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“You’re not talking just about his connections, the institute, who protects him and why.”

“No.” His voice had fallen, soft and solemn, as if he spoke now of sacred things. “Who is this guy, beyond the obvious and easy answers?”

“A sociopath. A narcissist, according to Closterman.” But she knew these were not the words that he was looking for, either.

The private, graveled road leading from the ranch to the paved highway was more than a mile long, passing first across table-flat land and then down a series of hills. Under the bleak gypsum sky, in this last hour of winter light, the dark green sage appeared to be mottled with silver leafing. The tumbleweeds, in this breathless day, stood as untumbled as the strange rock formations that resembled the half-buried, knobby bones of prehistoric behemoths.

“If Ahriman came walking across the desert right now,” Dusty said, “would rattlesnakes boil out of their dens by the thousands and follow him, as docile as kittens?”

“Don’t go spooky on me, babe.”

Yet Martie had no difficulty imagining Ahriman at Dion Pastore’s bedroom window, in the aftermath of the gunfire, unperturbed by the arrival of the coyotes, standing among those predators as though he insisted upon and received a place of honor in the pack, pressing his face to the screen and into the thick smell of blood, while the prairie wolves growled low in their throats and, on both sides of him, scraped their teeth against the mesh.

Where the graveled road rounded the side of a hill and took a sharp turn downward, someone had left a spike strip, one of those tricks the police resorted to in high-speed urban chases when the target of the pursuit proved difficult to catch.

Martie saw it too late. She braked just as both front tires blew out.

The steering wheel ripped back and forth in her hands. She fought for control.

Rattling against the undercarriage, like a frenzied snake with a cracked spine, the spike strip whipped from front to back of the Ford, where it found more rubber with its fangs. The rear tires blew.

Four flats, sliding and shredding across loose gravel, down a runneled incline, allowed Martie less control than she might have had if the Ford were skating across ice. The car turned sideways to the road.

“Hang on!” she cried, though it hardly needed to be said.

Then the pothole.

The Ford jolted, canted, seemed to hesitate for a fraction of a second, and rolled.

Rolled twice, she thought, though it may have been three times, because counting was not her first concern, especially when they went over the edge of the road into a wide dry swale, tumbling and sliding twenty feet in a curiously lazy fall. The windshield burst and pieces of the car tore loose with shrieks and twangs before at last the Ford came to rest on its roof.


Faster than smelling salts, the pungent reek of gasoline brought Martie out of shock. She heard it gurgling, too, from some ruptured line.

“You all right?”

“Yeah,” Dusty confirmed, struggling with his safety harness and cursing either because the buckle release wouldn’t work or because he was too disoriented to locate it.

Hanging upside down in her harness, looking up at the steering wheel and, higher still, at her feet and the floorboards, Martie was a little disoriented, too. “They’ll be coming.”

“The gun,” he said urgently.

The Colt was in her purse, but her purse was no longer on the seat, no longer wedged between her hip and the door.

Instinct told her to look toward the floor, but the floor was above her now. The purse couldn’t have fallen upward.

With trembling fingers, she found the harness release, flailed out of the stubbornly entangling straps, and slid onto the ceiling.

Voices. Not close but drawing nearer.

She would have bet her house that the approaching men weren’t paramedics rushing to the rescue.

Dusty clambered loose of his harness and eeled onto the ceiling. “Where is it?”

“I don’t know.” The words wheezed from her, because the stink of gasoline made breathing increasingly difficult.

The light inside the overturned car was dismal. Outside, the cloud-choked sky faded toward twilight. The broken-out windshield was clogged with tumbleweeds and other brush that filled the bottom of the swale, so hardly any light entered from that direction.

“There!” Dusty said.

Even as he spoke, she saw the purse, near the rear window, and she slithered on her belly across the ceiling.

The purse had been open, and several items had spilled from it. She swept a compact, a comb, a tube of lipstick, and other objects out of her way, and grabbed the bag, which was heavy with the weapon.

Small stones clattered down on the exposed undercarriage of the car, dislodged by men descending the slope from the graveled road.

Martie looked left and then right, at the side windows, which were low to the ground, expecting to see their feet first.

She tried to be quiet, listening for their footsteps, so she might have some advance warning of which side they would approach, but she was forced to gasp noisily for breath, because the air was thick with fumes. Dusty gasped, too, and the desperation in their wheezing was an even more frightening sound than the clatter of the falling stones.

Pitipat, pitipat—not the sound of her heart, because that was booming—pitipat, pitipat, and then a wetness dripping down the side of her face, which made her twitch and peer up toward the bottom of the car. Gasoline was drizzling through the floorboards.

Martie twisted her head, looked behind, and saw three or four other places where fuel was dripping down through the inverted Ford. The droplets caught what little light there was and glimmered like pearls as they fell.

Dusty’s face. Eyes wide with the realization of their hopeless situation.

Stinging fumes pricked tears from Martie’s eyes, and just as her husband's face blurred, she saw him mouth the words Don’t shoot more clearly than she heard him wheeze them.

If the muzzle flash didn’t touch off an explosion—and it would— then the spark from a ricochet was sure to destroy them.

She wiped the back of her hand across her streaming eyes and glimpsed a pair of cowboy boots at the nearest window, and someone began wrenching on a stubborn, buckled door.

The grape-purple ‘59 Chevrolet El Camino was smartly customized: a dechromed, filled, and louvered hood; smoothed, one-piece bumpers; a sweet tubular grille; an air-activated hard tonneau roof; lowered on McGaughly’s Classic Chevy dropped spindles.

Dr. Ahriman waited at the wheel, parked in the street within sight of the exit from the parking lot behind his office building.

Under the driver’s seat was the ski mask. He had checked for it before starting the engine. Good, reliable Cedric.

The weight of the mini-9mm pistol in the holster under his left arm was not in the least uncomfortable. Indeed, it was a pleasant, warm little weight. Bang, bang, you’re dead.

And here came Jennifer in the Mercedes, pausing at the tollbooth only to say hello to the clerk, because the car had a monthly sticker on its windshield. Then the striped barrier rose, and she proceeded to the stop sign at the street.

Behind her, the pickup braked to a hard stop at the booth, all its antennae quivering violently.

Jennifer turned left into the street.

Judging by the length of time they spent at the booth, the two dithering detectives had failed to have change in hand to ensure a quick exit. By the time they reached the street, the Mercedes was turning the corner at the far end of the block, and they nearly lost sight of it.

The doctor had been concerned that seeing only Jennifer and not their true quarry, Skeet and his sidekick would wait in the parking lot for him to reappear or until they died of thirst, whichever came first. Perhaps they were unprepared for the parking toll precisely because they had been debating the wisdom of tailing the car without their target in it. In the end, they had taken the bait, as the doctor had expected.

He didn’t follow them. He knew where Jennifer was going, and he set out for the Mercedes dealership via a route of his own, making use of a shortcut or two.

The El Camino was smartly powered by a 9.5:1 small-block Chevy 350 engine. The doctor enjoyed scooting across Newport Beach with one eye out for traffic cops and a quick hand on the horn for those pedestrians who dared enter a crosswalk.

He parked across the street from the service entrance to the dealership and waited more than four minutes for the Mercedes and the pickup to appear. Jennifer drove directly into a service bay, while the truck parked farther along the street, a few spaces in front of the El Camino.

With the camper shell blocking their view through the rear cab window of the pickup, neither Skeet nor his partner in adventure was easily able to see who was parked behind them. They could have used their side mirrors to scope the street, but Ahriman suspected that because they saw themselves as the intrepid surveillance team, they didn’t comprehend the possibility that they themselves could also be surveilled.

The compact, customized, slab-sided Colt slipped under Martie’s belt and snugged into the small of her back more easily than she had expected.

She pulled her sweater over it and tugged her tweed jacket into shape as the driver’s door was wrenched open with a hard screech-pop of twisted metal.

A man ordered them out.

Desperately sucking fumes, her lungs aching for a clean breath, Martie belly-crawled across the car ceiling, through the door, and into the open air.

A man grabbed her left arm and jerked her to her feet, pulled her, stumbling, after him, and then shoved her aside. She staggered and fell, landing hard on the sandy soil and half in a snagging mass of sagebrush.

She didn’t at once reach for the pistol, because she was still gasping uncontrollably and half blinded by a flood of tears. Her throat was hot and raw, her mouth full of an astringent taste. The lining of her nostrils felt scorched, and gasoline fumes writhed all the way into her sinuses, caustic in the hollows of her brow, where now a throbbing headache flared.

She heard Dusty being dragged from the rental car and knocked to the ground as she had been.

They both sat where they had fallen, sucking in great shuddering

breaths, but choking on the too-sweet air and explosively exhaling before their lungs could get full benefit.

Martie’s watering eyes blurred and distorted everything, but she saw two men, one watching over them with what appeared to be a gun in his hand, the other circling the overturned car. Big men. Dark clothes. No facial details yet.

Something fluttered against her face. Gnats. Clouds of gnats. But cold. Not gnats, snow. Snow had begun to fall.

She was breathing easier but not normally, her vision clearing as her eyes dried out, when she was grabbed by her hair and urged to her feet once more.

“Come on, come on,” one of the strangers growled impatiently. “If you slow us down, I’ll just blow your brains out and leave you here.”

Martie took the threat seriously and started up the gentle slope of the swale along which the car had rolled.

When Jennifer appeared on the far side of the street, walking away from the Mercedes dealership, the sleuthhounds were flummoxed. They were prepared to trail her in their flivver, but neither frail Skeet nor his round-faced friend was in good enough condition to undertake a protracted foot pursuit.

Worse, Jennifer walked as if all the hounds of Hell and half a dozen aggressive insurance salesmen were after her. Head erect, shoulders back, bosom thrust forward, h*ps rolling, she strode into the cool afternoon like a woman intent on making the Nevada border before sundown.

She was wearing the same pantsuit she had worn at the office, but her feet were shod in Rockport’s best walking shoes instead of in high heels. Everything she needed to carry was secure in a fanny pack, freeing her hands; she swung her arms rhythmically, as if she were an Olympic racewalker. Her hair was tied back; her ponytail bobbed cutely as she burned up the pavement, on her way to dinner.

The El Camino windows were lightly tinted, and Jennifer wasn’t familiar with this car. When she passed, across the street, she didn’t even glance in the doctor’s direction.

She turned at the corner, still in sight, and started up a long but gentle incline.

Bounce, bounce, bounce: the ponytail. Her clenching butt muscles looked hard enough to crack walnuts.

Gesticulating at each other, the detectives pulled away from the curb, hung a sharp U-turn, drove past the El Camino without giving it a look, and proceeded to the corner, where they drew to the curb and stopped again.

A few hundred yards uphill, at the next intersection, Jennifer turned right. She headed west.

When she was nearly out of sight, the pickup pursued her.

After a decent interval, the doctor followed the pickup.

Once more, the funky truck pulled to a stop on the shoulder of the roadway about a hundred yards behind Jennifer.

The street ahead led uphill for perhaps a mile, and apparently the gumshoes intended to watch Jennifer until she reached the crest, then catch up to her, pull to the shoulder, and watch her some more as she strode onward.

Green Acres, culinary mecca to the alfalfa-sprouts set, was about four miles away, and Ahriman saw no reason to follow the pickup there in fits and starts. He drove past the truck, past Jennifer, and on to the restaurant.

The two amateur detectives greatly amused the doctor, Sherlock and Watson without wisdom or good costumes. Their sweet idiocy gave them a charm all their own. He almost wished that he didn’t have to kill them, that he could keep them around like two pet monkeys, to enliven the occasional dull afternoon.

Of course, it had been a long time since he had directly taken a human life, rather than through an intermediary, and he was looking forward to getting his hands wet, so to speak.

Silver fleece, shorn from a woolly sky, drifted straight down through the windless twilight, and every clump of sage and every frozen tumbleweed was already knitting itself a white sweater.

By the time they reached the top of the slope, Martie’s vision cleared, and her breathing was labored but not ragged. She was still

spitting out saliva soured by gasoline fumes, but she wasn’t choking anymore.

A midnight-blue BMW was stopped on the ranch road, doors open, engine running, clouds of vapor billowing from its exhaust pipe. The heavy winter tires were fitted with snow chains.

Martie glanced back into the swale, at the wrecked Ford, hoping that it would explode. In this still and open land, the sound might be heard even half a mile away at the ranch house; or looking out a window at an opportune moment, maybe Bernardo Pastore would spot the glow of fire just beyond the hill, a beacon.

False hopes, and she knew it.

Even in this dying light, Martie could see that both gunmen were carrying machine pistols with extended magazines. She didn’t know much about such guns, just that they were point-and-spray weapons, deadly even in the hands of a lousy marksman, deadlier still when wielded by men who knew what they were doing.