapped the holster and discarded it.
Earlier, he had examined the weapon and had not found a safety. In movies, only some pistols had safeties, never revolvers.
If he lived through the next two days and got Holly back alive, he would never again allow himself to be put in a position where he had to rely on Tinseltown’s grasp of reality for his or his family’s survival.
When he had first swung open the cylinder, he had discovered five rounds in five chambers, where he expected six.
He would have to score two hits out of five rounds. Direct hits, not just wing shots.
Perhaps one of the gunmen would open the trunk. It would be better if the two were there, giving him the advantage of surprise with both.
Both would have their weapons drawn—or only one. If one, Mitch must be quick enough to target his armed adversary first.
A peaceable man, planning violence, was plagued by thoughts that were not helpful: As a teenager, cursed by the explosions of acne that had left his face a moonscape, the scarred gunman must have suffered much humiliation.
Sympathy for the devil was a kind of masochism at best, a death wish at worst.
For a while, rocking to the rhythms of road and rubber, and of internal combustion, Mitch tried to imagine all the ways that the violence might go down when the trunk lid went up. Then he tried not to imagine.
According to his radiant watch, they traveled more than half an hour and then, slowing, changed from blacktop to an unpaved road. Small stones rattled through the undercarriage, rapped hard against the floor pan.
He smelled dust and licked the alkaline taste of it from his lips, but the air never became foul enough to choke him.
After twelve minutes at an easy speed, on the dirt road, the car came slowly to a stop. The engine idled for half a minute, and then the driver switched it off.
After forty-five minutes of drone and drum, the silence was like a sudden deafness.
One door opened, then the other. They were coming.
Facing the back of the car, Mitch splayed his legs, bracing his feet in opposite corners of the space. He could not sit erect until the lid raised, but he waited with his back partly off the floor of the trunk, as if in the middle of doing a series of stomach crunches at the gym.
The cuffs all but required that he hold the revolver in a two-hand grip, which was probably better anyway.
He didn’t hear footsteps, just the gallop of his heart, but then he heard the key in the trunk lock.
Through his mind’s eye blinked an image of Jason Osteen being shot in the head, blinked and blinked, repeating like a film loop, Jason slammed by the bullet, skull exploding, slammed by the bullet, skull exploding….
As the lid lifted, Mitch realized that the trunk did not have a convenience light, and he began to sit up, thrusting the revolver forward.
The full-pitcher moon spilled its milk, backlighting the two gunmen.
Mitch’s eyes were adapted to absolute blackness, and theirs were not. He sat in darkness, and they stood in moonlight. They thought he was a meek and broken and helpless man, and he was not.
He didn’t consciously squeeze off the first shot, but felt the hard recoil and saw the muzzle flash and heard the crash, and then he was aware of squeezing the trigger the second time.
Two point-blank rounds knocked one silhouette down out of the moon-soaked night.
The second silhouette backed away from the car, and Mitch sat all the way up, squeezing off one, two, three more rounds.
The hammer clicked, and there was just the quiet of the moon, and the hammer clicked, and he reminded himself Only five, only five!
He had to get out of the trunk. With no ammunition, he was a fish in a barrel. Out. Out of the trunk.
Rising too fast, Mitch knocked his head against the lid, . almost fell back, but maintained forward momentum. He scrambled out of the trunk.
His left foot came down on solid ground, but he planted his right on the twice-shot man. He staggered, stepped on the body again, and it shifted under him, and he fell.
He rolled away from the gunman, to the verge of the road. He was stopped by a wild hedge of mesquite, which he identified by its oily smell.
He had lost the revolver. It didn’t matter. No ammunition.
Around him lay a parched moon-silvered landscape: the narrow dirt road, desert scrub, barren soil, boulders.
Sleek, its ample chrome features lustrous with lunar polish, the Chrysler Windsor seemed strangely futuristic in this primitive land, like a ship meant to sail the stars. The driver had switched off the headlights when he killed the engine.
The gunman on whom Mitch had twice stepped, when exiting the trunk, had not cried out. He had not reared up or clutched at Mitch. He was probably dead.
Maybe the second man had been killed, too. Coming out of the trunk, Mitch had lost track of him.
If one of the last three rounds had found its target, the second man should have been a buffet for vultures on the dirt road behind the car.
The sandy soil of the roadbed was rich in silica. Glass is made from silica, mirrors from glass. The single-lane track offered much higher reflectivity than any surface in the night.
Lying facedown and flat, head cautiously raised, Mitch could see a significant distance along the pale ribbon as it dwindled through the gnarled and bristling scrub, in the direction from which they had come. No second body lay on the road.
If the guy hadn’t been at least winged, surely he would have charged, firing, as Mitch clambered out of the Chrysler.
Hit, he might have hobbled or crawled into the scrub or behind a formation of stone. He could be anywhere out there, assessing his wound, reviewing his options.
The gunman would be angry but not scared. He lived for action like this. He was a sociopath. He wouldn’t scare easily.
Definitely, unequivocally, Mitch was afraid of the man hiding in the night. He also feared the one who was lying on the road at the back of the Chrysler.
The guy near the car might be dead, but even if he was crow-bait, Mitch was afraid of him anyway. He didn’t want to go near him.
He had to do what he didn’t want to do, because whether the sonofabitch was a carcass or unconscious, he possessed a weapon. Mitch needed a weapon. And quick.
He had discovered that he was capable of violence, at least in self-defense, but he hadn’t been prepared for the rapidity with which events unfolded following the first shot, for the speed with which decisions must be made, for the suddenness with which new challenges could arise.
On the farther side of the road, several blinds of scraggly vegetation offered concealment, as did low batters of weathered rock.
If the light breeze that had been active toward the coast had made its way this far inland, the desert had swallowed it to the last draught. Any movement of the brush would reveal not the hand of Nature but instead his enemy.
As far as he could tell in this murk, all was still.
Acutely aware that his own movement made a mark of him, hampered by the handcuffs, Mitch wriggled on his belly to the man behind the car.
In the gunman’s open and unblinking eyes, the mortician moon had laid coins.
Beside the body rested a familiar shape of steel made sterling in this light. Mitch seized it gratefully, almost squirmed away, but realized that he had found the useless revolver.
Wincing at the faint jingle produced by the short chain between his handcuffs, he patted down the corpse—and pressed his fingers in a wetness. Sickened, shuddering, he wiped his hand on the dead man’s clothes.
As he was about to conclude that this guy had gotten out of the Chrysler without a weapon, he discovered the checked grip of the pistol protruding from under the corpse. He pulled the gun free.
A shot cracked. The dead man twitched, having taken the round meant for Mitch.
He flung himself toward the Chrysler and heard a second shot and heard the whispery whine of passing death and heard a bullet ricochet off the car. He also heard a closer whisper, although he might have imagined two near misses with one round and might in fact have heard nothing after the insectile shriek of the ricochet.
With the car between himself and the shooter, he felt safer, but then almost at once not safe at all.
The gunman could come around the Chrysler at either the front end or the back. He had the advantage of choosing his approach and initiating the action.
Meanwhile, Mitch would be forced to keep an alert watch in both directions. An impossible task.
Already the other might be on the move.
Mitch thrust up from the ground and away from the car. He ran in a crouch, off the road, through the natural hedge of mesquite, which crackled revealingly and at the same time shushed as if warning him to be quiet.
The land sloped down from the road, which was good. If it had sloped up, he would have been visible, his broad back an easy target, the moment the gunman rounded the Chrysler.
He had lucked into firm but sandy soil, instead of shale or loose stones, so he didn’t make a clatter as he ran. The moon mapped his route, and he weaved among clumps of brush instead of thrashing through them, mindful that keeping his balance was more difficult with his hands cuffed in front of him.
At the bottom of the thirty-foot slope, he turned right. Based on the position of the moon, he believed that he was heading almost due west.
Something like a cricket sang. Something stranger clicked and shrilled.
A colony of pampas-grass clumps drew his attention with scores of tall feathery panicles. They glowed white in the moonlight, and reminded him of the plumed tails of proud horses.
From the round clumps sprayed very narrow, sharp-edged, pointed, recurved blades of grass three to five feet in length. They were waist-high on Mitch. When dry, these blades could scratch, prickle like needles, even cut.
Each clump respected the territorial integrity of the other. He was able to pass among them.
In the heart of the colony, he felt safely screened by the white feathery panicles that rose higher than his head. He remained on his feet and, through gaps between the plumes, he peered back the way that he had come.
The ghostly light did not reveal a pursuer. Mitch shifted his position, gently pushed aside a panicle, and another, surveying the edge of the roadway at the top of the slope. He didn’t see anyone up there.
He did not intend to hide in the pampas for long. He had fled his vulnerable position at the car only to gain a couple of minutes to think.