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Skeet, too, had crashed into the safety zone. Now he lay as he had landed, face planted in the satin-weave ticking, arms over his head, motionless, as though he had been so fragile that even a fall into layers of cotton batting, foam rubber, and airy eiderdown had shattered his eggshell bones.

As the top mattress quickly became sodden with rain, Dusty got onto his hands and knees. He rolled the kid faceup.

Skeet’s left cheek was abraded, and a small cut bisected the shallow cleft in his chin. Both injuries had probably occurred as he had rolled across the roof tiles; neither produced much blood.

“Where am I?” Skeet asked.

“Not where you wanted to be.”

The kid’s bronze eyes had a dark patina of anguish that hadn’t been evident during the manic minutes on the roof. “Heaven?”

“I’ll make it seem like Hell, you smacked-out creep,” Motherwell said, looming over them, grabbing Skeet by his sweater and hauling him to his feet. If the sky had been split by lightning and shaken by thunder, Motherwell could have passed for Thor, Scandinavian god of the storm. “You’re off my crew, you’re finished, you hopeless screwup!”

“Easy, easy,” Dusty said, scrambling to his feet and off the mattress.

Still holding Skeet a foot off the ground, Motherwell rounded on Dusty. “I mean it, boss. Either he’s gone, he’s history, or I can’t work with you anymore.”

“Okay, all right. Just put him down, Ned.”

Instead of releasing Skeet, Motherwell shook him and shouted in his face, spraying enough foamy spittle to flock him like a Christmas

tree: “By the time we buy new mattresses, three expensive mattresses, there goes most of the profit. Do you have any clue, you shithead?”

Dangling from Motherwell’s hands, offering no resistance, Skeet said, “I didn’t ask you to put down the mattresses.”

“I wasn’t trying to save you, as**ole.”

“You’re always calling me names,” Skeet said. “I never call you names.”

“You’re a walking pus bag.” Straight Edgers, like Motherwell, denied themselves many things, but never anger. Dusty admired their efforts to lead a clean life in the dirty world they had inherited, and he understood their anger even as he sometimes wearied of it.

“Man, I like you,” Skeet told Motherwell. “I wish you could like me.”

“You’re a pimple on the ass of humanity,” Motherwell thundered, casting Skeet aside as if tossing a bag of garbage.

Skeet almost slammed into Foster Newton, who was passing by. Fig halted as the kid collapsed in a heap on the driveway, glanced at Dusty, said, “See you in the morning if it doesn’t rain,” stepped over Skeet, and proceeded to his car at the curb, still listening to talk radio through his headphones, as though he’d seen people jumping off roofs every day of his working life.

“What a mess,” Ned Motherwell said, frowning at the drenched mattresses.

“I’ve got to check him into rehab,” Dusty told Motherwell, as he helped Skeet to his feet.

“I’ll take care of this mess,” Motherwell assured him. “Just get that cankerous little weasel-dick out of my sight.”

All along the rainwashed circular driveway to the street, Skeet leaned on Dusty. His previous frenetic energy, whether it had come from drugs or from the prospect of successful self-destruction, was gone, and he was limp with weariness, almost asleep on his feet.

The security guard fell in beside them as they neared Dusty’s white Ford van. “I’ll have to file a report about this.”

“Yeah? With whom?”

“The executive board of the homeowners’ association. With a copy to the property-management company.”

“They won’t kneecap me with a shotgun, will they?” Dusty asked as he propped Skeet against the van.

“Nah, they never take my recommendation,” the guard said, and Dusty was forced to reevaluate him.

Rising out of his stupor, Skeet warned, “They’ll want your soul, Dusty. I know these bastards.”

From behind a veil of water that drizzled off the visor of his uniform cap, the security guard said, “They might put you on a list of undesirable contractors they’d rather not have in the community. But probably all that’ll happen is they’ll want you never to bring this guy inside the gates again. What’s his full name, anyway?”

Opening the passenger door of the van, Dusty said, “Bruce Wayne.”

“I thought it was Skeet something.”

Helping Skeet into the van, Dusty said, “That’s just his nickname.” Which was truthful yet deceptive.

“I’ll need to see his ID.”

“I’ll bring it later,” Dusty said, slamming the door. “Right now I’ve got to get him to a doctor.”

“He hurt?” the guard asked, following Dusty around the van to the driver’s side.

“He’s a wreck,” Dusty said as he got in behind the wheel and pulled the door shut.

The guard rapped on the window.

Starting the engine with one hand, winding down the window with the other, Dusty said, “Yeah?”

“You can’t go back to strike force, but crew isn’t the right word, either. Better call them your circus or maybe hullabaloo.”

“You’re all right,” Dusty said. “I like you.”

The guard smiled and tipped his sopping hat.

Dusty rolled up the window, switched on the wipers, and drove away from the Sorensons’ house.


Descending the exterior stairs from her third-floor apartment, Susan Jagger stayed close to the house, sliding her right hand along the shingle siding, as though constantly needing to reassure herself that shelter was close by, fiercely clutching Martie’s arm with her left hand. She kept her head down, focusing intently on her feet, taking each ten-inch-high step as cautiously as a rock climber might have negotiated a towering face of sheer granite.

Because of Susan’s raincoat hood and because she was shorter than Martie, her face was concealed, but from rainless days, Martie knew how Susan must look. Shock-white skin. Jaw set, mouth grim. Her green eyes would be haunted, as though she’d glimpsed a ghost however, the only ghost in this matter was her once vital spirit, which had been killed by agoraphobia.

“What’s wrong with the air?” Susan asked shakily.


“Hard to breathe,” Susan complained. “Thick. Smells funny.”

“Just humidity. The smell is me. New perfume.”

“You? Perfume?”

“I’ve got my girlish moments.”

“We’re so exposed,” Susan said fearfully.

“It’s not a long way to the car.”

“Anything could happen out here.”

“Nothing will happen.”

“There’s nowhere to hide.”

“There’s nothing to hide from.”

Fifteen-hundred-year-old religious litanies were no less rigidly structured than these twice-a-week conversations on the way to and from therapy sessions.

As they reached the bottom of the steps, the rain fell harder than before, rattling through the leaves of the potted plants on the patio, clicking against the bricks.

Susan was reluctant to let go of the corner of the house.

Martie put an arm around her. “Lean on me if you want.”

Susan leaned. “Everything’s so strange out here, not like it used to be.”

“Nothing’s changed. It’s just the storm.”

“It’s a new world,” Susan disagreed. “And not a good one.”

Huddling together, with Martie bending to match Susan’s stoop, they progressed through this new world, now in a rush as Susan was drawn forward by the prospect of the comparatively enclosed space of the car, but now haltingly as Susan was weighed down and nearly crushed by the infinite emptiness overhead. Whipped by wind and lashed by rain, shielded by their hoods and their billowing coats, they might have been two frightened holy sisters, in full habit, desperately seeking sanctuary in the early moments of Armageddon.

Evidently Martie was affected either by the turbulence of the incoming storm or by her troubled friend, because as they proceeded fitfully along the promenade toward the side street where she had parked her car, she became increasingly aware of a strangeness in the day that was easy to perceive but difficult to define. On the concrete promenade, puddles like black mirrors swarmed with images so shattered by falling rain that their true appearance could not be discerned, yet they disquieted Martie. Thrashing palm trees clawed the air with fronds that had darkened from green to green-black, producing a thrum-hiss-rattle that resonated with a primitive and reckless passion deep inside her. On their right, the sand was smooth and pale, like the skin of some vast sleeping beast, and on their left, each house appeared to be filled with a storm of its own, as colorless images of roiling clouds and wind-tossed trees churned across the large ocean-view windows.

Martie was unsettled by all these odd impressions of unnatural menace in the surrounding landscape, but she was more disturbed by a new strangeness within herself, which the storm seemed to conjure. Her heart quickened with an irrational desire to surrender to the sorcerous energy of this wild weather. Suddenly she was afraid of some dark potential she couldn’t define: afraid of losing control of herself, blacking out, and later coming to her senses, thereupon discovering she had done something terrible.. . something unspeakable.

Until this morning, such bizarre thoughts had never occurred to her. Now they came in abundance.

She remembered the unusually sour grapefruit juice that she’d drunk at breakfast, and she wondered if it had been tainted. She didn’t have a sick stomach; but maybe she was suffering from a strain of food poisoning that caused mental rather than physical symptoms.

That was another bizarre thought. Tainted juice was no more likely an explanation than the possibility that the CIA was beaming messages into her brain via a microwave transmitter. If she continued down this twisty road of illogic, she’d soon be fashioning elaborate aluminum-foil hats to guard against long-distance brainwashing.

By the time they descended the short flight of concrete steps from the beach promenade to the narrow street where the car was parked, Martie was drawing as much emotional support from Susan as she was giving, although she hoped Susan didn’t sense as much.

Martie opened the curbside door, helped Susan into the red Saturn, and then went around and got in the driver’s seat.

Rain drummed on the roof, a cold and hollow sound that brought hoofbeats to mind, as though the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death—were approaching at full gallop along the nearby beach.

Martie pulled back her hood. She fished in one coat pocket and then in the other until she found her keys.

In the passenger seat, Susan remained hooded, head bowed, hands fisted against her cheeks, eyes squeezed shut, and face pinched, as if the Saturn were in one of those hydraulic car crushers, about to be squashed into a three-foot cube.

Martie’s attention fixed on the car key, which was the same one she had always used, yet suddenly the point seemed wickedly sharp, as never before. The serrations resembled those on a bread knife, which then reminded her of the mezzaluna in Susan’s kitchen.

This simple key was a potential weapon. Crazily, Martie’s mind clotted with images of the bloody damage a car key could inflict.

“What’s wrong?” Susan asked, though she had not opened her eyes.

Thrusting the key into the ignition, struggling to conceal her inner turmoil, Martie said, “Couldn’t find my key. It’s okay. I’ve got it now.”

The engine caught, roared. When Martie locked herself into her safety harness, her hands were shaking so badly that the hard plastic clasp and the metal tongue on the belt chattered together like a pair of windup, novelty-store teeth before she finally engaged the latch.

“What if something happens to me out here and I can’t get home again?” Susan worried.

“I’ll take care of you,” Martie promised, although in light of her own peculiar state of mind, the promise might prove empty.

“But what if something happens to you?”

“Nothing is going to happen to me,” Martie vowed as she switched on the windshield wipers.

“Something can happen to anybody. Look at what happened to me.”

Martie pulled away from the curb, drove to the end of the short street, and turned left onto Balboa Boulevard. “Hold tight. You’ll be in the doctor’s office soon.”

“Not if we’re in an accident,” Susan fretted.

“I’m a good driver.”

“The car might break down.”

“The car’s fine.”

“It’s raining hard. If the streets flood—”

“Or maybe we’ll be abducted by big slimy Martians,” Martie said. “Be taken up to the mother ship, forced to breed with hideous squid-like creatures.”

“The streets do flood here on the peninsula,” Susan said defensively.

“This time of year, Big Foot hides out around the pier, bites the heads off the unwary. We better hope we don’t have a breakdown in that area.”

“You’re vicious,” Susan complained.

“I’m mean as hell,” Martie confirmed.

“Cruel. You are. I mean it.”

“I’m loathsome.”

“Take me home.”


“I hate you.”

“I love you anyway,” Martie said.

“Oh, shit,” Susan said miserably. “I love you, too.”

“Hang in there.”

“This is so hard.”

“I know, honey.”

“What if we run out of fuel?”

“The tank’s full.”

“I can’t breathe out here. I can’t breathe.”

“Sooz, you’re breathing.”

“But the air’s like a.. . sludge. And I’m having chest pains. My heart.”

“What I’ve got is a pain in the ass,” Martie said. “Guess its name.”

“You’re a mean bitch.”

“That’s old news.”

“I hate you.”

“I love you,” Martie said patiently.

Susan began to cry. She buried her face in her hands. “I can’t go on like this.”

“It’s not much farther.”

“I hate myself.”