As hard of head as she was hard of heart, Victoria had not sustained serious brain damage, only a concussion.

On the stereo in the living room, Sinatra sang “It Was a Very Good Year."

judging by the evidence, the nurse was home alone, but Junior raised his voice above the music and called out, “Hello? Is anyone here?"

Although no one answered, he quickly searched the small house.

A lamp with a fringed silk shade spread small feathery wings of golden light over one corner of the living room. On the coffee table were three decorative blown-glass oil lamps, ashimmer.

In the kitchen, a delicious aroma wafted from the oven. On the stove stood a large pot over a low flame, and nearby was pasta to be added to the water when it came to a boil.

Dining room. Two place settings at one end of the table. Wineglasses. Two ornate pewter candlesticks, candies not yet lit.

Junior had the picture now. Clear as Kodachrome. Victoria was in a relationship, and she had come on to him in the hospital not because she was looking for more action, but because she was a tease. One of those women who thought it was funny to get a man's juices up and then leave him stewing in them.

She was a duplicitous bitch, too. After coming on to him, after teasing a reaction out of him, she had run off and gossiped about him as though he had instigated the seduction. Worse, to make herself feel important, she had told the police her skewed version, surely with much colorful embellishment.

A half bath downstairs. Two bedrooms and a full bath on the upper floor. All deserted.

In the foyer again. Victoria hadn't moved.

Junior knelt beside her and pressed two fingers to the carotid artery in her neck. She had a pulse, maybe a little irregular but strong.

Even though he now knew what a hateful person the nurse was, he remained strongly attracted to her. He was not the kind of man, however, who would take advantage of an unconscious woman.

Besides, she was clearly expecting a guest to arrive soon.

You're early, I didn't hear your car, she'd said as she answered his knock, before realizing that it was Junior.

He stepped to the front door, which was framed by curtained side lights. He drew one of the curtains aside and peered out.

The mummified moon had unwound itself from its rags of embalming clouds. Its pocked face glowered in full brightness on the spreading branches of the pine, on the yard, and on the graveled driveway.

No car.

In the living room, he removed a decorative pillow from the sofa. He carried it into the foyer.

I told the police about your disgusting little come-on with the ice spoon.

He assumed that she hadn't phoned the police to make a formal report. No need to go out of her way to slander Junior when Thomas Vanadium had been prowling the hospital at all hours of the day and night, ready to lend an ear to any falsehood about him, as long as it made him appear to be a sleazeball and a wife killer.

More likely than not, Victoria spoke directly to the maniac detective. Even if she reported her sordid fabrications to another officer, it would have gotten back to Vanadium, and the cop would have sought her out at once to hear her filth firsthand, whereupon she would have enhanced her story until it sounded as though Junior had grabbed her knockers and had tried to shove his tongue down her throat.

Now, if Victoria reported to Vanadium that Junior had shown up at her door with a red rose and a bottle of Merlot and with romance on his mind, the demented detective would be on his ass again for sure. Vanadium might think that the nurse had misinterpreted the business with the ice spoon, but the intent in this instance would be unmistakable, and the crusading cop-the holy fool-would never give up.

Victoria moaned but did not stir.

Nurses were supposed to be angels of mercy. She had shown him no mercy. And she was certainly no angel.

Kneeling at her side, Junior placed the decorative pillow over her lovely face and pressed down firmly while Frank Sinatra finished “Hello, Young Lovers,” and sang perhaps half of “All or Nothing at All.” Victoria never regained consciousness, never had a chance to struggle.

After checking her carotid artery and detecting no pulse, Junior returned to the sofa in the living room. He fluffed the little pillow and left it precisely as he had found it.

He felt no urge whatsoever to puke.

Yet he didn't fault himself for a lack of sensitivity. He'd met this woman only once before. He wasn't emotionally invested in her as he had been in sweet Naomi.

he wasn't wholly without feeling, of course. A poignant current of sadness eddied in his heart, a sadness at the thought of the love and the happiness that he and the nurse might have known together. But it was her choice, after all, to play the tease and to deal with him so cruelly.

When Junior tried to lift Victoria, her voluptuousness lost its appeal. As dead weight, she was heavier than he expected.

In the kitchen, he sat her in a chair and let her slump forward over the breakfast table. With her arms folded, with her head on her arms and turned to one side, she appeared to be resting.

Heart racing, but reminding himself that strength and wisdom arose from a calm mind, Junior stood in the center of the small kitchen, slowly turning to study every angle of the room.

With the dead woman's guest on the way, minutes were precious. Attention to detail was essential, however, regardless of how much time was required to properly stage the little tableau that might disguise murder as a domestic accident.

Unfortunately, Caesar Zedd had not written a self-help book on how to commit homicide and escape the consequences thereof, and as before, Junior was entirely on his own.

With haste and an economy of movement, he set to work.

First he tore two paper towels from a wall-mounted dispenser and held one in each hand, as makeshift gloves. He was determined to leave no fingerprints.

Dinner was cooking in the upper of the two ovens. He switched the bottom oven, setting it at warm, and dropped open the door.

In the dining room, he picked up the two dinner plates from the place settings. He returned with them to the kitchen and put them in the lower oven, as though Victoria were using it as a plate warmer.

He left the oven door open.

In the refrigerator, he found a stick of butter in a container with clear plastic lid. He took the container to the cutting board beside the sink, to the left of the cooktop, and opened it.

A knife already lay on the counter nearby. He used it to slice four pats of butter, yellow and creamy, each half an inch thick, off the end of the stick.

Leaving three of the pats in the container, he carefully placed the fourth on the vinyl-tile floor.

The paper towels were spotted with butter. He crumpled them and threw them in the trash.

He intended to mash the sole of Victoria's right shoe in the pat of butter and leave a long smear on the floor, as though she slipped on it and fell toward the ovens.

Finally, holding her head in both hands, he would have to smash her brow with considerable force into the corner of the open oven door, being careful to place the point of impact precisely where the bottle had struck her.

He supposed that the Scientific Investigation Division of the Oregon State Police might find at least one reason to be suspicious of the tragic scenario that he was creating. He didn't know much about the technology that police might employ at a crime scene, and he knew even less about forensic pathology. He was just doing the best job he could.

The Spruce Hills Police Department was far too small to have a full-blown Scientific Investigation Division. And if the tableau presented to them appeared convincing enough, they might accept the death as a freak accident and never turn to the state police for technical If the state police did get involved, and even if they found evidence that the accident was staged, they would most likely point the finger of blame at the man for whom Victoria had been preparing dinner.

Nothing remained to be done but to press her shoe in the butter and hammer her head into the comer of the oven door.

He was about to lift the body out of the chair when he heard the car in the driveway. He might not have caught the sound of the engine so distinctly and so early if the stereo had not been in the process of changing albums.

No time now to arrange the corpse for viewing.

One crisis after another. This new life as a man of action was not In adversity lies great opportunity, as Caesar Zedd teaches, and always, of course, there is a bright side even when you aren't able immediately to see it.

Junior hurried out of the kitchen and along the hallway to the front door. He ran silently, landing on his toes like a dancer. His natural athletic grace was one of the things that drew so many women to him.

Sad symbols of a romance not meant to be, the red rose and the bottle of wine lay on the floor of the foyer. With the corpse gone, no signs of violence remained.

As Sinatra began to sing “I'll Be Seeing You,” Junior stepped around the bloom and the Merlot. He cautiously peeled back two inches of the curtain at one of the sidelights.

A sedan had come to a stop in the graveled driveway, over to the right of the house, almost out of view. As Junior watched, the headlights were doused. The engine shut off. The driver's door opened. A man got out of the car, a shadowy figure in the fearsome yellow moonlight. The dinner guest.

Chapter 35

IMPLODE To burst inward under pressure. Like the hull of a submarine at too great a depth.

Junior had learned implode from a self-help book about how to improve your vocabulary and be well-spoken. At the time, he had thought that this word-among others in the. lists he memorized-was one he would never use. Now it was the perfect description of how he felt: as if he were going to implode.

The dinner guest leaned back into the car, as though to retrieve something. Perhaps he, too, had been considerate enough to bring a small gift for his hostess.

When Victoria failed to answer the door, this man would not simply go away. He had been invited. He was expected. Lights were on in the house. The lack of a response to his knock would be taken as a sign that something was amiss.

Junior was at critical depth. The psychological pressure was at least five thousand pounds per square inch and growing by the second. Implosion imminent.

If he was left standing on the porch, the visitor would circle the house, peering in windows where the drapes were not drawn, trying the doors in hope of finding one unlocked. Fearful that Victoria was sick or injured, that perhaps she had slipped on a pat of butter and cracked her Mad against the comer of an open oven door, he might try to force his way inside, break a window. Certainly he would go to the neighbors to call the police.

Six thousand pounds per square inch. Eight. ten.

Junior sprinted into the dining room and snatched one of the wine glasses off the table. He seized one of the pewter candlesticks, as well, knocking the candle out of it.

In the foyer again, about six feet inside the front door, he stood the wineglass on the floor. He placed the bottle of Merlot beside the glass, the red rose beside the bottle.

Like a still-life painting titled Romance.

Outside, a car door slammed.

The front entrance wasn't locked. Junior quietly tamed the knob and pulled gently, letting the door drift inward.

Carrying the candlestick, he raced to the kitchen at the end of the short hall. The door stood open, but he had to enter the room to see Victoria slumped in one of the two chairs at the small dinette.

He slipped behind the door and raised the pewter candlestick over his head. Weighing perhaps five pounds, the object made a formidable bludgeon, almost as good as a hammer.

His heart knocked — furiously. He was breathing hard. Strangely, the aroma of dinner cooking, previously delicious, now smelled like blood to him, pungent and raw.

Slow deep breaths. Per Zedd, slow deep breaths. Any state of anxiety, regardless of how powerful, could be ameliorated or even dissipated altogether by taking slow deep breaths, slow deep breaths, and by remembering that each of us has a right to be happy, to be fulfilled, to be free of fear.

Over the final refrain of “I'll Be Seeing You” came a man's voice from the foyer, raised quizzically, with perhaps a note of surprise: “Victoria.

Slow and deep. Slow and deep. Calmer already.

The song ended.

Junior held his breath, listening.

In the brief silence between cuts on the album, he heard the clink of the wineglass against the bottle of Merlot, as the visitor evidently gathered them from the floor.

He had assumed that the dinner guest was Victoria's lover, but suddenly he realized that this might not be the case. The man might be nothing more than a friend. Her father or a brother. In which case the invitation to romance-posed by the coquettishly arranged wine and rose-would be so wildly inappropriate that the visitor would know at once something was wrong.

Boetian. Another word learned to enhance vocabulary and never before used. Boeotian. A dull, obtuse, stupid person. He felt very Boeotian all of a sudden.

just as Sinatra broke into song again, Junior thought he heard a footstep on the wood floor of the hallway, and the creak of a board. The music masked the sounds of the visitor's approach if, indeed, he was approaching.

Raise high the candlestick. In spite of the masking music, breathe shallowly and through the mouth. Remain poised, ready.

The pewter candlestick was heavy. This would be messy work.

Gore made him sick. He refused to attend movies that dwelt on the consequences of violence, and he had even less of a stomach for blood in real life.

Action. just concentrate on action and ignore the disgusting aftermath. Remember the runaway train and the bus full of nuns stuck on the tracks. Stay with the train, don't go back to look at the smashed nuns, just keep moving forward, and everything will be all right.

A sound. Very close. The other side of the open door.

Here, now, the dinner guest, entering the kitchen. He carried the wineglass and the rose in his left hand. The Merlot was tucked under his arm. In his right hand was a small, brightly wrapped gift box.

As he entered, the visitor's back was to Junior, and he moved toward the table, where dead Victoria sat with her head on her folded arms. She looked for all the world as though she were just resting.

“What's this?” the man asked her, as Sinatra swooped through “Come Fly with Me."

Stepping forward lightly, lightly, as he swung the candlestick, Junior saw the dinner guest stiffen, perhaps sensing danger or at least movement, but it was too late. The guy didn't even have time to turn his head or duck.

The pewter bludgeon slammed into the back of his skull with a hard pack. The scalp tore, blood sprang forth, and the man fell as hard as Victoria had fallen under the influence of a good Merlot, although he went facedown, not faceup as she had done.

Taking no chances, Junior swung the candlestick again, bending down as he did so. The second impact was not as solid as the first, a glancing blow, but effective.